Origin of Arunachaleswarar Temple

In earlier times Tiruvannamalai was known as Thiru Anna Nadu and its chief God Thiru Ana Nattu Mahadevan. The region itself in the time of the Pallava rulers was called Thondai Mandalam. Later this place became known as Tiruvannamalai—"Annamalai" denoting inaccessible mountain prefixed with "Tiru" to signify greatness and auspiciousness. The deity of this place is known as Lord Arunachaleswarar or Lord Annamalaiyar. In various times Arunachala Hill has had many other names; Arunadri, Sivaloka, Suddhanagava, Annamalai, Arunagiri, Sonagiri, Sonachalam, Sunasaila, Sudarsanagiri Jothirlingam, Tejolingam, Lingasthanam (the lingam being the Nishkala i.e. formless emblem of Lord Siva) etc.

"In earlier periods this Hill and the town were in Thondainadu, a part of the province called Thondaimandalam by the Pallavas. It originally belonged to the Cholas and was the northernmost Tamil country, but was conquered by the Pallavas about 350 A.D.

This old province extended between the two Pennar rivers, north and south, the Bay of Bengal in the east, to the present Mysore province and Cuddapah in the west. This part of the country passed through the hands of the Pallavas, Rastrakootas, Cholas, Hoysalas and Vijianagar Kings. Later, this part of the country came under the influence of the Muslims, Maharattas, the French, and finally from the 19th Century, the British.

There is evidence in the scriptures that Aryan sages like Agastya and Gautama migrated to South India in the remote past. Agastya studied the Tamil language and wrote a Tamil grammar. He was followed by the great scholar and grammarian Tholkapyar. Many others came to South India to gather knowledge of Saivism. It is said that such great men were followed by many Aryan families who settled in the south.

The religion of the earliest Tamilians appears to have been the worship of deified souls of their dead ancestors or heroes with offerings of meat and alcohol (animism). Traces of this type of worship are found even today in some villages in South India." [1]

The Upanishad view is that Arunachala is considered superior to all other eminent sacred places.

"By seeing Chidambaram, by being born, in Tiruvarur, by dying in Kasi, or by merely thinking of Arunachala, one will surely attain Liberation."

In this regard the Sastras set forward that there is no difference between Arunachala and Arunachaleswarar Temple - both are empirically the same.

Dravidians in Temple History
There seems to be no doubt that the Dravidians had attained to a high degree of civilisation and this civilisation dominated the whole of India before the advent of the Aryans. It is held by some that the Dravidians were the founders of the Sind-Punjab civilisation recently discovered at Harappa and Mohenjadaro. From a study of the antiquities illustrative of religion, it appears that the religion of the people was the worship of the Lingam. At Harappa, it is said that a black stone resembling a Lingam has been found. Harappa civilisation is said to be nearly 5000 years old.

[In 1940, archaeologist M.S. Vats discovered three Shiva Lingas at Harappa, dating more than 5,000 years old. The rare archival photo above shows the ancient Shiva Linga as it was being excavated from the Harappa site.]

Tradition has it that the ‘Formless’ and the ‘Indivisible’ state of Siva or the Brahman, represented by the Lingam, was first associated with Arunachala Hill and simultaneously with the stone Lingam at the foot of it. Thus the stone Lingam in the Temple of Tiruvannamalai must have come into existence long ago and the first record of this Lingam, available in literature, is by Nakkirar of the third Tamil Sangam—a conservative estimate of its antiquity is over 2000 years. However, it is likely that the Lingam existed even earlier than this. Over the ancient Lingam, a shrine must have existed, however humble it may have been. Later the edifice came to be built in stone and with successive additions by different kings a splendid Temple now occupies an area of nearly 25 acres and makes it one of the biggest Temples of South India.

It is not definitely known who built the first stone edifice over this ancient Lingam. It must have been built by the Pallavas in the 7th century, or by the Cholas in the 9th century A.D. Both were builders of Temples. It is probable that the Cholas continued what the Pallavas began in constructing the Temple. Even assuming that the Cholas built it, the edifice must have come into being during Vijayalaya Chola’s period, eleven centuries ago. If we take into consideration the existence of a building constructed with bricks and wood, as the central shrine, before Vijayalaya replaced it with a stone edifice, then the age of the central shrine goes back by several centuries. Hence there seems to be little doubt that the origin of this shrine is very ancient.

