Basic information about the temple
|Moolavar:||Arunachaleswarar||Ambal / Thayar:||UNNaamulai|
|Deity:||Paadal Petra Sthalam||Historical name:||Tiruvannamalai|
|Timing:||6 to 12 & 4 to 8||Parikaram:|
|Temple group:||Paadal Petra Sthalam (Nadu Nadu)||–|
|Sung by:||Temple set:|
|City / town:||Tiruvannamalai||District:||Tiruvannamalai|
|Maps from (click):||Current location||Tiruvannamalai (2 km)||Viluppuram (71 km)|
|Vellore (97 km)||Cuddalore (115 km)|
Sthala puranam and temple information
Possibly one of the best known and visited temples in Tamil Nadu is the Arunachaleswarar temple in Tiruvannamalai. This Pancha Bootha sthalam represents and celebrates the fire (Agni) element, which is one of the five principal elements in nature, and this in turn connects directly with the sthala puranam of the place. In bhakti Saivism, Appar and Sambandar – two of the most prominent among the 63 Nayanmars, have sung pathigams on this temple. The temple is also very closely associated with Arunagirinathar (more on that below).
The Annamalaiyar hill itself is said to have existed across the four yugams – as the pillar of fire in the Satya yugam, an emerald hill in the Treta Yugam, a golden hill during Dwapara Yugam, and now as a hill of stone in the Kali Yugam.
Interestingly, the Annamalaiyar hill is part of the lower end of the eastern ghats, and is therefore made of volcanic rock. The heat generated by such rock is also possibly a connection with the sthala puranam of this being a pillar of fire.
There are several stories connected to this temple, so we will focus on some of the main aspects in this post.
Vishnu vs. Brahma?
Many temples’ sthala puranam connect with the pillar of fire, and a majority of Siva temples have a Lingodhbhavar murti on the koshtam wall of the garbhagriham, behind the moolavar. This temple is the origin of the concept of Lingodhbhavar. Once, Vishnu and Brahma had an argument amongst them, as to who was superior. At that time, Siva emerged as a pillar of fire, and told them to locate the top and bottom ends of the pillar, to prove their superiority. Vishnu took the form of a boar and went under the earth to find the base, while Brahma in the form of a swan, flew upwards in search of the zenith. After several thousand years, Vishnu decided He couldn’t find the base, and returned, acknowledging defeat. Siva, respecting this, accorded equal status as Himself, to Vishnu.
Brahma met a thazhampoo (screw pine) flower that was falling down, and asked it as to how far the top was. The flower replied saying it had been falling down for 40,000 years and still not hit the ground. Brahma realised He could not reach the top, and convinced the flower to instead utter a falsehood that it had seen Brahma reach the top.
Aware of this, Siva issued His order that Brahma would not be worshipped in temples, and also that the thazhampoo flower would not be used for Siva worship. The disappointed flower begged for mercy, and Siva then decreed that as an exception, it would be used for worship only on the day of Sivaratri.
The Tamil month of Karthigai (November-December)is typically associated with Murugan (who also has a strong connection with this temple). The day Siva appeared to Vishnu and Brahma is celebrated in the Karthigai festival, and in a symbolic re-enactment of Siva’s appearance, a Jyoti (fire) is lit on top of the hill. The entire festival is celebrated grandly and has some very specific elements to it.
Once, Parvati playfully closed Siva’s eyes, but this act plunged the entire world into darkness. She immediately realised Her fault, and in order to propitiate Siva on Bhulokam, arrived here as Unnamulai, for her penance. Pleased with this, Siva absorbed Parvati as part of Himself, creating the concept of Ardhanareeswarar.
Annamalaiyar hill and Girivalam
While the temple is for Siva as Annamalaiyar, the belief is that the Annamalaiyar hill itself is a temple, and the visible and iconic form of Siva. This is the reason the Girivalam – circumambulation of the hill on a 14km long path – is a favoured method of worship by devotees. The numbers performing Girivalam increase exponentially on full moon (pournami) days.
On the Girivalam route are eight other Lingams (Indra, Agni, Yama, Nirrti, Varuna, Vayu, Agni, Isana – the guardians of the four cardinal and four ordinal directions) with their own temples/shrines, which are propitiated during the Girivalam.
One of the greatest Saivite saints and Murugan devotees is Arunagirinathar. It is said that he intended to take his life from the temple’s tower, but was stopped by Murugan Himself, who suggested that the saint write hymns on Him, which was later compiled as the Tiruppugazh, an anthology of Hymns on Murugan. Prior to attaining mukti, Arunagirinathar also rendered the Kandar Anubhuti, in the form of a parrot. The Kili gopuram (kili = parrot in Tamil) is where he is believed to have sung this from.
