Temples that reverberate with history

DRIVING TO Pudukottai from Madurai to attend a marriage recently, it was hard not to be captivated by the small but impressive fort on the side of the road above the village of Tirumeyyam. The wedding in Pudukottai wouldn't wait and promising myself that we would come back the same way I had a quick glance at the fort as we went on.

The sumptuous food needed to be burned off and what better way to do it than climb the hill? Fortunately as I came back, the sun had permitted a few rain clouds and a cool breeze. The azure sky was a lovely contrast to the dusty grey and brown of the rocky terrain and the three concentric fort walls.

"Which way to the temple?" The response was another question — ``Siva or Perumal koil, for both are famous." It was the village elder resting on a huge block of stone that must have been a part of the fort's wall. I had heard of the Perumal koil. It was one of the 108 temples sung by the Azhwars. But an equally famous Siva temple was news to me. I had to see both these temples and climb up the fort as well in a few hours.

The village has only around 20,000 inhabitants and the two temples are adjacent to each other. The fort called Oomayan Kottai was, I had been told, built by the Ramanathapuram Sethupathi in the 1680s. The temples should be just as old, I thought as I entered the Sathyamoorthy or Perumal temple.

Pausing to admire the stern looking sculptures frozen in formal poses but decorated with jewels in amazing detail that only the Nayaks could master, were sculptures of warriors with fantastically sharp nails kidnapping a princess and a lady with a basket which looked like the real thing frozen in stone. The light from the courtyard glinted off the small pieces of mirror inset on the intricately carved Garuda vahana that had been consigned to the corner presumably after the temple had got a smarter, newer version.

Passing on to the main hall of the temple with rows of sculptures with beautiful bas-reliefs I sat for a few minutes near the Dasavathara shrine under the shadow of a huge, very new looking and rather ferocious Hanuman. The Uyya Vandha Thayar sannidhi was framed with many bangles and cradles hung from the door lintel by those who had fulfilled their vows by these offerings on the birth of a child or the performance of a long awaited wedding. In the main shrine, Lord Sathyamoorthy stands between the life-size images of Garuda and a King with Sathya rishi and his wife kneeling in front.

I carefully folded my hands in worship, for Thirumangai Azhwar says,

The deep ocean's colour is his; so also the rain cloud's.

The lotus and the Kaya blossom, those are his colours too

The conch bearer resides in Tirumeyyam

Those who don't worship him with folded arms,

Have no arms and we know that for sure!

(Periya Thirumozhi 11.7.5)

I expected to hear the usual story of penury but was pleasantly surprised. The temple is run by the Pudukottai Rajah's trust with generous contribution from the Chettiar community. Given the wealth of sculptures and setting, the ASI too has boards, which don't say anything about why the temple is important, but warns vandals of dire consequences!

The Archakar, a kindly old man, told me of the various festivals particularly those held in the months of Purattasi and Adi and of how the Brahmanda purana speaks of the Lord bestowing great favours on Satya rishi for his penance. Circling the shrine, I had to crouch to pass the narrow space between the cliff and the main sanctum much of which is in fact carved out of the cliff itself. On the other side were scores of images of Naga. I was impressed by the variety of snakes but the little girl next to me was thrilled that she knew a recent Tamil film song which was shot in the same area. Going around the Ramar and Vishwaksenar sannidhis I reached the Pallikonda Perumal shrine.

From the narrow doorway I could get a glimpse of the deity but was stunned by the size of the image. Reclining on the billowy folds of Adisesha it must be an easy 14 feet long. The ferocious six feet high Asuras carved on the rock face near his feet are scurrying away from the poisonous fumes emitted by Adisesha to defend Bhooma Devi. On the upper part of the bas-relief are many devas in various postures of devotion.

The whole scene was mesmerising. The contrast between the action on the cave faade and the peaceful and the rather whimsical but reassuring smile of the Pallikonda Perumal was stunning. The carving was similar to those in Mahabalipuram and inscriptions confirm that this part of the temple was built by the Pallavas and later developed by the Pandyas, Nayaks and the Nagarathar Chettiars.

