Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Garbarakshambigai in Tirunelveli District!

The Gopuram of Vanneeswarar Temple, Alwarkurichi
There are planned travels you undertake, when you read up about the places you intend to visit, their significance, uniqueness and everything else that would make your visit complete and wholesome. Sometimes, unplanned travel has a number of hidden surprises for you which become much-cherished and treasured memories.

My recent visit to Tirunelveli District was one such trip. When Mr. Chandrasekhar, PRO of REACH Foundation, told me that he was going to Tirunelveli District for survey of a couple of dilapidated temples, and invited me to go along, I agreed enthusiastically. Our guide, Chandra mentioned, would be one Mr. Podhigai Kudumban who has done extensive research by foot all over the district on sixteen different themes pertaining to history, heritage and mythology. The name was itself very unique and intriguing so I was all excited.

When our train chugged into the junction, it started pouring heavily and by the time we decided on a route map, went up to another temple about which I would be writing shortly, and boarded the bus to Cheranmadevi, it was noon. We were tired and hungry. It was at the Cheranmadevi bus stand, that Podhigai hired his friend's share auto for the rest of the day for us.

Sometimes, it is these small time transport operators in these towns and villages, who turn out to be a godsend. Mr. Ramar, who belongs to Mukkudal and drives the auto drove us from Cheranmadevi to Kallidaikurichi where we were kindly hosted by a common friend's Chandru's family, and then from there to Ambasamudram, Azhwarkurichi and back.
Another view of the gopuram and the walls ready to fall

The auto was spacious and comfortable and he only charged us Rs.1000/- for the whole day. He was extremely patient as we went from one temple to another, never got annoyed when we stopped at every single " Nadukal" or mural painting in an abandoned mandapa, or spent hours taking pictures.

I would strongly recommend Mr. Ramar for anyone who is planning to travel around these places. He charges Rs.1000 - 1200 per day, depending on the time and distance which is much cheaper than the ambassadors who charge Rs.2000 per day. The most important thing is that he knows temples that exist in hidden corners of towns and villages around here. Contact Details of Mr. Ramar : 99449 20014

When we started out in the morning, Chandra had explained our interests to Podhigai, who in turn insisted that I visit and write about Vanneeswarar Temple at Azhwarkurichi wherein resides Garbarakshambigai.

I was surprised. I had visited other temples connected with marriage and childbirth in other parts of Tamilnadu like Putlur Poongavanathamman Temple, Thirukarugavur Garbarakshambigai Temple, Pidaari Karukathamman Temple, Mamallapuram, Karuvalarcheri etc. but somehow not come across or heard about this temple, despite belonging to the district.

Podhigai showed me pictures on his digital camera, of idols on the main gopuram of women helping another woman to deliver, various yoga postures for pregnant women etc. that I was super excited by the time we reached there.

It was almost 5.30 pm when we reached the temple. The temple was stooped in darkness like all other parts of Tirunelveli which experiences ten hours of power cut in a day. The battery on my camera was dying down because of all the action since morning and not being able to recharge the battery. As soon as we reached, I asked the junior bhattar at the temple, Mr. Meenakshinathan, if I could see the idols on the gopuram. He agreed and took me up. This was the first time in my life that I got an opportunity to climb up a temple and that too, one where the stones were shaky and ready to crumble.

I was surprised to hear that Meenakshinathan is also a snake catcher. He showed us pictures of how he had caught sixteen feet King cobras and other snakes around Azhwarkurichi. It was indeed amazing to take a look at those pictures.

View from the top
When we went around trying to locate the idols, Meenakshinathan remarked that every other day the idols were disintegrating and falling from the gopuram and the ones that had been captured by Podhigai some months ago, did not exist any longer! It was highly disappointing and quite saddening to see the state of affairs.

The temple is quite well maintained inside, and they are looking for patrons and donors to renovate the gopurams and the wall around the temple, which again is leaning and ready to crumble at any moment.

Inside, the temple is a treasure trove. Every single pillar has sculptures depicting an image connected to childbirth. There are quite a few erotic sculptures as well.

The Bhattar at the temple, Shri Narayanan welcomed us and started narrating the history of the temple, in the dim light provided by the inverter.

