The Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple or Thiruvarangam is a colossal temple to the Hindu god Vishnu (or, more specifically, it is dedicated to Ranganātha, a reclining form of Vishnu). Located on an island in the Cauvery river in Tamil Nadu, the temple is one of the most illustrious (and largest) temples in India. The complex includes 21 monumental ornamental towers (including the 72 meter (236 foot) Rajagopuram), 39 pavilions, fifty shrines, all within a 156 acre complex which includes six miles of concentric walls. The shrines, walls, and towers are bedecked in stunning stone statuary painted in all of the brilliant colors of South India.
The story of the temple’s creation is steeped in Hindu myth: Lord Rama, the seventh avatar of Vishnu completed his devotions to Vishnu by worshiping a mysterious idol. After killing Ravana and returning victorious from Sri Lanka (as detailed in the Ramayana) Rama gave this sacred statue to King Vibhishana. The king planned on taking the statue to Sri Lanka, but when he set it down while resting on an island, it became rooted to the spot.
The temple itself was built by the Chola Dynasty, India’s longest lived dynasty. There is a further legend of the temple’s construction: a Chola king chased a parrot into the deep forest and found the idol overgrown by jungle. He built the complex around the statue and the temple was maintained and expanded by the great dynasties of Southern India–the Chola, Pandya, Hoysala and Vijayanagar dynasties. The oldest parts of the building seem to date back to the 10th century AD, but written sources do not accurately convey the precise chronology. The great temples of South India are themselves primary historical sources, but alas, they are not as particular about dates as historians might like.
It is difficult to even begin to describe the sumptuous beauty and complexity of the ornaments of Sri Ranganathaswamy. The colorful and intricate statues of the figures from Vishnu’s lives and incarnations have an otherworldly and alien beauty not found elsewhere. Nor will I attempt to describe the meaning of Vishnu’s iconography (although if you are as smitten by his reclining beauty as I am you can read about Ananta Shesha, the many headed cobra god which serves as his divine couch).