The literary connection


The Vellai Pillaiyar gets a mention in Kuravanji.

Tucked away to the side of the Thanjavur-Kumbakonam road that enters the Thanjavur fort through the north gate are two small temples frequented by devotees who do not know their heritage. They are not architecturally famous either and off the tourist circuit.

After a sumptuous meal at Vittal Mandir, I had to walk off the lip smacking Methkut and Kelache gole. Shivaji Rao, who hails from a distinguished Maratha family in Thanjavur, suggested a temple of his favourite deity, Ganesha. Among the many dedicated to this God in Thanjavur, I chose one that has a literary association as well. The Vellai Pillaiyar temple is on the banks of the moat. The temple is a small one and was extensively renovated in the 1940s. The original two-roomed shrine still has the gopuram intact. Now embellished with stucco images, which include those of a couple consuming the three important fruits of Tamil literature, banana, mango and the jack fruit. The main deity is small and installed significantly below the current ground level.

Palm leaf manuscripts

There are no inscriptions in the temple but its claim to fame is the Vellai Pillayar Kuravanji. Considered by many to date from the Nayak times, the text is available in palm leaf manuscripts in the Saraswathy Mahal library. Though incomplete, the Kuravanji does not follow the traditional storyline of this genre. In the last verse, Poomalai Rowther is mentioned and there is a street named after this person even today. It tells the story of a woman whose husband has committed adultery. She consults a gypsy woman who promises that as surely as the Vellai Pillayar will marry Vallabhai, she will be united with her adulterous husband and live happily ever after. She tells the heroine,

…, you picked an odd number of rice grains from my hand

Your man will come back to you in fourteen days.

This is as true as the basket I have, the left ear of mine

This is as true as all the children of them – and they are many!

This is as true of all the Gods and Goddesses we pray to

Both Velavan and Vellai Pillayar will attest to my word, mother!

(Verse 12)

It is possible that the play itself was enacted in the temple precincts. I went on to a smaller structure that is probably the oldest temple of Thanjavur.

Vijayalaya Chola captured Thanjavur from the Mutharayars and moved his capital to the new city. He lived at a time when military prowess was most important for the king and consequently Kali became an important Goddess. On the North entrance of the fort, he installed an image of Nishumbasudini, Kali killing the demon Nishumbhan. The temple can easily be mistaken for one of the many roadside temples that dot any city in India. Looking at the six feet image however, there is no doubt of the Chola vintage.

The clue for this temple comes from the Thiruvalangadu copper plates that speak of Vijayalaya taking Thanjavur from the Mutharayars and ruling it with the ease of wearing the four seas as his raiment and the world as a garland. It also speaks of his installing a temple for Nishumbasudini.

Scholars debate on the location of the temple — some believe it is this one in the Potters’ Lane; others believe it is the Kali temple at Poomal Rowther’s lane. Though this temple is simple, the image is a striking one. Layers of oil cannot obscure the frightening visage of eight hands holding various weapons, one which is goring the asura to death. If the image was meant to inspire warriors to fight for their king, it certainly would have.

(The author is at present engaged in writing a book on the cultural history of Thanjavur, to be released later this year.)

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Johannah | 25 September 2018, 1:21

You mean I don't have to pay for expert advice like this an?ormey!

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