The story goes like this:

During Dwapara Yuga, the Saptharishis performed a Yagna to prevent human beings from perishing in the fire. Fearing his power would be lost, Agni did not help the burning of the sacrificial fire. Angered by his act, the Saptharishis cursed him to lose his skills and competencies.

Agni hid himself in the banks of the river near the temple in the form of a fish to escape from the curse. But the Sapahathi came looking for him, found him and overcame him. Agni then prayed to Rishi Sudama to help him to get back his skills. The Rishi adviced him to install a Shivalinga with his own hands and worship him and be relieved from the curse. Agni did so on the banks of the river and was soon relieved of his curse.
The place where this lingam was installed came to be known as Agni Theertham. There is a perennial spring of water that keeps coming into the pit where the Agniswara Lingam existed and several Siddhars have meditated and attained samadhi around it. A separate post on Agni Theertham can be found here on Aalayam Kanden.

Lord Agniswara
Over time, since the river got flooded frequently, a wealthy trader, Shri.Vijayendra Bhupathy Mudaliar had moved the Lingam from the Agni Theertham into a grove of Vanni Trees (Prosopis Cineraria or Shami Tree ) and built a small shrine around it. Because he rested in the midst of Vanni Trees he came to be known as Vanniappar.

Subsequently, the Cholas had built the temple and extended it. When the Pandyas came into power, they moved the original Agniswara to the East of the temple as a Easanya Lingam, and built a larger Shivalingam in the Sanctum Sanctorum. They also added the shrine of Goddess Sivakami Ambal. The Nandi in front of the new Pandya Lingam, is however, the old Chola Nandi.

The original Nandi
This original Vanneeswara now called Agniswara again, sits quietly, in the eastern side of the temple, waiting for devotees to visit him. Try meditating in front of him. The vibration is awesome! The new Nandi made by the Pandyas has been installed near the Dwajasthamba and Bali Peetam, by far one of the most beautiful Nandis I have seen so far.

The New Nandi

Unique methods of worship at the temple:

As I had mentioned earlier, this temple is a reputed worship site for marriage and childbirth. There is a pillar in the temple which has the images of a goddess in bridal attire named Kalyanambal and another goddess fully pregnant named Garbarakshambigai.

Goddess Kalyanambal
Devotees worship Goddess Kalyanambal to have prayers of good marriage proposal answered. The procedure is very simple but effective.

The person seeking to be married or a blood relative (preferably mother) has to perform abhishekam with their own hands to Goddess Kalyanambal in the first week. Archanai is performed in the following three weeks by the Bhattar on behalf of the prospective groom or bride. Once the wedding takes place, the couple come back and offer garlands and new clothes to Kalyanambal as you can see in the picture above. He said that several people come to do this pooja. Abhishekam can be performed at any time of the day other than Rahu Kaalam.

For those who seek childbirth, the same procedure is done but with Garbarakshambigai. The opportunity to perform abhishekam with their own hands is something unique at this temple. After childbirth, the couple come back with the infant to offer prayers and thanks to Goddess Garbarakshambigai.

Goddess Garbarakshambigai
This temple is also a place of worship for Kalasarpa Dosham. On the ceiling outside the Artha Mandapam, there is a Yantra of entwined snakes, and snake charmers which is unique in this temple.

Those who suffer from Rahu Dosham, perform abhishekam (again with their own hands) to the Krishna standing on a five headed snake and those suffering from Kethu Dosham can perform abhishekam to the Shiva lingam under a one-headed snake and those suffering from Kalasarpa Dosham or Kalasarpa Yogam perform abhishekam to Rahu and Kethu in a single icon to be rid of these dosham. Point to note: Other than the Yantra and these icons, there is no Navagraham in this temple.
Kalasarpa Yantram
By now, the battery on my camera had run out and I was reduced to shooting from my mobile phone, aiming into the darkness. Kindly bear with the poor and grainy quality of pictures here forward.

The other interesting features here are as I mentioned several sculptures of yogic postures depicted for pregnant women.

Another absolutely adorable feature of this temple is the unique depiction of the 63 nayanmars. Instead of the standard format where all of them have similar faces, and stand with folded hands, here each one of them is depicted to show incidents that happened in their lives that made them Nayanmars.