The building is of Dravidian style in indigenous stone. This seems to have originated with the Pallavas in the 6th century A.D., being a regular transition from wood to stone. The Dravidian style of architecture of Temples is characterised by a pyramidal tower or Gopura over the central shrine with large Gopurams over the entrance gateways. The large and closely jointed blocks of stones of the edifices with no mortar intervening, is another feature. "Sri Arunachala Temple is a notable specimen of Chola art and architecture further beautified by Hoysala art and sculpture." [2]

The mythology of Tiruvannamalai is that the Supreme Power appeared at this place to remove the ignorance of the Gods Brahma and Vishnu when they quarreled amongst themselves as to who was superior. The legend which appears in the Skanda Purana states that in order to dispel the ignorance of the Gods Vishnu and Brahma, Siva manifested as a great column of blazing fire. Brahma and Vishnu agreed that the former would explore and try to find the top of the column and the latter would explore to find the bottom—and that success in this attempt would be the test of their comparative superiority.

"This story has an inner meaning besides indicating important points of Advaita Philosophy. Brahma represents Intellect (Buddhi), Vishnu represents Ego (Ahankara) and Siva represents Atman (Self). Ego and Intellect realised the futility of knowing Atma because the latter is beyond the senses and transcends both Ego and Intellect. The Ego and Intellect, therefore, surrendered themselves completely to the Atma and obtained illumination or Self-knowledge." [3]

The legend goes thus:-

Dispute of Brahma and Vishnu
In the days of antiquity a controversy arose between Brahma and Vishnu as to which of the two was greater. Brahma said to Vishnu, "I have created the five elements and all the living beings with their endless differences in form and sound. Therefore I am the Absolute God." Vishnu said, "The whole universe is but an aspect of mine. Of what use is your creation if I do not protect it? It is my thought-power that creates, sustains and destroys the whole Universe. So I am the Absolute God" Their dispute resulted in misery in the manifested world. Supreme Being Parameshwara saw this and was filled with compassion. To settle the discord and subdue their pride, Lord Shiva appeared before them in the form of blazing column of light and a voice issued from it asking them to seek its upper and lower limits and he who found either of these would be deemed the superior one. Both gods stopped fighting and decided to explore the ends. Brahma took the form of a swan and flew up to reach the top of the column of light, whereas Vishnu became a boar and started burrowing into the earth to find its base.

A thousand years passed as Vishnu dug deep into the nether worlds and the journey seemed endless. With all this power he could not discover the base and he got lost in meditation with the result that he experienced the Supreme Light which dwells in the heart of all. He soon realised and recognised that his true strength was derived from this Supreme Light—Lord Shiva. He prayed to Shiva seeking His pardon and then returned to earth. Brahman who flew up as a swan was mounting the sky and the higher he soared, the column of light rose higher before him. He was growing despondent and was about to return when he saw a fragrant flower called Ketaki (screw-pine) falling towards the earth. On asking from where it had come, the flower revealed that it had come from the crest of the fire column that was none other than Shiva himself and that it had been descending for thousands of four-fold Yugas. Brahma requested the flower to say that both of them came down after seeing the crest and thus the flower swore to Vishnu in the presence of the Column of Effulgence that Brahma had reach the summit.

Splitting asunder the column of Light, Shiva appeared before the two Gods. When the lotus-eyed Vishnu saw him, he danced with joy. The guilty Brahma on seeing the Lord’s true form was confused and frightened. Mahadeva said, "The two of you need not be ashamed for having transcended your limits. Hari (Vishnu) pondered deeply and became enlightened. But Brahma has uttered falsehood and I now cut off his fifth head for that perjury. Brahma shall not hereafter be installed in any Temple. And this flower, which bore false witness, shall never again find a place on my head and shall not be used for my worship." After cursing Brahma and the screw-pine flower thus, Shiva turned to Vishnu and said, "Child! Be composed, I am pleased with you. You are one of my foremost devotees. You originated from me and are my sattwic part. At the end of the kalpa you shall merge in me." [4]

