Researcher proposes answer to the puzzle that has baffled art historians for decades

What battle is this? Who are the fierce antagonists? Who are the emissaries telling something to a king seated imperiously in his palace? What wedding is this? What big sail-ship is this, laden with horses and men looking like Arabs? Where is the ship berthed?

As one climbs the narrow staircase and goes round the five floors of the tower of the 1,100-year-old Naarumpoonatha Swamy temple at Tiruppudaimaruthur village in Tirunelveli district in Tamil Nadu, it is a stunning visual splendour that unfolds itself. There are hundreds of beautifully drawn murals in the first, third, fourth and fifth floors portraying Nataraja's Ananda Thandava dance posture, the Ardhanarisvara, scenes from the Ramayana, the Dasavatara, episodes from the life of the Tamil Saivite saint Tirugnana Sambandar and so on.

But the murals in the second floor presented a puzzle. They portray a king seated majestically in his palace, his receiving three emissaries from another ruler, who (emissaries) are telling him something, his refusal to heed their words, the ensuing battle with warriors, on horses and elephants, fighting each other with spears and swords, the king retreating on his horse, the victorious army worshipping a tilted Sivalingam in a temple, bearded men in tunic selling horses to a chieftain and so on. These paintings have baffled art historians for several decades and they have debated on what was the war fought and who the antagonists were.

After five years of research, S. Balusami, Associate Professor of Tamil, Madras Christian College, Tambaram, has proposed that the paintings portray what the historians call the “Tamiraparani battle” of 1532 CE between the armies of the Travancore king, Bhoothala Veera Udaya Marthanda Varma and the Vijayanagara emperor, Achyutadeva Raya. The battle itself took place at Aralvaimozhi Pass, near Thovalai, Kanyakumari district, in the present-day Tamil Nadu. A Sanskrit work called “Achyutarayabhyudayam” composed by Rajanatha Dindima Kavi, the poet-laureate in the court of Achyutadeva Raya, deals elaborately with this battle.

According to Dr. Balusami, who earned his Ph.D. for his study of the Nayaka period art and architecture including murals in temples in Tamil Nadu, what the paintings portray is this: hostility erupted when Udaya Marthanda Varma not only refused to pay tributes to Achyutadeva Raya but annexed to his Venad kingdom much of the territory belonging to the Tenkasi Pandya ruler Jatila Varman Sri Vallabhan. The Tenkasi Pandya, who was paying tributes to Achyutadeva Raya, approached the Vijayanagara emperor for help. Tumbichi Nayaka, the Poligar of Paramakudi, also rebelled against the Vijayanagara emperor. Meanwhile, Achyutadeva Raya's two brothers-in-law, Salakkaraju Periya Tirumala and Salakkaraju Chinna Tirumala, engineered a rift between him and Chellappa alias Saluva Narasingha Nayaka. Chellappa was the “mahamandalesvara” of Thanjavur, Nagapattinam, Bhuvanagiri and Tirukovilur areas during the rule of Krishnadeva Raya, the predecessor of Achyutadeva Raya. “So there were three rebellions against Achyutadeva Raya, one each on the banks of the rivers Cauvery, Vaigai and Tamiraparani,” said Dr. Balusami. This angered the Vijayanagara emperor, who sent emissaries to Udaya Marthanda Varma, demanding tributes and asking him to return Sri Vallabhan's territory to him. The Venad ruler refused.

So Achyutadeva Raya and the Salakkaraju brothers marched with a big army from Hampi and reached Srirangam in Tamil Nadu after crossing Tirupati, Kalahasti and Tiruvannamalai. Chinna Tirumala told Achyutadeva Raya that since the enemy was “a small fry,” he would take care of him himself. While the Vijayanagara emperor stayed at Srirangam, his army led by Chinna Tirumala marched ahead and confronted the joint armies of Udaya Marthanda Varma, Chellappa and Tumbichi Nayaka at Aralvoimozhi Pass. In this “Tamiraparani battle,” the triumvirate was defeated and captured. They were produced before Achyutadeva Raya at Srirangam, who pardoned them after lightly punishing them. Udaya Marthanda Varma made peace with him by presenting him horses and elephants. Sri Vallabhan's territory was returned to him. In gratitude, he gave his daughter in marriage to Achyutadeva Raya and an elaborate wedding took place. The victorious Vijayanagara army undertook a “dhikvijayam,” with Chinna Tirumala and his chieftains offering worship to the tilted Sivalingam at the Naarumpoonatha Swamy temple at a Tiruppudaimaruthur and at the Sri Padmanabha Swamy temple at Thiruvananthapuram.

It is these events which have metamorphosed into a veritable art gallery at the Naarumpoonatha Swamy temple, Dr. Balusami said. Horses were in demand in the 16th century and the Portuguese traders made a big profit, selling them to the Vijayanagara rulers, the Bhamini sultans and the Poligars, he explained. One of the murals shows the Portuguese traders selling horses to Tumbichi Nayaka. Another spectacular painting, two metres tall and 3.6 metres wide, portrays a sail-ship with Arab traders bringing horses to the Punnakayal harbour near Rameswaram. The Portuguese bought the horses from the Arabs after the animals were brought ashore in small boats at different harbours and sold them to various rulers.

Dr. Balusami said: “The Tiruppudaimaruthur murals are an excellent record of how the Vijayanagara army looked like, with its cavalry, the elephant brigade, sepoys with long topees and the various weapons they used. They portray how an army marched in those days, with men blowing trumpets, playing the “nagarai” drum and holding aloft flags. A humourous element that occurs often in the paintings is retainers proferring rolls of betel leaves to rulers. A scene portrays a retainer offering betel leaves to Chinna Tirumala seated on an elephant, at the height of the battle, showing how casually he took the fight against the Venad ruler! The murals are of a unique style, belonging neither to the Vijayanagara nor Nayaka schools. I would call it Venad style — an admixture of the two schools.”