I hope you all liked reading about Shani Shinganapur. As Part 2 of the Saturn Temples, this article is about a temple in Thirunallar, a small town in the Karaikal district of the Union Territory of Puducherry. We had driven down from Bangalore to Tharagambadi (Tranquebar) for a visit (more on this in another post) when we decided to make time for Shani Bhagavan and get his grace. Thirunallar is one of the famous Navagraha temples, in Tamil Nadu dedicated to the nine planets.
The story of Thirunallar is as intriguing as the planet Saturn. Many eons ago, Thirunallar was a forested area that was overgrown with the darba grass and hence was known as Darbaranya (forest of the darba grass). Darbha (Desmotachya bipinnata) is a tropical grass considered a sacred material in Vedic scriptures and is said to purify the offerings during such rituals. There was a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva in this region and he was known as Darbaranyeshwar. . The Shiva Lingam enshrined at Thirunallar Saniswaran Temple still contains the impression of the Darba grass.
Indian mythology aficionados would know the wonderful story about Nala-Damayanti that appears in the Vana Parva of the great epic Mahabharata. Nala was the king of this region and an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva and would pray in this temple. Damayanti chose King Nala during her swayamvara (the occasion of choosing a husband) – a mortal over even the gods. The couple lived well, had good children, and a prosperous kingdom.
As I have explained in my astrological pieces, the planets are in transit all the time and the 9 planets make their presence felt in people’s lives at different points in time. It was time for Shani or Saturn to make his transit into Nala’s moon sign, according to the planetary timetable. This transit could last anywhere between seven to eight years depending upon the direct and retrogression movement of Saturn. It is typically seven-and-a-half years and is known as the sade-sati period, which can give challenges to the native. Due to a slip-up in his prayers, King Nala had to pay the price during this period and was faced with many a trial and tribulations, including having to forsake his kingdom, wife, and children. Nala prayed and then prayed some more at the Darbanyeshwar temple and took a dip in the holy pond that is in the temple complex. To this day the pond is known as ‘Nalan Theertham’. Pleased with Nala’s devotion Lord Shiva made sure that the effect of Lord Shani was totally mitigated and Nala got back his kingdom, wife, children, and also his looks. Hence, Thirunallar Shaniswaran Temple is the only temple where Lord Shani lost all his power to Lord Shiva that saved his devotee Nala from the prolonged effects of the Saturn transit in the zodiac chart.
Lord Shani is worshipped and treated here as the doorkeeper of the shrine. He is also given the epithet ‘Shaniswaran,’ and he can be worshipped first before entering the main sanctum of Lord Shiva. According to the Shani Mahatmayam, when Saturn was visiting Lord Shiva’s moon sign, the Lord went underwater in the River Ganga and stayed in samadhi for 7 and half years, after which he emerged out and told Shani Bhagwan that he couldn’t cause any harm to him Shani Bhawan said that it was due to his prowess that the Lord had to hide underwater for seven and a half years! Shiva was astounded, but he laughed and gave him the epithet ‘Shaniswaran’. Indeed, no other planet is called as ‘Eeshwara’.
History: According to history, in the 7th century C.E. when Jainism was spreading in influence in South India, the Pandian King Ninraseer Nedumaran who ruled over Madurai converted to Jainism. Soon, everyone in the Pandian Kingdom embraced Jainism, except for Queen Mangaiyarkarasi and Minister Kulacchirai Nayanar who were staunch Shaivites. It caused her great pain as her husband forbade her to even apply vibhuti (sacred ash) on her forehead. She took the minister into confidence and as an ally to reclaim both the king and the kingdom back to follow Shaivism. Realising that they would need help for this onerous task, they sought the help of a young saint called Thirugnanar Sambandam, who had achieved fame because of the miracles that he performed. The queen, however, warned him that he should be careful as his life could be in danger.
As expected, as soon as Sambandar arrived in Madurai, his little ashram was set on fire by the Jains. Many scholars believe that Sambandar was an incarnation of Lord Shiva and thus with his yogic powers transferred the heat to the king who writhed in agony. No one could relieve the king of the extreme agony and he was forced to summon Sambandar, who arrived and recited the famous decadal verse (padigam) ‘Mandiramavadu Neeru’ and sprinkled vibhuti on the right of the king. Not to be outdone, the Jain monks stroked the left side of the king’s body with peacock feathers, but this aggravated the king even more. Sambandar sprinkled vibhuti on the left side too, which finally gave the king relief.
However, the Jain monks were not ready to give up so soon. They demanded that both the mantras should be written on palm leaves and consigned to flames. Folklore says that the palm leaves written by the Jain monks turned to ashes, while the leaf that contained the 49th padigam or verse of the Tevaram hymns that Sambandar had sung in the Thirunallar temple remained untouched and retained its green freshness. The king prostrated before Sambandar and re-converted back to Shaivism and was followed by the rest of his kingdom. Queen Mangayarkarasi was accorded sainthood for her unfaltering devotion to Lord Shiva. To commemorate the spiritual role of Mangayarkarasi, a mandapam was built at the Meenakshi-Sundareswarar temple, south of the 1,000-pillared mandapam. Of the 63 Nayanmars, Mangayarkarasi ranks the 55 for saving Saivism, the king, and the subjects.
Prayers at Thirunallar: Devotees light holy lamps with gingelly oil and offer prayer to Lord Saniswaran at Thirunallar Saniswaran Temple. Devotees also offer balls of cooked rice to crows, as the crow is considered the vehicle of Shanishwaran. It is particularly crowded on Saturdays, the day of Shaniswaran. Thirunallar is amongst the Saptha Vidanga Sthalams, where the Shiva lingas are not chiseled out but are swayambhu and divine. The largest lingam is at Thirunallar. The abhishekam is performed for the lingam at 6.30 am and 5.30 pm every day. The Thirunallar Shani Peyarachi festival is observed at a grand scale every time Saturn makes his transit from one zodiac sign to another – which is every two and a half years.
June 3rd 2022
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