A pilgrimage to Pillayarpatti temple : The abode of Karpaga Vinayagar

‘Pillayarpatti kovil ku eppadi poganum‘ is all that was needed to be asked in Tamizh, to be promptly shown directions to the Pillayarpatti Karpaga Vinayagar Temple, situated in the Sivagangai district of Tamil Nadu. Are you wondering, what did we ask in Tamizh? Well, nothing but for the directions to Pillayarpatti temple. No other details were asked for by the local people.

For the uninitiated, Pillayarpatti is home to an almost 1600-year-old rock-cut cave temple with unique architecture and iconography.

Last year, we were on a long family trip from Chennai to Rameswaram and back, covering a number of prominent temples and hamlets en route. A halt at the heritage town of Karaikudi made us plan an impromptu visit to the Pillayarpatti Vinayagar temple.

This is when we were quite surprised by the immediate response of the villagers in the remotest of hamlets when we lost our way and took a long detour on our road trip to Pillayarpatti temple.

Every person seemed to know one short route or the other to the Pillayarpatti Karpaga Vinayakar Kovil. This was unlike any other lackluster response to the whereabouts of the other temples in this region.

Additional Reading
Have you heard about the ‘Great Living Chola Temples’? Well, the triad of the Big temple of Thanjavur, Darsuram temple near Kumbakonam, and the Brihadisvarar temple at Gangaikondacholapuram are together given the name of ‘Great Living Chola temples’, by UNESCO and are endowed with the UNESCO heritage site tag. You may want to read about Darasuram and GangaiKondacholapuram on our blog

Pillayarpatti-vinayagar

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Know about Karpaga Vinayagar of Pillayarpatti Temple

On this Vinayagar Chathurthi, come with me as I take you on a pilgrimage to one of the oldest rock-cut temples, a Ganesha temple in Tamil Nadu — the Karpaga Vinayagar Kovil at Pillayarpatti. Yes, the Hindu God Ganesha (Ganesh / Vinayak / Ganpati ) is known as Vinayagar or Vinayakar in the Tamizh language.

Before embarking on this virtual tour of the Pillayarpatti Vinayagar temple, first, let me answer a few often posed questions by foreign travellers to India. Subsequently, I shall also share some of my childhood memories of celebrating Ganesh Chaturthi or Vinayagar Chathurthi.

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Lord Ganesha seated on his vehicle, Mooshik or Mouse / Source: Pixabay

Who is Vinayagar or Ganesha?

The Hindu God Ganesha / Vinayagar / Pillayar / Vinayaka as he is widely known in India, is the god of prosperity and wisdom, a remover of obstacles, and the god who is often invoked and prayed before new beginnings.

In Tamizh households, prior to a pooja, we invoke him by heaping together turmeric mixed with water. None of the weddings and auspicious ceremonies, at least in Tamil Nadu begins without a small prayer to the Vinayagar. And, almost all of the temples across India have a shrine or idol of Lord Ganesha.

According to legend, Pillayar is the son of Hindu God Shiva( one of the trinity) and Goddess Parvati.

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A mound symbolizing Ganesha made out of turmeric / Source:Pixabay

Legend around the birth of Ganesha or Ganapathi

While the lore gives many versions of how Ganesha was born, the one that I’ve always believed, even as a child was — Parvati molded him out of clay while playing near a river bed, as she longed for a child. She invoked life into him and adored the child. However, the existence of this child wasn’t in the knowledge of Shiva, as he was away in the mountains performing penance at that time.

How did Ganesha end up with an elephant head?

One day, as Parvati went for a bath, she requested her ‘child’ to guard the entrance to the bathing ghat. It was at this moment that Shiva returned, back home from his penance, and was on the lookout for Parvati. Upon getting to know that she was at the bathing ghat, he makes his way there. However, he’s barred entry by the vigilant kiddo. A confrontation between the two leads to Shiva losing his temper, and decapitating the child, in a fit of rage.

