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The Nava Tirupathis

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Life is a dream
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The Vaishnavite saint poets, the Azhwars, travelled to several parts of the country to visit the shrines of Lord Vishnu. They described the beauty and power of these deities in their verses in Tamil, called the Nalayira Divyaprabhandam.
These shrines are collectively known as the 108 Vaishnava Divya Desas or the 108 Tirupathis. Actually, 106 of them are on this earth, while two, Thiruparkadal (the ocean of milk) and Paramapadam (the great feet of the Lord) are said to be attainable after you visit all the others.

Nine of these, the nava tirupathis, are of special significance as they have been sung of by perhaps, the greatest Azhwar, Nammazhwar. This saint, who composed innumerable divine poems, has sung in praise of these temples in and around Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu, apart from many others. While one version says he travelled to countless temples on food, another says God showed them to him in a vision while was still a child.

Doing a puja in all these 9 temples is believed to ensure the blessings of the gods. These temples were constructed during the late Pandya and early Chola periods, with Kulasekara Pandya being responsible for much of the magnificient architecture.

The first of these 9 temples is Azhwarthirunagari, which lies on the Tirunelveli-Tiruchendur road, to the right. It takes about 30 minutes for the journey from Tirunelveli town to the temple. The beautiful river Tamaraparani flows to the left.

Swami Ramakrishananda, a direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, mentions in his book Life of Sri Ramanuja that Nammazhwar was the incarnation of Visvaksena, the commander-in-chief of Lord Vishnu’s army. He adds that Visvakena is the alter ego of Vishnu, in other words implying that Nammazhwar was none other than the Lord himself.

The story goes that Udayanangai, a woman devotee of Lord Narayana, married another devotee called Kari. They lived in the town of Thirukkurugur (Azhwarthirunagari). Desirous of a child, they prayed to Lord Adinatha, the presiding deity of the town temple, and observed austerities. Lord Vishnu revealed to them in a vision that he himself would be born as their son.

On Vaikasi Vishakham day in the year 3102 B C, an infant was born who neither cried nor opened his mouth to drink milk. The parents took the baby to the sanctum sanctorum, entreating the Lord to throw light on this strange phenomenon. The child climbed down from his mother’s lap, crawled to the base of a puliyamaram nearby and sat down in a burrow there. He sat in the yogic pose, in padmasana, to the wonderment of all, and remained so for many years. Thus did he gain the title Thiruppuli Azhwar. The tamarind tree itself is deemed to be none other than Lakshmana or Adi Sesha, the Divine Serpent. The Azhwar apparently did not open his mouth so that he could prevent the noxious vapours of the earth (sadam in Tamil) which envelop the human being in the haze of maya (illusion). This loss of divinity or fall in mental state makes a child cry. By keeping his orifices closed, he overcame the sadam, thereby also gaining the title “Sadagopan”.

He was so beloved of the Lord that the latter is believed to have once referred to him as “Nam Azhwar” (Nam in Tamil means our). He is also called “Sathari” because he is deemed to be Vishnu’s feet. In Vaishnava temples after distributing holy water, the priest places a crown, which bears the two feet of the Lord mounted on a crest, on the devotee’s head. This signifies total surrender by the devotee. Appillai, a famous Tamil poet, sings of Nammazhwar,

“Madhavan porpadhugaiyai valarndharulvon vazhiye” (“Long live the one who is golden feet of Madhava (Vishnu)”).
Once Madurakavi Azhwar came to Nammazhwar and requested him to expostulate a very complex metaphysical topic. When Nammazhawar gave him a reply, Madhurakavi fell at his feet and became him disciple. Thereupon Nammazhwar gave to posterity the immortal compositions “Tiruvaimozhi”, “Periathiruvanthathi”, “Thiruvasiriyam” and “Thiruviruttam”. These are the quintessence of the four Vedas – Sama, Atharva, YAjur and Rig Vegas, respectively. As Nammazhwar dictated, Madurakavi inscribed the hymns on palm leaves, over a four and a half year period. He also passed on the Nalayira Divyaprabhandham to Nathamuni, a great Vaishnavite teacher.

The presiding deity of the temple, Adinathar, in standing posture, is believed to be self-manifested. His consorts, Adhinathavalli and Kurukurvalli have separate shrines. It is said that the head of the celestials, Indra, was rid of the sin of disrespecting his parents after worshipping here.

Another interesting belief is that Lakshmana, the brother of Lord Rama, manifested here as the tamarind tree. The Lord (Vishnu) decided to stay in this place as a brahmachari. Responding to Goddess Lakshmi’s pleas, he wore a garland made of the sweet smelling Magizham flower to symbolize her.

Tiruvaragunamangai: On the road to Tirunelveli and across the river on the right is Varagunamangai.
The lord here, Vijayasana Perumal, is in seated posture, with the serpent Adi Sesha sheltering him with his hood. The consort is Varagunavalli Thayar, who is by the Lord’s side in the sanctum Sanctorum.

According to legend, a Brahmin named Vedavith performed penance on Lord Vishnu. The Lord appeared before him in seated posture as his devotee wanted, and so the appellation “Vijayasana”.

Tiruppulingudi: This temple is just a few minutes away by car from Varagunamangai. It is said that Indra was relieved of a sin by worshipping at this temple.

