Deivasigamani   Desikar (1291-1348) - Builder and Protector of Tiruvannamalai Temple


The history of Temples is always connected with great Rishis, Munis and Siddha-like personalities, but in due course, it is modified, mystified and even forgotten, because of the dominant people who renovate, reconstruct and even rebuild. Ironically, India was faced with the problem of iconoclasm unleashed through Mohammedans and resulting in the devastation of Temples and related structures. Thus, the so-called sacred and secular structures have been changing in different ways and modern researchers might be tempted to visualise them as “syncretised”. Theoretically, the origins of Temple can be traced back to natural ownership, but even in reality, when attempts are made and Temples studied, stages of phased building development can be noted. Here, in the context of Tiruvannamalai Temple. Deivasigamni Desikar (1291-1348), who is considered as the originator and founder (or builder and protector) of Tiruvannamalai Temple, lived during the 13th–14th centuries, when South India was witnessing a Mohammedan invasion. He was contemporary with Vira Vallala III (1268-1348) of the same period  and both incidentally died in the same year (1348 CE).

The historical background of the period 13th-14th centuries:

“Imperial Cholas” (950-1250) had suddenly disappeared with the intrusion of Mohammedan forces into South India. Vallala came to power in 1292 CE after the Hoysala Kingdom was divided between he and his brother. The Malikafur’s invasion (or raid) in 1311 resulted in the breaking up of South Indian kingdoms, disruption of the religious system and interference in public life. In 1311 Dwarasamudra was ransacked, Vallala defeated and appointed as the representative of the Delhi Sultan for collecting and paying tribute. He was taken to Delhi and sent back with instructions. In 1312, the King of Devagiri was mercilessly killed by Mohammedans. In 1327, as Malikafur ransacked Dwarasamudra again, Vallala had to take shelter in Tiruvannamalai. In 1340 Jaludin Hasan from Madurai Shah invaded the Hoysala territories—Vallala was successful in driving them away and captured Kannanur Fort.

Vallala both operated from Kannanur and also kept it as his capital. As it is near to Srirangam. Vallala besieged it and Mohammedans came for compromise. However the negotiating Mohammedans brought an army stealthily from Madurai and attacked Vallala and his army during the night. Thus by treachery, they took Vallala to Madurai and killed him in a cruel manner. They skinned him, flushed the flesh out, stuffed it with hay and hanged the body in the midst of the streets of Madurai. The date of his death is mentioned as anywhere between 1342 and 1348 CE. His son Vallala IV (alias Hampeya Wodeyar or Virupaksha) reportedly disappeared in 1346-47. Some opine after Vallala III, Vallala IV was made his successor . . . the Hoysala Kingdom disappeared thereafter. Thus, the people of South India suffered politically, socially and economically during the period.

Early days of Deivasigamani Desikar:

Deivasigamani Desikar was born in 1291. He hailed  from the “Adi-Saiva” tradition and learned under Arulnandi Sivacharya, one of the four Santhana-Kuravars. He had the blessings of Lord Siva at the early part of life thus realising the wisdom. As per the directions of his Guru, he went to Sri Kalahasti and brought a Divine Linga to Tiruvannamalai whereupon it was consecrated and he started its worship. Both Deivasigamani Desikar and Meikander were students of the same preceptor i.e. Arulnandi Sivachari. Meikandar is also considered one of the “Santhana Kuravar Nanku” i.e. Great Four Philosophers of the Tradition. Saiva Siddhanta scholars consider that he flourished around 1240 CE. After the invasion of Malikafur in 1311, Temples of South India suffered huge damage and Saiva Mutts, Saivacharyas and devotees all suffered greatly. For this reason, Desikar decided to protect Temples and Mutts and created a force for this purpose. Desikar found a friend in Vallala, as they were both working with this same purpose.

Construction and development of Tiruvanamalai Temple:

The Puranas trace its origin to one of the “Panchabhuta Khetras”, but historically, its development and construction was found during the Chola period c.8th century and continued through other dynasties. However, as the constructed structure could collapse over time, a renovated Temple might have existed continuously. Thus, Rajaraja, Rajendra, Vallala, Harihara, Bukka, Krishnadevaraya, and others of various dynasties and feudatories were involved in this constant, ongoing work. The Gopurams were constructed by different Kings—e.g. the Kili Gopuram by Vira Rajendra Chola c.1063 CE, the Kitti/smaller Gopurams by Vallala (13th – 14th century) and others in later periods. The construction of the four enclosing walls of the Temple were started under the reign of Achyuta Ranmachandra Nayak in 1365. During the period Deivasigamani Desikar infused bhakti, instilled philosophy and developed patriotism to preserve and protect Temples—as they were vulnerable to continuous attack and destruction. Desikar revived construction by installing the Linga brought from Kalahasti. Thus, local people awakened to the necessity of protecting Temples. Desikar was also in charge of the administration of Tiruvannamalai Temple in the position of Head Priest. His acts have been recorded in inscriptions found on the northern wall of the Sanctum Sanctorum of the Temple.

