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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

When the Gods sought refuge in Kozhikkode

The year, 1323 AD. It was the final day of the festival at the famous Srirangam Temple, known as the most important Sri Vaishnava shrine in South India. The utsava (festival) idol of the presiding deity, Lord Vishnu, known as Azhakiyamanavala Perumal, and of his two consorts, Bhudevi and Sridevi were being taken in procession to the accompaniment of loud chanting of the Vedas and the Divya Prabhandam.

 Suddenly, a person could be seen jostling through the crowd of devotees, trying to reach the head of the procession. He was stopped by an archaka before he reached there. He whispered something in the ears of the archaka and soon, the stranger was taken to the chief priests. The procession was moving slowly, but unnoticed by the crowd, the chief priests dropped out one by one, leaving the Nambis to continue the procession.

They assembled in a corner away from the din of the procession. The messenger had brought ominous news. The Muslim forces from the Delhi Sultanate had conquered Thondaimandalam ( which included Chennai, Chengalpattu, Tiruvannamalai and Arcot) and were marching towards Srirangam. The invading army was led by Ulugh Khan, the son and successor of Giyazuddin Tulgaq. This Ulugh Kahn would later ascend to the Delhi crown as Mohammed bin Tuglaq.

The messenger had come running from Kannanur ( now known as Samayapuram) which was one of the cities under Hoysala occupation and was close to Srirangam. This Hoysala provincial capital had already been overrun by the Muslim force. He had escaped the enemy's notice and had rushed to warn the temple authorities at Srirangam.

The head priest and other senior Sri Vaishnavas were in a quandary. Many of the senior priests recalled with horror the earlier Muslim attack of 1311 AD which was led by Malik Kafur, the slave general of the Delhi Sultan Alauddin Khilji. They had then plundered the Srirangam temple and taken away not only the hoard of gold and precious stones, but even the utsava idol of Lord Ranganatha. 

It had taken a great deal of effort and some trickery on the part of the Sri Vaishnavas to bring back the idol from Delhi. The Delhi Sultan's daughter, who had fallen in love with the idol, followed the Sri Vaishnavas all the way to the temple and she ultimately died of grief there. This incident is commemorated in the small shrine inside the temple complex - in the northwestern corner of the Rajamahendran enclosure, in the path of the procession - with a painting of the Sultani, named Tulukka Nachiyar (the Muslim wife). Every day, a special offering of wheat bread, sweet dal and khichdi is offered to the Nachiyar. 

For the last 12 years since the idol was brought back, when Lord Ranganatha proceeded in a procession, He visited her as part of the ritual, attired in a lungi such as is worn by Muslim men in South India. The special offering on such visits consists of chapatis, mung dal and milk.

The acharyas decided that something must be done urgently to prevent a repeat of the events of 1311. They knew that the Muslim soldiers would have instructions to recover the idol, as it was believed in Delhi that it had some magical powers. Otherwise, how could their princess fall in love with a lifeless idol and travel all the way to Srirangam in Tamil country only to give up her life?

It was, therefore, decided that Pillai Lokacharya, the presiding priest of the Koyil and a few other archakas would escape with the utsava idol of Lord Ranganatha and the two consorts, Sridevi and Bhudevi. Other Sri Vaishnavas would erect a wall in front of the main idol in the sanctum sanctorum, known as Periya Perumal, and conceal it from the marauders.

The small procession carrying the idols moved stealthily in the dark, avoiding the main roads. They wanted to halt at Tiruppathur but when they reached there, they learnt that the Delhi army was already camping at the local temple. The group carrying the precious idols then diverted to Tirukkoshtiyur and from there, crossed the dense forest to reach Jyotishkudi.

Pillai Lokacharya, the elderly priest passed away at Jyotishkudi. After cremating the acharya there, the group travelled to Tirumalirunjolai ( very close to Madurai) where they stayed for a year.
Madurai had recently come under Muslim rule. The Governor of Madurai, Ahsan Khan was a ruthless fanatic from Kaithal (modern Haryana). He was, incidentally, the father-in-law of Ibn Battuta. Battuta has recounted the cruelty of Madurai forces on innocent villagers, in his Rihla. They would round up Hindus and after impaling them on sharpened wooden spikes, leave them to die. 

The journey of the Srirangam idols is described in detail in the temple's chronicle, Koyil Olugu (KO). According to one version of KO (published by Tirumalai-Tirupati Devasthanam in 1954), 'The icon was then worshipped at Tirumalirunjolai for a year and was later taken to Kozhikode, to which refuge many icons from important shrines including that of Nammalvar , had been removed during the troublous period.After a year's stay at Kozhikode, the icons of Manavala and Nammalvar were taken by the sea route to the Mysore coast and from there the latter alone was conveyed to Tiru-narayana-puram and finally to Tirupati.'