When the Gods admitted defeat and praised Lord Siva. In answer to the supplication of the two Gods, Lord Shiva manifested and declared:

"Let this perpetual and immobile Fiery Form of mine, famous as Arunadri, be present here forever. (27)

Even at the close of the Yugas the great oceans shall not submerge it, the winds shall not shake it and the fires shall not burn it. (28)" [5]

Lord Vishnu and Brahma, with all haughtiness now extinguished, asked Lord Siva to mask the unbearable effulgence of the Hill and let it stand as an ordinary mountain. This legend states that the mountain’s inherent brilliance and effulgence, for the sake of the prosperity of the Universe, discloses its glory once every year during the month of Karthigai at the close the day of the constellation Krttika (i.e. on the full-moon night). Karthigai is the name of both a month and nakshatra in the Tamil calendar. The month corresponds to November-December and the nakshatra is Pleiades.

The two Gods further requested that Lord Shiva make the mountain accessible to their worship by additionally manifesting as a Linga on the ground at the foot of the Hill. In answer to their prayer, Lord Shiva vanished and in His place there appeared a certain auspicious Linga. Around that Linga Arunachaleswarar Temple has developed.

It is interesting to note that the idea of Siva being the Supreme Deity apparently originated in South India, with Arunachala Hill as the first representation of the Lingam as is purported in a number of Holy works.

The Siva Purana in the Vidyeshwara Samhita contains the Arunachala Mahatmyam. In the fifth chapter are found dialogues between the rishis and Suta Muni and between Sanathkumara and Nandikeshwara about the greatness of the Lingam, its significance and its origin. The rishis, while learning all about shravana, kirtana and manama as means to obtain Mukti, ask Suta Muni thus:—

"Everywhere the deities are worshipped only in their image. How is it that Siva is worshipped both in the image and the lingam?" (8)

Suta Muni replied:—

"O Sages, this question is holy and wondrous. Here the speaker is Siva himself and not any ordinary person." (9)

"I shall tell you what Siva Himself has said and what I heard from my own preceptor. Siva alone is glorified as Nishkala (nameless and formless) since He is identical with supreme Brahman." (10)

"He is also Sakala as He has an embodied form. He is both Sakala and Nishkala. It is in his Niskala aspect that the Linga is appropriate." (11)

"In the Sakala aspect the worship of his embodied form is appropriate. Since He has the Sakala and Nishkala aspects He is worshipped both in the lingam and in the embodied form by the people and is called the highest Brahman. Other deities, not being Brahman, have no Niskala aspect anywhere." (12-13)

"Hence the deities are not worshipped in the formless lingam symbol. The other deities are both non-Brahman and individual souls." (14)

"In view of their being embodied alone they are worshipped solely in the bodily form. Sankara as Brahmatva and the others Jivatva." (15)

"This has been explained in the meaning of the Pranava (Om) the essence of Vedanta, by Nandikesvara when asked by Sanatkumara, the intelligent son of Brahma, at the mountain Mandara." (16)

"Sanatkumara said: —

"The embodied form alone is often observed in the worship of the deities other than Siva. But both the linga and the embodied forms are seen only in the worship of Siva. Hence O benevolent one, please tell me precisely making me understand the truth." (17-18)

Nandikesvara said:—

"It is impossible to answer this question without revealing the secret of Brahman." (19)

"O sinless one, since you are pious I shall tell you what Siva Himself has said. Since Siva has the bodiless aspect in virtue of His being the supreme Brahman, the Niskala linga, in conformity with the Vedic implication, is used only in His worship. Since He has an embodied form as well, His embodied form is also worshipped and accepted by all people. According to the decision in the Vedas, the embodied form alone is to be used in the worship of other deities who are only individual souls embodied. Devas have only the embodied aspect in their manifestation. In sacred literature both the linga and the embodied forms are mentioned for Siva." (20-24)

Sankatkumara said:—

"O Fortunate one, you have explained the worship of linga and image distinctly for Siva and the other deities. Hence, O lord of Yogins, I wish to hear the feature of the manifestation of the linga aspect of Siva." (25)

