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Vol. XXX No. 17, January 1-15, 2021

Inscriptions on a temple’s walls bring alive another age

(The writer, a software engineer, is interested in history and Tamil culture and has researched on Tamil Sangam Literature, Chennai history and temples. She runs a YouTube channel in her name, focused on Tamil Literature.)

If walls could talk, the ancient temple at Thiruvotriyur in Chennai would have many a tale to tell – of kings and dancing girls, of a village and taxation, agriculture and trade. Meenakshi Devaraj* provides fascinating glimpses into the past, that the inscriptions on the walls of the Thiruvotriyur temple provide. These epigraphs are treasures that must be preserved and the wealth of information contained in them should be documented and made available to more people, she says.

Imposing facade: Entrance to the Thiruvotriyur Temple.

The congested Thriuvotriyur area in North Chennai is dominated by the Thyagarajaswamy Temple, known locally as the Vadivudaiamman (Goddess) Temple. It was once a magnificent centre of Saivism, and praises to Lord Adhipureeswara, the deity in the temple complex, probably dating back much before the 7th Century, were sung by Saivite poets Appar, Sundarar and Sambandar.

The 12th Century literary work, Periyapuranam, refers to Lord Adhipureeswarar as Ezhuthariyum Peruman (God who helps in the learning of letters). There were numerous mattas (monasteries) and mandapams (pillared halls) in and around the temple premises, testifying to its importance. The Vyakaranadana Mandapam was a renowned centre of learning.

The Adhipureeswarar Temple was once famed throughout the region and it attracted visitors and gifts from all parts of the land, including Kashmir. The details of such visitors and donations are recorded not in any ledger or literary work, but on the stone walls of the temple itself. Many of the epigraphs talk about the various services performed in the temple, starting from thirupalliyezhuchi (waking up the Lord).

Details of festivals are also documented elaborately. Devaradiyars, the dancing girls who devoted themselves to the deities, played a pivotal role in keeping alive the tradition of music and dance in Thiruvotriyur. The temple inscriptions document this in much detail. Here are a few examples:

In the 13th Century, Raja Raja Chola III, impressed with the performance of a Devaradiyar named Urvikkna Thalaikoli, ordered the renaming of a piece of land in Manali after her, according to one epigraph. Thalaikoli was a title bestowed on a dancer during the early Chola period, according to the Tamil epic, Silappathikaram. The inscriptions on the Thiruvotriyur Temple tell us the surprising fact that the title, Thalaikoli, was used even in the 13th Century.

Epigraphs record not only gifts given toDevaradiyars, but also details of the gifts theDevaradiyars made to the temple. An 11thCentury inscription carries important information on the celebration of the Harvest Festival, Puthuyeedu, in Thiruvotriyur during the reign of Rajendra Chola I. A dancing girl named Nakan Kodai, says one inscription, gifted gold to the temple for a special food offering during the festival. Other inscriptions speak ofDevaradiyars who had the privilege of waving fly-whisks before the deity. They were called kavari pinnakkal (fly-whisk girls).

Recital of Thiruvempavai during the Tamil month of Margazhi is a common practice today. It dates back to the Chola period, as shown by one of the inscriptions, which says the king ordered the recital of Thiruvempavai during Margazhi in Thiruvotriyur.The king had also ordered appointment of moreDevaradiyars to recite devaram (devotional poetry). Gifts for the dancing girls and their nattuvanars (dance masters) are all documented on the walls. This makes it clear thatDevaradiyars were given the privilege of reciting Devaram in temples during the Chola period.

The fascinating records are not limited to the dancers, but extend to dance forms as well. One 14th Century Vijayanagar inscription details a dispute between two sections ofDevaradiyars in Thiruvotriyur. It refers to many dance forms. Some of them are mentioned also in early Tamil Literature. For instance, the Chokkam dance is mentioned in Silappathikaram. Kunippam is referred to in various Tamil literary works like Kalingathubharani, Kambaramayanam, Kalladam, Madurai Sokkanathar Ula, etc. It is used in the same way as koothu, the Tamil term for dance in early literary works.

The 10th Century Tamil dictionary Pingala Nigandu also explains Kunippam as dance. Varikoothu is another dance mentioned in this epigraph which also finds a place in Silappathikaram. Malaippu, which the inscriptions say was performed by theDevaradiyars, is mentioned in Pingala Nigandu. It is fascinating to note that the dances mentioned in fourth century epigraphs were practiced even in the 14th Century in Thiruvotriyur. Unfortunately, they are no longer performed.

Thirumezhuku and thiruazhagu are duties related to cleaning and decorating the temple premises. From the inscriptions, we learn that these services were performed by theDevaradiyars in Thiruvotriyur. Temples were not just religious institutions in the early days, they were centres of administration. The walls of the Thiruvotriyur Adhipureeswarar Temple have hundreds of detailed inscriptions that speak of the rich social, economic and cultural history of the place.

The temple’s sthala puranam (history) found in the 12th Century Periyapuranam says that Thiruvotriyur was exempted from tax because of the acts of Lord Siva. Interestingly, an epigraph dating back to the 14th Century refers to Thiruvotriyur as a ningal village, meaning a village exempt from tax. Many inscriptions dating from the Pallava period talk about the village assemblies and committees which took care of various administrative activities, including those relating to the temple.

Special officers were appointed to conduct periodic enquiries. Though they may have been geographically far away, the kings of these dynasties kept an eye on the welfare of the people. They ordered the cultivation of wastelands, for instance. An inscription of Kulottunga I provides important information about the irrigation methods practiced by agriculturists of Thiruvotriyur in that period. There are also epigraphs on saltpans and oil traders. Many inscriptions about merchants tell us that Thiruvotriyur was once an important trading centre.

The inscriptions are not limited to life in Thiruvotriyur either. They also talk about other places, including Chennai. For example, one epigraph tells us the original name of what is known as the Chetput area in Chennai was Serrupeddu (meaning ‘special place’ in Tamil) – Courtesy: Vidura, journal of the Press Institute of India, July-September 2020.

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