Vira-Saiva and Jangam division in Tamizhagam:

A commentary of uncertain date to the Siddhantasaravali of Trilocana Sivacarya, mentions that Rajendra imported Saiva bhakthas from the banks of the Ganges into his own kingdom and established them in Kanchipuri and the Cola country. The Sivacharya may have initiated this migration of Saivities to the South in order that they might escape persecution and inconvenient conditions in the North due to the changed state and Cholas resorting to “tantric practices”. At the same time Basaveswara (1134-1196) also introduced Kashmira Virasaiva to Karnataka in the form of Lingayatism as an antidote to the prevailing dominant Jainism. Vira-Saiva or Lingayatism was established and Jangams or Jangamas (Saivite order priests or gurus) initiated others. Vallala was a Jain convert to Vira-Saivism and took a great interest in Saivam because of his friend Deivasigamani Desikar. Arunachalapuranam specifically points out that Lord Siva appeared as Jangama asking alms from Vallala. Thus, it is evident that Vira-Saiva groups spread to Tamizhagam during this period. In other words, Desikar organised youth groups under the Vira-Saiva banner to protect Temples.

Consolidation of Vallala III:

At that time Vallala or Ballala III of the Hoyasala dynasty was in power. As Pandyas were routed, Yadhavas lost control and thus Vallala tried to strengthen his position from Tiruvannamalai by uniting the broken Hoysala areas. Thus, he was in control of what are the present day areas of; Karnataka, parts of the Kaveri Delta between Komgu and Chola territories of Tamil Nadu, and parts of Western AP and Deccan. As he suffered heavily at the hands of Malikafur, he decided to prepare for such attacks in the future. For that, he started a strategy of administration and governance from capitals at; Dwarasamudra, Tiruvannamalai and Kannanur (near Samayapuram/Srirangam). He was at Tiruvannamalai in the years 1318, 1328, 1341, 1342 and 1343.

Family tree of the last Hoysalas kings

The dynasty began in 1022 and ended with Vallalan IV. He hired Mohammedans into his army as soldiers and mercenaries. Incidentally, Harihara and Bukka were his commanders, (who later reconverted to the Hindu religion). He established another capital at Hosapattna on the banks of Thungabhadra, later known as “Vijayangar” to counter Mohammedans and consolidate Hindu Kings. He encouraged and developed cultivation between the rivers of Thungabhadra and Kaveri, getting maximum revenue which was in turn spent on building Temples and promoting the fine arts.

Vallala Tax collected, used for the building of Temple

Vallala levied and collected different taxes as follows: One of his inscriptions, No. 303, carved in 1341, towards the end of his reign, gives details of some taxes imposed on his subjects, it is simply a list of taxes deemed worthy of mention in one edict.

1)  a tax on goldsmiths; 2)  a tax on tailors; 3)  a tax on oil presses; 4)  a tax on looms; 5)  a tax on fishing; 6)  a tax on doors; 7)  a tax on owning a mirror; 8)  a tax on the plot of land on which one lived; 9)  a fee payable to village rulers; 10)  a special tax for some people who had to supply a free ox to the government;  11)  a tax to be paid in gold—by whom and what for is not mentioned;  12)  a general government levy under which ‘common people’ had to supply goods to the government.

As well as taxation, he also increased agricultural production thereby helping workers engaged in various agriculture related industries. A tax as a mark of submission known as the “Valldladevar-vari” was levied over the area. The grant of the village of Tirupati (as a Sarvamdnya by Tiruvenkatanatha in his 12th year) was one of the items of taxation remitted by him in favour of the Temple. The vari/tax was a kind of tribute levied and collected for the benefit of the Hoysala king. In addition to such taxes, a new tax bearing the name of King Vallalan himself was introduced—but it was not mentioned who was to pay the tax. The ordinance was promulgated on January 4th, 1341, at a time when King Vallalan was living in Tiruvannamalai and using it as a base for military adventure against the Muslim rulers of Madurai. The tax may therefore have been a special war levy.

