Srivaikuntham and Alvar Tirunagari: Paintings

Srivaikuntham and Alvar Tirunagari are a pair. Located across the Tamiraparani, they are intimately connected, almost a tight embrace. As Vishnu and his devotee, Nammalvar are bound together, so too are their two temples. Here is one example: these are the only two Tirupatis with paintings from the 17th/18th century. While the Alvar Tirunagari temple’s paintings are located in the pradakshina patha of the Nammalvar Sannidhi, the ones at Srivaikuntham are located in the pradakshina patha of the Vainkunthanathan/Kallapiran Sannidhi. They are enormous, striking, impressive paintings of the Divya Desa. Here is a selection of these glorious paintings.




Ever since I heard Richard Davis‘s paper on vahanas at the UW Madison Conference a couple of years ago, I’ve found myself looking at them with new eyes. Here’s a selection of vahanas from temples in Tirunelveli. I find these vahanas absent their gods, a slightly melancholic sight.


Mohini Tirukkolam: Alvar Tirunagari/Tirukkolur

Many moons ago, I read Vasudha Narayanan‘s Vernacular Veda, in which she describes the Mohini Tirukkolam that Alagiya Manavalan of Srirangam dons during the Adhyayanotsavam. The women of Srirangam, she reports, exclaim in delight at the wonder of the gender bending god’s ability to exceed Sri herself in glamour and beauty. Since that early reading, I’ve been utterly fascinated by the Mohini Tirukkolam, and find it popping up in all kinds of contexts, in so many different temples. There’s Andal donning it during the Markali Festival (the vertiginous nature of the gender crossing in this case has kept me busy for many years), there are various Vishnu-s in temples across Tamil Nadu who become Mohini for a day. And of course, there’s Nammalvar at Alvar Tirunagari. Imagine my surprise when I found Nammalvar dressing up as Mohini not only during the Adhyayanotsavam, but also on the occasion of the Avani Festival at Tirukolur (Day 9).

With Mohini on my mind, I went to visit Kalamegha Perumal (how gorgeous and evocative are these names!) at Tirumohur this morning. Tirumohur is where Vishnu is supposed to have manifested as Mohini during the Amrita Madanam, hence the name of the town Tirumohur or Mohanapuram. Alternately, it’s where he assumed his Mohini form to get Siva out of his Bhasmasura pickle. There is nary a Mohini sculpture at this temple to acknowledge these sthala puranas, except these two on the temple’s 2nd gopuram–one churning of the ocean (North side) and one Mohini (south side).


It took me right back to where I started, with Vasudha Narayanan‘s book that started it all for me. While there were no Mohini-s to be found, there were these two exquisite sculptures of Rati and Kama, glowing gold in the cool dark of the temple interior.


Magical times in Tamil Nadu….


Alvar Tirunagari Paintings

There are beautiful old paintings in Alvar Tirunagari. Located within the inner prakara of the Nammalvar Shrine, many of them have worn away to nothing, while several still retain their old brilliance and charm, showy in their vivid, arresting color palate. They are on the walls and on the ceilings.


I’ve been trying to see these paintings for as long as I can remember, and at long last, through what can only be termed divine intervention, I was granted permission yesterday. I had to arrive before the temple officially opened and photograph the entire prakara very very quickly, like my life depended on it. I was given a meager 2 hours. In the end, it took 2.5 hours, even as priests kept popping in to ask me if I was done. My project in the prakara was delaying the Alvar’s morning bath. I was given permission to see the paintings and photograph them on the condition that I make them available to the temple. I am not much of a photographer, and I was nervous at the task placed before me. I am happy to say that the photographs (close to 400) have turned out well. By that I mean, they are in focus and you can tell something of the subject matter. I leave the task of translating their glory on to the lens to those whose talents with a camera far outstrip mine.

It was thrilling to see these paintings. And thank god, for Anna Seastrand whose painstaking work on these temple murals, has allowed us to understand these complex, confounding, extraordinary works of devotional art. I am glad I don’t study mural painting as it’s a very painful task. Who knew that photographing paintings in tight, cramped, poorly lit quarters could cause one so much discomfort? And for those interested, Anna Seastrand has a great essay about these very paintings in the Journal of Vaishnava Studies; a must read.

Avani Festival: Tirukkolur

Today was Day 9 of the Annual Avani Festival at the Tirukolur Temple in Tirunelveli. Tirukolur is the purported birth place of Madurakavi. On Day 9 of the festival, the teacher, Nammalvar, visits the student. He arrives with great pomp and circumstance–an elephant leading the way, trumpets and drums heralding his arrival. When he gets to Tirukolur, his student is waiting, eager to see his beloved teacher and to welcome him home. Watching this festival brought alive to me, not for the first time, the intersections of hagiography, festival, alankara, gesture in such a way as to invite you into a world of imaginative hyper-reality. As I watched the rituals of greeting unfold, and the verses of Madurakavi filled the morning air, mingling with the elephants quiet huffs, the bleating of the goats, the sighs of liquid feeling in the women gathered so tightly around, it seemed like I was watching two old friends meet after a long time. So much love passes between them, between, behind, in the words that are said and unsaid, sung and unsung, heard and unheard. Simply marvelous stuff is this world of temple festivals.