Parvati is aghast on knowing this and is bereaved of losing her child. When Shiva comes to know about the creation of the child, he regrets and promises to infuse life into their child. He orders his Ganas to get him the head of the first living creature they encounter. And, thus, they bring him the head of an elephant, the first of the living creatures that they come across.

Promptly, the elephant head is fixed to the body of the child, and as promised Shiva invokes life in him. He also appoints the child as the leader of the Ganas, and that is how the name ‘Ganpathi’ / Ganapathi ( leader or master of the ganas)came into being.

Did you know?

Ganesha is also a much-loved god across Thailand, Bali, and other south-East Asian countries. Here is a Thai Khon mask of Ganesha!

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Thai Khon mask

Why is Ganesha known as Pillayar in Tamizh?

Another legend goes that upon seeing the child lifeless, as an outcome of his fury, Shiva tries to pacify Parvati by posing some questions while the Ganas are out following Shiva’s orders. He exclaimed, ‘Indha Pillai yaar’, meaning ‘who is this child?’ in Tamizh, to know the backstory. And, that is how the name Pillayar (child god) came into usage for Ganapathi.

Tamizhians call Lord Ganesha as Vinayagar, Pillayar, or Vinayakar. He is the most loved god and is often depicted in various forms.

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Pillayarpatti temple / Source: Wikimedia Commons

Do people in Tamil Nadu celebrate Ganesh Chathurthi?

Yes, of course, the Tamizhians do celebrate Ganesh Chathurthi, as it marks the birthday celebrations of Lord Ganesha or Vinayagar. However, we call it as Vinayagar Chathurthi or Pillayar sathurthi / Chaturthi.

Unlike the wide-spread Ganesh Chathurthi celebrations across Mumbai and Hyderabad, the Pillayar Chathurthi celebrations across Tamil Nadu are restricted to the four walls of our households, where a small clay idol of the Vinayagar is invoked and an elaborate pooja(religious ritual) is performed for a maximum of 3 days.

Quite a contrast to the Navarathri Golu Pandigai that is celebrated for 10 days and the month-long Maarzaghi maasam celebrations that have become the hallmark of Tamil Nadu’s festivities, apart from the Pongal festival. However, temples such as Pillayarpatti Karpaga Vinayagar temple celebrate Ganesh Chaturthi with much fervour for 10 long days.

Of course, the preparation of the Modak, that we call as Kozhakattai is elaborate. I know Kozhakkatai is quite a mouthful to pronounce as well as to eat!  More on the Ganesh Chathurthi celebrations later, after a virtual trip to Pillayarpatti Karpaga Vinayagar Temple. Now, let me give you some practical information.

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Kozhakattai ready to be steamed

Practical information for planning a trip to Pillayarpatti temple

Although the Pillayarpatti temple is located just a few kilometres from Karaikudi and another town Thirupatthur in Tamil Nadu, it may seem very remote to people who aren’t familiar with the region. However, fret not. There are ample transport facilities available.

Pillayarpatti temple location

Pillayarpatti is just 70km from Madurai and the distance from Karaikudi to Pillayarpatti is 13 km. Thus, Pillayarpatti kovil could be easily covered on a day trip from Madurai.

Pillayarpatti Vinayagar temple timings

The Pillayarpatti Karpaga Vinayagar temple is open from 6 am – 1 pm and again from 4 pm- 8:30 pm on all days.

How to reach Pillayarpatti

  • Pillayarpatti is just 13km from Karaikudi railway station, and state government buses ply frequently. Karaikudi is well connected both by the railroad as well as roadways from Chennai, Madurai, and other cities in Tamil Nadu.
  • The nearest airport is at Tiruchirapalli (100km) and Madurai (70km).

Best season to visit Pillayarpatti

The monsoons and winters are the best time to visit south-India, especially Tamil Nadu. July to February would be the right time to visit Pillayarpatti Karpaga Vinayagar temple.

If planning a visit during Ganesh Chaturthi, then brace yourself to meander through serpentine lines at the Pillayarpatti Karpaga Vinayagar kovil.

