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New abode for Vittala in TN

Last updated: 10 July, 2011
M R Venkatesh in Chennai

A look-alike of Pandharpur temple

Anyone can enter the sanctum sanctorum of the Vittala-Rukmini temple, touch the idols’ feet and even hug them.

A lyrically edifying ‘Vaishnavite Bakthi cult’ – the ‘Vithoba’ cult unifying the underclass, which scholars believe possibly migrated from Karnataka to Maharashtra in the 12th-13th century, is now knocking at Tamil Nadu’s doors in a new ‘avatar’.

Or so it seems, as a stupendous palace-like temple to house Vithoba Panduranga (also known as ‘Vittala’ derived from the Kannada word for Lord Vishnu) and his consort Rukmini, the main deities of this pastoral cult, is all set to be consecrated on July 15 at Govindapuram near Kumbakonam.

Though there are already a few ‘Vithoba’ shrines in Tamil Nadu, including at the ancient pilgrim centre of Srirangam, this grand spectacle taking shape in the heart of Cauvery delta, is unique in more ways than one. The temple’s 132-foot tall ‘Gopuram’ (tower) is not only a look-alike of the most famous and earliest ‘Vithoba’ temple at Pandharpur in Sholapur district in Maharashtra (12th century) but also brings to Tamil Nadu the first huge ‘House of God’ in the Maharashtra temple architecture style.

Scholars even term the ‘cult of Vithoba’ that developed into a powerful ‘Bakthi’ movement, cemented by the devotional hymns of great Vaishnava saints of Maharashtra and Karnataka, as having made possible a new pan-Indian ‘God of the subalterns’ then, freeing from rigid ‘Brahminical’ rituals.

Just as in the historic Pandharpur shrine, which is smaller in size, “irrespective of caste and creed, anyone can enter the sanctum sanctorum of the Vittala-Rukmini temple, touch the deities’ feet and even hug them,” said Panchapikesan, a key member of the ‘Samiti’ building this temple.

This form of universal worship is a great leveller, while the temple itself has a palace-like ambience as in Pandharpur where ordinary folks see the deities as their most benevolent king and queen, he points out. Adorning the 2000-tonne weighing 132 feet
‘Vimana’ is an 18-foot high ‘Kalasam’ taking its total height to over 150 feet, a near throw-back to the grandeur of the 216-foot tall 11th century ‘Big Temple’ in nearby Thanjavur, he stressed.

“This is the largest Panduranga (as Lord Vittala is also known) temple with a built-up area of 12,500 square feet,” Gopalakrishnan, an eminent civil engineer and consultant for this project told Deccan Herald over telephone. He is on dot in this, having been associated with another big Vittala-Rukmini temple in Thenganur in Tiruvannamalai district, which reflects a novel mix of eastern and southern temple architectural styles.

However, in the Govindapuram temple, as the main ‘gopuram’ has been raised in the classic Maharashtra architectural style, the services of Shri  Balaji Bhalerao Madhavrao, an acclaimed traditional ‘Sthapathi’ from Pandharpur was enlisted.

Madhavrao’s team of traditional sculptors is now giving the finishing touches, unravelling a mystical dimension of their art. Every aspect of this breathtaking structure substantially done up in marble– from the ‘Vasantha Mandapam’ at the top of a flight of 27 steps symbolising the 27 stars in the constellation,--the ‘Maha Mandapam’ which is capped by a 30-foot diameter dome, to the ‘Artha Mandapam’ culminating in the sanctum sanctorum, is a perfectionist’s delight, says Gopalakrishnan.

While a major portion of the temple is centrally air-conditioned to give devotees a cool clime when they come to worship Lord Krishna in this form, ‘Sthapathis’ from Tamil Nadu, which too has a rich tradition in temple architecture, have also lent their able hands. The “basic design and the temple concept” was done by Selvanathan Sthapathi of Chennai, he said. The labour force at the construction site has come from various states making it “truly a project of national integration,” added Gopalakrishnan.

The main deities for the temple were sculpted at Pandharpur 10 years ago and brought here. Jayakrishna Dikshitar aka Vittaldas Maharaj, who hails from a scholarly family of ‘Harikatha’ exponents widely known for their scintillating religious discourses including greats like Anantharama Dhikshitar and Narayana Dhikshitar, was entrusted with these deities with the blessings of another famed religious scholar Krishna Premi.

The deities were being worshipped at Jayakrishna Dikshitar’s home, when he was inspired to build a grand temple for the Lord of Pandharpur in Tamil Nadu. ‘Govindapuram’ turned out to be the idyllic spot for the ‘Vittala-Rukmini Mandir’ as it also locates the ‘Jeeva Samadhi’ of the Seer Bodhendral, 59th Pontiff of the Kanchi Kamakoti Mutt, said Gopalakrishnan.

“Funds for building this mammoth temple came solely from devotees flocking to Jayakrishna Dikshitar’s Harikatha sessions,” Gopalakrishnan claimed. His seven-year pursuit thus became reality. As Krishna is inseparable from cattle, a modern ‘Goshaala’ with 300 cows brought from Dwaraka and Brindavan is also part of the temple complex, he said, adding, for the elderly and disabled people, even lifts up to the sanctum have been provided.

The temple project cost could exceed Rs 18 crore. But what is more vital “is the light it diffuses and the peace it brings to people’s hearts as the world stepped from one crisis to another”, Gopalakrishnan mused.  


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