Nandikesvara said:—

"O dear one, out of love for you I shall tell you the truth. Long, long ago, in the famous first Kalpa, the noble souls Brahma and Vishnu fought each other." (26)

"In order to eradicate their arrogance Lord Paramesvara showed his unembodied Niskala form in the form of a column in their midst." (28)

"He showed his linga emblem separate, evolved out of the column, with a desire to bless the world." (29)

"From that time onwards the Divine linga and the embodied image, both were assigned to Siva alone." (30)

"The embodied form alone was assigned to deities other than Siva. The different types of the embodied forms of the different Devas yield only enjoyments. In regard to Siva the linga emblem and the embodied form together bestow auspicious enjoyment and salvation." (31) [6]

In the Suta Samhita, it is said: Siva’s very form is Linga hence the term, Sivalinga and it was this Linga of Fire that the Supreme Being revealed Himself.

Greatness of Sivalinga as told in the Suta Samhita
Linga is truly Siva. All is revealed by Siva who is the very essence of Consciousness and Knowledge. Nothing can reveal Him. Thus the Linga is the sole, Self shining Reality. In brief, Siva is Consciousness Unmanifest, whereas Sivalinga is Consciousness Manifest.

Again it is said, that unto which all merge is the Linga. Everything is resolved into Brahman, but the Supreme Brahman being the sole Eternal Reality cannot merge into another. All but Siva merge into Siva. Therefore the Linga is Immortal Siva Himself. The whole universe is termed Linga, as the former is resolved and absorbed into and manifested from the latter. But the Linga is free from any emblem or characteristic mark.

This Linga is unqualified, beyond darkness. It is the source of the sacred syllable Pranava (OM). It is neither an entity nor a nonentity; neither the pervader nor the pervaded, neither the knowledge, nor the knower or the known; neither the manifest, the existing nor the unmanifest; neither real nor unreal, or a mixture of the two. It is only the Self-Realised. It illuminates all by its light; neither decaying nor undecaying; neither moving nor inert; neither the proof nor the proven; neither the vital air nor the mind; neither the seer nor the seen; neither the image nor its reflection; neither visible nor invisible; it is beyond speech and thought; it is not the eye, the ear, the nose, the earth, the ether, the vital airs or any object of the senses — to realise the Self, enquiring in this manner, is true worship.

This Linga, though not the ether nor different from it, yet reveals it; though not light, reveals it; though not air, yet makes it move; though not water, yet gives it its nature.

This Linga can be seen on a shining seat in the house of nine gates — never installed there by anyone but having faces, hands, feet, heads and seats in all directions. It lies beyond darkness; nothing can be seen there. It is revealed as the Unqualified Being by Vedanta. From it emerges the magnificent earth and is resolved into it. The three qualities namely, brightness, activity and darkness (sattva, rajas and tamas) of which the universe is made, manifests from it.

Its size cannot be estimated, for it has no magnitude. It remains unbroken and unitary. All the spheres of the vast universe are located in it. It has no Temple but contains all in itself. It is the inmost core of all beings. It is neither Isvara nor the jiva but the Inmost Conscious Self, Bliss, Non dual Reality unrelated to Brahma, Vishnu, Rudra, Indra etc. It can be realised only by the Self. It is the Self, known to oneself and abides within. This is the Supreme Bliss; there is nothing apart from it. It is always worshipped by all. It is free from the three states of waking, dream and deep sleep. It is drik - pure, beyond knowledge. Neither the ignorant nor the all knowing individuals or gods in the power of the ego or maya, can see this Linga.

As this cannot be understood by all, out of His spontaneous infinite mercy, Siva is here manifest as Arunachala which all can see and worship.

