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Updated: August 15, 2013 18:03 IST

A powerful mode of communication

Pradeep Chakravarthy
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The Siva temple at Tiruvottriyur. Photo: V. Ganesan
The Hindu The Siva temple at Tiruvottriyur. Photo: V. Ganesan

On grant of lands, local administration, dancers and more were some of the useful information that an inscription carried with it.

Heritage awareness in schools is slowly picking up with central and south Madras continue to be the focus. North Madras is really where Madras, as we know it today, existed, and it has a temple well worth a one-day field trip which shows on what Madras was like in the mediaeval period. The Siva temple at Tiruvottriyur dedicated to Tyagaraja is the temple within Madras that has the maximum number of inscriptions.

Varied topics

The quantity of inscriptions is equally matched by variety and depth. The topics range from land grants, local government and educational institutions to dancers and even what is probably India’s earliest recorded instance of a professional group going on strike.

The town was an important one in the Chola times, perhaps there was a port close by as well. From the reign of Kulothunga III, we have an inscription which mentions that in consultation with Vanadarayar, his officer in Tiruvottriyur, he declared 80 ‘velis’ of land, given to the temple as a gift by an individual, was made tax free. The charter setting out this order bears the signature of Neriyudaichola Muvenavelan, the Tirumandira Olai or royal secretary. Special officers seem to have been appointed periodically to make enquiries on the properties of the temple. Several records of these enquiries are inscribed. Many explain how committees dealt with the land gifts that were given by individuals to the temple. Some mention outright sale and others auctions and still others complex lease agreements. Very often the venue for the enquiry is also mentioned, Manaikondacholan mandapam being one such venue. From these inscriptions we learn that an Olai was an order of a king, Mandiram his council and Tiruvaikelvi is either an oral order of the king or the person who wrote it down. Sirudanam and Perundanam were two other officers in this temple who were advisors to the king. Despite so many officials, individuals still had access to the king. In one of Rajadhiraja II’s visit, he agreed, based on a petition that some vacant land be leased out to an individual. Inscriptions reveal that the doors of the shrine were once plated with gold and the temple had several golden vessels, one called an ottuvattill and a gold necklace called a pallitongal. Raja Raja I, donated musical instruments made of gold.

Federal in nature

Pallava inscriptions in the temple speak of powerful local assemblies and a system of government that was truly federal in nature than today. Punishment for corrupt and inefficient public officers was much higher than it is today. In an audit, when a committee in the temple was found corrupt in the quantity and quality of the gold collected, they were arrested, their private property auctioned and the damage made good! The Vyakharna mandapa in the temple seems to have been the setting for many such inquiries including those against corrupt temple servants. The temple functioned as a bank and interest rates varied between 15% and even 42 ½ % in 1042!

The temple had several Devaradiyar or dancing women. One account mentions 12 in the Amman shrine alone. Many were wealthy and powerful and instituted puja services. In 1368 they went on a strike and brought the temple rituals to a standstill. It was mediated to be resumed twice after. The third time the king himself had to intervene.

Tiruvottriyur like many other temples has several inscriptions that can provide interesting on issues that affect us today such as relationships, rights and duties between citizens and the state, the status of women and the role that institutions play in society and vice-versa.

(The writer is a historian; He can be contacted at

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