Shaiva –Vainava Religious Conflicts Reflected in Temple Culture in Tirunelveli

5 min readFeb 7, 2024

Dr. Kattalai Kailasam

The Shaiva tradition is a pan-Indian phenomenon. But the academicians have artificially classified as Kashmir Shaivism and the South Indian Shaivism, as if there are no Shaiva belts in Maharashtra or Bengal. The Shaivism crisscrosses the Indus Valley civilization and pervades the Southern peninsula down the centuries. The traces are to be seen in the ancient Sangam literature.

Kamil Zvelebil, one of the great scholars on Tamil literature, establishes the existence of two cultures in this country — the Indo-Dravidian and Indo-Aryan — unique and distinct in their root and branch. He shows that the Dravidian language and culture is the infrastructure on which are built the various institutions of Hinduism.

The Cankam classics Tirumurukāṛṛuppaṭai and Paripāṭal speak broadly about the Hill-God Murugan. Here we see the mingling of the two traditions, namely, the north Indian Sanskrit tradition and the South Indian Tamil tradition.

There were attempts at integrating the South and North, Aryan and Dravidian. Lord Murugan becomes Subramanya, Skanda etc. But the conflicts between the two cultures continues in various forms. In the Sanskrit tradition Skanda is either an eternal brahmacarin or the husband of a colourless deity Devasena. But Murugan’s marriage with Valli is of the nature of the clandestine pre-marital union of lovers i.e. kaḷavu. The conflict between Devasena and Valli is reflective of the conflict between the native pre-Aryan tradition and eh imported Sanskrit tradition

The Dravidians are said to be black in the Sanskrit sources. But then the literature on the Tamil God Murukan dwells on the symbolism of the red colour. It reflects the land, the people and their way of thinking. Paripātal (19) praises Lord Murukan thus:

“O Lord who united with mountain girl Valli

with vine-like beauty! Lend your ear to our praises!

Your garments and garlands are red.

Also, your fierce spears are red as coral.

Your complexion is like beautiful flame.

Your face is like the sun with tender morning rays!”

(Translation by Vaidehi)

Temple worship in the South

In South India just like the temples for Shiva and Murugan, it was also built for Tirumāl, who became the God of Mullai land and commanded temples in the cites. In big cities like Kāveripūmpaṭṭinam, Madurai and Vanji, people built temples for Shiva, Murugan, Thirumal, Korravai etc.

Temples existed in Tamilnadu before the time of Mahendravarman. Ganda Sishya Pallavan (AD 436–460) had given land to the temple of Tirukkalunkunram. It was continued by Narasimhavarman. Āditya Chola’s inscription speaks of this. Kosengot Chola ruled Tamil Nadu from AD 450–500 AD. At that time he has built more than 70 temples. Tirumangai Ālvār mentions this. Appar and Sambandhar have said this before Tirumangai Ālvār.

“This is a temple built by Vishitra Siddhan for Trinity (mum-mūrttikal) without lime, wood or metal’’. An inscription in Mandaka Pattu says this.

Development in Temple building

During the Nāyanmār Period, the temple was built using clay, wood, brick, lime etc. These are perishable. The Cholas who came after the Pallavas realized this. So the Cholas (AD 900–1300) built black stone temples. There were also temples in the plains where Nāyanmārs sang their praises. The Cholas took stones from the hill and converted the temples into stone temples. Apart from that they built bigger temples. The temples were built without distinction of Shiva and Vaishnava. Such temples were places of unity. That means, it was a tradition to have a shrine for Shiva within the Tirumāl temple and a shrine for Tirumāl in the Shiva temple.

Paradox of Saiva, Vainava Temples

During the Rāmānuja’s time, the Shiva temple in Andhra was converted into Perumal temple. Gurum Ananda Swami temple in Andhra was converted into Vaishnava temple in eleventh Century.

Shiva-Vaishnava temple competitions also started in Tamil Nadu. The temple in Couṛṛālam, Tirunelveli district, was said to be Vaishnava temple. It is said that Agasthiyar converted the Couṛṛāla Vaishnava temple into Shaiva temple.

