Sri Rangam, the largest Vaishnavite temple in Tamilnadu, is dedicated to Sri Ranganatha Perumal. This temple is as holy and venerable to Vaishnavites as Chidambaram temple is to Saivites.
Sri Rangam town itself has a railway station on the Madras-Tiruchirapalli line. It is about 5 km from Tiruchirapalli and about 315 km from Chennai. Tiruchirapalli being a large city is well served by road, rail and air. Pilgrims throng to this temple throughout the year, but the main festival falls in December/January during ‘Vaikuntha ehathasi’ and is conducted over a period of 20 days.
There are so many legends associated with this temple. One of them relates how the ‘Ranga Vimanam’ believed to be the chariot of Lord Vishnu came to be installed here. Ikshavahu the descendent of Surya, the Sun god and forebear of Rama, performed a penance in order to obtain the Ranga Vimanam to install it in a temple in Ayodya. Garuda, the mount of Lord Vishnu, delivered the Ranga Vimanam to Ikshavahu. The people of Ayodya thus venerated and worshipped this Ranga Vimanam for centuries until Lord Vishnu himself was born as Rama in Ayodya as heir to the Surya dynasty.
Rama is the hero of Ramayana, the epic story in which he was banished from his kingdom for 14 years. During this time his wife Sitha was abducted by Ravana, the King of Lanka. Vibishana, the brother of Ravana, helped Rama to defeat and kill Ravana and rescue Rama´s wife Sitha. At the end of his 14 years of banishment Rama returned to Ayodya to reclaim his rightful crown. Many kings and others were invited to the coronation and Vibishana was an important guest. At the end of the ceremony as custom dictated gifts were exchanged. Vibishana to whom Rama owed a debt of gratitude presented him with the Ranga Vimanam to be taken to his kingdom, Lanka. On his way Vibishana arrived near Kaveri River in the South and wanted to perform his daily pooja. He gave the Ranga Vimanam to a boy standing nearby with instructions not to put it on the ground. He got into the river for his ablution and when he came out he found that the boy had put the Ranga Vimanam on the ground. He tried to lift it but failed to move it. He became distraught and prayed to Lord Vishnu who appeared and told him that He wished that the Ranga Vimanam stayed at that spot. The King and others on learning this requested Vibishana to install the RangaVimanam on that spot and perform the ‘Adhi Brahmotsava’ thereby consecrating that place. The King who was a great devotee of Lord Vishnu was delighted with this and built a large temple to house the Ranga Vimanam and called the deity Lord Sri Ranganathar.
Years passed. The local King was childless. He prayed to Lord Sri Ranganathar for an heir. One day he spotted a baby girl lying on a lotus flower. He took her under his care, named her Kamalavalli and brought her up with all the love and affection. The child grew into adolescence and one day saw Lord Ranganathar taken in procession and fell in love with the Lord. When the king came to know this he was delighted that his adopted daughter was in love with the Lord himself. He adorned her as a bride and took her to the temple. In the temple the bride on seeing the Lord walked into the innermost sanctum and merged with the deity. In commemoration of this merger the king built and expanded the temple further. He also built two shrines, one for Kamalavalli and the other for ‘Azhahiya manavalar’ (Handsome bridegroom).
During later years the Chola kingdom lost its power and was invaded by the Moguls who plundered the temple and took away the figure of Alahiya manavalar or Manavalapperumal as he was also called. A woman very much devoted to Alahiya manavalar followed the marauding soldiers and managed to enter the harem of the Mogul king. She found that the beautiful idol had been presented to the princess who had kept it in her bedroom. She then came back to Sri Rangam and conveyed this news to the chief priest of the temple. This woman was then called ‘Pinsentra Valli’ (the one who followed)
A deputation of musicians and dancers were sent to the Mogul court under the leadership of Pinsentra Valli who managed to persuade the King to return the Idol to them. On learning this, the Mogul princess became so distressed the King had to send a posse of soldiers along with the princess to retrieve the idol. When the delegation returning with the idol heard of this pursuit of the Mogul princess they hid the idol in Thiruppathi and dispersed. The princess arrived at Sri Rangam and when she could not find the idol she collapsed and died there. The soldiers who accompanied her returned to their kingdom empty handed.
The original idol of Alahiya manavalar was brought to Sri Rangam many years later. By that time a new idol had been installed in its placand the authorities did not allow the original idol to be taken into the sanctum, as they were doubtful of its origin. However this idol was installed in one of the outer enclosures and was offered worship there.
There was a blind man in the service of the temple who had been there during the period when the original idol was there. One day he was offered the ablution water from the idol that had been kept in the outer enclosure. When he put this water in his mouth as devotees do, he shouted with joy, ‘Num Perumal, Num Perumal’ – meaning ‘Our Perumal’. When questioned he said that he could distinctly remember the taste of the ablution water of the original Perumal and this water tasted the same. The authorities were then convinced that this was the original idol and installed it in the sanctum. Thus the deity is also called ‘Num Perumal’.
Sri Rangam was recently renovated and a large entrance tower was built. This is the tallest temple tower in the south. The temple complex is very large with many corridors and enclosures so that a person visiting for the first time may find it difficult to get out of the complex.