Temple above a royal sepulchre

The cool breeze at dusk strikes a discordant note in the landscape, parched and full of thorn bushes. The Gundar river is a trickle that negotiates the clumps of flowering Nanal grass. Our vehicle comes to a halt outside a temple that is not very different from the thousands of other temples found in the villages of Tamil Nadu.

Two temples, each simple two or three-room constructions, are set amidst a grove of trees with an incomplete gopuram doorway, in Pallimadam, a village near Virudunagar..

The main temple is however a special one… it is a tomb… the only one we surely know to be a tomb for a Pandya king. We generally associate such tombs with Egypt and the Mughals, and are unaware that Tamil Nadu too has such monuments!

The incomplete gopuram is of 17th or later century vintage and beyond this is a small four-pillared mandapam for the Nandi. The pillars are from the Nayak times or perhaps sponsored by the Ramnad kings who for many generations owned this temple.

The base of the Nandi is however much older – Pandya, 10th century. Half buried, we can make out some inscriptions on the base scripted in Vattezhuthu.

The steps lead to a simple corridor. Within the sanctum is the shrine with a lingam for Kalanathaswami. Everything inside the temple is simple and plain. The alcoves or kosthas that decorate the exterior wall are also bereft of sculptures.

The shrine for the consort is also similarly structured but smaller. The corbels of ‘vettu bodhigai' are indicators of the early Pandya style. In later centuries, the simple corbels assume fantastic shapes reminiscent of banana flowers called ‘Pushpa bodhigai.'

The peaceful precincts give no indications of what the walls had witnessed in the past. Fortunately, the Ramnad kings and the villagers did not destroy the inscriptions and, we listen to the walls speak of times in Tamil Nadu very different from what we know today.

Stone monument

The tradition of associating stone to death is old. Fallen warriors and chaste women were immortalised with a stone monument – often a simple column with the image of a sun and moon as early as the first century. The symbols remind others that as long as the sun and moon remain, the memories of that person will be alive. Feasts and dances in honour of the person were also offered. Even today, this aspect of ancestor worship is found in rituals that cut across communities.

Kings seem to have had the option of raising a Siva temple over the remains of the deceased as well. While literature and inscriptions speak of many such temples, there are only four that are confirmed based on inscriptions in the temples that state the temple was indeed a Pallipadai or sepulchre. Three are for the Cholas, and this is the only one for a Pandya king.

My ‘conspirator' for digging up the past this time is Thangam Thennarasu, well versed epigraphist. We run our fingers across the temple inscriptions and talk of a less known part of history.

Between the ninth and the 13th centuries, kings of the Pandya and Chola thrones were inclined to support Saivite sects that were even by today's standards heterodox and frighteningly unique. They were called the Lakulisa Pasupatas, Kalamukhas and Kapalikas (who were popular much earlier in the Pallava times as well). This temple has 11 inscriptions from three Pandya Kings -- Vira Pandya, Sadayan Maran and Maran Sadayan. The temple itself is named Sundara Pandya Eswaram. We don't know who Sundara Pandya was but he seems to have been a short lived elder brother of Vira Pandya. The majority of inscriptions are from Vira Pandya (946-966) and it is possible that the erection of this temple, dedicating it to the Kalamukha cult and making inscriptions, were Vira Pandya's way of asserting his claim over the throne. Given the succession issues amongst the Pandyas, this seems likely. This technique was also adopted by Raja Raja I many years later.

The inscriptions mention the presence of the Mahavrathin's monastery attached to the temple. We know Vira Pandya was a contemporary of the Kodumbalur chieftain Bhuti Vikramakesari who was a staunch supporter of the Kalamukhas. We also know that one of the teachers was a native of Madurai. The other inscriptions also mention gifts of goats that were to be used to supply measures of ghee for lamps using the Cholanthaka Nazhi. Some gifts were instituted by the general public. Largely forgotten, the temple at dusk shares no secrets of the occult rituals it would have witnessed, the script on the walls mean nothing to the few devotees who come. As night takes over from dusk, we leave with a sense of the transience of time. The temple's associations with death have long been forgotten and it lives as a house of worship visited by those who seek a better life.

Location:Pallimadam is a village near Thiruchuzhi, not far from Aruppukottai/Virudunagar.



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Fidelia | 21 September 2018, 4:09

Hey, you're the goto extrpe. Thanks for hanging out here.

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