The Nambi Rayar Perumal temple, in Tirukkurungudi, offers a visual treat.

A place that can delight passionate supporters of art and sculptures is tucked away deep in southern Tamil Nadu not very far off from Kerala, 47 km from Palayankottai (Sri Vallabha Chaturvedimangalam in the old days). This massive 18-acre temple for Nambi Rayar Perumal, in Tirukurungudi, has held its secrets well. Even the senior scholars, relentless in their fieldwork and reach have forgotten to write a monograph. The Chitra gopuram and the main gopuram have more than 3,500 sq.ft of wooden and stone sculptures yet to be catalogued. The inscriptions are yet to be comprehensively recorded. The Chitra gopuram has outstanding stone and wooden sculptures.

To the right of the threshold one can see a series of sculptures such as a scene of traders from Arabia, with their ship, camels and other wares. The Pandya kingdom rested heavily on trade. It was therefore close to both its neighbours Kerala and Sri Lanka. Horses, spices, precious gems and metals were the key products. The area around the Tamirabarani and its tributaries formed the heart of the Pandya Kingdom. Although the capital was Madurai, food for the kingdom came from here – technically the Tamirabarani is not a perennial river but the Western Ghats ensured ample rain and therefore ample harvests. So, the most massive and prosperous temples of the kingdom were on the river banks rather than in far away Madurai.

Unique designs

The Chitra gopuram has several unique sculptures. Most are of scenes from the epics, the Bhagavatam being the most popular depiction. Others are from local legends and surprisingly for a Vishnu temple, many are of Saivite themes. The village has had a long history of accord between these two sub-sects of Hinduism. The sculptures reveal an extraordinarily imaginative sculptor who used space and lines to signify scale and movement. Much like the Chola frescoes in the Brihadeeswara temple, some sculptures tell a story and give definite clues to how the frame frozen in time will end, others are tantalisingly left to the viewers’ imagination.

In the various levels of the Chitra gopuram there are more than 3,000 sq ft of carved wood. Amongst them is this unique small bass relief of two men hunting a boar with a spear. Who will win? The answer is a mystery. In one image, just a foot across, the sculptor has left a riddle that can stimulate the viewers’ curiosity and interpret the image at multiple levels.

The pillars in the mandapam in front of the chitra gopuram have large images of Arjuna and others, a very common Nayaka theme. Behind these are pillars with nagabandhas – where the pillar is composed of square and octagonal blocks.

The four corners at the junction have stylised cobra heads. In one of them, the cobra is substituted with a hunched up monkey. The sculptor has conformed to the process but has not let it limit his creativity! Indeed, monkeys peer at you in this temple from all places – perhaps a reminder that our mind should not wander like a monkey’s but be focused on the divine when in the temple.

Bhima unable to lift the tail of Hanuman is a well-known story in the Mahabharata. Images, however, are rare if not non-existent. The chitra gopuram has one where the sculptor has deliberately worked on the sizes to underscore Hanuman’s frailness and Bhima’s strength. What’s more, are clouds behind Bhima, reminding us that despite him taking his tallest form to reach the skies, he was still unable to lift the tail of Hanuman.’

Famous themes

Composing forms out of other forms is a favourite theme for expert sculptors. Such sculptures are rare since it involved both imagination and flawless execution. This temple has several of them, and what is remarkable in these are the sizes, both the horse and elephant are composed of several ladies and the entire image is just one and a half feet! This is even more remarkable when we are reminded that the stone used is granite – one of the hardest stones!

Vibheeshana seeking refuge before Rama leaves for Lanka is a masterful part of the epic when Valmiki teaches us the various forms of persuasion.

Vibheeshana says, “Few volunteer to give honest and frank feedback and very few listen to it,” – relevant to our times!

The sculptor has significantly shown Hanuman in front, since he was the only monkey who spoke in favour of Vibheeshana.

The sculptor has also used a monkey to our left to frame the image and worked the stone to create waves in the front.

The temple has several other rare images, those of Garuda holding the tortoise and elephant in the hand and a tree with the sages meditating upside down, a man playing marbles and Sanishwara.

It’s a shame that the Nambi temple at Tirukurungudi is a shrine that Tamil Nadu has forgotten – by both scholars and amateurs interested in sculptural art.

On the Shukla Paksha Ekadasi of Karthigai (November 24) the temple witnesses a dance drama done nowhere else, that may be a good excuse for a trip that will please children and adults alike, provided they spend a little time looking at the temple walls.