Of sculptures, trees and snakes
On the banks of the Tamiraparani PRADEEP CHAKRAVARTHY comes across an ancient temple in ruins. An attempt is being made to renovate it.
Dwarapalaka, fine sculpture damaged.
RETURNING FROM a visit to Mannarkoil, where there is a temple each for Siva and Vishnu, near Ambasamudram in Tirunelveli district, we crossed the village of Cheranmadevi and a looming gopuram that stood intact despite the central part having fallen away and leaving a gaping hole. The temple was on the banks of the Tamiraparani that was in full spate.
The temple rose out of the fields and the dark weather beaten walls and partially destroyed gopuram formed a striking contrast to the blue hills beyond the green fields and the grove of trees near the river bank.
We stopped by the shade of a Marudu tree that formed a part of the avenue and walked the short distance past a beautiful mandapam that was probably used for the processional deity to rest after a ceremonial bath in the river on festival days. Beside it was the remnants of a mandapam with a flight of stairs meant for the temple car. Crossing this we went through the doorless entrance of the gopuram to see activity for the temple was being reconstructed by a few local devotees.
It was a big help to be accompanied by Dr. Senthil of the Tirunelveli Archaeological Society of India. He had been to the temple in the 1980s and it was his recollections along with my curiosity of this temple that I had passed by so often that had made us stop here. We passed a pillared corridor that had a floor of sand. On one side were the remains of a pillared hall that was all that remained of the "Saraswathi Pandaram" or library the 13th century inscriptions spoke of. On the other side was a hall where the pillars were in a better condition. The faded letters said "Kannadian chathram." Mr. Ramaswamy who is also helping the restoration and Dr. Senthil gave more information. A Pandya king had married the Kannada speaking Chalukyan princess and this choultry was probably established then. The choultry independently had several acres of land that were held in trust by Telugu Brahmins who lived in the vicinity.
The lands provided for fourteen people to be fed daily. Owing to bitter legal wrangling since the early 1940s the produce was no longer given. Also of this period was the Kannadiyan channel of water that passed near the village. This however was better maintained and had even been repaired in 1842. Large parts of the kitchen had caved in and were the comfortable quarters of a colony of bats. Earlier renovations had added further layers of plaster to the roof without removing the existing ones. This weight had caused much of the lintels and pillars to crack.
We came out and saw the remnants of a fabulous Dwarapalaka carved in the 13th century. The main deity was clearly a Nayak replacement of the Pandyan original and that too had been broken by carelessness or by looters.
The temple with the two ancient mango trees in the background. Will the axe man spare them?
Fortunately, aided by committed museum authorities, they will soon find a safe place. We passed by and entered the small mukha mandapam not before reading a few inscriptions that spoke of gifts given to the image of Sri Dwarapathi Appan. Many of the inscriptions were buried under boulders of stones dismantled from elsewhere.
The inscriptions were translated and recorded in 1917. They give the correct name of the deity as Sri Dwarapathi Appan /Dwarapathi Alwar and not as Appan Venkatachalapathy as the temple is known today. The most important and extensive grant seems to have been made by Tribhuvana Chakravartin Konerimaikondan of the Pandya dynasty in 1200 A.D. The grant was made at the insistence of his brother-in-law, Kodai Ravivarman, and ordered a large tract of land near Karungulam to be made tax-free. He wanted this to support the daily offerings, Veda recitation and the singing and dancing. Further land was made out to feed 17 persons of the Tridandi monks and the teacher of the monastery that existed in the temple. The Saraswati Pandaram must have been a part of this monastery for several inscriptions record land given to this monastery rather than to the temple itself. The whole village of Ayyanur was gifted to this monastery during the time of Sri Azhagiya Manavala Jeeyar of the Mudi Vazhangum Perumal Madam.