'Going from temple to temple of the Vaishnava holy places on the west coast they reached at last Calicut', writes historian S Krishna Swamy Ayyangar in his classic work, South India and Her Muhammedan Invaders'

Calicut was by no means a Vaishnava holy place. It is also not true that the Srirangam team went 'from temple to temple of the Vaishnava holy places', at least after deciding to get out of Madurai. From Madurai, the easiest route would be the Kambam trade route which was an established trade route from Madurai to Kottayam and the hinterland. 

Out of the 108 Divya Desams sacred to Sri Vaishnavas, 13 are in Kerala, known collectively as 'Malainadu Divyadesams'. Assuming that the Srirangam team had crossed over to Kottayam or further north, they must have passed at least a half dozen Divya Desams - including Trikkakkara, Moozhikkalam, Tirumittakkode and Tirunavaya - before reaching Calicut. Thus, if they were looking for 'Vaishnava holy places' there were several on the way.

Nor was Calicut a peaceful haven where one could hide from enemies. It was a bustling port city with merchants from several nationalities crowding the shores and market places looking for quality spices and textiles. Ibn Battuta who was in Calicut around this time (1342-1347) has left a graphic description of the number of Chinese and Arab vessels which crowded the port of Calicut.

UNLESS, there was a strong magnet in Calicut that was drawing the fugitives here on the assurance that they would be safe here. What could this be?

We had, in an earlier post, indicated the possibility of the spread of Vaishnavism in Malabar in the wake of the Hoysala conquest of the area in the 11th and 12th Century. Vaishnava communities from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka likely migrated to serve the newly built temples of Lord Vishnu. The original inhabitants of the small Goshala Krishna temple could be one such community. This probably explains the cryptic statement about the fugitives being 'protected by various persons in the various places' in Koyil Olugu

This also explains the statement that when the Srirangam team reached Kozhikode, they were surprised to see 'Nammalvar and other Emberumans from various sacred shrines'. Nammalvar shrine is in Alwar Tirunagari in Southern Tamilnadu. The entire area remained disturbed during this period, first by the antics of the Venad Kind Ravi Varman Kulasekhara who claimed the title 'Tribhuvana Chakravarthi' (one who has defeated all the three powers viz.; Chera, Chola and Pandya) and then by the Muslim invasion of the nearby Madurai. It was in this context that the idols of Alwar Tirunagari and nearby temples were shifted to Calicut. Perhaps, the Calicut Vaishnavas had intelligence that the Srirangam idols would be brought here. The more elaborate West-facing Temple was constructed to receive Azhakiya Perumal and his two consorts. 

At present, the Azha Trikkovil Temple complex consists of two distinct temples : a smaller (perhaps older) shrine of Goshala Krishnan facing east, a lump of butter in either hand; and the west-facing main shrine of Chaturbhuja Maha Vishnu with Shankha, Chakra, Gadha (mace) and Lotus. By either side of the Vishnu idol are two mounds representing Sridevi and Bhudevi. The Goshala Krishna idol was once vandalised and it was re-installed based on the evidence obtained from the damaged idol. 

According to the Tantri of Azha Trikkovil Temple, Patirisseri Sankaran namboodiripad, initially there was a Krishnan Koil belonging to the Tamil Brahmin community living in the area. Subsequently, another group of Tamil Brahmins built the MahaVishnu Temple. He was not aware of the the Srirangam connection nor about the Koyil Olugu.

A 1977 document states that as per the land records of Nellikkode amsom (where the temple is situated), the temple's name is recorded in the land records of Nellikkode desam as 'Azhwar Trikkovil'. This could be a reference to the idol of Nammalvar which was the first to be shifted here. The land records also show sizeable land grants in the name of the temple.

We, at Calicut Heritage Forum, tried to look for further evidence of the Srirangam connections. We were thrilled to find several stone pillars with marks like inscriptions. These pillars had been dislodged from their original location and used as paving stones in the pradakshinam and near the tirtha well. We brought in the expert epigraphist, Dr. Rajendu (a freshly returned Fulbright scholar). His team worked for half a day trying to make estampages of what looked like inscriptions. These were indeed inscriptions but during a 'renovation' of the temple in 1984 or so, these stones were used for paving and as a protection for the well. As the pavements needed to be skid-free, workers sharpened the stones. In the process, they had totally disfigured the inscriptions. All that Dr. Rajendu could read was : 'vi ta'! We have requested the management committee of the Temple and the Managing Trustee to consider overturning some of the paved stones. Hopefully, the other side is left undisturbed and has some inscriptions!