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Pillayarpatti Karpaga Vinayagar temple

A virtual guided tour of Pillayarpatti Karpaga Vinayagar Kovil

Pillayarpatti is a lively village in the Tirupatthur taluk of the Sivagangai district in Tamil Nadu. Definitely a village in comparison to the popular town of Karaikudi, famous for the palatial homes of the Chettiars.

Well, Chettiars belong to the influential merchant community akin to the Marwaris of Shekhawati in Rajasthan and Gujarat. And, their home is piece de resistance very much like the Havelis of the Marwaris.

A class of Chettiars known as Nagarathar Chettiar, is the patron of the Pillayarpatti Karpaga Vinayagar Kovil.

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One of the towers of entry into Karpaga Vinayagar kovil
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The auspicious Cannonball tree

Get to know the Pillayarpatti temple history

The rock-cut temple at Pillayarpatti is a contribution of the early Pandya dynasty, which flourished in this region from 575 CE. This was the year when King Kadungon defeated the Kalabhras, who had also once ruled over Kanchipuram. Hence, Kadungon is attributed to the establishment of the early Pandya reign from Madurai and the very first Pandya empire of ancient south-India.

The images of the 6 feet Karpaga Vinayagar facing north and that of a Shiva lingam have been carved out as a bas-relief in an excavated cave, that now serves as the sanctum sanctorum.

A sculptor by name Ekkatur Poon Peruparanan has left his signature in Tamil inscriptions on the bas-relief, a script that was widely used in this region between the 2nd- 5th century CE. Hence it is believed that the Karpaga Vinayagar image in the cave was carved around the Pandya rule, and subsequently, they must have built this rock-cut temple of Pillayarpatti Karpaga Vinayagar extended by the Pallava rulers later.

Other inscriptions found in the Pillayarpatti temple premises, mention the ancient names for this place or region as Ekkattoor, Maruthangudi, and Rajanarayanapuram. Maybe the village was quite big and included a cluster of other hamlets!

The maintenance of the present Pillayarpatti temple premises, with structures, like the Rajagopuram built over and around the rock-cut temple, is the result of development and expansion around this cave temple over the years, especially under the patronage of the Nagarathar Chettiars.

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The actual bas-relief of Karpaga Vinayagar inside the cave Source: An old photo on a calendar

Significance of Pillayarpatti Vinayagar

The most popular and worshipped deity of the rock-cut temple is known as Karapaga Vinayagar. Karpagam is akin to the Kalpavruksh or the wish-fulfilling tree, also known as the tree of life in Hinduism and Buddhism. And, since the deity here is believed to fulfill the desires and prayers of his devotees, he is known as Karpaga Vinayagar.

This village is named after Pillayar, hence it is known as Pillayarpatti, and the deity is named Pillayarpatti Karpaga Vinayagar.

The Pillayarpatti Karpaga Vinayagar holds special significance in Tamil Nadu as well as in Hinduism, apart from being considered unique. Although, the principal deity of this temple has been believed to be of Shiva, in the form of Arjunapureeswarar.

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Why is Pillayarpatti Karpaga Vinayagar considered unique?

Unlike the Ganesha images or idols of other temples, Karpaga Vinayagar here is a bas-relief, depicted in a seated position, with legs folded, but not in a Padmasana posture. In this temple, the Karpaga Vinayagar’s belly doesn’t touch his legs, thus portraying him in Arthapadmasana.

In this bas-relief at Pillayarpatti, Ganapathi’s trunk ( thumbikai in Tamizh) is curved to the right, hence he is known as ‘Valampuri Vinayagar’, something which is unique again. Also, the Pillayarpatti Vinayagar has been chiselled depicting just his two hands unlike the usual four.

While most of the Ganesha sculptures and idols have a modak in their palm, the Karpaga Vinayagar at Pillayarpatti holds a Shiva lingam in his right palm.

The deity is also known as Marudeeswarar, named after the Marudham tree with botanical name Terminalia arjuna, and considered sacred here. The cannon ball tree has always been considered sacred, and the flower is representative of a Shiva lingam being protected and prayed by a hooded serpent.