Bhagavan Ramana Maharishi
Tiruvannamalai is also equally well known as the home of Ramanasramam established by Bhagavan Ramana Maharishi and His devotees. Bhagavan was born in Tiruchuli, but ran away to Tiruvannamalai in his teens, and this place was his home thereafter till his mukti. Bhagavan’s teachings draws crowds from all over the world, who seek spiritual guidance through atma-vicharam.
Primacy of Murugan worship
In most Siva temples, the order of worship first goes to Vinayakar, but here, Murugan is given that priority. Once, a poet named Sambandhan dared Arunagirinathar to show him the presence of Murugan. The saint pleaded with Murugan to prove His existence, and Murugan duly appeared in one of the pillars in the temple – this gives Him the name Kambathu Ilaiyanar.
While the Karthigai deepam is no doubt the most important festival for devotees of this temple, another very interesting festival takes place in the Tamil month of Thai (January-February), called the Tiruoodal festival. Oodal in Tamil refers to a tiff or a small fight.
On the morning of the day of Maatu Pongal (part of the Pongal festival), Nandi is decorated with garlands made of fruits, sweets and vegetables, and taken out in procession.
Later, in the evening, Arunachaleswarar and Unnamulai Amman go out in procession, and re-enact their oodal or tiff, which resulted in Parvati having to come to Bhulokam and worship Siva here!
When Annamalaiyar took the role of a king’s son
Another unusual practice here relates to a Vallala king who ruled over this place had immeasurable devotion to Annamalaiyar here. It is regarded that Siva gave this devotee significantly extra attention, more so because the king was childless. So much so, that when the king died, Siva is said to have come in person to perform the last rites of the king. Even today, on the date of the king’s annual rites, the temple arranges for a nominal ceremony in which the deity of the temple participates.
In tantra, there are seven Siva temples which are identified as representing chakras associated with the human body. The Arunachaleswarar temple is part of this, and is identified with the Manipuraka chakra (
Temple layout and architecture
The temple is spread over a massive area of more than 11 hectares (not including the Annamalaiyar hill), and has five prakarams (or corridors). Many count the whole of Tiruvannamalai – encompassing the temple, the surrounding streets and the Annamalaiyar hill, as one temple. As a result the streets are considered to be the sixth prakaram, and the Girivalam path is considered the 7th.
In addition to the four massively tall gopurams in each of the cardinal directions, there are more gopurams inside, which make the temple look even more imposing. In keeping with the temple’s association with fire and heat, the garbhagriham – which is the oldest structure in the temple complex – houses Suryan, in addition to Siva and Nandi.
A majority of the structural temple we see today is Chola, from the 9th century, and this is supported by inscriptions int eh temple. However, there have been significant additions and renovations by other rulers, including the thousand-pillared hall built in the time of the Vijayanagara Dynasty, and the Eastern tower (raja gopuram) which is the tallest of the four towers, built by the Nayak ruler Sevaapa Nayakar. The shrine for Unnamulai Amman was built by Kulothunga Chola III.
In the 14th century, the Hoysalas had Tiruvannamalai as one of their capitals, and were strong patrons of the temple. Later expansions are attributed to the Saluva and Tuluva dynasties (15th and 16th century). Interestingly, in the 17th century, the temple – along with the town – came under the rule of the Nawab of the Carnatic. After the decline of the Mughals, the temple was attacked by the French, before the British eventually took control (though there were some skirmishes with Tipu Sultan’s forces in the late 18th century).
The temple is home to extensive and varied architecture, due to its eclectic history and the various dynasties under whose control this town came, in the centuries gone by.
Other information for your visit
One of our readers. Ms Rajivi Krishnan, is an ardent devotee and follower of Bhagavan Ramana Maharishi, His teachings and philosophies. She has written about Tiruvannamalai, the temple, the hill, Girivalam, her own experiences and learnings, and various other aspects connected with Tiruvannamalai and Bhagavan. She has most kindly shared her work, which is available for download and reading, below. This is a great read for all, from the beginner to the advanced aspirant.
Some of these pictures were taken in 2015, when some renovation work was being undertaken in the temple premises.
The video below (in Tamil) by the spiritual and heritage scholar Dr Madhusudanan Kalaichelvan, provides a virtual tour of the temple, and also covers aspects of art, architecture, inscriptions, culture and festivals associated with the temple.