Climbing up the fort I spent the time sitting on the steps of the octagonal and surprisingly clean pool. The chirping of the birds on the nearby Peepul trees was rivalled by the leaves rustling in a wind that promised a cloudburst. The huge trees were set against the sheer drop of the cliff crowned with the walls of the fort and all this reflected in the rippling waters of the pool. It was an energising feeling to let the solitude and the sounds of nature envelop me, as I became quite oblivious to the world around.

Reluctantly getting up I walked by the side of the fort walls past beautiful stone sculptures carelessly strewn on the road to the Siva temple. It is a cave temple and the original part is the lingam, a tall Lingabodheswara and a nandi all built by the Pallavas. Nayak and Nagarathar additions were in terms of more shrines for other deities. An eighth century inscription speaks of Perumbidugu Perundevi, mother of local chieftain Chattan Maran, renovating the temple and giving the town of Andangudi for the temple. Other renovations have not been recorded.

Particularly beautiful additions are the lamp bearers on the pillars and the Venuvaneeswari Amman shrine so called after the now long gone bamboo groves. Perhaps they were praised in the verses of Thirugnana Sambandar. The original palm leaf manuscripts were lost to the attack of white ants. The bamboo groves, however, do find a mention in Thirumangai Azhwar's stanza on the Perumal temple, where the lady says,

Listen sister! Listen to my description of Him!

He is the lord of Meyyam, surrounded by bamboo groves

His eyes are like the lotus,

His thousand arms like a mountain.

Oh sister! Our bridegroom was beauty personified!

(Periya Thirumozhi 9.2.3)

I paused to look at the kolu dolls, including a few ferocious warriors, and the beautiful bronzes through chinks in the stout doors that guarded them. What a pity that their very beauty has caused them to be hidden away. The Archakar invited me for the annual Chithirai festival and regretted that many in the Brahmin agraharam had left but was thankful that many of the inhabitants in the town did come to the temple quite often. On the steps was an old lady reciting verses of the Thevaram. The words ran into one another and she had to pause often to catch her breath but the tune was captivating.

The Tirumeyyam inscriptions had been translated as far back as in the 1880s. The important and longest one is dated May 7, 1245, in the reign of Sundara Pandya II. It records the settlement reached between the Vishnu and Siva worshippers in a long-standing feud. Done in the presence of an erstwhile Hoysala army chief, the clauses rival those of a modern legal contract for their comprehensiveness. The two parties in the presence of various officials from surrounding villages agreed that two-fifths of the "Kadamai" would go to Siva temple and the rest to the Vishnu temple. The bulk of the inscription speaks of the mutual exchange of lands, sharing of tanks, habitation, demarcation of boundaries and the construction of a compound wall. Not only was a referee appointed but an exact copy was engraved in the other temple as well with the names of all attendees. This contract was considered so important that an earlier seventh Century Pallava inscription (copied from Kudumia-malai) that spoke of the "Parivadini" musical instrument and of musical notations was partially erased.

Quickly going round the temple I reached the steps that led up to the hill, paid a meagre entrance fee and climbed up. The hill is small but the rocks, the few trees and the fairly intact walls of the fort and the overcast sky made a striking picture. I also took a detour and climbed the narrow iron ladder up to a cave with a lingam and then to the top of the hill that had an old British cannon.

The view of the countryside was breathtaking and probably has not changed in the past few centuries. The rows of palm trees juxtaposed against the distant blue mountain were a balm to the tired traveller's eyes. A light drizzle forced me to retreat.

Eating a quick snack under the shade of an overhanging boulder, I waited for the drizzle to cease. I thought of the charged atmosphere the rocks and walls would have witnessed, when, the freedom fighter, Veerapandiya Kattabomman's brother Oomaithurai, was put to death by the British forces.

Today the walls overlook the roads to Madurai and Pudukottai and acres of dry land. I lingered for a few more minutes as the keeper hurried me to come down since the premises close by 5.30.

The evening was well spent, a glimpse into our history of which archaeology and temples are important facets.

As I climbed down the steps I also thought about how quickly we forget the past. My attraction was to the tranquillity that reigned in the town but the inscriptions and recorded history spoke of times of great action, strife and bloodshed. It didn't appear to have had any benefit on the general welfare or prosperity of people and was only recorded in a few old books in a library in distant Chennai. If their impact was so little, why was so much effort poured into them?

And from that do we have to learn a few things about tolerance the lack of which is playing a major role in our own lives today?


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