Anusha Parthasarathy goes in search of the Pattabhirama temple and finds that in its surreal architecture lies the forgotten history of an empire

Narasingarayanpettai is a ‘stone’s throw’ away (well, if you can throw quite far) from Gingee’s Bazaar Road, but every time I stop for directions, I get the same reaction; people scratching their heads or looking perplexed. I try different combinations, “Pattabhirama temple?” “Old temple?” “ASI-protected temple?” but after a while, I start losing hope.

Finally, I approach a group of enthusiastic men who have heard of the temple. One of them is sure of the way. “But,” he warns in a low voice, wagging his finger, “there is only a mandapam. There is no idol. Are you sure you want to go to this temple?” I manage a nod and his finger suddenly points back to the way I just came. “Cross the stream and turn right at the tar road. Go down it and you’ll see the temple.”

We follow his directions and drive through M.G.R Nagar, a colourful town with small shops. A girl on a cycle waves us down and shows us the way, past vast open fields, towering palms, banana plantations and rocky hills. Then suddenly out of nowhere, the Pattabhirama temple with its 12-pillared mandapa comes into view.

It’s rather striking at first glance; a solitary rajagopuram against a backdrop of purple hills and green fields. There’s no one around for miles and we stop at the entrance near a smaller gopuram on a tall brick wall. The mandapam, with its stone elephant entrances doesn’t seem to have 12 stone pillars at first glance. Step a little to the side and you can see them all.

Built in the 17th Century during the reign of the Vijayanagara empire, the temple has one rajagopuram and smaller gopurams inside. Behind the pillared mandapam is a stone dwaja sthamba guarding the entrance to the temple. The mandapam and the temple are fenced off and we’re unable to go inside but we walk around to see what’s behind the entrance and find a line of carved stone pillars, small temples with garba grahams and a high stage with ornately carved stone pillars. There are two other pillars in a field who’s importance in the setting is difficult to gauge.

The sanctum sanctorums are dark and empty, and even the sun doesn’t seem to seep through the cracks and light them up. It is no wonder that the temple doesn’t have too many visitors or even a place on the map. Yet, there is a certain surreal quality that it exudes… like a forgotten chapter in a history book.

Getting there

Narasingarayanpettai about 2 km from Gingee and 152 km from Chennai is accessible by road. The nearest railway station is Thiruvannamalai or Tindivanam. The nearest airport is Chennai.

Where to stay

Accommodation is available at Gingee, Tindivanam, Thiruvannamalai and Puducherry.