Sacred mountains play a vital role in the conservation of local ecology and the environment. A variety of themes are often found within sacred mountain traditions. The beliefs demonstrate an important link between the community cultural identity and traditional patterns of land conservation. Sacred mountains are distinguished from other sacred sites as being exceptionally comprehensive ecosystems.
Sacred Mountains and sacred sites within mountains have resulted in communities maintaining and preserving their natural resources in often-pristine conditions. Indigenous communities have long realized the value of the high diversity of natural resources within mountains and those mountains are resources of nature. Sacred mountains are protected due to cultural beliefs associated with them which have resulted in conservation of precious water, timber, flora, fauna, and other natural resources.
Commonly known as Pakshi Thirtham and Dakshina Kailasam it is one of the most well known sites of religious importance in Tamil Nadu. It is situated at a distance of 17 km west of Mahabalipuram. There is a hillock here at about 500 feet and the hill covers an area of 265 acres. The hillock is named as Vedagiri, since it is traditionally believed that the four (Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharvana) Vedas are seen one above the other in the form of four rocks. Lord Shiva is believed to be emerging from the head of the fourth (Atharvana) Veda and said to have derived the name Vedagiriswarar (a suayambu lingam), the presiding deity of the temple situated on the hilltop. The absence of a Nandi before the presiding deity on the hilltop is a unique feature of this temple. After worshipping the Siddharti Vinayaka and Aiyappa, one can reach the temple by ascending 562 well-laid stone slabs (steps). It is also known by other names – Uruthrakodi, Nandipuri, Indrapuri, Narayanapuri, Brahmapuri, Dinakarapuri, Muniganapuri and Patchi Theertham.
Thirukazhukundram is traditionally rich in history and spirituality. According to a legend the `sacred kazhugu would regain its original form and attain moksha (salvation) at the end of Kali Yuga. Hence this place is named `Tirukazhu(gu)kundram’ (the hill of sacred eagles) and also Pakshi Thirtham (in Sanskrit), meaning “water made holy by the visit of the birds”.
After descending a few steps on the eastern side, a monolithic cave-temple is seen. This mandapam is full of rare sculptures and belongs to the Mamalla period (A.D. 610-640). There are two verandahs in the cave, each being supported by four massive pillars. There is a huge lingam with figures of Brahma and Vishnu on either side and is found in the upper verandah while in the lower one, there are two life-size statues decorated with ornaments. The peculiarity is that the whole mandapam with sculptures is made out of a single rock and thus this cave is known as Orukkal Mandapam.
On the eastern side, at the foot of the hill, there is a small shrine Nalvar Koil, from where the four Tamil saints (Appar, Sundarar, Sambandar and Manickavasagar) had darshan of Vedagiriswarar who has been praised in the songs and verses of these four great Tamil saints. The Consort of Vedagiriswarar is not seen on the hilltop. She is enshrined in the temple of Bakthavatsaleswarar which is situated at the centre of the town. The temple has four gopurams (towers), the tallest with nine tiers (on the southern side) and the other three with seven tiers.
It is believed that Indra worships the Lord Vedagiriswarar on the hill by Idi (thunder) abhishekam, Thillothama (a dancer in Indra’s court), Garuda (mount of Vishnu), Ashtavasus and many Rudras.
According to a legend, sage Pusha and sage Vidhadha were cursed by Lord Siva to become eagles, for some offense. It is believed that they are the two eagles that visit Thirukazhukundram daily from time immemorial, in order to worship Siva and to obtain salvation from His curse. It is said that after a bath in the Ganges in the morning, they come here at noon for food, reach Rameswaram in the evening for darshan and return to Chidambaram for the night. The eagles circle around the temple top and approach the priest. They eat the balls of rice and after cleaning their beaks in the water kept in a small vessel nearby, take off, circle around the tower again and fly off. This has been going on for centuries now. The scene is also sculpted on one of the walls in front of Goddess Tirupurasundari, in the lower temple. The two sacred eagles appearing over the temple to worship the Lord every day are a major attraction for the devotees.
