The skies were dark and threatening rain. The winds blew strong as we stood in the ancient Shree Dhenupurisvarar temple in Madambakkam near Rajakilpakkam in East Tambaram. A heritage walk around the temple by Pradeep Chakravarty gave us a peep into the history, the life and times of Chola rulers. The walk began with Pradeep singing a verse from Arunagirinathar's work as it contained a line that mentioned the Madambakkam temple.

(Arunagirinathar was a Tamil poet who lived during the 15th century in Tamil Nadu. He was the creator of Tiruppugazh, a book of poems in Tamil).

Legend has it that the king had a dream in which he saw Kapila performing a penance to Shiva. But he was holding the Shiva Linga in his left hand and pouring the milk on his right hand. As a result he was born as a cow. The master of the cow realised that the cow never yielded milk and followed it one day. He saw the cow pouring its milk at a particular place and hit it. In pain, the cow struck the ground and blood began to flow from it. When the ground was dug, a Shiva Linga was discovered. The king decided to build the temple in that place — Sitreri, which means ‘small lake'. Today it is known as Madambakkam.

This Siva temple was built during the reign of Parantaka Chola II alias Sundara Chola (A.D. 954 – 971) and his minister Aniruddha Bramadhirajan in the 10th century. (Read Kalki Krishnamurthy's Ponniyin Selvan to know more about this great king and his minister.) It is believed to have been consolidated with stones during the reign of Ulakuyavanda Kulotunga Chola I. During this era, the present Madambakkam was known as Aniruddhamangalam and Ulakuyavanda Chola Chaturvedi Mangalam.

One of the special architectural features of the temple is the shape of the garbha griha or the sanctum. It is shaped like the back of a sleeping elephant. The sculptures carved on the stone pillars belong to the Vijayanagara period whereas the ones in the sanctum belong to the Chola period. The lines of the Chola sculptures are graceful and free flowing while the ones from the Vijayanagara period are stiff. It was pointed out that after the Muslim invasion, many temples were destroyed and the sculptors of the Vijayanagara period that followed had a tough time redoing the temples so much so that it became a question of quantity over quality.

While walking and listening to the resource person talk, realisation hit hard – history was not just facts and dates but in truth "today is tomorrow's history." The problems and issues that face man might be the same though they are dealt differently. Then how did these Chola rulers manage their vast empire?

Writing on the wall

During the period 1010–1200, the Chola territories stretched from the islands of the Maldives in the south to as far north as the banks of the Godavari in Andhra Pradesh. Rajaraja Chola conquered peninsular South India, annexed parts of what is now Sri Lanka and occupied the islands of the Maldives. Rajendra Chola sent a victorious expedition to North India up to the Ganges and defeated the Pala ruler of Pataliputra, Mahipala. He also invaded kingdoms of the Malay archipelago.

Problems might have been overwhelming. The capital, Tanjavur, was far away and the emperor just couldn't be everywhere at the same time. But the nature of the Chola bureaucracy (Bureaucracy is the combined organisational structure, procedures, protocols, and set of regulations in place to manage activity, usually in large organisations.) was shrewd that it went a long way for the peaceful and prosperous rule.

Reliable and responsible people were chosen as administrators and ministers. They were given particular areas as their domain. Each village came under the federation of a larger village and while they came under the central Chola system, the individual village identity was respected.

A particular area was responsible for certain duties. For example, Velechery had gold tested, and had in its control, water ways, tolls and taxes and law and order.

The ministers ensured that the taxes from the different regions were remitted to the King. Land was assessed efficiently and taxes were collected as cash or grain.

To keep his ministers happy, the king gave them innumerable titles and vast tracts of land. It is believed that Madambakkam would have been gifted to Annirudha. The ministers in turn kept the king happy by creating new settlements, for new settlements meant more taxes.

They sponsored temple festivals in the king's name. It was inscribed on the temple wall. But how do people come know of this? As the walk took its final turn, the group stood before the inscriptions that covered the wall. Temple inscriptions, especially as they were carved on stone were great record keepers as stone is permanent. Preserved for centuries these records show the gifts given by the kings and the people to the temple, and how it was used. The legal system and the various taxes, landmark judgements and some even have recipes for pongal, curd and tamarind rice!

Thus these stone inscriptions depict a slice of life during this era. The inscriptions at the Madambakkam temple refer that the curd from the goats milk had to be given to the temple.

There was the Vasal vari – the house tax, the Eri meen pattam – tax for fishing, the Sandhai mudhal – market tax which were listed along with tax for cotton looms, maintenance of the oil press, for cattle as well as the paddy that had to be given to the village watchman. And the inscriptions end rather poetically that all these taxes must be paid to the temple “as long as the sun and moon exist”.

We left the space and the green of the almost-still rural Madambakkam, carrying with us the feeling of a priceless heritage, for we had stepped into the corridors of antiquity and had a glimpse of the golden past.

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Do not deface inscriptions

Carry a sketch book, draw a sculpture or a frieze

Copy a part of the script, try to decipher it. Find out more.

Those interested in attending such walks can email -

pradeepandnusha@gmail.com