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​​Sri Ranganatha Swamy Temple

Updated: Nov 25, 2022

Sri Ranganatha Swamy Temple is the first of the 108 prominent temples of Lord Vishnu, and it is exceptional in terms of its history, architecture, planning, & mythology from an artistic perspective. The sheer magnitude of this monumental art is unparalleled.


Cover Photo by Pankaj Tottada

“Sri Ranganatha Swamy Temple” by Neeharika Gembali delves into the subjects as mentioned earlier, exploring this temple’s uniqueness and iconic nature while discussing a few legends & narratives.

 

Contents


Free Access

  1. Introduction

  2. Planning


Exclusive Access

  1. History

  2. Features

  3. Conclusion

 

Part I

Introduction


‘Thiruvarangam’ is a temple located in Srirangam dedicated to Ranganatha Swamy, a reclining form of Lord Vishnu. It is one amongst the few illustrious temples in South India, dating back to the Sangam era [i], according to the Tamil Literature [1], and is mentioned in the epic Silappadikaram by Ilango Adigal [2].

 
Cover Photo by Pankaj Tottada

​Constructed in the Dravidian style of architecture, Thiruvarangam is one of eight self-manifested shrines of Lord Vishnu and one of the most important 108 main Vishnu temples. Known by several names such as Thiruvaranga Tirupati, Bhoologa Vaikundam, Periyakoil, Bhogamandabam, Thiruvarangam is the first among the Divya Desams [ii][3] alongside following the Thenkalai [iii] tradition of worship.


According to Divya Prabandha, a collection of 4,000 Tamil verses by twelve Alvars [iv]. There are entirely 108 Vaishnava Divya Desams [4]. Out of them, 105 are located in India, one is in Nepal, and the last two are believed to be outside the Earthly realms.


In India, up to eighty-four of them are in the state of Tamil Nadu, eleven of them are in Kerala, four of them are in Uttar Pradesh, three of them in Uttarakhand, two of them are in Andhra Pradesh, and one in Gujarat.


This first Divya Desam is massive in scale and is spread across 156 acres [5]. It is even the largest functioning temple in the world and is ranked amongst Angkor Wat in Cambodia & Borobudur in Indonesia [6]. Though Angkor Archaeological Park spreads over 40,000 hectares, unlike Sri Ranganatha Swamy Temple, the deity isn’t offered prayers anymore.


Another unique element for Sri Ranganatha Swamy Temple is that around its main shrine, there are seven concentric rectangular enclosures formed by thick rampart walls. Within these enclosures, the inner five enclosures of the complex constitute the temple monuments and shrines, and the outer two enclosures function as the settlement comprising living and commercial areas. These seven rectangular enclosures are called Sapta-Prakaram and these make the temple more of a temple-town than just a temple [7]. Thus, the distinction between the temple and the settlement gets blurred and the temple is often referred to as ‘Srirangam’ [8].


However, Sri Ranganatha Swamy Temple isn’t the only temple with these enclosures. Meenakshi Temple dedicated to Goddess Parvati in Madurai has four prakarams followed by four concentric rings of settlement. Similarly, Nataraja Temple dedicated to God Shiva in Chidambaram has five prakarams followed by a few concentric rings of settlements [9]. A slight difference is that Madurai and Chidambaram are examples of settlements around a temple while Srirangam has settlements within the temple. It is even considered as the best enclosure based temple-town in Tamil Nadu or arguably the entire world.​

 

Notes

​i. The Sangam Era period was from the sixth century BCE to the third century CE in ancient Tamil Nadu, Kerala and parts of Sri Lanka which were then known as Tamilakam. It was named after the famous Sangam academies of poets and scholars who were centered in the city of Madurai.

ii. Divya means divine and Desam indicates place or abode.

iii. Accepting Prapatti or surrender as the only means to attain salvation.

iv. Alvars are saints.

 

References

  1. Sangam Period

  2. Tamil Literature

  3. Prince Ilango Adigal

  4. Srirangam History

  5. Divya Desam

  6. Srirangam Website

  7. Unesco Tentative Lists

  8. Unesco Award, & Unesco Tentative Lists

  9. Unesco Award, & Unesco Tentative Lists

 

Part II

Planning


Srirangam is also known as the “Temple Island” and the temple complex alone stretches over 156 acres with a perimeter of 4,116 meters. The tremendous site of this gigantic piece of architecture is situated on the island of Srirangam, that is bounded by the Kaveri River and Kollidam River (a tributary of Kaveri).

 
Cover Photo by Pankaj Tottada

​Covered by rivers on either sides, Srirangam’s Ranganatha Swamy temple has the Sapta-Prakaram design which encompasses the sanctum, gopuram, shrines, pavilions, mandapas, water harvesting systems via temple tanks, and other services with some residential and commercial locations. It has over twenty-one magnificent towers inside all prakaras and the main entrance known as Rajagopuram or the Royal Temple Tower is seventy-three meters high and moves up in eleven progressively smaller tiers.


The settlement planning was done based on the position of the temple and the settlements were within the temple. What makes Srirangam unique and important to an urban historian is the grandness of the vision and the rigour with which Srivaishnava ideology and practice were put in the making of the settlement. The seven concentric enclosures or prakara were taken as the reference for the settlement planning.


Apart from these seven enclosures which spread 129 kilometers and 170 kilometers approximately in the longitudinal and latitudinal axis, rampart walls were added during the medieval times after a few invasions. In these enclosures, the shrines and monuments are located within five enclosures and the last two enclosures have the commercial areas, living areas and other infrastructures. The numerous gopurams or magnificient towers connect the Sapta-Prakaram enclosures allowing the pilgrims