From the ground below, it is not visible. As you clamber up what looks like a tall mound, the villagers caution you. For the entire place is overgrown with dense bushes and there are depressions, quite deep, hidden by vegetation. When you pause, the skeletal remains of what looks a temple vimana suddenly looms up. The tall structure, built entirely of bricks, looks forlorn, blanketed by vegetation all round. As one gingerly steps inside, bats fly out and the stench is overpowering. Someone cautions about the presence of snakes. Darkness prevails in the sanctum where there is no deity. As a villager focuses his torch-light on the inner walls, traces of layers of what must have been wonderful murals, painted centuries ago, come into view. While the innermost layer has murals of the Pallava period datable to circa 850 A.D., above it is the layer of beautiful frescoes of the Raja Raja Chola (regnal years 985 to 1014 A.D.). Obscuring these Chola frescoes is the topmost layer of murals of circa 1520 A.D. of Krishnadeva Raya of the Vijayanagara period.

This is Veetrirundha Perumal temple (of Vishnu in a seated pose) at Veppathur village, near Tiruvidaimaruthur, about 35 km from Thanjavur. What is extraordinary about the temple is that it is the only temple in south India that has murals of three dynasties – the Pallava, the Chola and the Vijayanagara. But the heartbreaking reality is that like the sanctum and the vimana (the tower above the sanctum) which are totally in ruins, these murals exist today only in flakes, which are falling off too. The good news is that the temple itself will be restored to its original grandeur, thanks to the bold initiative of REACH Foundation, led by T. Satyamurthy, one of its founders, who was former Superintending Archaeologist, Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

The mound with the bushes has now come alive with labourers clearing the vegetation around the sanctum. “There cannot be a greater tribute to the memory of Mahaswamigal (Paramacharya) of Kanchi Kamakoti Mutt than rebuilding this temple, which was his noble wish. Our first task is to clear the debris, find out the original plan and elevation of the temple, and manufacture materials (bricks) of the same fabric and reconstruct with traditional lime mortar. We have already discovered the steps by which we can approach the first floor. Only skilful digging will expose the temple’s original layout,” says Dr. Satyamurthy.

According to Paramacharya, among the educational and philosophical centres of ancient India, Prayag, modern Allahabad and Veppathur stood out as centres of excellence during the Pallava period. Veppathur attracted scholars from far and wide and this can be gleaned from the lithic inscription on the “arthamantapa” wall of the Vedapurisvara temple of Tirukalithittai, a neighbouring village. This inscription is datable to 1021 CE of Rajendra Chola. (“Deivathin Kural”, Volume IV, pp. 302-303, published by Vanathi Pathippagam). Veppathur, therefore, was one of the well-established Brahmin settlements (Chaturvedi Mangalam”) that flourished during the Pallava, the Chola and the Vijayanagara period.

According to R. Nagaswamy, former Director of Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department, Veppathur had been a seat of learning for about 2,000 years. Vembathur Kannan Koothan and Vembathur Kumaran, two great poets of the Tamil Sangam age (2{+n}{+d} century BCE to 2{+n}{+d} century CE), belonged to Veppathur. During the Tamil Sangam age, it was called Vembattrur. Dr. Nagaswamy says that Veetruirundha Perumal temple must have been built around 850 CE during the time of the Pallava ruler, Nandivarman III. He settled Brahmins in a part of Veppathur and called that area “Avani Narana Chaturvedi Mangalam” (after one of his titles) and the temple was called Avani Narana Vinnagar. “The temple with its 90-feet tall vimana formed the centre of the Avani Narana Chaturvedi Mangalam founded by Nandivarman III,” informs the expert. It was during the rule of Nandivarman III that the Pallava murals were painted (on the inner walls of the sanctum). The presiding deity at that time was a stucco figure.

It was during the time of Raja Raja Chola that the presiding deity of Veetrirundha Perumal, and his two consorts, Nilamangai and Tirumangai, all made of granite, were consecrated in the sanctum. The frescoes of the Chola period were painted over the Pallava murals during the rule of Raja Raja Chola. About 520 years later, that is, in 1520 CE, the temple was renovated during the rule of Krishnadeva Raya and fresh murals were drawn over the Chola frescoes. Even in January 2002, when Dr. Nagaswamy took pictures of these murals, they were somewhat intact. But today, they exist only in flaking slabs and it is difficult to guess what their themes were.

The Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department has permitted the REACH Foundation to restore and conserve the temple. The stone images of the deities were brought down from the dilapidated sanctum and installed about 90 years ago in a shrine at the base of the mound. The worship of these deities continues to this day. “It is very difficult to re-conjecture and understand the plan and elevation of the temple complex. At present, we are clearing the debris to understand its original plan so that it can be conserved as it was in the sixth century CE,” Dr. Satyamurthy says. He is all praise for the engineering skill of the temple architects, who had built the inner core of the sanctum with lime mortar binding the bricks. However, they had used mud mortar to bind the bricks in the outer core.

“What is interesting is that the mud mortar was ground to such a fine supple paste that it formed a thin, micro-layer between two bricks. and this layer cannot be seen from outside. So it looks like a moulded terracotta temple. Once we get a grip on the temple’s original plan and elevation, we will start restoring the temple to its pristine beauty,” Dr. Sathyamurthy adds.

Veppathur Sri Venkatachalapathy Trust is acting as a link between Veppathur and the REACH Foundation for the temple’s restoration and to highlight the historical importance of the village, says S. Srinivasan, a trustee.

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