Srirangam or Sri Rangaksetra is the largest temple in world in which worship is still being performed. According to the great acaryas of Sri Sampradaya, Srirangam is the supreme holy place, it is Vaikuntha manifested in this world. Its history and its glories are spoken of in many of the Vedic literatures and Puranas. Srirangam, the premier Vaishnava temple in South India is the first and foremost among the 108 Vaishnava divyadesas.
In the year 1511 A.D., Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu visited Srirangam when He was touring South India. Lord Caitanya spent four months of Caturmasya Vrata (rainy season) in Srirangam, the longest time He spent in one place during His travels. Lord stayed at the house of a Sri Vaishnava brahmana named Venkata Bhatta, who then got the opportunity to serve the Lord to his heart’s content. Sri Gopala Bhatta Gosvami, who is one of the Six Gosvami’s of Vrindavana, was the son of Venkata Bhatta.
Srirangam (formerly Vellithirumutha gramam) and Thiruvarangam in Tamil is an island and a part of the city of Tiruchirappalli in south India, surrounded by holy Kaveri River and Kollidam. Srirangam is the main centre of worship and culture for the Sri Vaishnavas, the disciplic line of devotees of Lord Vishnu (Krishna) that begins with Lakshmi Devi (Sri, Lord Vishnu’s consort). Historically, their main acarya, or spiritual teacher, was Sripad Ramanujacarya.
Sri Caitanya Caritamrta Madha-lila chapter 9 verse 79 describes:
Sri Ranga-ksetra (Srirangam) is a very famous place. It lies in the district of Tiruchchirapalli, about ten miles west of Kumbhakonam and near the city of Tiruchchirapalli, on an island in the Kaveri River. The Srirangam temple is the largest in India, and there are seven walls and seven roads surrounding it. The ancient names of these roads are the road of Dharma, the road of Rajamahendra, the road of Kulasekhara, the road of Alinadana, the road of Tiruvikrama, the Tirubidi road of Madamadi-gaisa, and the road of Ada-iyavala-indana.
The temple was founded before the reign of Dharmavarma, who reigned before Rajamahendra. Many celebrated kings like Kulasekhara and Yamunacarya (Alabandaru) resided in the temple of Srirangam. Yamunacarya, Sri Ramanuja, Sudarsanacarya and others also supervised this temple.
The incarnation of the goddess of fortune known as Godadevi or Sri Andal was one of the twelve Alvars, liberated persons known as divya-suris. She was married to the Deity of Lord Sri Ranganatha, and later she entered into the body of the Lord. An incarnation of Karmuka named Tirumanga (also one of the Alvars) acquired some money by stealing and built the fourth boundary wall of Srirangam. It is said that in the year 289 of the Age of Kali, the Alvar of the name Tondaradippadi was born.
While engaged in devotional service he fell victim to a prostitute, and Sri Ranganatha, seeing His devotee so degraded, sent one of His servants with a golden plate to that prostitute. When the golden plate was discovered missing from the temple, there was a search, and it was found in the prostitute’s house. When the devotee saw Ranganatha’s mercy upon this prostitute, his mistake was rectified. He then prepared the third boundary wall of the Ranganatha temple and cultivated a tulasi garden there.
There was also a celebrated disciple of Ramanujacarya’s known as Kuresa. Sri Ramapillai was the son of Kuresa, and his son was Vagvijaya Bhatta, whose son was Vedavyasa Bhatta, or Sri Sudarsanacarya. When Sudarsanacarya was an old man, the Muslims attacked the temple of Ranganatha and killed about twelve hundred Sri Vaisnavas. At that time the Deity of Ranganatha was transferred to the temple of Tirupati, in the kingdom of Vijaya-nagara.
The governor of Gingee, Goppanarya, brought Sri Ranganatha from the temple of Tirupati to a place known as Simha-brahma, where the Lord was situated for three years. In the year 1293 Saka (A.D. 1371) the Deity was reinstalled in the Ranganatha temple. On the eastern wall of the Ranganatha temple is an inscription written by Vedanta-desika relating how Ranganatha was returned to the temple.
Srirangam temple compound covers about 3 square miles. The main temple is surrounded by seven walls, which represent the seven planetary systems described in Vedic cosmology. The seven walls have twenty-one towered entrances (gopurams), the highest of which is called the Rajagopuram and is 236 feet tall, biggest in Asia, and can be seen from at least ten miles away. Much of the town of Srirangam is within the three outer walls of the temple compound. After Tirupati, this is the second most visited Vaishnava temple in South India.
The Deity in the main temple is Sri Ranganatha Swamy, a two-armed form of Lord Vishnu reclining on the divine serpent Ananta Sesa. Near His feet are seated His two consorts, Sri Bhu and Sri Neela. In front of Lord Ranganatha is the utsava-murti of Lord Vishnu, called Sri Manavala Perumal. This deity is taken out of the temple for processions. Alongside Lord Ranganatha is Deity Tiruvaranga, who was worshiped as a substitute during the Muslim period, when the original could not be found.