The Nandi once undertook penance on Earth. Pleased with him, Siva appeared before him and granted boon. The Nandi desired that the place and the tank be named after him and asked that those taking a dip in the tank and offering prayers to Lord Vedagiriswarar be absolved of their sins. His prayer was granted and hence the place is also known as Nandipuram and the tank, Nandi Thirtham.
The Laksha deepam festival is celebrated once in twelve years when a conch inside the Sanku Tirtham floats up. On this occasion one lakh lamps are lit in both the temples.
Not far away, is the sacred tank Sangu Thirtham. It is an extensive tank of 1,000 square yards area, with wide steps on all sides. It is believed that Saint Markandeya, came down here after visiting Benares. He wished to have a bath in the sacred tank and perform abhishekam to the Siva linga here but he could not find any vessel to perform abhishekam. Just then a conch suddenly emerged from the tank, with a humming sound, and Markandeya performed the abhishekam. It is said that even now once in 12 years, a conch emerges from this water, which the temple authorities collect with all honours and preserve in the temple.
There is a collection of about 1,000 conches in this temple, with which, abhishekam is performed to Lord Vedagiriswarar on the last Monday in the Tamil month of Karthigai. In the prakaram of the temple, the tank, Nandi Thirtham, is located. It has a huge Nandi (mount of Siva), facing Vedagiriswarar on the hilltop.
According to the sthalapuranam, Lord Siva Himself had declared this tank to be the holiest of all, and as per His command, all the sacred waters in India would meet here once in 12 years when Guru (Jupiter) enters Kanya rasi. The event is conducted as a festival known as Sangu Thirtha Pushkara Mela when there is a huge gathering from all parts of the country (The Hindu 02, August 2002).
The hill has innumerable medicinal herbs and plants and therefore the cool breeze is said to cure ailments. Flora: There are various plant species found in this sacred hillock. The plants fall into Tropical dry evergreen thorn and degraded southern Tropical thorn forests. Commonly found plants are Manilkara hexandra, Mimusops elengi, Albizia amara, Memecylon umbellatum, Diospyros ferrea, Diospyros ebenum, Strychnos nux vomia, Strychnos potatorum, Diospyros chloroxylon , Drypetes sepiarea (rare), Syzygium cumini, Canthirum decoccum, ziziphus glaberrima, Acacia leucophloea, Catunaregam spinosa, Buchanania lanzan, Sapinda emarginatus, Albizia amara, Albizia lebbek, Tamarindus indica, Azadirachta indica, Borassus flabellifer, Carissa carandas, Flacourtia indica, Grewia sp., Ixora arborea, Tarenna ascatica, Memecylon umbellatum, Garcinia spicata, Dodonaea viscose, Glycosmis pentaphylla, Ochna squarrosa, Gmelina asiatica, Hemidesmus indicus, Calliea cinerea, Carissa spinarum, Albiziz amara, Cassia fistula, Randia dumentorum, Cassia auriculata, Canthum dicoccum, Aristida setaca and Heteropogon contortus.
Fauna: Jackal (Canis aureus), Jungle cat (Felis chaus), Palm squirrel (Funambulus pennanti), Hare ( Lepus nigricollis nigricollis), Common mongoose (Harpestes edwardsiI), Shrew (Suncus sp.), Pangolim (Manis crassicaudata), Pariah kite (Milvus migrans govinda), Brahminy kite(Haliastuf indus), Patridge (Francolinus pondicerianus), Koel (Eudynamys scolopacea), Spotted owlet (Athene brahma), Common rat snake ( Ptyas mucosus), Cobra (Naja naja) and Green whip snake (Ahaetulla nasutus).
Increasing pressure from development, encroachment, and tourist inflow have taken their toll on the hills and it has lost much of its native flora and fauna. Problem of solid waste management in the town of Thirukazhukundram (around the mountain) is growing.
Conservation efforts should be given top priority. Educating people regarding the need to preserve nature together with the traditional practices and knowledge systems should be undertaken. Benefits of conserving the biodiversity and traditional culture should be demonstrated to the people. Awareness on sustainable utilization of the resources should be inculcated into the minds of the local people.