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Ten Days of Wandering and Romance with Lord Raṅkanāta;ṉ: The Pa;ṉkuṋi Festival in Śriraṅkam Temple, South India

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 November 2008

Paul Younger
McMaster University, Ontario


In the third century, a poet in the ancient Cōḻ capital of Uṟaiyūr, on the banks of the Kāvērī river opposite the island of Śrīraṅkam, looked into the sad face of his lover and said that her face reminded him of the bank of the Kāavērī strewn with stalks of banana plants after the celebration of the Paṅkuṇi festival on Śrīraṅkam island. Although this early reference to the Paṅkuṇi festival being celebrated on Śrīraṅkam island dates from a period when the great Paṅkuṇi temple must have been at most a minor shrine, it seems likely that the Paṅkuṇi festival of today is a direct descendent of that early celebration. When inscriptions were carved on the temple walls between the tenth and eighteenth centuries they regularly mention the Paṅkuṇi festival as one of the main features of the temple's ritual, and references in the temple chronicle also seem to assume a continuous performance of this festival. As other festivals began to crowd into the temple calendar the Pankuni festival came to be known as the Āti festival or the ‘Original’ Festival in order to distinguish it from all others.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1982

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1 My romanizations of tamiḻ will follow the scheme of the Tamil Lexicon.

2 ‘Your face has lost its lustre and resembles the sandy and thickly wooded river bank in Araṅkam [ancient name of Śrīraṅkam with the hearths quenched and things strewn hither and thither after the celebration of the Paṅkuṇi festival.’ Aham 137.Google Scholar

3 One such inscription is dated in the third year of the Cōḻ king Kulōttuṅka I or 1073, which would be during the time of Rāmānuja (1017–1137). (Annual Reports on Epigraphy, 75 of 1936–37.) Another from 1565 at the time of Vijayanakara ruler Satāsivarāya Mahārāya (57 of 1936–37) gives a detailed account of the provisions made by one Jīyar (Vaiṣṇava ascetic) for special offerings when the deity is bathed in the Kāvērī River on the afternoon of Paṅkuṇi Uttiram, the ninth day of the festival. (A routine still followed in exactly that way.) Other inscriptions mention the ‘Paṅkuṇi festival’, the ‘visit to Uṟaiyūr’, or the ‘visit to Jampukēśvara’.

The temple chronicle, Kōil Oḻuku, gives a number of details of the festival and discusses in detail the border dispute with the Jampukēśvara temple. This text claims to be a continuous record of events, but is usually thought to have been started only in the Vijayanakara period from which time it is rather detailed.

The Lakṣmī Kāvyam is a poetic work of Uttamanambi Tirumalācārya of the fifteenth century which is a full description of this festival and an especially colorful account of the deity's marriage with the Princess of Uṟraiyūr.

The saraṇāgatigadya is a well-known hymn attributed to Rāmānuja which he is said to have been inspired to write during this festival.

4 This methodological aside has already kept us from a description of the festival too long. But I must explicitly acknowledge what readers familiar with the current literature in the field will already have noted. I am attempting a synthesis of methods here in which Wilfred Cantwell Smith's interest in ‘faith’ statements is incorporated in the explicit level; Clifford Geertz’ and Mary Douglas's interest in implicit (cultural) meaning is incorporated in the middle level; and the unconscious level brings out the kind of structural meaning Levi Strauss has taught us to seek out.

5 South Indians now use the English word ‘festival’ to refer to special days of celebration in the temple. The tamiḻ word is ‘tirunāl’ or ‘holy day’.

6 In most temples there is only one brahmōtsava per year. In Śrīraṅkam there are three, for in addition to the ‘Original’ one we are describing there is a Bhūpati festival in the month of Tai (January–February) and Viruppaṇ festival in the month of Cittirai (April–May). These two additional brahmōtsavas were instituted in honor of the famous Vijayanakara kings they are named after. The most popular festival of the year is the Adyayanōtsava or Vaikuṇṭa festival held in Mārgaḻi (December–January). It lasts twenty days and is sometimes spoken of as a double brahmōtsava, but it is really a rather different kind of festival centering around the reciting of the Tamiḻ hymnbook rather than the procession of the deity. My study of that festival appeared in History of Religions, 21, 3 (02 1982).Google Scholar

7 A similar polar contrast is found in Tmaiḻ poetics where poems are either puram or ‘external’ and have to do with kingship and war, or they are akam or ‘internal’ and have to do with love and fertility.

