It is significant to the Hindu sect of Saivism as one of the seven major Shiva temples. Shiva is worshiped as Mahalingeswaraswamy, and is represented by the Lingam, with his idol referred to as Jyothirmayalingam.
His consort Mookambika is depicted as Devi Bruhatsundarakuchaambika or Bruhatsundarakuchaambigai amman. The Lingam of the temple is believed to be the focal point for the seven consorts of Shiva.
The presiding deity is revered in the 7th century Tamil Saiva canonical work, the Tevaram, written by Tamil poet saints known as the Nayanars and classified as Paadal Petra Sthalam. The 9th century Saiva saint poet Manikkavacakar has sung praise about the temple in his works.
The oldest parts of the present masonry structure were built during the Chola dynasty in the 9th century, while later expansions, including the towering gopuram gatehouses, are attributed to later periods, up to the Thanjavur Nayaks during the 16th century.
The temple complex is one of the largest in the state and it houses four gateway towers known as Gopurams.
The temple has numerous shrines, with those of Mahalingeswaraswamy, Bruhatsundarakuchaambika and Mookambigai ( or Devi Mookambika ) being the most prominent.
The temple complex houses many halls and three precincts; the most notable is the second precinct built during the Vijayanagar period that has many sculptures.
The temple has six daily rituals at various times from 5:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., and twelve yearly festivals on its calendar. The temple is maintained and administered by Thiruvaduthurai Adheenam, a South Indian monastic institution.
The name Kumbakonam, roughly translated in English as the “Jug’s Corner”, is believed to be an allusion to the mythical pot (Kumbha) of the Hindu god Brahma that contained the seed of all living beings on earth.
The drops of nectar are believed to have fallen onto five shrines around Kumbakonam, namely Mahalingeswarar temple at Tiruvidaimarudur, Tirudharasuram, Naganathar Temple at Tirunageswaram, Tiruvorgam and Tirupadalavanam.
The Chola prince, it is believed, entered the Mahalingeswarar Temple and prayed to his favourite God, Shiva for relief from the clutches of the spirit of the dead Brahmin or brahmarakshas.
The prince made his way out through another entrance thereby saving himself. Some sources associate the legend with Pandya king Varaguna Pandian. It continues till day where people take the second entrance to exit the premises after worship.
There is a sculpture of Chola Brahmaharakshas on the eastern premises in one of the inner Gopurams (tower gateway).
Shiva is believed to have appeared as a flame to please Agastya and other sages who were performing penance. Shiva (Rudra) is said to have emanated from the heart of Mookambika.
It is also believed that several other deities like Vinayaga, Murugan, Parvathi, Kali, Lakshmi, Saraswathi, Brahma, Airavata (the elephant of celestial king Indra) and Vishnu worshipped Mahalingaswamy.
Marudur is derived from the name of the holy tree, namely Maruda. The Sthala Vriksha (temple tree) is Maruda. This temple is classified as Madhya Arjunam, called Idai Maruthu meaning centre Marudur.
The Mallikarjuna swamy temple are Srisailam is called Thalai Maruthu (meaning top Marudur) and Tirupudaimaruthur temple at Ambasamudram in Tirunelveli district is called Kadai Maruthu (meaning lower Marudur).
Since Shiva raised out as a flame to the sages, the presiding deity is also referred to as Jyothirmaya Mahalingam. Historically Shiva was worshipped as Jyothi, the sacred flame and with the course of time, Jyothrilinga temples were developed.
Since the place is full of Maruda tree, Shiva is also referred as Marudavanan. The Sanskrit word for the Tamizh word Maruda is Arjuna Vruksham.
There are a total of 149 inscriptions associated with the temple. According to legend, the site of the temple at Thiruvidaimarudur has been used for over 2,000 years and is associated with the Pandya king Varaguna Pandian.
The inscriptions in the walls of the temple are from Kulothunga Chola I indicating revenue survey and settlement and other additions made inside the temple.
This inscription (No. 32 of 1895) on the second precinct records a grant of 120 sheep for two lamps and the pujaris and inhabitants are appointed trustees of the grant. The date is the 172nd day of 26th year of the reign of Kulothunga I, who conquered the Kalinga region.
The other inscriptions mention the name of the queen and adore her as the “mistress of the whole world”. Three other queens, Dinachintamani, Elisai Vallabhi and Tyagavalli.
The temple is also famous historically for devadasi tradition, which involves donating dance women to the temple during the medieval period.
The inscriptions indicate the tradition, dances, rearrangement during festivals and procession of deities during festivals. The record is dated in the seventh reignal year of Vikrama Chola (1118-35 CE).
There are five inscriptions in this vein from the 10th century and there are three later inscriptions date 1123 CE, 1142 CE and 1218 CE. The possible reasoning for the hundred-year gap indicates the shifting of all temple women to Brihadeeswarar temple by Rajaraja I.
Since the temple received lot of gifts, the Cholas deputed a special army to protect the endowments.
The temple has a five-tiered Rajagopuram and three precincts, each enclosed inside huge walls and having gateway towers for each of them. The temple is rectangular in plan with east–west orientation and has four entrances in each of the four directions.
Mahalingam, literally meaning big lingam, is the presiding deity and is considered the centre of all consort deities of Tamil Nadu.
There are five temple tanks inside the temple, namely Karunyamirdha Theertham, Soma Theertham, Kanaga Theertham, Kalyana Theertham and Iravatha Theertham.
