Imagine a 30 feet tall Chariot, colourful and colossal very similar to a Temple Gopuram with wheels at the bottom and being pulled by more than a dozen people. The crowd gathered around to witness the grand procession, offering him music and dance, the processional road filled with excitement and joy. Freezing this scene in mind … let us understand the significance of a temple car and its evolution.
Ratham Devamayam Virpra Sarvademayam Thatha
Meaning: The car is an embodiment of God, an embodiment of all Gods. An embodiment of all sacrifices.
The earliest occurrence of chariots is found in Rig Veda. It has mentioned the chariot as a military wing. The epics Ramayana and Mahabharata also have references to chariots. Chinese traveler Hiuen Tsang, who visited India in 629 CE mentioned in his writing about the existence of four-armed divisions of the army including the chariot division in the Gupta period. Since the Sangam Age, the chariot force was popular in Tamilaham.
The transition of Chariots from Military to Temples
Ther and Ratha are the Tamil and Sanskrit words for a chariot. After a certain period in Indian history, the chariots came to be used predominantly as temple cars. These Rathas are meant for taking the bronze images of Gods in ceremonial processions.
Puranas give clues to the origin of temple cars and car festivals. It is said that Lord Brahma, the Hindu god of creation, instituted the car festivals with a view to expiate himself from the sins acquired by him. The more logical explanation for the transition of chariots from wars to temple cars and car festivals could be attributed to the fact that in medieval times, God came to be treated on par with a king, so all the appendages of a royal court like a huge temple endowed with an audience hall, bed-chamber, garden, vehicles like chariots, big floats, attendant servants like devadasis, crown, lion – throne, flag, and umbrella were provided to the God. In his capacity as the divine king, the almighty visited his/her devotees by traveling in a chariot.
It is believed that the donation of a temple car or wood for making a temple car procured direct admission into the heavenly abode of Gods after death. Hence kings and nobles and individuals alike contributed funds for the manufacture of temple cars and to conduct car festivals.
The literary work Ula can be cited as an excellent example of the similar treatment given to Gods and kings. Ex: Thivaanaikkaula written by poet Kalamegam talks about the miracles of Lord Shiva of Thiruvanaikoil. Kulothunga Chola Ula, and Vikrama Chola Ula were written by poet Ottakoothar hailing the Chola kings.
Classification of temple cars
Based on the materials with which the cars are made, they can be classified into four types.
- Wooden carved cars
- Silver cars
- Golden cars
- Stone cars
The first three varieties are the moving cars, also known as Iyalther in Tamil. The immovable stone cars serve as festival pavilions. A number of stone cars and chariot-shaped mandapas were built in the medieval period. These stone cars are called Nilaither in Tamil.
History of temple cars in Tamilaham
From the literary evidence provided by the hymns of Nayanmars and Alwars, the temple cars have been in existence since the 6th century CE. From the same sources, we come to know that 24 temples had festival cars and even possessed car streets known as Rajaveedhi as early as the 7th century CE.
These Nayanmars and Alwars traveled across Tamilaham and sang in over 200 temples between the 6th and 8th century CE. From this, we can infer that the Pallavas of Kanchipuram and Pandyas of Madurai were the pioneers of car festivals. The hymns of Nayanmars Appar and Thirugnanasambandar talk in detail about the Margazhi, Thiruvadhirai, Thaipusam, and Panguni Uthiram festivals in Shiva temples. These occasions are well-known for their car festivals even today. It is surprising to notice that these traditions are still kept alive among people after so many years. Appar even mentions the bronze processional images of Lord Shiva of Thiruvarur in his verses.
Nammazhwar mentions the Chitirathther (wooden car with sculptures) of Parthasarathy Temple in Chennai in his hymn. An inscription notes the car street as ‘Ther Pokku Olukkai’. 12th-century Tamil scholar Kambar in his celebrated work Kamba Ramayan describes the war chariots of epic heroes Rama, Lakshmana, Ravana, Indrajit, and Kumbakarna in great detail. However, around the 12th century, the usage of chariots in the war was not prevalent in Tamilaham. Hence, Kambar took reference from temple cars in describing these chariots. His description of cars with intricate sculptures and iconography proves the fact that the then powerful Cholas had taken the art of temple car building to the next level.
From inscriptions, we know that in 1135 CE Chola king Vikrama gifted the Chidambaram temple with a golden car. His autobiographical Meikeerthi notes the car festival as ‘Perum Devar Vizha’.
Among the Pandyas of the 2nd empire, Sundara Pandyan rendered significant services to the Sri Ranganatha Temple. His benefactions according to the register maintained in the temple notes the donation of a golden car to the temple.
The Vijayanagara period, right from Devaraya II in 1422 CE to the Vijayaranga Chokkanatha Nayak in 1732 CE bears ample testimony to the flourishing custom of car festivals throughout Tamilaham. These kings concentrated more on temple cars, mandapas, and temple tanks because these features in the temple afforded scope for expansion and development, while other parts were pretty developed by that time. The festival of floating cars in temple tanks known as the ‘Teppothsava’ became more popular during this period.
Thus it can be concluded that the temple cars of Tamilaham, popular from the Pallava period, established their stronghold in the Chola period. Golden cars and floating cars became more numerous in the 12th century. However, the Vijayanagara kings and the Nayaks of Madurai, Thanjavur, and Senji perfected the temple car festival which we see now throughout Tamilaham.
Bibliography: Temple Cars of Medieval Tamilaham – Raju Kalidos.
Sincere thanks to the reference library at DakshinaChitra.