There is another legend about a Brahmin called Yagnasarma. The sons of Sage Vasishta cursed him to roam as a demon. He was redeemed when the feet of the Lord touched him.

The presiding deity, Kaisinavendan, is in recumbent posture. Darshan of his feet can be had from a window outside the sanctum sanctorum. The lotus blooming from the navel of the Lord conjoins with the lotus of Brahma, sculpted on the wall as a frieze. The goddess is Malarmagal Nachiar. The utsava Murthy of the consort is Pulingudivalli.

Tirutholaivillimangalam (Irattai Tirupathi): These two temples are located in the town named Tirutholaivillimangalam. They can be approached from Azhwarthirunagari by crossing the Tamaraparani, a distance of around 3 km.

Together, they constitute one of the 108 Divya Desams. The first temple is virtually on the banks of the river, with Lord Srinivasa in standing position as the presiding deity. The second temple, near an adjacent canal, has as the presiding deity, Senthamaraikannan, also called Aravindalochana.

A legend tells us how this place got its name. A sage built a yagasala here. Once he came upon a beautiful balance and a bow, which on being picked up, turned into a girl and a youth. They had been relieved of a curse. As thulai (balance) and villu (bow) got salvation, the spot became Thulaivillimangalam.

Thirukkulanthai: About 10 km away, is Thirukkulunthai. The main deity, Lord Srinivasa, is with his two consorts, Alamelumangathayar and Kulandaivalli. Garuda, the vehicle of Vishnu, as an utsavar, is by the side of the Lord.

The utsavar idol of the Lord is called Mayakoothan, or Divine Dancer. As per folklore, a demon called Achmasaran was troubling the Devas, who prayed to the Lord for help. In response, the Lord fought the demon at this place, earlier called Palikavanam. Taking hold of the demon’s foot he smashed it to the ground, even as he performed a dance. So, the name Mayakoothan.
There is another interesting story. Kamalavathi, the daughter of a Brahmin, Vedarajan, performed severe penance to attain Lord Vishnu as her husband. Vishnu is said to have the appeared before her and married her in this place. The name Palikavanam could also have been derived from this episode, as a palika (maiden) did penance here.

Thirupperai (Then Thirupperai): The main deity here is Makara Nedunkuzhai Kadhan or Mukhil Vannan. He is in seated posture, facing the east. His consorts Kuzhaikathuvalli Nachiyar and Thirupperai Nachiyar, have separate shrines.

As per folklore, Lakshmi asked Sage Durvasa to make Bhoodevi look like her. Bhoodevi, reciting the Ashtaksharam (the divine mantra, Om Namo Narayanaya), taught to her by Durvasa, did penance. The place therefore got the name Sriperai (Thirupperai), meaning the corporeal form of Lakshmi. During her penance, Bhoodevi went for a bath in the river Tamaraparani. She found two fish-shaped earning, which she presented to the Lord. He thus came to be known as Makara Nedunkuzhai Kadhan.

Varuna, the God of Rain, is said to have been relieved of the sin of insulting Guru here. The King of Vidharbha is said to have conducted pujas here to pray for rain when drought affected his kingdom.

Thirukolur: There is a beautiful legend associated with this temple. Kubera, the God of Wealth, was cursed by Goddess Parvathi because he was disrespectful, and became impoverished. Therefore, Parvathi in turn lost all her Navanidhis (nine forms of wealth) that were the “Mahapadma” (sacred lotus), “Padma” (lotus), “Shankhu” (conch), “Makara” (crocodile), “Kachyapa” (tortoise), “Mukund” (quicksilver), “Kund” (jasmine), “Neelam” (sapphire) and “Kharva” (dwarf). These navanidhis did penance in this place and prayed to Vishnu to marry them. He responded and appeared as “Vaithamanidhi” (one who kept the wealth safe), the protector of the nidhis. Kuberan was freed of his curse here.

In bhujangasayana, the recumbent Lord is also called Nikshepavithan. His consorts, Kumudavalli and Kolurvalli, have separate shrines.

The war between Dharma and Adharma took place at this spot. Dharma stayed here, praying to the Lord. One day, Adharma attacked him and was sent fleeing by Dharma. Therefore this area got the title Adharmapisunam.

Thirukolur is also the birthplace of Madurakavi Azhwar.

Srivaikuntam: The presiding deity is Sri Vaikuntanathar, also called Kannabiran, in standing posture, with Adi Sesha holding an umbrella as shelter. His consorts, Vaikuntavilli and Bhoodevi, have separate shrines.

According to legend, a thief called Kalathushakan vowed that he would give half his ill-gotten wealth to Sri Vaikuntanathar. He was caught while robbing the palace. He prayed to god for help. The Lord assumed the garb of the thief, and taught philosophical truths to the King. The king, thinking that Kalathusukan was no thief but a yogi, became his friend. As per the king’s prayers, the Lord assumed the name Kallabiran.

According to another legend, a demon named Somakan stole the creative knowledge of Brahma. Brahma did penance here. Lord Vishnu appeared, retrieved the creative expertise from the demon and restored it to Brahma.

Visiting and praying at the nava tirupathis is a unique experience.
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