The past always fascinates and inspires. The ancient city of Madurai has much to boast and it is but natural for its residents take pride in it. In the recent times, Maduraiites have shown much interest and enthusiasm in spreading awareness about places of historical value in and around the city, like never before. Small and big citizen groups have gone on walks, awareness drives and taken innovative initiatives to preserve and celebrate history, environment and natural resources.

The idea as some portray it is to improve rural tourism and throw light on various other historically important places in the town other than just the temple and the palace. Some others call these as sensitization programmes for the local public, aimed to instill a sense of ownership in them. However, for the participants, the walks have been knowledge sharing platforms, fun-trips and something worthwhile to do on weekends. “I felt like being in a time-machine and transported to a bygone era,” is how a participant at a heritage walk described his experience. Metro Plus brings to you the details of two such walks that went on a history-rewind last weekend.

Nallamaram village is a treasure trove of inscriptions, temples and sculptures

A row of coconut palms sway in the breeze, chants of the morning aarti echoes from a distant temple, cattle roam the streets in herds and farmers till the soil even as the sun slowly climbs up the horizon. Nallamaram looks like any other ordinary village. But its history is as extraordinary as its name. According to the villagers, Nallamaram (Good tree) gets its name from a mythical Karunelli (black berry) tree, which is found in abundance in the village today. A number of tales have been woven around the tree and are sung in the form of folk songs during the annual temple festival. One such myth goes that the Pandavas along with Draupadi strayed into the village during their exile in the forest and rested under the tree, which in turn granted their boons. The village has a temple dedicated to Pandavas called ‘Punniyamurthy koil’.

However, historians cite a different theory . “There’s no village in India where tales from the Mahabharata and Ramayana are not knotted with local myths,” points out Dr. R. Venkatraman, Retd., Professor of History, Madurai Kamaraj University. “This is probably the only village to have been named after a Sangam period Pandya King,” he reveals.

Literary works state that the village got its name from the King Chitramadathu Thunjiya Nanmaran, who stayed at the place for a brief time on his way to Madurai from Korkai, his capital city. “He was going to attend his brother Nedunchezhian’s funeral, in whose regime, Kannagi is said to have burnt down the city of Madurai,” points out Venkatraman. “It was an age-old practice to name towns and cities after kings. Over the years, Nanmaran became nallamaran and then nallamaram.” Other examples are Nedumaram - named after King Nedumaran, Kochadai -- Kochadai Ranadheeran and Avaniyapuram -- Maravarman Avanisoolaveeran.

V. Vedachalam, former Senior Epigraphist, Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department says that microlithic tools and megalithic burial urns were unearthed in an excavation carried out 30 years ago, in the villages around the Thevankurichi hill in T. Kallupatti. “These villages must have been inhabited even during the middle stone age. Many Sangam period literary evidences and inscriptions also state a few villages in this region,” he says. A Tamil inscription found in the later-Pandya period Krishna temple in the same village, refers to a Shiva temple by name Iraiyaneeshwaram. Idols of Chandikeshwara and Shivalinga dating back to the 13 Century A.D. are also found near a tank in Nallamaram.

To the south of Nallamaram, stands an Iyyanar temple belonging to the later-Pandya era. A vatteluthu inscription belonging to the reign of Cholan thalai konda Veera Pandyan (946 -- 966 A.D.), talks about another Shiva temple called Komeshwaram and enlists the donations made to the temple by a devotee Sathampetri, the daughter of Vaiyurkon. “Both these shiva temples are not found today. They probably dilapidated and got destroyed. Some inscriptions at the Iyyanar temple are also lost,” says Vedachalam.

However, the people of Nallamaram should be lauded for their efforts to preserve the old sculptures of the temple. “The temple was renovated recently but the old pillars and statues were kept intact,” says Saraswathi, a retired school teacher. Half-a-dozen stone pillars of the Pandya architecture are installed in a row outside the Vadakuvai Chelvi temple and small idols from the era are carefully reinstalled inside the premises. A few traditional oil milling machines (ennai chekku) are also found outside the temple. “The donors’ names are inscribed on them. Earlier, oil used for lighting lamps in the temples used to come from these machines. They must be a few hundred years old. Since the village is in the black soil belt, it should have been a producer of seasame seeds and oil,” observes Venkatraman.

Yet another reference to Nallamaran is found in the Managalrevu copper plate inscription of King Thirumalai Naick, which says the king stopped at the temple here on his way to Srivilliputtur. “It also tells how he amicably settled a land dispute between two men and presented them with pattayams,” says Vedachalam. “That way, Nallamaram has been continuously mentioned over eras and regimes of different kings. One reason maybe that it is situated on an important trade route from Madurai to Virudhunagar.” The Heritage walk was jointly organized by INTACH Madurai Chapter, DHAN Foundation and Travel Club.

Spreading awareness about Madura fort

Madurai was a double fortified city that forced even Tipu Sultan to retreat after advancing till Sholavandan -- This piece of information from C. Santhalingam, retired archeaological officer, was enough to spur the Naanal Nanbargal Kuzhu to embark on ‘Namma Varalaru’ (our history), a mission to revisit places of historical significance.

The 50-member group with people drawn from different fields involves itself in social activities such as creating awareness among the public on organic farming, protecting water bodies and biodiversity. “History establishes your identity. It elevates you and ushers in a sense of belonging,” says S. Khansa Sadiq, member of the club.

This weekend the group visited Kottai Vaasal (fort entrance), the last remnant of the Madura fort located on the western side of Madurai. Santhalingam quoted references from literary works such as ‘Madurai Kanchi’ and ‘Nadunalvaadai’ to describe the grandeur of the fort. “The entrance was so huge that a soldier on an elephant carrying 80-feet high flag post could easily pass through the gates. But what exists today is just a portion,” he notes.

According to him, the present Kurivikaran Salai bridge on River Vaigai was once a check dam built by King Arikesari Parankusa Maravarma Sundara Pandiyan who is also known as Koon Pandian. Kulothunga Cholan III who ruled the city in the latter half of the 12th century renamed the city as Mummudi Chola Puram but the name faded with the exit of the king.

“There are many such hidden facts that glorify the city’s historicity and our endeavour is to educate people about the historical importance of the place,” says Tamildasan, a social activist.

At the end of the day, it was a journey to the past that filled the participants with a sense of pride.