Land was also gifted to more simple souls like the stone smith Seraimangai Silpasari, who seems to have done much of the stone work in 1197AD. Inscriptions also speak of gifts of gardens to supply flowers. Actually getting the land the king had given was apparently not an easy task for in many cases, the date of proclamation is much earlier than the "ulvari" or the date of execution of the order by the revenue authorities. The Nayak period is represented by a fragmentary inscription of Virappa Nayak (1573-95) a feudatory of Vijayanagar King Saranga II. An inscription of 1893 records the reconstruction of the temple by public subscription at the instance of Varada Rao, son of Raja Rama Rao. The 1916 gazette gives a wealth of information of the other temples, particularly one famous for its "pepper water"(rasam) served during meals and of the complex process of Varuna Japam in times of drought. A more curious practice, that needs investigation is the smearing of a pepper paste on the idol of Ganesha in one of the temples in times of drought. The gazette also speaks of the development work of the Collector, Sir Vere Levinge, who is still remembered for his works in Kodaikanal. He was to have lived in a bungalow not too far of from this temple but that has probably been completely ruined today. Today the temple owns less than an acre of land while the Kannadian choultry has close to thirty acres. Needless to say neither gets any revenue out of this land.
The interior was simple. A raised mukha mandapam with a small Garuda statue led to the now empty sanctum. In front was a beautiful stone table with a spout to let water out that stood on two prancing lions. Called a "Poopalagai" in Tamil they were for keeping the flowers. Dr. Senthil said this was a rare specimen for the inscriptions it had and the lions at its base.
We circled around the sanctum and noted many more epigraphs on the walls and on the plinth. Nayak kings had covered the area between the sanctum's wall and the passage around it and had left their imprint in the form of portrait sculptures on the pillars. The renovators have obliterated all of them with a coat of white paint leaving little of the details but the unusual headgear could be noticed. The passage around the sanctum had two small shrines for Thayar which is also where the balalayam (temporary shrine) is housed.
A dilapidated section.
We then circled the outer courtyard and spent many moments under the shade of probably the two most beautiful mango trees we had seen. An account of the temple would be incomplete without mention of two beautiful mango trees. Each could be a century old and one's heart sank on hearing that the renovators wanted to chop them down for the amount of dry leaves they were shedding. (The decision has since been reversed and the trees have escaped the axe.) There was also a side entrance with a simple barred door that had long given way and the scene outside of green fields leading to the mountains beyond was simply enchanting.
Past restorers had covered the roof with rubble and plaster but the current team had sensibly removed the old coatings - close to 30 tonnes before they put in the new layer leaving room for plenty of skylights to keep the bats away. Sitting under the mango tree Dr. Senthil spoke of his earlier visit.
Before the renovation started a few years ago, the doorways had been shut off by thorns. Inside the temple was plunged into darkness that provided a refuge to several cobras. The priest used to occasionally stand from the entrance and perform a rudimentary pooja. The walls with the inscriptions were covered with paintings of writhing masses of cobras in ochre colour (Unfortunately painted over today). Even viewing all this was impossible due to the snakes and the overwhelming stench of bat droppings. The ground outside was also dotted with several small Naga stones. Local legends speak of a priest who was a snake charmer. He captured snakes in different parts of the fields and let them loose inside the temple. They multiplied so much so that local residents would not step into the temple, not even to collect the copious yield of the mango and jackfruit trees. For such a large temple with its own car, it seemed strange that there were no houses nearby. Perhaps they were all affected/washed away by the 16 feet high floods that lashed the banks of the Thambiraparani in the 19th century.
What started off as an attempt to have at least one pooja a day has progressed to a slow and often fund starved renovation. The zeal of the renovators has to be commended but in their enthusiasm they should not allow epigraphs, inscriptions and sculptures to be damaged.
The deserted atmosphere however is not to be seen either in the small village on the other side of the road which has two ancient temples or in the Cheranmadevi village which has an unusual Chola period Ramasami temple with an ashtanga vimana (three shrines one over another). The temple is 15 km from Tirunelveli and just a kilometer before the Cheranmadevi village as soon as the bridge over the Tambiraparani is crossed.
Those who wish to help with the renovation may address their enquiries to Srinivasan, 4, Dr. Radhakrishnan Road, PatHamadai - 627 453, 04634 260462.
Send this article to Friends by