Trees from the past in a Tamil Nadu temple town

Tirukalukundram, in addition to the scenic views and spectacular architecture, the town has historical importance as well.
Vedhagireeshwarar temple on top of the hill in Tirukalukundram, Tamil Nadu. (Photo | Harrish Kumar S B)
Vedhagireeshwarar temple on top of the hill in Tirukalukundram, Tamil Nadu. (Photo | Harrish Kumar S B)

Tirukalukundram, a popular weekend temple trip from Chennai, has deep religious significance and is referred to in sacred literature. In addition to the scenic views and spectacular architecture, the town has historical importance as well. The town gets its name from the well-recorded daily visit by a pair of eagles around noon time. The temple priests would feed the eagles, which in turn would circumambulate the hill temple and fly down south. This unique event was happening till even the early 90s. A conch is discovered once in 12 years from the sacred tank called Sangu Teertham, and is included in the temple rituals after documentation. A grand complex with tall gopurams and spacious corridors, the temple at the foothills is dedicated to Siva as Sri Bakthavathsalar and Devi as Sri Tirupurasundhari. The skyline of the town is dominated by the hill, the top of which is reached by climbing 550 steps, with the temple on top acting as its ornamental crown. Siva in this temple is called Vedhagireeshwarar and his consort is Chokka Nayaki.

Situated on the ancient highway connecting Mamallapuram and Kanchipuram, the commercial and administrative capitals of the Pallavas respectively, the temple saw extensive growth under them. The inner and the outer walls of the sanctum sanctorum of the hill temple have grand panels from Pallava times, including the depictions of Siva as Somaskandha. During the renovation of this shrine under the Cholas, the architects have done a commendable job of retaining them even as the shrine was extended. There is also a cave temple excavated on the face of a boulder on your way up the hill. Attributed to Mahendravarma Pallava, this cave is protected by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

The temple at the foothills, Tirukalukundram. (Photo | Harrish Kumar SB)
The temple at the foothills, Tirukalukundram. (Photo | Harrish Kumar SB)

A unique inscription in the temple at the foothills documents the magnanimity of the kings. A certain Puttan, son of Gunavan from Andur village, requested Rajakesari Varman of the imperial Chola dynasty (must be Aditya I, 9th century CE) to help protect the donation of a piece of land. As a part of his request, he quoted an important piece of glorious history. He explained how this land donation made during the time of Skandasishya (early Pallava king, 4th century) was acknowledged by his successor Narasimha Varma (Pallava king, 7th century CE), who conquered the Chalukya capital city of Vatapi or Badami. This stands as proof of the importance that these kings gave to records. They ensured that donations made to the temple survived and served their purpose for at least half a millennium. Requests from the common public have been acknowledged along with the dignity of traditions and temple properties.

Several inscriptions from the times of the imperial Cholas identify the town as a part of Jayamkonda Chola Mandalam of Kalathur Kottam. A lengthy inscription covers the documentation of a land survey conducted during the reign of Kulothunga III. The inscription that starts with the traditional prashasti, listing the valour and victory of the said king, identifies this incident to have happened in his 23rd regnal year (1201 CE). There seems to have occurred a confusion regarding the boundaries of the town and hence representatives, officials, priests, merchants and accountants all gathered at the shrine of Sri Rajendra Chozha Vinnagaram. The names of all the officials have been listed along with their designation. The beauty of the inscription is in using the natural elements from the landscape to denote the boundary. A variety of native trees, rocks and boulders, anthills, the sacred hill, pond and tank have all been used to mark the boundary. For example, an age-old tandri tree (Terminalia bellerica) has been marked as the key identity element. The inscription says, “....mark the tandri tree to the south of the village, to its left move towards east and south east till you reach the boulder on which sacrifices are made (bali idum paarai), mark that as your next reference point. Now turn right and move towards north-north east till you reach an aayila tree (Bassia longifolia), turn left and...” The inscription goes on to come a complete circle around the town pointing to indigenous trees like vila (wood apple), aal (banyan), nochi (vitex) and puli (tamarind). Needless to say, the direction marking brings you to the tandri tree where you started. Apparently this survey was undertaken to solve some disputes that arose then and establish the boundaries as described in the copper plate issued during the reign of Rajendra Chola.

The king, queen and the officials perhaps thought these trees would stand the test of time but didn’t probably guess the greed of the 20th century man. The author wishes that these indigenous trees are planted and taken care of in the same directions as discussed in the inscription. That would be a humble homage to the memory of Rajendra Chola, Vanavan Madevi and Kulothunga III.

Architect and conservationist interested in Indian heritage and culture

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