The Development of “Five Temples Devasthanam”:

For some reasons, the Pontiff of Tiruvannamalai Mutt shifted to Piranmalai during the 18th century. Piranmalai is also known as “Tirukkodungundram” and is praised with songs. The Temple of Tirukkodungundram was patronised by the Kings of Pandya during the Vijayanagaram period. It flourished during the periods of Sivacharyas of Lakshattayayi lineage and Isanya Mutt Heads. To carry out Temple service, the Temples of Piranmalai, Tiruppattur, Tirukkolakkudi, Mattiyur and Tirkkodungundram were brought under the category of “Five Temples Devasthanam” for effective administrative purposes. During the reign of the Maruthu brothers, the administration was vested with Piranmalai and then to Tiruvannamalai. After this only, it was established at Kundrakkudi.

Tiruvannamalai Adheenam established and shifted to Kundrakkudi:

As Deivasigamani Desikar had been a staunch follower of Saiva philosophy and religion, he wanted to inculcate values in the minds of youth and society. He established Tiruvannamalai Adheenam for the purpose and the following were once occupants of the Mutt:

1)  Deivasigamani; 2) Thandavaraya;  3)  Vinayatirtha;  4)  Kanakasabapati;  5)  Velappa;  6)  Subramanya;  7)  Rudrakoti;  8)  Sadasiva;  9)  Kannappa;  10)  Masilamani;  11)  Chandrasekara;  12)  Kumaragurupara;  13)  Ambalavana;  14)  Arunagiri;   15)  Kandappa;  16)  Swaminatha

After Swaminatha, when Nagalinga was the pontiff, around 1750, the inmates of the Mutt migrated to Kundarkkudi due to the unfavourable conditions that had developed.

A sculpture sequentially depicting a miraculous event:

An important episode of Desikar appears as a sculpture on the third prakaram compound wall surrounding the Garba-gruha (Sanctum Sanctorum) opposite the Stala-vruksha (Sacred Tree of the Temple).  A miraculous event occurred during the reign of Vira Vallala Deva (1268-1348) which has been depicted on that Temple wall. It is a serial sculpture which depicts events sequentially. Deivasigamani Desikar is depicted at one side coming in a palanquin. The coming of Vira Vallala is depicted at the other end surrounded with his army. One of the horses was bitten by a snake. As per the request of the King, Desikar raised the dead-horse. Thus, he went away happily with the horse. In short, the episode points out the importance of the horse during this period. This miraculous event was known to the King of Pudukkoottai and he invited Desikar to his Kingdom. He also donated 300 villages for the purpose. Desikar reportedly stayed there and returned to Tiruvannamalai only during his last days. The line of Pudukkoottai King is interesting in the context that his kingdom was also affected by intrusions of Mohammedan armies.

Tiruvannamalai Temple attacked in 1342 or 1348

Vallala was taken to Madurai, killed and skinned in 1348. Giazuddin turned his attention towards Tiruvannamalai, as he visualised enormous wealth would be hoarded in the Temple.  As Vallala reportedly engaged in massive Temple construction with collected tax revenues, Giazuddin sent his army to loot the Temple. But, there were only devotees safeguarding the Temple per the directions of Deivasaigamani Desikar. As the Hoysala sculptures are found in damaged condition and located at different parts of the Temple, it is evident the Mohammedan army would have indulged in iconoclasm. As devotees offered resistance, probably, under Desikar, they would have been killed. As otherwise the year of 1348 would not have coincided for both Vallala and Desikar. However, his body must have been buried with honour, as later hagiographic records assert that he attained “jivan-samadhi”. Within 100 years, the surroundings of the “Gurumurtham” changed completely with encroachments and urbanisation.

How could both have died in 1348?

The dates of Deivasigamani Desikar (1291-1348) and Vira Vallala Deva (1268-1348) are intriguing as both died in the same year. It could not be an accidental or an incidental occurrence. When they died, they would have been 80 and 57 years old respectively. When Vallala was 23 years old, Desikar would have just been born. As Vallala constructed Tiruvannamalai Temple, Desikar would have supported his efforts. When Malikafur invaded in 1311, they would have been 43 and 20 years old—thus they would have realised the iconoclastic and devastating nature of the Mohammedan army. The cruel killing of Vallala by Giazuddhin has been recorded by Ibn Batuta himself. However, how Desikar also died in the same year is not known. Perhaps, in protecting Tiruvannamalai Temple, he might have sacrificed his life—and it is that which is hagiographed later as “attaining Jiva samadhi”. In other words, mythologisation of history and historicisation of myth have been common feature in Indian historiography circumventing the principles of myth-history.

