THE SACRED 3-kin (2-mile) long island of Srirangam, formed by the Caveri andKollidam rivers, is one of the most revered pilgrimage sitesin South India. At its core is r the majestic Ranganatha Temple. Dedicated to Vishnu, this is one of the largest temple complexes in Tamil Nadu and covers an enormous area of 60 ha (148 acres).

The complex as it exists today has evolved over a Extensive reconstruction first took place in 1371, after the original 10thcentury temple was destroyed by the DelhiSultan, Alauddin Khilji . Its present  form, however, includes extensions added in the 17th century by theNayaka rulers, whose second capital was in neighbouring   Tiruchirapalli. Interestingly, the last addition was as recentas 1987, when the unfinished  southern gateway was finally completed.

Dominated by 21 impressive gopuras  (gateways), the complex has seven prakara (boundary) walls defining its seven enclosures. The outer three comprise residences for priests, hostels for pilgrims, and small restaurants and shops selling religious books, pictures and sundry temple offerings. The sacred precinct begins from the fourth enclosure,beyond which non-Hindus are not  allowed. This is where the temple’s most important  shrines are located. Among these are the spacious Thousand-Columned Mandapa, where images of Ranganatha and his consort are enthroned and worshipped during one of the temple’s many festivals, and the magnificent Seshagirirayar Mandapa, with its rearing stone horses with mount ed warriors attacking fierce animals and yalis (mythical leonine beasts). A small museum close by has a goodcollection of stone and bronze sculptures. The core of the complex is the sanctum, with its gold-plated vimana,where an image of Vishnu as Ranganatha, reclining on the cosmic serpent, Aclisesha, is enshrined. This temple is also theplace where the great 11th-century philosopher, Ramanuja   developed the bhakti cult of personal devotion into a formalized mode of worship. Today, a constant cycle of festivals glorifying Vishnu are celebrated throughout the year.

East of the Ranganatha Temple is the mid-l7th-century Jambukeshvara Temple in the village of Tiruvanaikka. The main sanctum contains one of the five elemental lingasrepresenting Shiva as the manifestation of water. Legend says that the linga was created by Shiva’s consort, Parvati, and in homage to her, the priest wears a sari when performing the puja. Non-Hindus can view the outer shrines in the complex, but not the main sanctum.

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