Tiruvarur, the temple town with two chariots

However, the stellar attraction is the annual celebrations of the Sri Thiyagarajaswamy temple at Tiruvarur, which is organised as a monumental event spanning around 55 days of festivities.

Published: 18th March 2021 07:17 AM  |   Last Updated: 18th March 2021 09:13 AM   |  A+A-

The 96-feet tall temple chariot in Tamil Nadu’s Tiruvarur during the Aazhi ther festival in 2019 | Aravind / Ajaba Fotos

The month of Panguni (mid-March to mid-April) officially marks the onset of spring season in Tamil Nadu. What would be a better time than this colourful season to celebrate the bountiful blessings of the Almighty. Many popular temples in the state organise their annual festivals around this time coinciding with Panguni Uttiram, the full moon night of the month that falls on Uttiram star. However, the stellar attraction is the annual celebrations of the Sri Thiyagarajaswamy temple at Tiruvarur, which is organised as a monumental event spanning around 55 days of festivities. With the Panguni Uttiram festival of Tiruvarur around the corner, let us appreciate the two chariots that make this city special.

Tiruvarur is not just another historic town from the Kaveri Delta. It truly is steeped in history and is identified as one of the five ancient capital cities of the mighty Chola kings. When Sekkizhar had to choose one sacred city to sing the praises of as a part of his magnum opus, Periya Puranam, he did not choose Chidambaram or Thanjavur, but decided to celebrate the greatness and divinity of Tiruvarur. And it was from here that a legendary Chola king, identified as Manu Neeti Chozhan ruled, upheld justice in a manner that is supposed to have had even the celestials envying his capabilities. His son accidently drove his chariot over a calf and killed it. The grieved mother cow pleaded for justice by ringing the bell tied at the palace entrance.

On being explained about the incident through his minister, the king decided to share the pain of the mother. In order to experience the pain, he ordered his son to be punished to death in a similar fashion. Unable to fulfil the king’s command, the minister gave up his life. Stubborn over his decision, Manu Neeti decided to execute his order himself and ended up smashing his son under his chariot wheels. At that moment, according to tradition, Lord Shiva accompanied by other celestials appeared and blessed them all, resurrecting the calf too to life and concluding what was a divine play staged to bring to light the fair manner in which Manu Neeti Chozhan delivered justice. 

A very important and interesting inscription from the times of Vikrama Chola, 1123 CE (SII Vol 5 No. 455), describing the popular episode of Manu Neeti, is composed as being narrated by Sri Thiyagarajaswamy, the Lord of Tiruvarur. The only one among the huge corpus of Chola period inscriptions ever etched discussing the story of Manu Neeti, it mentions the name of Manu Neeti’s son as Priya Viruttan, his minister as Ubayakulamalan, the minister’s son as Suryan and his native as Palaiyur. No other traditional account describing the story of Manu Neeti, including Sekkizhar’s, provides these details. The inscription goes on to detail how the king and his minister took up sainthood after coronating their sons as king and minister respectively.

The 96-feet tall temple chariot in
Tamil Nadu’s Tiruvarur during the
Aazhi ther festival in 2019 | Aravind / Ajaba Fotos

The value of this record multiplies when it mentions that Vikrama Chola’s minister, a certain Chandrashekaran Adividangan, is the descendent of Manu Neeti’s minister Ubayakulamalan. The supreme act of sacrifice to establish dharma is also remembered through an edifice, a Chola-crafted stone chariot positioned in the northeastern boundary of the temple. Assignable to Vikrama Chola’s era based on artistic features, the campus with the chariot and other sculptures depicting the scenes from the life of Manu Neeti is a tribute in itself. An immovable stone chariot depicting one of the most moving episodes from traditional history makes it a must visit to celebrate the principles valued by Indian society more than a millennium ago.

The next popular chariot is of course the aazhi ther, the grand 96-feet tall chariot, seated on which Sri Thyagaraja goes around the broad streets of Tiruvarur. Described as an iconic chariot in the sacred verses of Appar in Thevaram, this festival has been popular at least since the 7th century. Attended by lakhs of devotees, the Panguni Uttiram festival of Tiruvarur finds a mention in the seventh regnal year (1140 CE) inscription of Kulottunga Chola II. Patronised since the Pallava period, the chariot festival, traditionally celebrated on the Ayilyam star of Panguni month, should have developed into a spectacular religious and socio-cultural event during Chola rule.

The scale in which the festival was organised during the periods of the Thanjavur Nayaks and Marathas is attested to by innumerable documents and record books maintained at the Saraswati Mahal library, Thanjavur. Engineering the chariot, annual expenses and the king’s travel to Tiruvarur are all recorded to academic precision in these documents. A fire accident in 1926 destroyed the grand chariot, only for it to be rebuilt by the untiring efforts of devotees, and the festival resumed in 1930 with the new chariot.

The festival came to a halt in 1948 for unknown reasons and again resumed in 1970 with the support of the state government and the temple administration. Again in 1989, the wheel designs were altered with a mechanical support system and the festival has been conducted with the same pomp and glory since then. The philosophical interpretation of the chariot design deserves a separate article. This event celebrated on the Ayilyam star of Panguni is worthy of being declared as the festival of Tamil Nadu. 

Tiruvarur, the city that is described only with superlatives wherever mentioned, has two chariots, one moving and the other frozen, a silent sentinel to centuries of bygone past. They are testimony to the legacy of this glorious land.

(Authored to commemorate the upcoming grand chariot festival of Tiruvarur scheduled for the 25th of March, 2021. It is even more special as the tradition of conducting the festival on the Ayilyam star of Panguni month has been reinstated after nearly three decades)

Madhusudhanan Kalaichelvan

Architect, serves on the govt-instituted panel for conservation of temples in TN



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