Why Vallala and Desikar were targeted?:

Vallala was a convert from the Jain religion when he started co-operating with Desikar. As Vallala was moving to different places, he could observe the activities of Mohammedan groups known variously as; Arabs, Turks, Pathana, Persians and so on. Soldiers of the Delhi Sultan were stationed at Dwarasamudra as a part of the pact. In fact, he himself engaged many Mohammedan soldiers in his army. As both opposed the Mohammedan intrusion into South India, strategically encountering and effectively combating, they took cognisance of them and decided to eliminate them at any cost. The Mohammedan pattern of raid, battle and war never followed any code of conduct or ethics, while Hindus unwittingly followed specified codes and were regularly defeated.

The horse trade made it necessary to induct Mohammedans into his army as trainers, breeders and keepers of horses and cavalry. As some researchers point out the horse trade was of political importance and a source of tension between the Delhi Sultanate and horse traders who dealt with South India States, their enemies. Nur al-ma’arif testifies that  Yemen horses were also sold in Malabar, particularly in both Fakanur and Manjalur seaports linked with the Hoysala State which was regularly opposed to its neighbouring Pandyas. Actually, horse exports from Aden were directed to the Hindu States of the western and eastern coast. Delhi Sultans played double game in horse trade, as they pretended to forbid traders from conducting business inside their territory. Therefore, the act of seizure and carrying of horses from South Indian Kings was blatant land-piracy, which India had previously never heard of or witnessed. Hence, Vallala and Desikar were against breeding horses. Thus the sculptures succinctly prove the fact that Desikar “was raising a dead horse”. However, the Mohammedans of Vallala’s army reacted as “Mohammedans”, as could be seen from the Kannanur episode. In the same way Desikar might have been finished off during the attack on Tiruvannamalai in 1348.

Desikar’s Jiva-samadhi – mystified hagiographed or historical?:

Had Tiruvannamalai been attacked by the army of the Madurai Sultan, the protectors of the Temple would have been killed. The mutilated and damaged sculptures of the Temple point to such an encounter. As Desikar developed, “Vira-Saiva” protectors they would have fought with the Mohammedans, have been over-powered and killed. In such a bloody encounter, Desikar might have also been killed. However, his body must have been taken away and buried at a place, now known as “Gurumurtham”. Thus now his “Jiva-samadhi” is at Kizhnathur, 1.5 kms away from Tiruvannamalai Temple. A Temple has been constructed on it and is known as “Gurumurtham”. About 60 years previously, it was a natural surrounding with mango groves. It is under the control of Kundarkkudi Mutt.

Horse factor and ruining of economy:

Malikafur looted wealth and also elephants and horses. The taking away of 20,000 horses inflicted a great loss on the treasury. Moreover, the Mohammedans were using horses for their swift raids, speedy runaways and quick-loots. At one side, they were supplying the horses to the Indian Kings and on the other side they were carrying on with tactics to rob the Indian treasury. Above all, during the raids, wealth in kind was also plundered. Taking a clue from Marco Polo, historians like Romila Thapar opined that “Imported horses became an expensive commodity because horse breeding was never successful in India, perhaps due to the different climatic, soil and pastoral conditions”. But, during the Hoysala period, imported horses were mated with local horses to produce cross breeds. In fact, scholars have pointed out that Hoysala sculptures depict such features. Therefore, the concern of Desikar for horses as depicted in the sculpture of “raising a dead horse” is implied in such horse breeding and economy.

Inference based on the historical interpretation:

The role of Vallala III encountering and restricting Mohammedans in South India has been significant. In such an extraordinary and prodigious task, he sacrificed two capitals, Dwarasamudra and Kannanur, and of course his life at 80. Incidentally, Deivasigamani Desikar co-operated, collaborated and strategically worked with him. He might have been instrumental in bringing Vira-Saivas to Tiruvannamalai to protect the Temple. As both confronted Mohammedans in all possible ways, they were mercilessly eliminated (as found in historical documents and other circumstantial evidence). His fall coincided with the rise of the Viyayanagara Empire. Incidentally, Harihara-Bukka the founders of the Empire were reportedly reconverted back to the Hindu-fold. Thus, both played a crucial role in the betterment of the Saiva religion, development of Saiva-philosophy and construction of Tiruvannamalai Temple.

Conclusion in the context of Sacred geographies, religion cultures and popular practices in History and imagination:

Hoysala art and architecture has spread in the context of sacred geography well into the Southern states of present India, and can be seen in the Temples of Tiruvannamalai, Madurai and Kannanur. The religious culture exhibited through the Vira-Saiva cult proves the resistance offered against iconoclast forces. Popular practices i.e. festivals celebrated in Tiruvannamalai establish historical facts, in a couched and mythologised manner.

[By:  K.V. Ramakrishna Rao]