- Navagraha Temples in Tamilnadu
By Bhagyalakshmi Krishnamurthy
Navagraha Temples in Tamilnadu. Most temples across the country and certainly almost every temple in South India have a black square stone pedestal with nine idols arranged on it. One of the enduring memories of childhood, apart from the pilgrimage vacations, is that absolutely pleasurable dizziness that comes with the nine circumambulations of this set of Navagraha idols! Another enduring memory is the navagraha homa conducted before every auspicious occasion at home and the mandatory trip to the Navagraha Temples.
The belief that there is some power beyond man that affects his life is an old one. Our ancient sages identified constellations and aligned their movements to man’s fortunes and marked nine celestial bodies, the sun, the moon, Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, Venus, Neptune, Rahu and Ketu, as the nine grahas that impact man’s life, based on their position and arrangement at the time of his birth. Ever since these nine planets have been worshipped by the man in his pursuit of happiness or in times of misery.
The popular understanding of “Navagraha Temples” is the cluster of nine Shaivaite shrines, around Kumbakonam, in Tamil Nadu where each of the nine grahas, Surya (sun), Chandra (Moon), Mangal (Mars), Buddh (Mercury), Brihaspati (Jupiter), Shukra (Venus), Shani (Saturn), Rahu and Ketu have a temple assigned to them. The Navagraha Temples in Tamilnadu owe their origin to Sage Kalava, who was not only a seer but also an excellent astrologer. On examining his horoscope, Sage Kalava found that the planetary arrangements predicted that he will be afflicted with leprosy. He prayed to each of the nine grahas and his fervent devotion caused them to reverse this eventuality. When Lord Brahma came to know of this he was enraged, since grahas are not meant to offer boons. He cursed them to have the dreaded disease instead and banished them to earth to a place called “vellurrukku vanam” or the ‘forest of the white flower’ The navagrahas prayed to Shiva and begged him to free them from the curse. Convinced of their repentance, Shiva freed them from the curse and assigned the territory to them with the caveat that they should bless the devotees who pray to them there. Each graha was assigned a village which then became its sthala or abode. Subsequently, temples were built in their honour, with most of them dating to the 7th and 9th century except the Surya Temple which was built in the 11th century.
The Navagraha Temples in Tamilnadu pilgrimage consists of a visit to all these nine temples and can be done in one, two or seven days with the visit being aligned to the day special to the graha. Each temple has its own legend and lore and its own method of worship.
The temple dedicated to the sun is at Suryanar Kovil, which is supposed to be Vellurukku Vanam of yore. The interesting feature at the Suryanar Kovil is that this is the only Navagraha Temples in Tamilnadu where the main deity is the graha itself. In the other eight temples, the main deity is Shiva while the graha is placed in an auxiliary shrine.
However, the first prayer, even here, is offered to Vinayaka to whom the navagrahas prayed as part of their penance, then to Shiva and Parvathi and lastly to Surya who stands on a one-wheeled chariot driven by seven horses symbolizing the seven days of the week. Facing him is Guru (Jupiter) who is positioned so that he may absorb some of the intensity of the sun’s rays before they reach the devotee – a fact that ancient India knew from ages before. Today, research in astronomy has discovered that Jupiter protects the earth from many comets and other bodies that may strike the earth and possibly eradicate a significant portion of it. The shrine of Surya is surrounded by shrines of the other eight grahas.
Chandran or the moon is worshipped at Thingaloor. Legend has it that during Amrithmanthan, an Asura assumed the form of a deva and consumed some nectar. This was spotted by Surya and Chandra who informed Vishnu about it. An angry Vishnu cut the asura into two with his Sudarshana Chakram. Since the asura had consumed a significant bit of nectar by then, he did not die. His head merged with the body of a snake while his body joined the head of another snake and thus were born Rahu and Ketu. Obviously, they went behind Surya and Chandra. Rahu caught up with Chandra and started swallowing him. It is believed that Chandra prayed to Shiva at Thingalur and secured his complete form, fifteen days after Rahu had swallowed him. This explains the waning and waxing face of the moon. The main shrine at Thingalur is that of Shiva as Kailasanathar, while the shrine for Chandra, standing on a chariot drawn by ten horses, is an adjunct shrine. A very peaceful, almost somnolent temple, Thingalur attracts very few visitors except those on the Navgraha beat.
Vaitheeswaran Temple is where Lord Shiva is worshipped as Vaitheeswaran or the “God of healing” and it is believed that prayers to Vaitheeswaran can cure diseases. It is one of the nine Navagraha temples in Tamilnadu associated with the planet Mars (Angaraka).
