It was the end of a legacy when the Rajagopuram came crashing down.

The collapse of the majestic 500-year old Rajagopuram of Sri Kalahastiswara Swamy temple, 36 km from Tirupati, in Chittoor district, Andhra Pradesh, has trained the spotlight on the cavalier attitude of officials, be it in Tamil Nadu or Andhra Pradesh, on the conservation of inscriptions, murals, sculptures, pillared mantapas, gopuras and vimanas in temples. It was 25 years ago that a thin crack first developed in the 136-foot tall gopura that was built by the Vijayanagara emperor Krishnadeva Raya in 1516 when he visited Sri Kalahasti and Tirumala after his conquests. The crack grew into a wide fissure over the entire height of the gopura, which came crashing down on May 26, leaving as mute witness the bronze sculpture of Krishnadeva Raya, installed just outside the main entrance to the temple.

Undivided opinion, cutting across archaeologists, historians, townspeople and journalists blamed the temple officials for the collapse of the rajagopuram.

The Sri Kalahastiswara temple, situated on the banks of River Swarnamukhi, is surrounded by a chain of hills with massive rocky formations everywhere. The temple is considered as “Dakshina Kailash” and one of the Panchabuta sthalams, standing for “vayu” (air) among the five basic elements. Legend has it that it is called Sri Kalahasti because a spider (Sri), a serpent (kala) and an elephant ((hasti) worshipped Lord Siva here and attained salvation.

According to R. Nagaswamy, former Director of Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department, Sri Kalahastiswara temple has a recorded history that goes back to a minimum of 1600 years and is closely associated with the “unparalleled devotion” of hunter-prince Kannappa to Lord Siva. “Kannappa’s devotion is an outstanding story in the Saivite literature and he is venerated as one of the 63 Saivite nayanmars (saints),” said Dr. Nagaswamy, who is a scholar in Tamil and Sanskrit, and an epigraphist of international repute.

Dr. Nagaswamy did not mince words when he said, “The cracks have been there for the past 25 years. What did they (the temple officials) do for over two decades?” According to him Srikalahastiswara temple held a special appeal for the Chola kings, who lavished it with gifts and kept expanding it with additional structures and converted it into a big complex that it is today. The temple complex abounds in lithic records (stone inscriptions) of Chola kings such as Rajaditya (regnal years 947-949 CE), Raja Raja Chola (regnal years 985-1014 CE), his son Rajendra Chola (1012-1044 CE), his son Rajadhiraja (1018-1054 CE), Kulottunga I (1070-1120 CE) and Kulotunga III (1178-1218 CE).

The temple is also replete with the inscriptions of later Pandyas and almost all the rulers belonging to the Vijayanagara dynasty. While the inscriptions of the Chola and the Pandya kings are in Tamil, those of the Vijayanagara dynasty are in Telugu. The story of Kannappa is fully told in a long inscription of the Cholas. The inscriptions of the Chola and Pandya rulers provide a wealth of information on the donations they made to the temple for its maintenance, for performing pujas and celebrating festivals.

During the Chola rule, Sri Kalahasti fell under the revenue division of Attrur Nadu of Perumbanaipadi, which was a sub-division of Tiruvenkata Kottam (Tiruvenkata Circle) under the larger division of Jayamkonda Cholamandalam. Raja Raja Chola had a soft corner for the Srikalahastiswara temple, and according to Dr. Nagaswamy, the emperor sent a golden diadem to the deity from his capital of Thanjavur, which was carried with veneration by his army commander and officials. The temple has bronze portrait sculptures of Chola Mahadevi, one of the queens of Raja Raja Chola, and of Kulotunga III, with inscriptions on their pedestals.

Raja Raja Chola founded a big commercial centre near Sri Kalahasti under the name Mummudi Cholapuram. This commercial centre was in existence for more than 500 years and was active even up to 1600 CE – till the decline of the Vijayanagara empire.

The temple has an interesting inscription which refers to a Brahmin from a village called Tiruindalaur, near Mayiladuthurai (Tamil Nadu), who made donations to the temple. Recently, an 85-copper plate charter issued by Rajendra Chola and 12 exquisitely beautiful bronzes were unearthed from the Kailasanatha temple premises at Kazhukkanimuttam in Tiruindalur.

Dr. Nagaswamy said another interesting inscription is about a local chieftain who killed 150 tigers in the forests around the hills and protected the people from attacks by the animal. This inscription in Tamil, dated to Saka year 1289 (that is 1367 CE), refers to “Valli Arasan, the lord of Ayodhyapuram,” who killed 150 tigers and also assumed a title.

What is of relevance now is an inscription in Telugu, of Krishnadeva Raya, which clearly states that it was he who built the Rajagopuram of the temple. This lithic record is inscribed on the western wall of the second prakara (corridor) and is dated to Saka year 1438 (that is, 1516 CE). The dhamma sasanam (inscription) talks about how Sri Krishnadeva Maharayalu built the peddha gopuramu (the big tower) for the Lord in “Sri Kalahastiswarani temple.”

There are inscriptions that talk about local chieftains who had the title “Yadavaraya” and controlled the area around Sri Kalahasti. Called “Sri Kalahasti deva,” they were proud that they were devotees of both Sri Venkatachalapathy of Tirumala and Sri Kalahasti Natha. The Nagarathar community (Nattukottai Chettiars) of Devakottai in Tamil Nadu have liberally donated for Sri Kalahastiswara temple’s maintenance.

There is a temple called Sri Mani Gangisvara (Sri Manikanteswara) temple behind the main temple complex and it dates back to the Raja Raja Chola Chola period, said Dr. Nagaswamy. On the rock surface near this temple is a series of beautiful bas reliefs, representing various manifestations of Lord Siva. Unfortunately, they have been garishly painted over in a riot of polychromatic colours.

Course of action

The Andhra Pradesh Government, on May 31, announced that it had set up a four-member inquiry committee to go into the factors that led to the collapse of the Rajagopuram. The members are S. Narasimha Rao, a specialist in structural engineering who was a former professor in the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Madras, Meher Prasad, professor, IIT-Madras, C.R. Murthy, professor, IIT-Hyderabad. R. Jaganmohan, Chief Engineer, Endowments Department, Andhra Pradesh, will be the committee’s convenor. They have been asked to study rajagopurams, which are older than the Sri Kalahasti temple’s rajagopuram in the State and submit a report by the end of this month.

A few days earlier, the Endowments Minister, G. Venkata Reddy, had said such a broad-based committee would be set up and it would consult specialists in temple architecture such as sthapatis and personnel from the Archaeological Survey of India on how to build a new tower. The new Rajagopuram would be built in accordance with Saiva agama sastras.