HERITAGE Valuable inscriptions and a Chola-era mandapam have been lost forever in the effort to modernise a Pallava temple in Porur.

It must have been a beautiful-looking temple once. It was built about 1,300 years ago by the Pallava rulers at Porur, on the outskirts of today's Chennai. The imperial Cholas made additions to the temple later, giving it a more elaborate look. Inscriptions of Emperor Raja Raja Chola (regnal years 985-1014 A.D) and his redoubtable son, Rajendra Chola (regnal years 1012-1044 A.D.), are available from this Siva temple which is called Ramanatheeswara temple. The temple's sanctum, housing a Lingam, is apsidal, that is, it is built in Gajaprishta style.

Centuries ago, the Ramanatheesvarar temple must have been surrounded by groves and paddy fields. Today, with Porur becoming a bustling suburb of Chennai, the assault of urbanisation has had its impact on it. It is surrounded by unpaved roads and working class neighbourhood.

The temple is now under the control of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR and CE) Department of the Tamil Nadu Government. The temple itself looks like a ‘modern' temple with hectic work under way for the Mahakumbabhishekam to be held on February 18.

Violating an order

If some years ago, a Chola era mandapam, in front of the sanctum was pulled down and a modern hall-like structure, made of reinforced cement concrete, came up, the outer wall of the sanctum underwent sand-blasting last year, said informed sources. The sand-blasting was done in violation of a Government Order of the HR and CE Department that specifically bans sand-blasting of sculptures or structures of temples in the State. The sand-blasting was done to remove the white-wash (chunam and red ochre) that had been painted on the sanctum's outer wall. When this reporter visited the temple in September 2009, he found invaluable inscriptions dumped near the temple's compound wall. A lingam and a sculpture of Nandi were piled up nearby.

Indeed, when the modern mandapam was built some years ago replacing the Chola era one, the sources said, several inscriptions were dumped in the foundation because their value was not known!

Historical wealth

At a workshop titled ‘Protecting monuments for prosperity' organised by the Tourism and Culture Department in Chennai on August 4, 2009, P.R. Shampath, HR and CE Commissioner, said 38,465 temples in Tamil Nadu were under the control of the HR and CE Department. “About 1,000 temples out of the 38,465 have a high heritage value,” he said. These heritage temples had murals, sculptures, inscriptions, tanks, art and architecture. “Unless we renovate them with care when we do the kumbabhishekam, we cannot protect the murals and sculptures,” Mr. Shampath said.

A sthapathi was posted in the HR and CE headquarters in Chennai. There were regional sthapathis too.

“Even if we want to construct a small mandapam in a temple, we consult them so that we can conserve the temple's art and architecture. When we do kumbabhishekam, we do only water-wash (not sand-blasting). We take much care to conserve and preserve the temples,” he claimed.

But in the construction activity that preceded the Mahakumbabhishekam of the Ramanatheeswara temple, all these cardinal rules seem to have been violated. When contacted, A. Ramani, the temple's executive officer, denied that any sand-blasting was done. “It (the cleaning) was done by hand,” she claimed.

“Whatever happened took place ‘without my knowledge', and it was done by people who did not know the antiquity value of the temple,” she added. She said the new shrines for Navagraha and Saneeswarar were built only after obtaining the HR and CE Department's permission.

A saving grace is that in January 2010, the renovation committee retrieved from the debris of the reconstruction two inscriptions of Rajendra Chola. The inscriptions are yet to be deciphered. Last year, a beautiful sculpture of Chandikeswara was excavated intact from the temple premises.

The history of the temple is steeped in lore. Legend has it that Sri Rama rested at the site where the temple stands today when he was on his way to Lanka.

The temple is also called Uttara (north) Rameswaram because Sri Rama is said to have worshipped Siva here, as opposed to Rameswaram which is in south Tamil Nadu.

This is perhaps the only Siva temple where tirtham and sadaari are offered to devotees, a practice followed only in Vishnu temples.