Tirugokarneshvara and Brihadambal Temple

Tirugokarna, Tirugokarneshvara and Brihadambal Temple

Monuments, Tamil Nadu Temple

Historical background

The name Tirugokarna (‘go’ means cow; ‘karna’ means ear) and that of the main deity, Gokarneshvara, derive from a mythological incident.

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It is said that Kamadhenu, the cow of plenty, was cursed by Indra to be born on earth. She then visited the ashram of the sage Kapila and he told her that she would be freed from her curse if she worshipped and lustrated the Shivalinga with water from the Ganges. So, she regularly collected Ganges water in her ear and duly performed the lustrations. To test her devotion, Shiva appeared before her in the guise of a tiger and told her that since he was hungry, he would eat her. At which, Kamadhenu suggested a compromise: she would first complete her puja and then she would return and offer herself to the tiger. Shiva, pleased with her devotion, freed her from her curse. It is said that the split on the top of the linga enshrined in the temple was accidentally caused by the hoof of Kamadhenu while lustrating it.

Tirugokarna, the locale of this miraculous event, is in the old part of Pudukottai, some 3 km north west of the city centre. Here stands the Brihadambal temple – as it is locally known – dedicated to the tutelary goddess of the ruling family, the Pudukottai Tondaimans.  The complex is built around a 7th century rock-cut cave attributed to the Pallava period, in which are the small sanctuaries of Bakulavaneshvara, and his consort Brihadambal.   The name Bakulavaneshvara, ‘Lord of the forest of the bakula trees’ refers to the location of the linga worshipped by Kamadhenu. The temple was patronised by the Cholas and Pandyas who added some halls opposite the main sanctuaries. It was greatly expanded by the Tondaimans, whose sustained patronage lasted from at least the early 18th century to 1948.  The core of the temple is approached from the south through a long hall, the ceiling of which is covered with Ramayana paintings dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. The panels are laid out on the ceiling of the central, eastern and western aisle. Those in the central aisle, illustrating the narrative from the beginning to the episode in which Rama, Sita and Lakshmana, give away their riches before leaving for the exile, are the oldest, dating probably of the mid-eighteenth century. The registers, bearing captions in Tamil and Telugu are arranged from left to right and from right to left.  The detailed rendering of the life of the exiles in the forest occupies the lintels of the colonnades skirting the central aisle. These have either disappeared or have been ‘restored’ at some later point of time. The narrative continues on the ceiling of the east aisle, featuring numerous episodes from the Kishkindha- and Sundarakanda. These paintings were perhaps executed or crudely ‘restored’ in the 19th century and are now in a sad state of conservation. The paintings on the ceiling of the west aisle, with scenes drawn from the Yuddhakanda, visible until the late 1980s have now disappeared.  

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