8 The Mahātmya or legendary history of this temple is a bit different from the usual tala purāṇas which are known only at the local level. In this case the stories of the Mahātmya are also found in the Vālmīki Ramāyaṇa and the Pādma and Matsya purāṇas. The temple legends also overlap extensively with those of the Śrīraṅkam sect and are found in sectarian histories such as the Guruparamparai. Then, of course, there is the unique chronicle of this temple called the Kōil Oḻuku.

9 There is some dispute about the date of the temple. When two of the inscriptions from the temple were published and translated as numbers 96 and 126 in South Indian Inscriptions III early in this century it seemed probable that the Cōḻ king called ‘Parakēsarivarman’ was Parantaka I (A.D. 907–947). (This title, ‘Parakēsarivarman’ alternated with the title ‘Rājakesarivarman’ in the Cōḻ dynastic succession. With the king identified only in this way early epigraphists sometimes found it hard to be sure which king in the line was referred to in a given inscription.) But scholars had some doubt about this identification for the inscription seemed to refer to a solar eclipse known to have occurred in 972 and the question was raised as to whether this ‘Parakēsarivarman’ could be Matarāntaka Uttama (972–3). However, recent art historians (Balasubramanian, S. R., Early Cola Art (1961)Google Scholar, and Early Cola Temples (1971), p. 113Google Scholar; Soundara Rajan, K. V., ‘Early Pandya, Muttaranyar and Irukkuvel Temples’ in Studies in Indian Temple Architecture, edited by Chandra, Pramad (1967)Google Scholar; and Barret, Douglas, Early Cola Architecture and Sculpture (Faber & Faber, London, 1974), p. 52Google Scholar) all agree that on the basis of style this temple must be seen as one of the earliest stone temples of the Cōḻ period (an example of the Irukkuve style of the Princess's homeland) and therefore, must have been built in the time of Ātitya I (880–907). Starting from this date then, the various inscriptions indicate that the temple was built by Ātitya, the grandfather-in-law of the princess, when the princess married into the Cōḻ family in 903, and that she added to it during the reign of her father-in-law and brother-in-law. As best we can tell, her husband, who is probably the Cōḻ elsewhere called Ārinjaya, either remained a subordinate or reigned at most for a year (Sastri, K. A. N., Cōlas, p. 152)Google Scholar in the chaotic period between the glorious times of his father and grandfather, who built up the dynasty, and the emergence of the much larger Cōḻ empire which starts with Rājarāja I in 985.

10 There are a number of schematic associations of the four directions in Indian thought which might be implicit in these trips, but I hesitate to make them explicit because the Vaiṣṇavas tend to shy away from such schematizations in the fear that they will compromise the deity's freedom and sovereignty. One scheme is the ancient Tamiḻ classification of the five types of terrain to be found in Tmaiḻnā, which are generally associated with the different regions of the state and each having a special deity. Murukaṉ is generally associated with the mountains to the west, Māl or Miṣṇu with the pastureland to the north, the goddesses with the dry lands to the south, Śiva with the river valley to the east and Varuṇa (who is often omitted and is certainly outside the scope of the present festival) with the sea. A more cosmological scheme found in the Sanskrit tradition puts Vaṣṇu to the west, Śiva to the east, Agni to the north and Yama, the god of death, to the south. In general the north is an auspicious direction for humans to face and the east is auspicious in bringing one into the state of salvation or moḳsa, but one can give positive meaning to south and west as well, as the worshippers in Śrīraṅkam do when they take pride in the fact that their temple faces south (rather than the more normal east) and is situated to the west of the Śaiva temple of Tiruvāaṅ. If there is any scheme intended in the sequence followed in this festival, it would seem to have been to move up through the caste system with the trip to the west bringing the deity into contact with peasants or śūdras, the one to the north establishing contact with the traders or vaiśyas, followed by the contact with royalty or kṣatriyas to the south, and with brāhmaṇas in the Śaiva temple to the east. This sequence allows the festival to start in the west which is the direction of earthiness, youth and fertility, and end up in the east which is the direction of asceticism, the divine and spiritual attainment. The four castes are associated with these four directions in Sanskrit texts such as the Satapatha Brāhmana.

11 If we were to raise the question whether there is any historical truth behind this story, we would get into a very complex and subtle problem in Tamiḻ religious thought. Tamiḻ religious stories, whether about Murukaṉ,, Mīnātcī, or any other deity, are so rich in geographical and socio-political references that they seem, at least, to be built up from actual historical events. This characteristic has led some observers to wonder if these stories should be considered ‘religious’, and it has allowed the secularizing Dravidian movement in this century to try to restore what were presumed to be the more secular connotations of the original stories. We cannot delve further into this discussion here, except to note that while the stories we find in this festival are too deeply imbedded in religious meaning to be extricated, they are, at the same time, sufficiently believable that we can imagine with the worshippers that an actual Cōḻa princess may once have lost her self-control as the procession of the deity passed by.

