Can you think of a temple that has historicity, exquisite murals, intricate woodwork, a river adjacent, and a secret chamber too? If such a temple did exist, wouldn't it draw art lovers, nature lovers and history buffs? Such a temple does exist, but doesn't draw the crowds it should, which is a pity.

The Narambunathar temple in Thiruppadaimarudur, an hour's drive from Tirunelveli, has all of these, and yet isn't on the tourist circuit. The village still retains its rural charm. There are no shops selling garish plastic ware and crude toys lining the street that leads to the temple, as we see in most other temple towns. Nothing mars the landscape. There is a well-maintained garden outside the temple.

The 16th century murals I've come to see are in the five-tiered gopuram. Steep narrow steps lead to the halls embellished with the murals. I'd heard of the lovely murals, but reality far exceeds expectations. Not an inch of space has been left uncovered.

One painting shows the tilting linga of the temple, affirming that Lord Siva was indeed listening to Karur Siddhar's songs. Another shows Gnanasambandar and Jain monks arguing in the presence of the Pandya king. Yet another painting shows a Chinese casting a fishing net into the sea. There must have been some trade relations with the Chinese, for even today during the festival at the Nellaiappar temple in Tirunelveli, a boat (on wheels obviously) precedes the deity during the ceremonial procession. The boat is supposed to be a representation of a Chinese ship.

The two paintings that take the prize for attention to detail are those of Ranganatha and Dasavatara. Adisesha in the Ranganatha painting looks fierce, spewing fire from his five mouths. The paintings have been kept from being vandalised, largely through the vigilance of retired Supreme Court Justice Ratnavel Pandian, who insists that the Executive officer of the temple accompany visitors to the painting gallery. Huge crowds aren't allowed either. Not more than ten people at a time, seems to be the rule.

However, vandals have had a go at the paintings before the Justice took charge. The face of Ranganatha has been scraped off, while in other places, people have scratched in their names. Were it not for the Justice's care, the paintings would have been completely ruined.

Veritable treat

Vying for attention in the gallery are carved wooden pillars, where each panel is a veritable treat. Some pillars have geometrical patterns on them, such as the ones we find on sari borders. The woodwork is obviously a result of Chera influence. There are four tiers of paintings and wood carvings. In the fifth tier the wooden ribs in the ceiling have mural paintings on them too.

What patronage our temples enjoyed under our kings! Maybe the kings, whose munificence to temples is evident, were sure of the Lord's protection should trouble arise.

Now for the hiding place. It's a big hall, in fact and the highlight is its design. The passage is so narrow that a person will have to crawl through it on his belly, head first. The king and his men would be hidden in the hall, waiting for their enemies. As the head of an enemy emerged at the end of the passage, they would just lop it off, and wait for the next person to enter.

As soon as one steps out of the rear entrance to the temple, and walks down a few steps, one gets to the Tamiraparani river. “It is really the water of three rivers merging - the Rama river joins up with the Gadana nadhi in Azhvar Thirunagari, and both flow into the Tamiraparani here in Thiruppadaimarudur,” says Ajith, the Executive Officer of the temple. Some village boys are having a swim in the pellucid water.

“The most important festival is Thai Poosam,” says Sudalaimuthu, Chairman of the Board of Trustees. It is known as Ariyanatha Mudaliar Kattalai. Dalavai Ariyanatha Mudaliar, the great general and Minister of the Nayak Kings of Madurai, made generous contributions to the Thiruppadaimarudur temple. On Thai Poosam, an abhishekam to the deity is performed, using 101 silver and pearl tipped conches donated by Ariyanatha Mudaliar.

The temple, however, was in existence long before the Nayak era. There are grantha and vattezhuthu inscriptions of the time of Raja Raja I that record gifts of land to the temple. Plans are afoot to set up a museum in the temple precincts.