Site and situation. Sanskrit? Tamil? Kannada? Telugu? It’s all Greek and Latin to me! Songs and songsters. And a reclining deity who is Master of the Stage. It’s all one big geographical drama that Kaveri connects.
To me, all rivers are fascinating and awe-inspiring. Among them, the nearby Kaveri is my most favourite. This is not surprising because this is the river with which I have physically, emotionally, spiritually, and musically engaged with the most. I know a young geographer – Ankit in class 7 – who has this kind of love for another river: Kabini. (Incidentally, Kabini is a tributary to the Kaveri.) It’s small wonder that Ankit and I have a common topic over which we really gel.
The Kaveri has many different aspects to it that are fascinating. I want to look at three islands and their temples today.
Along its course, Kaveri has three important islands: Srirangapattana, Shivanasamudra, and Srirangam. These are the riparian (Latin: riparius that which frequents riverbanks; ripa is river) triad (Greek: trias three).
The first two in Karnataka and the third in Tamil Nadu. Of these, Srirangapattana and Srirangam have witnessed phenomenal military history as land at which and over which there have been famous battles. Shivanasamudra is more known for hydro-electricity and beautiful scenery (water falls).
The importance of these comes from their site (the physical features of a place) and their situation (how they are connected to other places). All three are “dry-point” sites – sites that are surrounded by water, offering defense and supporting settlement (flowing water for agriculture, drinking, and sanitation). Places surrounded by water are insular (Latin insula island). Abrupt change in altitude at Shivanasamudram helps us generate electricity. All places are connected by the river. Srirangapattana is situated in an important location and conquering it gave the British better access to a wider area in southern India. The same is true of Srirangam’s situation.
The three islands have something else in common: The Master of the Stage, Ranganatha (Samskrtam: ranga stage, natha lord, master). Ranganatha is a manifestation of Vishnu reclining on a coiled serpent on the Ocean of Milk (Samskrtam: ksheera milk, saagara ocean, sea). Many Hindus believe that the entire universe comes into being when Vishnu exhales. When he inhales, the entire universe returns into Him.
[Post updated on 17 November 2020 to include this lovely image. Click on the image to view a larger version.]
Here is a map you can explore in considerable detail.
The two temples in Karnataka did not become major pilgrimage centers for whatever reasons. Most tourists visiting these two places also visit the temples as part of the visit. Hardly anyone goes there on pilgrimage.
This is not so with Srirangam.
Srirangam is located in Tiruchchirapalli district. By the time Kaveri reaches Srirangam, she is getting closer to the delta region. (I try not to say “the Kaveri” because Kaveri is very personal to me.) In this part, the river has already begun to form many branches and the large island of Srirangam is where Antya Ranga is located.
Strategically, this was important to both local rulers and to colonial powers. It has also been recognized as a spiritual “power centre” from ancient times. This belief has continued. One way in which this has been expressed is the literature and lore of the place.
The bhakti literature that emerged in Srirangam is phenomenally huge. Basically, the entire literature amounts to this: Srirangam is a holy place. Because of that, it is very important. Why is it holy? Ranganatha dwells there. This basic idea is expressed by poets and saints of all three schools of Hindu philosophy dvaita (Madhvacharya), advaita (Shankaracharya), and vishishtadvaita (Ramanujacharya).
The poetry of Srirangam is in Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, and Sanskrit. The Haridasas of Karnataka have sung about the beauty of Ranganatha of Srirangam (e.g.: kann-gal-ivyaatako kaveri rangana nodada What use are these eyes that have not seen Kaveri Ranga? Listen to this song.). Tyagaraja’s famous Telugu song O, Rangashaayee (He who is reclining in Srirangam. Listen to this song.) and Muttusvami Dikshita’s Samskrtam song Rangapura-vihaara (He who roams in the City of Ranga. Listen to this song.) are more recent examples. These reinforce and glorify the spirituality of the place, the place of pilgrimage.
Poet Gopalakrishna Bharati’s famous Tamil song eyn pallik-kondeerayya (Why are you lying down? Listen to this song.) connects Ranganatha to different episodes in the two epics – Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Then there are the many verses in Samskrtam and Tamil that also reinforce the holiness of the place.
Every one of these takes this little island called Srirangam and connects it to a much larger idea – an idea of God and the entire Universe. This is how the geography of holy places works. It is in the experience and vision of people.
Another time, I will share with you some other amazing things connected to Kaveri.
Things you can do:
- On Google map given above, or in your atlas, examine the three islands. How are they similar and how are they different?
- How does the location of the islands along the river (upstream, downstream) affect their geographies?
- How is Kaveri different at the three different places? Why?
- If you know any classical musician, as them to sing songs about Ranganatha for you. Observe how many of these songs are on Srirangam as opposed to Srirangapattana and Shivanasamudra. (You can also search YouTube.)
- What exactly is hydro-electricity? How do geography and physics come together in its production?
A version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald Student Edition on 29 October 2015
Featured image: Courtesy, Google Maps.
Very nice article Dr. Bala. Actually Srirangam is the only temple that has received compositions from all the Azhwars in Tamil. It is the only divyadesam that has received maximum number of hymns from the azhwars. There are 247. There are 247 letters in Tamil including (Aaydha Yezhuthu). So, actually for each letter there is a pasuram from Azhwar. What a connection!! For each festival in Srirangam Kaveri is the central point. Srirangam, Sri Ranganathar, Sri Kaveri all are interconnected.
Thank you for the interesting additional information, Sri Murali. It is an amazing interconnection, indeed.