There are 27 other water bodies that are associated with the temple. There is a separate shrine for Mookambiga and it is built in north Indian style. The shrine of Mookambiga is where Parvathi is believed to have performed her penance.
There are stone images of Pattinathar and Bhadragiriyar in the eastern and western gateways of the temple respectively.
The central shrine of the temple is that of Mahalingaswamy facing East. The shrine of Ambal faces the east and is situated close to the Mookambigai Amman shrine.
The temple was widely expanded during the Nayak period in the 16th century with the development of twin Mahalinga and Devi shrines. The shrines of Muruga and Nataraja are enshrined in the spaces between the pier. There are other shrines for Padithurai Vinayagar and Agora Veerabadrar.
The three precincts are called Aswametha Pradakshina, Kodumudi and Pranava. The Vinayagar in the Southern side is called Anda Vinayagar and as per Hindu legend, the Vinayagar ruled the world and hence obtained the name.
Pranava precinct has lot of sculptures dating back to the Nayak period of the 16th century. One of the notable among them is the sculpture of a chariot having twelve pillars, each denoting the twelve lagnas.
In the northern portion of Kodumudi precinct, there is an image of Chokkanathar.
The piers standing has attached colonettes, lotus beams and suspended beams are atypical of Nayak style though the attached hall and innermost compound are recent additions.
Govinda Dikshitar, the minister of Nayak is believed to have built the Pushyamantapas (halls) in this temple. Achyutappa also added gift of a village to the temple, the income of which was to be utilized for the temple car festival for the goddess in Adipuram day.
Thanjavur Marathas ruled the region during the 18th century. Pratap Singh (1736–63) was a patron of the temple after his prayer to Mahalingaswamy to marry love was fulfilled.
He is believed to have donated one lakh metal lamps to the temple. His concubine Theepanachiar is believed to have personified as one of the lamps.
An ornamental metal image of a lady called Pavai Nonbu holding a lamp is still present in temple. The base of the lamp has an inscription indicating the gift of Marathas to the temple.
In modern times, the temple is maintained and administered by Thiruvaduthurai Adheenam, a South Indian monastic institution.
A Saiva Siddantha library inside the temple maintains palm leaf manuscripts and Saiva literature. The temple is one of the most visited temples in the district.
Worship and festivals
The temple rituals are performed six times a day; Ushathkalam at 6:00 a.m., Kalasanthi at 8:00 a.m., Uchikalam at 12:00 p.m., Sayarakshai at 6:00 p.m., Irandamkalam at 8:00 p.m. and Ardha Jamam at 9:00 p.m.
Each ritual comprises four steps: abhisheka (sacred bath), alangaram (decoration), neivethanam (food offering) and deepa aradanai (waving of lamps) for both Mahalingeswarar and Pirguchuntaragujambigai.
The worship is held amidst music with nagaswaram (pipe instrument) and tavil (percussion instrument), religious instructions in the Vedas read by priests and prostration by worshippers in front of the temple mast.
The most prominent festival of the temple, Thaipoosam, is celebrated for ten days during the Tamil month of Thai. The festival deity of Mahalingeswarar and his consort circumambulate the temple and the streets in the village in different vehicles.
The festival ends with Theerthavari on the last day. During the Tamil month of Vaikasi, Tirukalyanam (sacred marriage), Ambal Tapasu (penance of Ambal), Ambal Thannai thaane festivals are celebrated.
According to Hindu legend, Mahalingaswamy is the centre of all Shiva temples in the region and the Saptha Vigraha Moorthis (seven prime consorts in all Shiva temples) are located at seven cardinal points around the temple, located in various parts of the state.
The seven deities are Nataraja in Chidambaram Nataraja Temple at Chidambaram, Chandikeswarar temple at Tirucheingalur, Vinayagar in Vellai Vinayagar Temple at Thiruvalanchuzhi, Muruga in Swamimalai Murugan Temple at Swamimalai, Bhairava in Sattainathar Temple at Sirkali, Navagraha in Sooriyanar Temple at Suryanar Kovil and Dakshinamoorthy in Apatsahayesvarar Temple, Alangudi at Alangudi, Papanasam taluk.
The other deities of a Shiva temple associated with Mahalingeswaraswamy are Durga in Thenupuriswarar Temple at Patteswaram, Somaskanda in Thyagaraja Temple, Tiruvarur at Tiruvarur and Nandi at Tiruvavaduthurai Temple at Thiruvaduthurai.
Like in Kasi, where the city is centered around Kashi Vishwanath Temple, the temples in these towns along the banks of river Cauvery, namely Aiyarappar temple in Thiruvaiyaru, Mahalingeswarar temple in Thiruvidaimarudur, Mayuranathaswamy temple in Mayiladuthurai, Chayavaneswarar temple in Sayavanam, Swetharanyeswarar temple in Thiruvenkadu, Srivanchinadhaswamy Koil in Srivanchiyam are the centerpieces of the towns.
The temple is counted as one of the temples built on the banks of River Kaveri.
The temple is also referred as Pancha Linga stala due to the presence of five lingams, four of which in the cardinal directions and the fifth one at the centre.
The temple of Viswanatha lies in the east street, Rishipuriswara in the west, Atmanatha in South street and Chokkanatha in North street.
Appar has glorified the temple in five, Sundarar in one and Thirugnana Sambandhar in six verses. Appar refers to the temple as Idaimaruthur.