Budhan (Mercury), riding on a lion, is worshipped at the Shwetharanyeshwara Temple in Thiruvenkadu. Again, this is a very significant Shiva temple and one forgets that one is at a navagraha temple. As Lord of the White (Shwetha) Forest (Aranya), Shiva is said to have danced the tandava, seven times here. He stands here with five faces and as Aghora (Furious) Murthy who destroyed the demon Marutwasura by opening his third eye. Legend has it that Shiva sent Nandi first to slay this demon not once but twice. However, Nandi was vanquished and injured badly, the marks of which are seen on the Nandi idol which, incidentally, stands outside Parvathi’s and not Shiva’s shrine as he does always. Thiruvenkadu is a small village. One ticks the box as having prayed to Budhan here and moves on to worship Guru at Alangudi.
Guru (Jupiter) is worshipped at the Apathasahayeshwara Temple at Alangudi. As Apatha (crisis) Sahayeshwara (one who helps), Shiva is said to have drunk (kudi) the poison (Ala) that rose from the celestial churn, here. It is also believed to be the place where he taught divine wisdom to the errant Devas as Lord Dakshinamurthy. Guru is held by devotees in great esteem as he is believed to influence marriage prospects as well as wisdom and intellect. He rides on a chariot driven by eight horses representing eight branches of knowledge. Consequently, this temple at Alangudi attracts many devotees, especially on Thursday.
Sukran (Venus) is worshipped at the Agneeswarar Temple at Kanjanur. This temple is easy to miss as it is in a small nondescript village and has no visibility other than being a Sukran temple. In fact, we had to call for the priest from his house, when we reached there. Believed to be the place assigned to Sukran, Shiva stands here as Agneeshwara who granted Agni an audience. It is also believed to be the place where Brahma had a vision of the marriage of Shiva and Parvathi. Although we were not privy to this, there is a firm assertion that the oil poured on the idol for Abhishekha is fully absorbed by the idol and nothing falls off. And yet, this is a very peaceful temple where prayer comes easily.
This is not something one can say about the Shaneeswara Temple at Thirunallar. If devotees throng to Vaitheeswaran Kovil for Shiva, hordes of them congregate at the Dharbaranyeshwara Temple at Thirunallar, not for Shiva but for Shani (Saturn), especially on Saturdays. Here one forgets that one is at a Shiva temple! From Amitabh Bachchan to the man-next-door, there are not many who can resist a prayer at this temple to propitiate Shani who is feared for his malevolence! Shani (Saturn) is the only planet to have the term of Easwara or Lord suffixed to his name. The most popular of the Navagraha temples in Tamilnadu, it is the richest of them all. It is believed that King Nala was rid of the malevolence of Shani when Lord Shiva as Darbharanyeshwara stopped Shani from following Nala into the temple. The Shaneeswara shrine is thus located in the inner courtyard of the temple. All those wishing to rid themselves of the evil influence of Saade Saati and the two and a half year influence of Shani, ensure that they visit this temple.
Rahu, familiar with many because of Rahu Kala, is worshipped at the Naganathaswamy temple at Thirunageshwaran. The distinctive feature of this navagraha temple is that Rahu is depicted with a human face with his consorts while in most other temples he is depicted in his supine form. It is also believed that the milk poured on Rahu during the Rahu Kalam Abhisheka turns blue as it falls on the idol before turning white when it touches the ground. We missed seeing this as the navagraha tour is quite time bound and one is not always lucky to be here at Rahu kalam. One possible explanation could be that the idol is made of blackish blue sapphire so that milk poured over that appears bluish. But then, when has faith needed an explanation?
And finally, Ketu is worshipped at a small village called Keezhperumpallum in the Naganathar Swami Temple. As the second half of the Asura who ate the nectar by deceit, Kethu is believed to have prayed to Lord Shiva for forgiveness here and received a pardon.
The Navagraha Temples in Tamilnadu tour, unless specified, does not follow the chronology from Suryanar Kovil to Keezhperumpallam. The route is based on the location of the temples and the time at one’s disposal. Most devotees, like us, use Kumbakonam as a base, as all but one of the temples are within twenty to thirty kilometres of Kumbakonam. Most hotels in Kumbakonam arrange Navagraha tours but it is advisable to equip yourself with some basic information that can be had from reliable websites of the temples.
A visit to the Navagraha Temples in Tamilnadu threw up many revelations and realizations. It was a revelation that the Shaivaite cluster of Navagraha temples is different from the Vaishnavaite cluster that is followed by Iyengars of the South. It was a revelation that despite the ubiquitous presence of technology, there is still one facet of man that has been untouched by it all and is governed by faith, myth, lore and legend. It was a revelation that despite the myth, lore and legend, the mobile phone has penetrated into the tiniest of villages and thank God for that. Finally, it was a profound realisation that the Navagrahas are the bureaucrats who administer the retribution for our karma, good or bad, for, in every temple, the prime deity is still the Lord who is the force within us.