Siruthonda Nayanar with his son Seeralan at his foot
Pugazhchola Nayanar with the head of the
Sivanadiyar in his hand

The entire history of each Nayanmar's life is written in the wall behind them for easy reference and understanding which again is something interesting and useful. Also the nayanmars are not arranged based on the order they appear in Thiruthonda Thogai. They are organised based on common threads in them. For example, Ninraseer Nedumaran, Mangayarkarasiyaar and Kulasiraiyaar are together, Sundarar, his parents and Narasinga Munaiyaraiyar are together and so on.

Both Narayana Bhattar and Meenakshinathan spoke about the exquisite large Nataraja made of a single stone, by far one of the earliest stone Natarajas which belonged to this temple, but has now been moved to another temple nearby for safe-keeping since the walls of this temple can collapse at any time. We could not see the exquisite Nataraja because the other temple was closed.

Vanniyappar and Sivakami Ambal wait with compassion and grace to answer prayers of those who come to their doorsteps.

How to get here:

Nearest Railway Station: Tirunelveli
By Road: Alwarkurichi is very close to Ambasamudram and about 35 kms from Tirunelveli and 25 kms from Tenkasi. Buses going from Tirunelveli to Tenkasi via Ambasamudram stop at Alwarkurichi.

Temple Timings:

To facilitate those devotees coming from different parts of Tamilnadu and Kerala by various means of transport, the temple is open from 7 am in the morning till 7 pm at night. It is better to visit the temple during the day because electricity is not available in the evenings and it is a little difficult to enjoy the beautiful treasures of the temple in the dark.

Contact Details:

Narayana Bhattar: 97904 01895
Meenakshinathan  96599 66003
For general guidance regarding travel and heritage research (especially early types of nature worship, Nadukals, Kaval Deivams, Astromical signs in Temple Architecture etc) you could contact Podhigai Kudumban Mobile No 96981 76089. A word of Caution - he is a very intense and passionate researcher and often loses track of time, hunger and other logistical needs that normal travellers would experience :)


  1. Nice narration. That looks like a beautiful temple.

  2. Very valuable information , Thank you Alayamkanden

  3. An unique temple really. Nice to see that it got the attention of you to come to limelight.

    1. Thank you so much Sir. I hope you can include the link in your Tirunelveli directory so that many more people come to know about this very well deserving temple.

      Warm regards,

  4. Thank you so much for sharing this. I had heard about karbarakshambigai and in fact my aunt offered prayers there when I was pregnant. But did not know the entire story behind it. Look forward to visitng the temple someday in future. My spirituality has increased ever since I have left homeland, may be now ni know the value of our country and culture more than ever. Will be coming to India but for 10 days only, so a trip to Tirupathi is all I can manager this time, will surely make a detailed trip to temples of south tamilnadu soon as my daughter enjoys listening to the stories behind each of the temples. Today I have one more new story for her during nap time. Thanks

    1. Hey Lakshmi, did not know you had travelled abroad. Thanks so much for your feedback. One of the objectives of Aalayam Kanden is exactly what you describe. Take the values and virtues and rich cultural heritage of our land to the young minds through stories!

      Warm regards, Priya

  5. Very informative information. Keep it up

  6. Fantastic post, Priya... This temple is new to me too... havent even heard of it before, though we have loads of relatives in the area.. i have yet to make a visit to Tirunelveli, and whenever i do, this will surely be on my list... and also thanks for the auto info... really useful..

    1. Thanks a ton Anu. Hope you get to visit soon and write about it too :)

  7. It is really a nice news to me that I was under the impression that temple for Sri Garbharakshambigai is there in my native District (Thanjavur only). It is more interesting to note that we can do abishegams ourselves. Thanks Priya for your valuable information and your blog, which I came to know only to day.

  8. It is really a nice news to me that I was under the impression that temple for Sri Garbharakshambigai is there in my native District (Thanjavur only). It is more interesting to note that we can do abishegams ourselves. Thanks Priya for your valuable information and your blog, which I came to know only to day.

  9. Madam.. its indeed interesting to find such temple... Iam visiting tirunelveli this month I will add this temple to my list..

  10. Madam.. We visited this temple along with agni theertham last week.. Simply wonderful.. I had visited paramakalyani temple near alwarkurichi earlier .. but visited this temple now...