Not much to see but plenty to think about… that’s what the quaint Sivalokanatha temple in Tirupungur has to offer.

It is a cool December morning as my car races towards Tirupungur, Nagapattinam District. We have lost our way twice and as the day advances, I get increasingly anxious. If I don’t reach before the mid-day worship, I would have to wait till 4 p.m. for the shrine to reopen, which means having to drive back to Chennai in the dark. Will I get darshan of the Lord?

I need not have worried, for the shrine was open. Tirupungur does not amount to much beyond the temple, which is located in the midst of green fields. The temple to Sivalokanatha stands at the end of what can be classified as the main street of the village, which has a few houses on one side.

Built with two circumambulatory passages, one within the covered area and the other without, the temple is simple in layout. The shrine is Chola, with a few additional sanctums built in the Nayak/Maratha period. The gopuram is of recent origin. What strikes you as soon as you enter is the flag post that’s right of centre and so is the massive Nandi, which is located in the ardha mandapam. You are therefore able to get a clear view of the sanctum from the entrance itself.

Lord Sivalokanatha is an anthill kept covered with a metal casing that is opened every Monday to anoint the deity with civet oil.

The dwarapalakas are massive and unusually in a tribhangi posture, with their heads leaning towards the sanctum, as though drawing your attention to the Lord. Goddess Saundarambikai is four-armed and has Her own sanctum to the Lord’s left. The processional deity is a lovely Nataraja with Consort.

Of the 37 verses that detail Nandanar’s life in Sekkizhar’s ‘Periya Puranam,’ four deal with his visit to Tirupungur. Nandanar, aka Tirunalaipovar, on account of his caste, had to content himself with seeing the Lord from outside the temple. The Nandi blocked his way and moved by his plight, Siva instructed His mount to shift to one side, which it did. Nandanar had his darshan.

Tank created by Nandanar

Apart from the incident of the Nandi moving, the work also mentions Nandanar creating a tank at the rear of the temple. Subsequent mythology has it that Siva instructed Ganesha to help His devotee in the task.

The elephant-headed God here is therefore known as Kulam Vettiya Ganapathy and is housed in the passage in a shrine of unsurpassable hideousness, all blue and white vitrified tiles.

The Subrahmanya shrine, which is directly aligned with this, is a beauty in the Nayak style. Between these two is the rear entrance of the temple from where you can access the water body that Nandanar created. It goes by his name and is full of water though its banks present a picture of neglect.

The Nandanar story was greatly embellished by Gopalakrishna Bharati in his 19 century opera. The devotee’s lament on the Nandi blocking his view is immortalised in ‘Vazhi Maraitirukkude’ (Nattakurinji) while Siva asking it to move is depicted in three songs of which ‘Sattru Vilagi Irum Pillai’ (originally in Hamsadhwani and now sung in Purvikalyani) is best known. Nandanar’s delight on seeing the Lord consequent to Nandi shifting is depicted in a free verse in the Khadga format, set in Mayamalavagowla.

It is only on coming out of the temple that I notice a small shrine at the extreme end of the main street, something that I ought to have seen while entering the street had I not been in such a tearing hurry. This turns out to be a small shrine to Nandanar, built in 1959. Standing there, it is possible to get a distant view of the sanctum and it then occurs to me that sadly this may have been the closest that he ever made it to the temple, for he would have never been allowed inside the Brahmin-dominated agraharam. This shrine has an icon of Nandanar, with his palms lifted over his head in devotion. The domed vimanam has scenes from his life on three faces. The one facing the temple has Nandanar praying to Siva.

The right side has him wielding a crowbar and pickaxe, ready to dig the tank, with Ganesha and a stone-bearing Bhoota gana behind. The rear face has Nandanar requesting his Brahmin landlord (who incidentally is not in Periya Puranam but was created by Gopalakrishna Bharati) permission to go to Chidambaram. The left face has Bharati performing his opera.

I come away with mixed feelings. On the one hand is awe at the devotion of Nandanar and the creative skills of Gopalakrishna Bharati. On the other is sadness that until 70 years ago, entry to the house of God was restricted to a few by virtue of their birth.

How to reach: Tirupungur is 255 km from Chennai. It can be accessed by rail and road.

By road: ECR to Puducherry and from there the Nagapattinam Express way via Chidambaram, Sirkazhi and Vaitheeswaran temple.

By rail: Mayiladuthurai is the nearest railway station from where one may reach the temple by car.