With royal connection


A favourite of the Nayaks, the Rajagopalaswamy temple is full of inscriptions.

Two images of a king, one in stone and another in a moth-eaten paper manuscript. The stone image shows the king in a gesture of supplication though his pose itself is regal and grand, beautifully encased inside a foliate arch facing a similar one of his father on one side of the temple gopuram, on his leg he wears a fabulous gold anklet called the Sahitya Raya Bendaram. He is after all a poet without comparison, the creator of the veena and the raga Jayanthasena and a thalam called Ramananda as well. Clearly the king is at his apogee of magnificence.

The other image has a story to tell, from the manuscript written by William Taylor. Here the king is much older but his magnificence is still intact. Over his silken garments is a thick and large waistband studded with several gems; on his hand is a sword and his wizened face is grim for he is looking at the invaders. His sagging eye brows are propped up by gold wires fastened to his crown. By his side is his son, whom he has imprisoned for treason. Desperate times call for desperate measures and the king frees his son and together, like a lamp that burns brightest before it dies out, they raise their swords against point the invading forces.

The king sends word to his queens and the women in the palace blow up their quarters and the palace is filled with smoke. Almost at the same time, the invaders slay Vijayaraghava Nayak and his son Mannarudasa. A rule of 150 years comes to an end in front of the Rajagopalaswamy temple just off the North Main Street of Thanjavur. The temple has seen the best and the worst of its builders and sponsors, the Thanjavur Nayaks.

The first gopuram is much taller than the second. In addition to Vijayaraghava’s image, it has fine reliefs of the two favourite Gods of the Nayaks – Krishna and Narasimha. Recent excavations have revealed that more than six feet of the base have been covered by sand as the years passed.

In praise of the king

The temple has an inscription from the time of Achutappa Nayaka (1560-1600) dated 1539. It praises the king as a hero who routinely hunted elephants and a great conqueror. The part of Thanjavur where the temple was situated in those days is called Thirumalai Amman Pettai. The inscription records the consecration of the main images of Perumal with that of Madana Gopala. The inscriptions also sanction a long list of food offerings that include rice, rice balls (kapam), payasam, kuzhambu. The betel leaves and Adaikai amuthu (betel nuts) were a separate endowment costing five Panam.

Another inscription grants lands tax free to the temple from the villages of Chiruvambur and Sendhamangalam. Yet another records the grant of three houses in the main street close to the temple towards the cost of constructing the gopuram by the son of Govinda Bhatta Neelameghan.

There are two lines from the Maratha period two. One says ‘Sri Rama Prathapa’ and the other gives the date, 1847. This inscription is close to the Garuda shrine and was possibly the time when it was renovated.

The temple has a simple plan; the main shrine is approached by a pillared portico that has the depiction of a snake swallowing the moon. The main deity is Sudarsana, though the temple is called after Rajagopalaswamy. When was this idol changed? Was the original shifted to the grander Nayak masterpiece – the Mannargudi temple? No answers. Around the shrine are several inscriptions.

The other shrines are from the Maratha times and are interesting too. One of them is for Shivendra, a Maratha deity. Close to this in a store room are large images of that redoubtable Nayak statesman Govinda Dikshitar and his wife Nagambal. The hairdo and drapery and their Nayak connection are clear giveaways. This minister served three Nayaks and was in many ways the de facto administrator. All towns and public works named after ‘Ayyan’ are his contributions. The Mahamakam tank, is a contribution of this person well versed in administration, religion and music.

Rare idols

The shrine at the other end is an intriguing one, with over 100 idols installed. They vary in size from a few feet to even 7 feet. All major gods and goddesses of the pantheon are represented. Rare ones include Kandobha a Maratha deity here called Marthanda Bhairava. Here is one more mystery that may never be cleared up. Why were they installed by the Marathas? Many of them also have evidence of a hurried workmanship. A plausible explanation is that one of the Maratha queens of the 19th century wanted to conduct a yaga to drive the British away and these deities were installed for that purpose. The British got wind of this and had the ceremony stopped! The temple is getting renovated by the Thanjavur Palace Devasthanam.

(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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