At the feet of the Lord is Vibhisana, the brother of Ravana. Above the main altar is the Sriranga-vimana (golden tower) fully made of gold. On the four sides of the Sriranga vimana are carvings of four forms of Lord Vishnu. On the south side is Para-Vasudeva, on the west is Acyuta, on the north Ananda and on the east Govinda.
The priests of Srirangam have worshiped Sri Ranganatha in much the same way since the 18th century, when Sri Ramanuja set up strict standards of worship, with a meticulous schedule of songs, prayers, rituals, and offerings. Each morning at 6:45 am, a cow with her head facing away from Lord Ranganatha and an elephant facing the cow are brought before the altar. Thus when the deity’s doors are opened the first thing that Lord Ranganatha sees is the rear end of a cow and the head of an elephant, which are both considered very auspicious. Instead of a conch-shell being blown, the elephant blows his trunk. This is the most auspicious time to see Lord Ranganatha.
Since the time Sri Ranganatha decided to stay at Srirangam countless kings, queens, saints, sages, devotees, demigods, and goddesses have eagerly stood before the doors of His chamber awaiting His merciful glance. Millions of souls since ancient times have had that fortune, and many more will have it for many years to come. Vaikuntha Ekadasi is one of the main festival at the Srirangam temple.
History of Sri Ranganatha Swamy:
History of Srirangam as revealed in various Puranas traces back to the beginning of creation. At the beginning of this creation, Lord Brahma was born from the lotus sprouting from the navel of Lord Vishnu. There was darkness all around and Lord Brahma was initiated with a mantra, he chanted this mantra and was given the power to create. Brahma wanted a deity to worship. Pleased by the penance of Brahma, Lord Vishnu manifested Himself in the form of Lord Ranganatha lying on the Ananta Sesa for Brahma to worship. Lord Ranganatha appeared with His Deity chamber or vimana.
The Lord informed Brahma that he had come as a Svayamvyakta - on his own volition - as a deity. He would appear likewise in eight places on earth - Srirangam, Sri Mushnam, Venkatadri, Saligram, Naimisaranya, Totadri, Pushkara and Badrinath. Sri Ranga Vimana is the first and the earliest of all these. The Lord directed Brahma to worship him strictly according to the procedure for worship laid down in the Agamas.
Brahma carried the deity to Satyaloka and installed it on the banks of the river, Viraja. Brahma worshiped that deity for a long time. After him, Vaivasvata Manu, performed the worship. When his son Ikshvaku, became the King of Ayodhya, he wanted to have it installed at Ayodhya. Ikshvaku performed penance which lasted for many 100 years at the end of which he was permitted by Brahma to take it to Ayodhya. It was this dynasty in which Lord was later to appear in His avatar as Lord Ramacandra. Sri Ranganatha Swamy was their ancestral Deity.
After the coronation of Lord Ramacandra in Ayodhya, the celebration went on for one month. Nobody could leave the association of dear-most Lord Rama in Ayodhya. Seeing Vibhisana’s deep attachment, Rama wanted to give him the best thing He had. Vibhisana is the symbol of sarnagati. He surrendered everything to Lord Ramacandra. He took such risk in his loving service to Sri Rama. Lord Rama gave him His own personal murti, which was the ishtadev of Raghu dynasty for many ages.
Along with vimana, Vibhisana was carrying the deity to Lanka. On an island on the banks of Kaveri river, there was a king named Dharma Varma. Vibhisana stopped on this island of Sri Ranga. King Dharma Varma had earlier been to Ayodhya and saw the puja of Ranganath Swamy and in the heart of his heart he prayed that the Lord come here in his kingdom so that he could worship Him. Dharma Varma performed the worship of Sri Ranganatha Swamy and when it was time to go to Lanka, the murti would not move. The Lord spoke to Vibhisana, “I wish to remain here. This Ranga kshetra is Vaikuntha, it is My abode. I will remain here. I must fulfil the prayers of Dharma Varma. You go back to Sri Lanka and I will protect you.”
Generally deities face the eastern direction. But Ranganath Swami is facing the southern direction. His eyes are facing towards Sri Lanka. And by that glance He is protecting and fulfilling all of Vibhisana’s desires.
According to one commentary by a Vaishnava acarya of Sri Sampradaya, in Ayodhya, Sita asked Lord Rama the following. “When Vibhisana was telling Ravana that I should be sent back, he told that ever since I came in Sri Lanka there were inauspicious moments. I am goddess of fortune. I am supposed to make everything auspicious, then how come as soon as I came to Lanka there was inauspiciousness.” Then Lord Rama said, it was not because of you but Ravana’s nefarious activities. Sita said but still I am the source of auspiciousness then why everything became inauspicious. So Rama said that, “In the form of Ranganath I will always look towards Sri Lanka to show how supremely auspicious you have made it.”
Dharma Varma built a very beautiful temple but over the years the temple got covered over by sandstorms and floods. As generations went by it was forgotten. Then one day, temple histories say, a king of the Chola dynasty was resting under a tree in the area when a parrot told him that Lord Ranganath was buried under the sand.