The Hindu newspaper had carried a report on the temple and its Sreerangam connection. It is reproduced here.
The Hindu, Calicut Edition, 25th May 2024


  1. Thanks CHF..
    Fascinating account, largely unknown to most or recognized until now. I hope you get the permissions to uncover or flip the pillars and get to the inscriptions. That may provide clinching evidence. This is definitely the result of some painstaking sleuthing and research!! Kudos, CK!

    1. Thank you, Maddy. I am sure Srirangam temple authorities and the Sri Vaishnava community in general would be interested in further exploring the material evidence.

  2. Thank you for a very informative research paper. So fascinating to see the movement of man and materials over long distances hundreds of years ago. There must have been a well entrenched communication system to anticipate the pros and cones of changes in political scenario. Once again the lack of professionalism among people involved in exploration and preservation of religious and historical monuments is evident here.

    1. Thanks Dr. Noone. You are absolutely right. There must have been a strong but surreptitious communication link. Sadly, this period of Calicut's history is under-researched. I am not aware of any scholar other than Dr. Dhiraj M S who has worked on the Hoysala incursions into Malabar. We have to outgrow our Keralolpathi hang up on the Chera-Chola-Pandya history of malabar and go deeper into the transition from the last Perumal and the Nediyiruppu swaroopam.

  3. This is a fascinating account of a significant part of the History of South India It throws light into the little-known dark chambers of antiquity. People who took up the challenge of revealing the incidents must have worked tirelessly with dedication. Could enjoy reading this, as if it were a thrilling short story. The incidents reflect a strange mindset. Kudos to Calicut Heritage!
    It is unfortunate that the 11th century story of Mahmud Ghazni & Somnath temple was re-enacted many times by different players, leading to multiple invasions and multiple reconstruction, which continued unabated in different parts of India for a very long period.

  4. Thank you very much, Maddy. I hope and pray Lord Ranganatha will help us unravel the mystery.

  5. Yes, Dr. Noone. You are absolutely right. As speculated by us, there must have been an efficient but clandestine communication system which enabled the Calicut group to be in readiness to receive the idols of the Lord and His consorts. Then there is the mystery of the Hoysala influence on Calicut during this period.

  6. Thank you, Sri Warrier for your valuable comments. British historians downplayed the plunder of Hindu temples. After all, they were comrades in arms. British museum looks more or less like the chor bazar in Mumbai or Delhi. Sadly some of the Indian historians also followed this path under the mistaken impression that they were being secular!

  7. This is truly wonderful entertaining and enlightening history. Its also riveting writing. So many medieval powers vying for supremacy and a faith with its icons struggling to keep itself alive in the face of monumental challenges. This is better history than the best Indian historians ever produced and to think CHF is run by people otherwise engaged! How incredible! One of the issues we need to take head on is the cruelty and avarice of India's Muslim rulers and their followers. It's not different today with the Taliban running Afghanisthan or the rampaging ISIS. Congratulations CHF for this and other revelatory blogs bringing out the micro histories of India!

    1. Thanks very much, Nomad. We focus on what you describe as 'micro history', as it is the flesh and blood of which history is made. Yes, the Delhi Sultanate attack was cruel and inhuman. But what is under-explored is the valiant resistance put up by the common people. We hear of Kings and Sultans fighting the invaders, but very little of how the common people faced this deluge, targetting what was dearest to them. The Utsava idols which are the heart and soul of the Viashnavaites at Srirangam was targetted because of its gold as much as for its 'magical powers'. To defend these idols from being desecrated, 12000 Vaishnavaites gave up their lives. The spiriting away of these idols and its long march through Tamilnadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra was another story of grit and faith which is still awaiting to be told. Calicut was only a minor stop.

  8. Lakshmi Narasimhan PJune 6, 2024 at 3:08 PM

    Congratulations to the Calicut Heritage team for such a great work and discovery of the temple that hosted Namperumal during the Ulugh Khan invasion in 14th century. I thank Mr. C.K. Ramachandran, IAS retd for sharing this publication with me.
    Every temple and devotee that hosted Namperumal should be worshipped. Kerala was chosen specifically since it would be difficult for the armies to access through the western ghats and in the interim the deity could be protected. The invasion focused equally on both Srirangam and Madurai. As stated in this article, Nammazhwar Vigraham too joined Namperumal at Kozhikode. I wish to add a few points to the already rich article here. When the team led by Sri Pillai Lokacharya left with Namperumal, southwards, the main deity Periya Perumal in Srirangam (Moola Vigraham) had to be protected. It was Acharya Vedanta Desika hailing from Thooppul in Kanchipuram but living in Srirangam then who protected it by constructing a wall. Further, based on the instructions of a senior Acharya Sudarsana Soori, Swami Vedanta Desika travelled northwest with Sruthaprakaasika, a rare treatise on Sri Bhashya (Sri Bhashya is Swami Ramanujar's commentary on Veda Vyasa's Bramma Sutra) and refrained from joining Namperumal. This was done to protect the Sri Vaishnava tradition and the practice of teaching the next generation from wherever they may be. Swami Desikan spent a many years in Sathyagala (near Kollegal) and Melkote in Karnataka in the interim. With the prayers of Swami Vedanta Desika (written as a Sanskrit work Abheethi Sthavam by Desika himself) and divine blessings to Goppannarya, the then commander in chief of Vijayanagar Army, Swami Vedanta Desika was intrumental in return of Namperumal to Srirangam. Further, Swami Desikas was the only one who was alive both at the time of invasion and return. It was he who identified and convinced the people of Srirangam that this is our Perumal (Namperumal) upon the deity’s return. This important aspect of history is deliberately excluded due to intentional misstatements regarding the timeline pertaining to the end of Swami Desikan's mortal life. It is to be noted there may be several people involved in safe exit of Namperumal during invasion, but it was Swami Desikan due to whom Namperumal returned to Srirangam and the Periya Perumal (Moola Vigraham) was protected.

