Temple as was in pre-Ramanuja days
The present temple has two gopurams and two outer prakarams with two cicumambulatory paths; the third path around the sanctum called Mukkoti pradaksinam is now incomplete because of later construction and is open only for one day in the year. This pradaksinam together with the sanctum and hall are the only structures of pre-Ramanuja days, except for two wells of that period, which concern us. The different structures in the temple complex are construccted at different times by different people, but we are concerned chiefly with the main temple.
Water from wells in the temple was not used for Puja
Pulla Bhavi, a well of flowers, which was dug by Rangadasa, a shudra, who discovered the image of the Lord, lying buried in an ant-hill, is a step well and used for disposing flowers since days of Ramanuja. [Sitapati:56]
The legend says that:
"... Water for abhishekham of the Lord in the olden days was being obtained from the Papanashanam tirtham in the Tirumalai hills. Once Sri Alavandar present at Tirumalai noticed that Tirumalai Nambi who was at this time performing the duty of carrying water for the temple was not in a position to do so due to sickness. Sri Alavandar therefore prayed to the Lord that He should accept the water from the well in the temple constructed by one Rangadasa. Sri Ramanuja who heard the above legend during his visit to Tirumalai also ordained that the waters of Papanashanam Tirtham, Akash Ganga Tirtham and the well called Sundaraswamy well (or Bangaru Bhavi) are holy and can be used for all purposes in the temple ever since." [Sitapati:63]
In spite of two wells being present in temple premises, the water of these wells was not being used for puja etc. till then. This unusual practice, may be due to caste prejudices. It is well known that caste rules are strict about water and food. An incident a few years ago could be cited of a severe devastating cyclone hitting the Andhra coast destroying many villages. It will be remembered that the volunteers rehabilitating the victims of the great tragedy were faced with the problem of cleaning two wells in each village because caste Hindus refused to share water from same well with the untouchables, even in the face of such a grave calamity. So we need not blame the pre-Ramanuja Brahmins for not using the water from shudra's wells. Actually this should denote the importance of the work, towards the lower castes, of Ramanuja who also is said to have allowed the untouchables to enter the temples for one day in the year. [K.A.N.Sastri:430]
The more important point is how did it happen that two wells were allowed to be dug up by a shudra, within temple premises. It is possible only if the temple belonged originally to lower caste people. At a later date, even Alvars, we are told, hesitated to set foot on the hill due to their low caste.
Time of temple construction
Sanctum sanctorium or garbha griha which was called Koyil Alwar is described:
"... the walls of the garbha griham as they exist at present are made up of cut stone, and can be dated to belong to the 8th century or 9th century A.D. at the earliest. The temple type consisting of a Garbha Griham with a Mukha mantapam with a Pradikashanapath got established in South India about 8th century A.D. In view of this we cannot say with any degree of certainty that the present temple structure belongs to the period earlier than 8th century A.D. ..." [Sitapati:82]
"The garbha griha is almost square shaped structure (12 feet square). The walls of garbha griham as well as the walls of Sayana mantapam, otherwise called Mukha mantapam, are really double structures with two separate sets of walls enclosing some air space between them. This was perhaps necessitated by construction of the additional structures comprising of the Mukhoti pradikshanam built later." [Sitapati:82]
"... the Garbha Griham houses only one Mula murthi and the temple in Tirumalai is unique in that it is the only Eka- murthi temple for Vishnu in India." [Sitapati:83]
The non-recognition of other murthis is the basic principle of the Tirumalai temple. [Raghavacharya:215]
The Snapana Mantapam or Tiruvilankoyil is the other structure of Pre-Ramanuja days. It was here that the Bhoga Srinivasa, the silver replica donated by Pallava queen, was consecrated in the year 966 A.D. Its pillars bear the Vaishnava bas reliefs now. But these pillars are not original pillars. The original pillars were circular while pillars now in mantapam are square in shape. [Sitapati:79]
Double walled structure
The sayana mantapam, a chamber of 18' 6" square is devoid of any noteworthy a sculptures. [Sitapati:81] This is also a double walled structure like garbha griha. [Sitapati:82]
T.K.T. Veera Raghavacharya observes:
"The real shape and size of the temple in Tirumalai have remained a secret or a riddle... Even persons who are intimately and hereditarily connected with the working of the temple are not aware of these. ... For the first time we learn that Sanctum Sanctorium, consisting of the Garbha griham and the mukhamantapam attached thereto, is a double structure. Two distinct and separate set of walls do exist, with space (or antaramandalam) in between. The vimanam was built along and in connection with the new (or outer) walls of the garbha griham between the years 1244 and 1250 A.D. [emphasis orignal] The outer faces of the walls of the old temple bore at least four ancient inscriptions in Tamil referable to years 966 A.D. to 1013 A.D. True copies of these were taken before the new walls were built to enclose the old ones..." [Raghavacharya:193]
"... The method employed for constructing a new temple did in no way adversely affect the old structure, which would have been considered sacred because it was presumed to have been built by the devas themselves." [Raghavacharya:200]
Purpose of renovation was to make Temple conform with the Agamic Rules
About the motive of the renovation, we are told:
"There were beautiful temples built for images made and consecrated by man, Manushya pratishta, in other places. Here was a poor temple on the most sacred Hill for a Svayam- vyakta Murti. The temple was attracting streams enlightened men...the surface of these walls would have been plain and devoid of any architectural features and sculptures worth mentioning. It probably had no Vimanam to boast of... Every other temple of fame conducting puja according to Vaikhanasa or the Pancharatra agama had a garbhagriham whose architecture answered to the agamic stipulations. Sri Vira Narsinga... set his heart on building a temple worthy of his patron Deity and of his own importance... To the Vaikhanasa archakas also it meant a provision for the installation of all or most of the deities which according to their agama should find representation even during the Daily puja." [Raghavacharya:200 emphasis ours]
The walls of the Garbha Griham were not conforming to Agamas. There were no alcoves outside. So such alcoves were made on the renovated temple to agree with Agamic norms.
T.K.T. Veera Raghavacharya further observes:
"...new pradakshanam was designed to hold within it one or more images for worship ... a niche is sculptured in the body of the wall. There are similar niches on the western and northern walls also. There was (and probably still is) one on the east wall also. ... These niches form an essential feature of the design of garbhagrihams according to the Vaikhanasa as well as the Pancharatra agamas..." [Raghavacharya:205 emphasis ours]
In the renovated temple the first avaram or pradkshnam deliberately built was soon closed, and Ramar Medai was formed by putting walls across the eastern part of the path. This path is now open for only one day in the year of Vaikuntha Ekadasi day. This was the result of conflict between Vaikhanasas and Pancharatras, we are told. T.K.T.Veera Raghavacharya observes.
"It prevented the Pancharatras from making an attempt to form a chatur murti alayam by putting up Pancharatra images on the south, west and north walls of the garbhagriham." [Raghavacharya:209]
Late appearance of Garuda shrine
The salient points to note are that even after the addition of Tiruvilankoyil in 966 A.D., the temple was very modest and devoid of all murthis according to Vaikhanasa system, though legends say that Sage Vaikhanasa was the first to worship the Lord of Tirumalai. As a matter of fact, the worship as per Agamas had already started in all other important Vishnu temples in South India, much before this time, e.g. in Srirangam in 756 A.D. [Sitapati: 202]
Another notable feature is that Dwajastambham and Bali pitham are found in the outer avaranam which is rather strange as they have to be within first avaranam. So it is to be postulated that they were shifted at the time of construction of Tirumannani mantapam in 1417 A.D., and even this position, though recognised as a last resort, is in the wrong quarter. [Sitapati:59]
Another important point to note is about the Garuda shrine. This shrine was constructed rather crudely in 1417 A. D. Earliest mention of Garuda in Tirumalai Devasthanam inscriptions is in 1446 A.D. and it is seen that offerings given are only for the Garuda figure painted on the flag. The earliest inscriptions mentioning Garudallwar residing in his own shrine is in the year 1512 A.D., which is presumed to be the time of its comming into being. [Sitapati:76] It is rather strange that though since Ramanuja's time, it is considered as a Vishnu shrine, the Garuda shrine should make its appearance so late.