The climax of the novel ‘One Part Woman’ by Perumal Murugan is set in Thiruchengode and is centred around a practice peculiar to a deity there. Perumal Murugan wrote this book after undertaking research on folklore surrounding the temple town of Thiruchengode. There are many deities worshipped on the Thiruchengode Hill and one of them is the Ardhanareeshwara, a form of Shiva in which the left part of his body is his consort, Parvathi. This form of Shiva is also known as Madhorubagan and Ammayappan. It is probably the only place where Shiva is worshipped as Ardhanareeshwara.
N Kalyana Raman in an article for the Caravan Magazine wrote, Murugan was intrigued on encountering several men in the region past the age of 50 who were called Ardhanari (Half-woman) or Sami Pillai (God-given child). On digging further he found out that till as recently as 50 years ago, on a particular evening of the annual chariot festival in the temple of Ardhanareeswara, childless women would come alone to the area alive with festival revelries. Each woman was free to couple with a male stranger of her choice, who was considered an incarnation of god. If the woman got pregnant, the child was considered a gift from god and accepted as such by the family, including her husband.
Inspired by the book, I decided to head to Thiruchengode too see this rare deity. Thiruchengode is a town in Namakkal District of Tamil Nadu and is 20 km from Erode. A hill rises from the fertile plains and houses an ancient temple complex. The hill is referred to by many names – Chemmalai, Nagamalai, Nandhimalai, Nagachalam, Panimalai, Uragaverpu, Sivamalai, Kodaimalai and Deivathirumalai. Some parts of the temple complex are at least 2000 years old i.e. the Sangam Period! Many additions have been made ever since and it is evident in the mixture of materials and styles of architecture. Thiruchengode is mentioned in the Tamil classic Silappadikaram by Ilango Adigal and many local legends say that it from this ill that Kannagi (the protagonist) ascended to heaven. Poet-Saints like Thirugnanasambandhar and Arunagirinathar have also visited this place and have mentioned it in their works.
There are several small and large shrines and mantapas (pillared halls) in the maze like temple complex. Separate shrines are dedicated to Shiva as Ardhanareeswara, Muruga or Subrahmanya as Sengottuvelavar and Vishnu as Adikeshava Perumal. There are some truly exquisite sculptures in some of these mantapas. There’s also a smaller mantapa built on the back of a turtle in a larger mantapa which caught my eye.
As I mentioned earlier, I was interested in the Ardhanareeshwara Shrine. I was taken aback by the delicate idol which is surrounded by an aura of mystery and suspense. The idol depicts Shiva in a standing posture holding a staff. The left half is has feminine features and depicts Parvathi with the hand placed on the hip. The priest told us that there is a natural spring at the feet of the idol. The facial features aren’t clear. You won’t realise the idol is that of Ardhanareeshwara if you aren’t informed beforehand. No one knows who carved the idol or how old it is and what material it is made of. One belief is that the idol was made by Siddhars out of a mixture of herbs and other materials (just like the idol at Palani). Another is that the idol formed naturally (Swayambu). Unusually, the idol of Ardhanareeshwara faces the west. Hindu temples are typically built in the east-west orientation with the main idol facing the east.
The temple complex is like a museum of Dravidian temple architecture with the best specimens displayed. It is steeped in history and mythology and has inspired many poets and writers. It’s also a great place for a trek. Go to Thiruchengode and let it transport you to a surreal world of gods and goddesses and curses and boons.