12 See my article ‘The Family of Sivaṉ in a South Indian Grove’ to be published in Studies in Religion.

13 See my article ‘Landlords, Kings and Priests in a South Indian Temple’, to be published in K. R. Srinivasan Felicitation Volume (Madras, 1982).Google Scholar

14 Kōil Olugu translated by Rao, V. N. Hari (Rochouse & Sons, Madras, 1961), pp. 139f.Google Scholar

15 Carman, John in The Theology of Ramanuja (Yale, 1974)Google Scholar, which is the best available exposition of Śrīvaiṣṇava thought, insists on translating Paratva as ‘supremacy’ (pp. 11 and 83)Google Scholar. His line of reasoning seems to start in his methodological introduction when he argues that an English rendering of theological terms is important because even a careful paraphrase of ths Sanskrit terms leaves them without ‘emotional associations’. He then argues that while other scholars have translated paratva as ‘transcendence’ he would reserve that term for the thought of other Hindu schools. To him the Śrīvaiṣṇava God seems very like the Christian Creator God about whom he feels the less abstract term ‘supremacy’ is better than the term ‘transcendence’. It is not surprising, then, that by the time he comes to page 83, he notes that the root meaning of para is ‘far’, but then without any further argument concludes that the abstract of para must mean ‘supremacy’ ‘and cannot mean “otherness”’. There could hardly be a linguistic basis for this choice because commonly used pronouns with para such as parakiya ‘other woman’, paradesa ‘other national (or foreigner)’, etc. naturally translate with ‘other’. Certainly the religious emotion evoked in this festival is one which recognizes the ‘otherness’ or the ‘freedom’ of God. We would agree that the term paratva should not be taken to have all the same connotations as the Western theological term ‘transcendence’, but we should not let our concern to prevent that kind of misunderstanding lead us into another where we provide a term with so many of our own ‘emotional associations’ that we are not sufficiently detached to get a clear understanding of the rich variety a term has within its own cultural milieu.

16 In another context one might usefully study the role of upāyams in the worship system and the financing of the temples. As early as 1611 there was an inscription placed on the temple wall (number 16 of the Annual Reports of Epigraphy for 1936–37) saying that a merchant named Paramēsavaran, son of Mangā-cetti, had provided an endowment so that the deity would halt on his way to Uṟaiyūr during the Paṅkuṇi festival. It seems that these upāyams provided a channel for businessmen to support the temple which was parallel to the land grants of the landowning castes and the tax rebates of the kings. A lot could be learned about the temple's links with the economy in various periods from a study of the relative importance of these different channels during different periods of the temple's history.

17 A delightful account of the development of these ideas in Bengal can be found in Dimock, Edward C. Jr., The Place of the Hidden Moon (Chicago, 1966).Google Scholar

18 The thirty verses of the Tiruppavai attributed to Aṇṭal are the lovely thoughts of an infatuated twelve-year-old waking up her girl friend to listen to her excited talk. This very popular text is understood by Śrīvaiṣṇavas to express the soul's first longing for God.

19 Ramanujachari, R., The Mysticism of Nammalvar (Madras, 1970).Google Scholar

20 See Dimock, , The Place of the Hidden Moon, pp. 200ff.Google Scholar

21 Srinivasachari, P. N., The Philosophy of Viśiṣṭāvaita, Adyar Library Series 39 (Madras, 1970, rep.)Google Scholar, is a sound guide to Śrīvaiṣṇava history and thought.

22 Lester, Robert C., Rāmānuja on the Yoga, Adyar Library Series 106 (Madras, 1976), p. 156Google Scholar. He quotes part of the hymn in a highly polemical appendix in which he follows his teacher Agnihotram Rāmānuja Tatacharya in arguing that the tradition is wrong in ascribing this and similar hymns to Rāmānuja. I join John Carman in saying the argument is not convincing.

23 The figure of Vibhīṣaṇa is one of the favorites in Vaiṣṇava devotion because when he saw that his brother Rāvaṇa was in the wrong he did not hesitate to break with him and surrender his whole ‘world’ in committing himself to Rāma's cause.

24 Srinivasachari, P. N., The Philosophy of Viśiṣṭādvaita, pp. 383ff.Google Scholar