Arunachaleswarar Temple
This Temple occupies an area of about 25 acres with four large 'Gopurams' on each side. Raja Gopura to the East, Pey Gopura to West, Thirumanjan Gopura to South and Ammani Amman Gopura to the North. The north and south walls of the Temple are 1479 feet and 1590 feet respectively and the Eastern and Western walls of this outer prakaram are each 700 feet. The walls (which join the four main Gopurams) are about nine metres in height. There are five major 'prakarams' (i.e. corridors) around the central structure with a high wall running on all four sides at the edge of the outer 'prakaram', The sixth prakaram is regarded as the mada veddhis (4 streets around the outside of the Temples perimeter walls). These mada veddhis are: Car Street, Thiruvoodal Street, Pey Gopura, and Big Street. The seventh prakaram is regarded as the 14 km girivalam roadway that circumscribes Arunachala.

"The whole Temple forms a rectangle inclined at an angle of 13 degrees (this inclination to the east-west axis was probably to mark the date on which the first foundation was laid, that is in February/October when the sun is 13 degrees north or south of east). All the buildings are built either parallel or perpendicular to this axis with great precision and this was probably also the orientation of the initial Temple. This deviation with regard to the actual east is not needed by any physical constraints.

It appears that the orientation may correspond with the sun‘s rays entering the sanctum sanctorum on the day of the laying of the foundation stone, in which case, calculations show that this event would have taken place around February 16 or October 24, when the sun rises in this direction inclined at this angle to the east-west axis.

In photograph of the 1890’s showing Arunachaleswarar
Temple is built on the Hill’s slope

Arunachaleswarar Temple is constructed at the foot of Arunachala on a slight slope. The western end of the Temple is 10.52 metres (34.5 feet) higher than the eastern end. This gradual slope of the site has been exploited to collect the rain water received by the roofing and the paved surfaces or by the canals feeding the two water tanks which cross the walls of the enclosures." [7]

Slope of floor in Fourth Prakara chanelling water
to the Brahman Teertham

Through stone inscriptions which appear in Sanskrit and Tamil on the Temple prakaram walls and also on copper plates. Such inscriptions give information as to the economic and social conditions of the times and the great service rendered to the Temple by various Kings. These inscriptions refer to a period of about 1,000 years starting from 750 A.D. The earliest archaeological findings from these stone inscriptions point to the fact that the greatness of Arunachala was known from such spiritual works as Teveram and Tiruvachakam. Kings and Rulers who read about the glory of Arunachala in such works developed and expanded the Temple and outlying areas. However as many of the stones used in the development of this Temple were brought from elsewhere, there is a certain lack of continuity in this Temple’s history.

Arunachaleswarar (also known in Tamil as Annamalaiyar) is one of the largest Temples in India. It is one of the famed Pancha Bhoota Stalams (Temples associated with the five basic elements). These five elements; Earth, Water, Fire, Air, Ether are the eternal elements of Siva within our earthly realm and make up the composition of our existence.

Theyu: Fire Lingam in Tiruvannamalai, Arunachaleswarar.
Prithvi: Sand (earth) Lingam in Kanchipuram, Ekaambareswarar.
Appu: Water Lingam in Thiruvanaikkaval, Jambukeswarar.
Vayur: Air Lingam in Kalahasti, Kalatheeswarar.
Aakasam: Ether Lingam in Chidambaram, Chidambaraeswarar,

An image of Lingodbhavamurti, installed at the goshta (niche) just behind the Mulavar on the outer side of the garbhagraham (in all Lord Shiva Temples) is symbolic of the manifestation of the Jyothi at Tiruvannamalai.

Tiruvannamalai and Arunachaleswarar Temple (also known as Annamalaiyar Kovil) are situated in present Tiruvannamalai District. Previous to 1989, this area was located in what was known as North Arcot District, thereupon it was divided into Vellore District and Tiruvannamalai District with its Governmental headquarters stationed at Tiruvannamalai. The town is situated at 80° longitude and 12°–15° latitude and stands on an elevation of approximately 260 feet above sea–level.

[1] Arunachala by Anant Narayan Rao
[2] Arunachala by Anant Narayan Rao
[3] Arunachala by Anant Narayan Rao
[4] The Glory of Arunachala (Abridged)
[5] Skanda Purana L.iii (U) 16.27-28
[6] [Siva Purana, Vidyeshwara Samhita; Chapter 5 Verses 8-31]
[7] Ramana's Arunachala p. 109-110