    1. We must thank Sri Lakshmi Narasimhan, not only for his detailed comments, but more importantly for the fact that it was Sri Lakshmi Narasimhan who alerted us first about a temple in Calicut which might have hosted the Lord Ranganatha idols during the Delhi incursions. We started working on his information and reached Koil Olugu and then at this temple which was called Alwar Tirukkoyil in official records.
      We have followed the Koyil Olugu closely and have not, therefore, dwelt on the immense role played by Acharya Vedanta Desika in preserving the Moola Vigraham and also in restoring some order in the Temple after the brutal massacre of Vaishnavars in the temple. His contributions in protecting the idols in Melkote and finally in arranging for the safe return of the idols to Sreerangam have to be acknowledged.
      Our focus was only on how the idols reached Calicut and on finding out the temple where these idols were installed and worshipped for a brief period. We were only trying to connect the dots in history. It was not an attempt to write a comprehensive history of Sri Vasihanvism during those troubled times. Thank you once again, Sri Lakshmi Narasimhan

  9. Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful and very informative article/ blog post with me Ramachandran sir. I really hope the temple trustees permit and support the recovery of these valuable inscriptions! As briefly discussed with you previously, I share your curiosity and enthusiasm about the historical influence of Hoysalas extending to the Northern Malabar regions and as far as Kannanur in present-day Tiruchirappalli.
    The entangled history of the Śrīvaiṣṇavas too is a fascinating one during this period (from 12th -14th century). This empirical/epigraphical evidence that you are painstakingly trying to recover aside, I would like to draw your attention to the lasting impressions left behind by the Śrīvaiṣṇava Tamil Manipravalam tradition itself. So far, in historical scholarship that imagines medieval Kerala, only Līlātilakam has been credited as the prototypical precursor of modern Malayalam. However, while reading medieval Tamil Manipravalam in my Advanced Tamil classes, specifically Nammāḻvār’s Tiruvāymoḻi, I could recognize usages that seem to have survived in Modern Malayalam but not quite in Modern Tamil. This observation , I must add, is entirely experiential and does not stem from a well-trained philological eye because I am not a philologist but historian by training. Nevertheless, I think there is merit in further exploring the entangled history of medieval Manipravalam without prescribing to modern linguistic boundaries of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Some of the philological and historical aspects of Tamil Manipravalam is dealt with much needed clarity by Dr. Suganya Anandakichenin in her work, see her blogpost here:
    The point of difference that Dr. Anandakichenin posits about the strictness of convention in the Manipravalam of the "Kerala-based" Līlātilakam as opposed to a more fluid Śrīvaiṣṇava register of Manipravalam, raises more questions than answers. To my mind, this indicates a very complex history of multilingualism and exchange within these regions. One that does not come to surface prominently in 'Modern' literary Tamil as opposed to 'Modern' Malayalam perhaps because of the "pure" Tamil movement. I am not sure. All this to say-- the history and spread of Manipravalam in South India needs more sustained scholarly attention!

  10. Thank you, Savita for your erudite comments. You have taken the discourse to a different level. On going through Perumal Tirumozhi of Kulasekara Alwar, one was struck by the language which had many modern Malayalam expressions. One thought it was because of the Kerala origins of the Perumal. As you suggest, there is a great scope for further research into the commonality of the two languages till the Dravidian movement launched a deliberate attempt to emphasise the distinction. In fact, I understand that this was one of the arguments used effectively by Prof. MGS when he presented Kerala's case to the Central Committee for the grant of classical status for Malayalam language. Perhaps the Srivaishnavas who came to Calicut with the idols felt at home culturally and linguistically. I suppose we do not have any Malayalam texts of that period to prove otherwise. Thanks once again for your valuable comments.


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