Musical pillars of Nellaiappar Kovil, Tirunelveli, TN - one of a kind in India

Musical pillars, Nellaiappar kovil, tirunelveli, tamil nadu

Nelliyappar temple, Tirumelveli, Tamil Nadu

The impressive  Indian temple architecture has always been a source of awe, mystery and inspiration to heritage lovers and architects world over. The Hindu temple has countless stone carved sculptures of various sizes and  various images  and beautifully decorative stone pillars, beams (that stand between the roof and top of pillars), temple entrances, etc . They bear testimony to the  fascinating workmanship and the talents of ancient artisans, besides their proper planning, dressing of rocks and execution. Considering the antiquity of Hindu temples, it is an engineering marvel that these huge pillars numbering  several 100s in many temples that support  huge halls or mandaps with  thick stone roof slabs are  skillfully designed as per temple Sastras. They  are so artistically  installed you could see perfect symmetry and uniformity right from the  top to the bottom all the way.  If you stand near the huge pillar at one  end of the hall and  look at the rows of pillars on your side you will be amazed the way  they are perfectly aligned. Mind you such pillars and sculptures are made of hard stone and imagine what kind of technology did they use to erect  and set the long and heavy roof slabs  atop  the building - all along the prakara  (circumlocutory path around the sanctum). A mind-boggling work that needs lots of men, elephants and horses. 

Invariably such big ornate pillars are tall, solid, mute and  commonly portray dancing damsels or musicians playing their instruments. Seldom do such silent pillars produce melodious musical sound when struck. In  some Hindu temples  of Tamil Nadu, there are stone pillars that produce musical notes if struck or gently tap on them. Our ancient sculptors /Shilpis  were aware of those rocks that could produce a sort of metallic sound similar to musical notes. 

Definitely, you will get excited if you run  into  such musical stone pillars that not only support the roof but also produce musical sound in a particular fashion. In the vast temple complex of Nellaiappar Kovil (temple), Tirunelveli city,  dedicated to one of the trinity Gods - Shiva who is supposedly the protector of paddy fields here (nel meaning paddy), there stand  unique stone pillars near the sanctum - garbagriha. 
Tirunelveli city location map,

What is special about the musical pillars?  They produce  seven  Indian classical key notes  Saptha swarangal in a wave if gently struck.  These musical pillars  occur in cluster and are set in a manner  vibrations are produced from the neighboring pillars, when one pillar is tapped. There is a central pillar having 48 small cylindrical pillars of varying girth around made from a single stone.. Each pillar made from one block of rock has a cluster of  small  cylindrical columns.  Northern side of the hall has two clusters of 24 pillars while the southern side has a single cluster of 33 pillars. In total there are 161 musical pillars and when one is tapped, surrounding pillar also vibrate.

Nelliyappar temple, Tirumelveli,

Tirunelveli, tamil Nadu: Nelliyappar temple

It is obvious this difficult job was done with meticulous care and planning.  The pillars at this temple are a combination of  Shruti and Laya types,  according to one Shankar  who studied this temple. People are at a loss to understand what sort of methods the ancient artisans had used to produce the musical sound from the hard stone. Certainly, they had a good knowledge of music, dynamics of sound and its propagation,

The Nelliyappar temple chronicle, Thirukovil Varalaaru, says the nadaththai ezhuppum kal thoongal - stone pillars that produce music — were set in place in the 7th century during the reign of Pandyan king Nindraseer Nedumaran. ASI records point out that the temple was built before the 7th century and successive Pandya rulers of Madurai made valid contributions to the Hindu temples. The rulers after  Nedumaran made some additions and modifications, but  never touched the musical stone columns in the front part  of the main  temple.

Musical pillars, nellaiappar kovil, Tirunelveli, TN Siddhar Samadhi

According to Shankar  musical stone pillars  are of three types:  The first  one called Shruti  Thoongal (pillars)  can produce the basic notes - the swaras - the Theavarm (collection of devotional hymns) and the Vedas are  rendered using this type.  The 2nd one Gana  thoongal,  produce  basic tunes that make classical ragas like Harahara Priya. and  the third one,  the Laya  thoongal  produce       taalam (beats) when tapped.

Musical pillars, nellaiappar kovil, tirunelveli, tamil nadu NativePlanet

Structurally there are two kinds of musical pillars: Tapping pillars- music is produced by tapping on the pillar by fingers like we tap fingers on a keyboard.

2)    Blowing pillar -   sound is produced by blowing into the holes as it is produced in case of conch or flute.

These musical stone pillars are  one of a kind in India and there are  no comparisons  between this temple and others. Mind you, they are older than 1300 years and at that point of time, this part of India  was in the pinnacle of civilization unlike other parts of the world.  An architectural marvel, these amazing  pillars are ''musical celebration in stone'' dedicated to lord Shiva, the Cosmic Dancer whose rhythmic dance keeps the universe going.

This temple, that is well-known for elegant and exotic sculptures that stands on a 15 acre land is in the prime location of Tirunelveli city which is on the way to Kanyakumari and is well- connected to major Indian cities by train. The temple represents Thamara (copper) sabha, one of the famous  five halls God Shiva' performed  the Cosmic Dance.

This temple is worth a visit and you need a minimum of a day to visit various parts of this amazing huge  Shiva temple which  is a treasure house of sculptures of artistic  beauty and ingenuity.