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A painting of the Karpaga Vinayagar all decked in gold

 

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The Marudham flower

Get to know the other shrines at Pillayarpatti Karpaga Vinayagar Kovil

A handful of bas-relief sculptures depicting other gods and goddesses, like the famous ‘Pasupatheeswarar’ and Kathyayini, are chiselled out on rocks inside the Pillayarpatti temple. The god of wealth, Kubera, also holds a special shrine here at the Pillayarpatti temple.

Apart from these shrines, medieval paintings adorn the walls and ceilings inside the Pillayarpatti Vinayagar kovil. The below painting shows the contemporary version of a Ganesha!

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Centuries-old Pillayar painting

 

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Colourful paintings on the ceilings of the Karpaga Vinayagar temple

 

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Lingodhbhava on the temple ceiling

The architecture of the Pillayarpatti Vinayagar Temple

As mentioned before, the Pillayarpatti temple is built along the lines of the rock-cut cave temples of the early Pandya reign. However, according to various inscriptions found inside the Pillayarpatti Karpaga Vinayagar temple and its Sthalapurana, the architecture and construction of the temple could be studied under three stages spanning various time periods.

Sthalapuranam
Sthalapuranam is a vernacular south-Indian text often passed on by oral traditions, that usually gives information about temples and sacred spaces in a particular locality or region with folklores and narrative history.

What was established as a rock-cut temple by the Pandya dynasty, transformed into a beautiful temple complex with a gopuram and a vimana based around Dravidian architecture along with a small temple tank under the Pallavas, and later expanded under the patronage of the Nagarathar Chettiars until now.

Over the centuries, the temple was extended, and in contemporary times, another Rajagopuram was built by Sthapathi ( architect and sculptor) Shilpa Kalasagaram M Vaidyanathan, who supposedly is the descendent of Kunjara Mallan Raja Raja Perunthachan, the Sthapati of the world-famous Brihadeeswarar Kovil or Big temple of Thanjavur.

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Vinayaga Chathurthi celebrations at Pillayarpatti Karpaga Vinayagar temple

Unlike other temples, the Ganesh Chaturthi or Vinayagar Chathurthi celebrations at the Pillayarpatti Karpaga Vinayagar Kovil extend 10 days with elaborate religious rituals and processions.

The uthsava moorthi( the procession idol) is taken in a procession, mounted on various vehicular forms of living and celestial beings, the first day being the mouse ( which is the vehicle of Lord Ganesha). The 10-day celebration starts with Kaapukattal( the temple flag is hoisted) followed by the procession in the evening and the last day with Theerthavari ( a ritualistic bath of the idol in the temple tank).

On the last day, a huge Kozhakattai / modak made out of 18 measures of rice is offered to the Karpaga Vinayagar and then distributed among the devotees as prasadam( divine offering).

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The Pillayarpatti temple tank

Nostalgia around Vinayagar Chathurthi aka Ganesh Chaturthi

Ganesh Chaturthi or Pillayar Chaturthi was a festival that I always fondly looked out for as a kid. This festival came a close second on my list after Navrathri Golu.

During my childhood days in Hyderabad, our family lived in government quarters with four other families residing on each floor of our four-storied apartment. And, almost all the houses barring a few, had kids.

So, it was an enthralling experience, when a month before the festival, we children had our own ‘important meeting’ to chalk out a plan for the Ganesh Chathurthi celebrations. The festival is known as Ganesh Chavithi in Telugu.

We formed groups and delegated work to ourselves. While the group that had exceptional people management skills went around asking for donations, the creative group was designated to the making of the eco-friendly Ganesha idol. Then, all of us together would sit and make the pandal, decorate it, and be ready for the big day.

Making of the eco-friendly Ganesha for Vinayagar Chathurthi

The highlight of the days running up to the Ganesh Chathurthi was making of the eco-friendly Ganesha. For years, our apartment never bought ready-made idols of Ganesha.

