The Islamic invasions of Srirangam: How Delhi Sultanate ravaged one of Vaishnavism’s most sacred sites

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The sacking of Srirangam: How the Delhi Sultanate ravaged one of Vaishnavism's holiest sites

— Consider reading the article The Islamic invasions of Srirangam: How Delhi Sultanate ravaged one of Vaishnavism’s most sacred sites on OpIndia website —

The Bhoomi Pujan for the Ram Temple in Ayodhya marked the culmination of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. A defining feature of the Bhoomi Pujan was the presence of materials from holy Hindu sites across the country – soil from Rameswaram, holy water from the confluence of the 3 seas at Kanyakumari, soil from the Sharada Peeth in PoK and many others. Water from the banks of the river Cauvery in Srirangam was also used during the event.

Srirangam’s contribution is particularly noteworthy because it is one of the holiest sites for Vaishnavites, the devotees of Lord Vishnu. Ram is the 7th avatar of Vishnu. The Ranganathaswamy Temple in Srirangam is considered to be the oldest amongst the 106 earthly Vaishnava Divya desams (or Vishnu temples) mentioned in the Nalayira Divya Prabhandam, a seminal work of the 12 Alvars. It is also the largest functioning Hindu temple in the world.

The “Kovil Olugu” is an exhaustive record of the temple’s social, political and cultural history. The time span covered by the Kovil Olugu is very vast, starting with the Cholas and going all the way till the temple was taken over by the East India Company in the 18th century. Written entirely in the Manipravala dialect of Tamil, this is the most authentic source of the Raganathaswamy temple’s history.  Despite the availability of such a massive body of work, almost no modern historian has attempted to chronicle Srirangam’s tryst with the Delhi sultanate.

The first Islamic invasion of Srirangam

Srirangam was the fountainhead of Vaishnavism under the Cholas as well as the Pandyas. Despite multiple political upheavals and wars, the temple town was richly patronized by the power of the day. Its pre-eminent status remained undisturbed. In 1310, the death of Malaverman Kulasekara Pandya I lead to a protracted struggle for succession between his sons. Unfortunately, this civil war also happened to coincide with the march of the Delhi Sultanate towards southern India (Ref: History of Srirangam Temple, 1967, Authored by Dr V.N.Hari Rao M.A., PhD, Sri Venkateshwara University, Tirupati)

Malik Kafur was one of Alauddin Khilji’s most prominent slave-generals. By early 1311, Kafur had subdued the Kakatiyas, Yadavas and the Hoysala kingdoms, forcing them to become tributary states of the Delhi Sultanate. The Pandya country, also referred to as Ma’bar in Khusrau’s works, attracted the attention of Malik Kafur. In March 1311, Kafur’s army breached the Pandya empire via the pass at present-day Thoppur and attempted to capture Vira Pandya, Kulasekara Pandya’s son. Unable to do so, he then proceeded towards to ransack the temple in Chidambaram and then turned to Srirangam, which was then renowned for its wealth. Kafur’s army entered the Srirangam temple via its northern enclosures. The Vaishnava saints within the temple were easily overpowered, the treasury was plundered and the temple’s riches were stolen.

By April 1311, Kafur’s armies began their march back towards Delhi. The civil war within the Pandya empire continued but over the next decade the Ranganathaswamy’s wealth was eventually restored. But very few knew that what happened in 1311 was merely a precursor to the tragedy that was to follow 12 years later.

The second Islamic invasion of Srirangam

In 1320, the Khilji dynasty was overthrown by its nobles with the aid of the Governor of Punjab, Ghazi Malik. A descendant of Indian Turkic slaves, Malik renamed himself as  Ghiyasuddin Tughluq and established the Tughluq dynasty. While the Khilji empire had tributary states in the Deccan, Ghiyasuddin longed for complete administrative and military control of these vassal states. In 1321, he sent a massive army to conquer the entire southern peninsula. The army was led by his eldest son Ulugh Khan, who would later ascend the throne and was more famously known as Muhammad bin Tughluq.

The 1321 expedition failed after Ulugh Khan and his army was defeated at Warangal. However, by 1323 Ulugh Khan’s forces captured Warangal in a separate expedition and now their eyes were set on Ma’bar (i.e. present-day Tamil Nadu). They first conquered Tondaimandalam and then marched towards Srirangam (Ref: The Koyil Olugu, 1954. Condensed English version authored by T.S.Parthasarathy, PRO Indian Railways and published by Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams)

The second Islamic invasion of Srirangam is an important historical event that is recorded in all major Vaishnava works. The Guruparamparai, the Prapannamritam, the Acaryasukti Muktavali and the Kovil Olugu have detailed accounts of the sacking of Srirangam by Ulugh Khan.  All these works date the invasion to have occurred in 1323.

A temple festival was being conducted while Ulugh Khan’s army advanced towards Srirangam. This festival involved a procession of the Ranganathaswamy idol (also known as the Urchavar Azhagiya Manavala Perumal) from the main temple to another shrine on the banks of the Cauvery. 12000 Sri Vaishnavas had assembled as a part of this procession. On hearing the news of the arriving Muhammadan hordes, Srirangarajanathan Vaduladesika, the chief priest of the Ranganathaswamy temple immediately dispersed the procession. He arranged for the idol and the temple’s jewels to be secretly transported further south. Eventually, Ulugh Khan’s army reached Srirangam and desecrated the temple. On learning that the deity had slipped through his hands, an enraged Khan ordered his troops to behead the 12000 Sri Vaishnavas assembled at the temple. The Kovil Olugu refers to this incident as “Pannirayiramtirumudi-tiruttina-kalabham” (the invasion which took 12000 heads). 

For a couple of years, the idol wandered from shrine to shrine across South India before it reached the safe haven of Tirumala, where it was eventually deposited. Urchavar Azhagiya Manavala Perumal spent 48 years in exile, staying out of the grasp of Muhammadan invaders. It was not until 1371 that the idol was safely taken back to Srirangam and reinstalled at the temple by the Vijayanagar empire.

The second sacking of Srirangam is one of the darkest periods in Vaishnavite history. The Tughlaqs exercised direct control over Ma’bar from Delhi for over a decade. One of Ulugh Khan’s chieftains stayed back in Srirangam. He mutilated the gopurams of the temple and set up his residence right opposite the sanctum sanctorum.

He ruled the villages around Srirangam for a few years. It is said that this Muslim chief was constantly afflicted with multiple diseases during his stay inside the temple and he eventually shifted Kannanur where he desecrated Poysalesvara temple and converted it into a mosque. The Ranganathaswamy temple was eventually restored to its former glory by Bukka Raya the First, from the Sangama dynasty of the Vijayanagar empire.

The Srirangam temple is the lodestar of the Vaishnava movement in South India. It is such a tragedy that its bloody tryst with Islamic invaders does not find a single mention in either our history books or in the works of noted mainstream Indian historians. What stops our historians from shining light on persecution under Islamic rule? Any attempt to even evaluate the Mughals or any other Muslim ruler objectively is often met with accusations of selectivity.

It would not be a stretch to state that Marxist historians that dominate Indian academia are singularly responsible for the distortion of the history we teach our children. In their quest to protect the dubious ideals of Nehruvian secularism, falsehoods and imaginary tales of religious tolerance have been spun for decades. Would reconciliation have been possible in post-war German society if history textbooks had decided to whitewash the Holocaust? The first step towards healing historical wounds and reconciliation is acknowledging the crimes of the past. Sadly, the burial of dark chapters such as the sacking of Srirangam will only widen religious fissures even further.

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