The plains of Tamil Nadu are scattered with imposing granite outcrops, many of them topped by temples or forts or both. But even by local standards the hill at Tirupparankunram is impressive, rising sheer from the plain on two sides. It is sacred not only to Hindus but also to Muslims and, here at least, both religions seem to co-exist peacefully and respectfully.
Its religious associations go back many centuries as inscriptions on the rocks testify. Shortly after we visited, two enterprising young archaeologists from the Archaeological Survey of India found a previously unrecorded inscription near one of the tanks on the hillside which has been ascribed by experts to either Hindus or Jains from about 2nd Century BC.
At the foot of the rock is a cave temple, sacred to Murugan, one of the sons of Shiva. The original temple dates from the 7th century but now has an impressive doorway with an imposing gopuram and a pillared mandapam, all dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. Here was a stone statue now recognisable to me as Tirumalai Nayak, one of the 17th century rulers of Madurai whose image can also be seen at the Madurai Meenakshi temple and at the nearby temple of Alagar Koil.
But this hill is also sacred to Muslims as it is the site of the Dargah, or tomb, of Sikander Shah, the last Madurai sultan 1372 -1379, who was killed there in a battle against the Vijayanagara army. I haven’t, so far, been able so far to find out very much more about Sikander Shah or why he subsequently became a Muslim saint (another thing for the to-do list), but a walk up to his tomb is well worth the effort. The steps are now a little delapidated, but quite manageable – partly made out of large granite slabs and partly cut into the bare rock.
On the day we visited there was a regular stream of pilgrims. It was strange to find myself replacing the traditional Tamil greeting “Vanakkam” with “Salaam Alaikum” as we passed groups descending. Just as I was feeling the heat and the steepness of the climb on the last section, an elderly lady, barefoot and looking very far from fit and healthy, was making her way down accompanied by two younger men. It was clear what an effort she had made to visit the shrine so I stopped feeling sorry for myself and pressed on.
We stopped just before the summit to admire the view and enjoy the breeze. Alas the surrounding tanks were very empty in this season of drought. Finally you reach the mausoleum of Sikander Shah placed in a small cave with a room in front. It was remarkably reminiscent of the last Sufi shrine I visited, that of Sidi Ali Azuz, on the mountain above Zaghouan in Tunisia.