We children — the creative team, would start scouting for fresh clay along a canal that ran a few kilometers away from our apartment. Let me remind you that procuring fresh clay is no mean task. It’s a work of patience, keen eyes, strong hands, and labour.

Once we dug the required quantity of clay, we carried it back home in polythene rice bags; then softened the clay with our hands, and gave shape to our Ganesha!

After the idol was molded and chiselled, we had to sun dry the idol, and then if possible paint colours, accessorize him, then start working on the pandal, where he would be installed for the next 10 days.

Here is a glimpse of the home-made Ganesha made by me out of turmeric and wheat flour for this year’s Vinayaga Chathurthi.

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Putting up the Ganesh pandal for Ganesh Chathurthi

With bamboo sticks tucked in old empty Dalda (an Indian brand of Palm oil) or Rasgulla tins filled with sand, we made the four poles of the pandal; covered it with a polythene sheet (what if it rains?), a colour cloth, another sheet and finally decked the pandal with festoons, fairy lights, and more. These decor items were bought with the donated money.

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Hyderabad’s popular Khairatabad Ganesha / Source:Wikimedia

Ganesh Chathurthi and Vinayagar Chathurthi celebrations

On the first day of Ganesh Chathurthi, after a small pooja and aarti, we used to install our eco-friendly Ganesha inside this home aka pandal for the next 10 days.

During the next 10 days of the festival, each house would volunteer for preparing the prasad, for the idol of Ganesha in the evening, followed by religious prayers and aarti. The best part of this Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations was that there was no religious barrier for participation. Each of the families volunteered with their own religious fervour.

We would embark on pandal-hopping on all these 10 days, by taking turns to stay awake at our own pandal. It was a sort of appreciation and encouragement to visit the various pandals nearby and if possible the best and bigger ones, and pay our obeisance.

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Elaborate prasadam made at home on Ganesh Chaturthi

The day of Ganesh Nimajjanam

Nimajjanam is ‘immersion’ in Telugu. It’s a holiday across Hyderabad on the day of Ganesh Nimajjanam, as the roads get clogged owing to heavy traffic. While the smaller sized idols are taken out during the day time, the larger ones are immersed well past midnight, to avoid heavy crowds leading to the Hussain Sagar Lake that sort of falls mid-way between the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad.

We used to hire lorries, hop onto them along with our Ganesha, and take a ride to the Tank Bund, to immerse him for this year and welcome him back the next year around. It was absolute fun!

The reason behind immersing the Ganesh idol

Do you remember that, while sharing the story of Ganesha’s birth, I had mentioned about him being molded by Parvati out of clay? Well, it’s considered that by immersing in water, he goes back to his home, as clay is found around water bodies.

The Vinayagar Chathurthi celebrations sort of symbolises his life-cycle, where he is molded out of clay, brought in as a guest to our homes, treated like one by celebrating his birth and life, and then we bid farewell to him with pomp, only to invite him back into our homes the next year to celebrate his life!

All the more reason, not to use idols made of Plaster of Paris and painted with chemicals, isn’t it?

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A broken Ganesha idol after a day or two post-Nimmajanam / Source:Pixabay

Sanathana Dharma has always taught us to be empathetic and compassionate to our environment and fellow beings. And, Ganesha was always meant to be made out of clay so that he could be dissolved even in a well behind our home. So, let us act responsible and not dump PoP idols recklessly around and in water bodies, thus choking and polluting our environment.

Hope you enjoyed this pilgrimage trip to Pillayarpatti Karpaga Vinayagar Kovil as well as information around Vinayagar Chathurthi celebrations, as much as I did putting this post together, as well as reminiscing my childhood memories.

Pillayar Chathurthi Vazzhthukkal…Happy Ganesh Chaturthi!

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2 Comments

  1. Subashini Karthik says:

    Thank you for this divine and informative tour of Pillayarpatti temple ! Beautiful pictures add color and interest to this wonderful post !

    1. Thank you, Suba. Glad you liked the post:)

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