Navakailayam and Nava Tiruppati:

Nava kailāyam refers to nine individual ancient temples of Lord Shiva in Southern districts of Tamilnadu. These temples are located in the districts of Tirunelveli and Tuticorin. All these nine temples are linked to Sage Agasthiyar. These nine Shiva temples are located uniquely on the river bed of Tāmirabarani. They are Pāpanāsam, Pāpanāsa Nātar temple (Sun), Cheran Mahadevi Kailāsa Nātar temple (Moon), Kelaganallur Kailāsa Nātar temple (Chevvāy), Kunnathur Kotha Parameswarar temple ( Rāgu), Murappanadu Kailāsa Nātar temple (Guru), Tiruvaikundam Kailāsa Nātar temple (Sani), The Thirupperai Kailāsa Nātar temple (Putan), Rājapathi Kailāsa Nātar temple (Ketu), Saendha Pāmangalam Kailāsa Nātar temple (Sukram). Each temple is associated with a particular planet.

Nava Tirupati

The Vaishnavas generally do not worship Navagrahas. Burt Vaishnavites have also built temples for Navagraham in Tirunelveli. Nevagraha temples are not known to Vaishnava anywhere else. The Nava Tirupati refers to a group of nine temples dedicated to Vishnu, located on the Thiruchandur — Tirunelveli route, Tamilnadu on the banks of the Tāmirabarani river. Each of these temples is classified as a Divya Desam, counted as one among the 108 temples of Vishnu, revered by the 12 Poet-saints of the Tamil Vaishnava tradition, the Ālvārs. The temples are revered in Nālāyira Divya Prabandam, the 7th -9th Century CE Vaishnava canon.

The following is the list of the nine temples. In Srivaikundam for the Sun; In Nattham for the Moon; in Tirukōlūr for Chevvāy; In Tirupullinkuṭi for Puthan; In Ālvār Tirunagari for Guru; In Tentiruppērai for Sukran, in Tirukuḷantai for Shani; In Tiruttalai-Villimangalam for both Rāhu and Kētu and so it is called the double Tiruppati (Iraṭṭai Tiruppati).

The Resurgent Mahendragiri Nātar.

In Tirunelveli district the village Tirukarangudi has the Alakiya Nampirayar temple which is one of the 108 Divya Desam. In this temple the Alakiya Nambirāyar (Sundara Paripūrna Perumal) and the auspicious Mahendragiri Nātar (Pakkam Ninrār) were placed side by side. This system goes back to 1500 years. Tirumangai Ālvār says: “Akkum puliyin ātalum uṭaiyār (He also broke the tiger’s skin) Avar Oruvar Pakkam niṟka niṉṟa Panpar Ūr.”

Thirukarangudi Jīyar began his duty in the temple in 2004. After that the Mahēndragiri Nātar shrine in the temple was demolished illegally. Knowing this the devotees of Shiva got upset. On 18 June 2004, they started a hunger strike in front of the temple. They filed a civil suit to reinstate Mahendragiri Nātar in the same place. 0n 1 July 2004, a case was filed in the Nanguneri law court.

The case then went he the High Court, which gave the verdict in favour of the Shaivas. But the Administrator of the Vaishnava temple appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court listed the case on 10 May 2022. At this stage Tirukaranguti Jīyar agreed to keep Mahendragiri Nātar in the same place. On 1 June 2023 the Supreme Court ordered the consecration of Mahendragiri Nātar at the same place. Thus 18 years of struggle came to an end. On 8 June 2023 Mahendragiri Nātar was consecrated at the same place and the devotees of Shiva worshipped with joy.

How does one understand this event? The temples are symbols of the Divine presence in all traditions, where the devotees are expected to raise their vision above. But the short-sighted human factor plays a divisive role from time to time even in places of worship and the harmony is broken. But a believing devotee of Shiva might look at it as one of the “sports of Shiva” (Tiruvilaiyātal) who draws them to greater devotion through such events.

(Dr.V. Kattalai kailasam taught Tamil at Madurai Diraviyam Thayumanavar Hindu College, Tirunelvelli. For more than 30 years he earnestly collected the palm leaf manuscripts from Tirunelvelli area. He collected rare Christian palm leaf manuscripts and documented them. He published 10 books, edited another 10 books and sixty research papers.)