The 1,400-year old Adipuriswarar temple is in the eye of a storm. Why?

K.V. Raman, noted historian and archaeologist, must have had a foreboding in 1959 about what would overtake the 1400-year old Adipurisvarar temple at Tiruvottriyur, Chennai. Otherwise, he would not have included a telling observation in his book, The Early History of the Madras Region, first published in 1959 by Amudha Nilayam Private Limited.

Dr. Raman specifically says this in his acclaimed book: “We cannot leave this short study of the architecture of the Thiruvottriyur temple without quoting expert opinion about it, according to which, ‘The perfect condition of the central shrine, the closed hall, the surrounding verandah enshrining the minor deities, the prakaras and the group of small temples in its courtyard make the Adipurisvarar temple a perfect model of temples built in the orthodox style and must, in my opinion, be protected scrupulously from any possible danger from vandalistic hands.’”

This is exactly what has happened at the Adipurisvarar temple at Tiruvottriyur. For the past several weeks, the temple has come under relentless assault. The result: the floor of the corridor around the “perfect” central shrine has been dug up; inscriptions of the Pallava and Chola kings laid on the floor prised out, thrown around and broken into pieces; a long mosaic pedestal built to house the sculptures of 64 Saivite saints; Sivalingams and their pedestals, installed behind the main sanctum, yanked out and thrown around; the outer granite walls of Murugan shrine and the Kuzhandai Easwaran shrine, belonging to the Vijayanagara period, needlessly cemented up with a few inches of concrete; and a concrete mantap built in front of the granite-pillared mantap of these two shrines.

All this has been done, in violation of Government Orders and the canons of preservation and conservation of ancient temples. Besides, hundreds of garishly painted figurines of Nandi, Sivalingams and Bootha Ganas have been erected on top of thetall prakara wall of the temple; scores of beautiful sculptures of prancing horses, Krishna playing the flute, dancing maidens, wrestlers in action, shepherds shivering in winter-day cold, situated in the Vijayanagara period mantapa, have been painted with a thick coat of polyurethane; and the spacious granite floor of the Tiruvottriyur Easwaran shrine and Vadivudai Amman shrine, removed and relaid with polished granite slabs.

All this assault has taken place right under the nose of the officials of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR and CE) Department of theTamil Nadu Government, in the name of renovating the temple for kumbabishekham. The irony is that Dr. R. Nagaswamy, former Director, Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department, made this observation on August 24, 2013: “The greatest temple which attracted almost all the Chola kings between 900 ACE and 1300 ACE is the Adipurisvarar temple at Tiruvottriyur. All Chola kings have visited it. The temple has as many as 150 full inscriptions. Not much damage has been done.” Dr. Nagaswamy was speaking on “Madras under the Cholas” at the C.P. Ramawami Aiyar Foundation, Chennai. As he finished his speech and listeners came out, T.R. Ramesh, president, Temple Worshippers’ Society, showed them the pictures of what was happening at the Adipurisvarar temple.

What is appalling is that several inscriptions, more than 1,100 years old, which had been laid on the floor in the corridor around the main sanctum, have been dug up and thrown around and some of them are broken into pieces.

Dr. Nagaswamy, who dated the temple prior to 600 ACE, said the inscriptions of the Pallava kings Nripatungavarman (regnal years 855 -896),Aparajitavarman (circa 879-897 ACE) and Kampavarman (circa 901-903 ACE), the Rashtrakuta king Krishna III (regnal years 939-966 ACE) and the early Chola kings such as Parantaka I (907 -955 ACE) and Uttamachola (970-985 ACE) were found on the floor in front of the sanctum of Adipurisvarar. “Theywere all in good shape. If they (HR and CE officials] wanted to preserve these inscriptions on the floor, they could have covered them with a glass plate, without destroying them,” he said. He called the use of polished mosaic and granite slabs around the sanctums of Adipurisvarar, Tiruvottriyuresvarar and Vadivudaiyamman a “wrong” practice. “It is approvedneither by ancient sastras nor modern science. It goes against the cultural history of the temple too,” Dr. Nagaswamy said.

A Government Order Ms. 171 of Tourism, Culture and Religious Endowments Department, dated June 29, 2013, relating to the renovation of temples, appointed K.T. Narasimhan, former Superintending Archaeologist, Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), as a consultant archaeologist/conservationist for all conservation and renovation works of the State Department of Culture and the HR and CE Department. “The Government has taken pains to preserve the temples and appointed a special consultant. In spite of it, if this is happening, something has gone wrong somewhere… What is the use of the G.O.,” Dr. Nagaswamy asked.

T. Satyamurthy, former Superintending Archaeologist, ASI, who has been involved in the conservation of several ancient temples, said, “Without any knowledge of conservation, the renovators are dismantling and reconstructing temples because it is easier to reconstruct them than conserve them. The Tiruvottriyur temple has attracted attention because the temple is in Chennai. But such atrocities are taking place in hundreds of temples across Tamil Nadu.” Indeed, the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) Heritage Committee has declared the Adipurisvarar temple and the Marundisvarartemple at Tiruvanmiyur, Chennai, as Grade I heritage structures, meriting importance. Any renovation in these temples should get the clearance from the CMDA Heritage Committee. “Did the HR and CE get the permission from the committee,” asked a conservationist.

The 1,400-year old Adipurisvarar temple is one of the oldest temples in Tamil Nadu, with continuous availability of inscriptions from the Pallava period to the modern times relating to Pamban Swamigal. The Tamil Saivite saints, Appar, Sambandar and Sundarar, had visited the temple and sung in praise of the deity there. Adi Sankara had also visited it. The temple was originally built with bricks. The Chola emperor Rajendra Chola I (regnal years 1012-1044 ACE) completely rebuilt the main temple with black granite,the sanctum and the vimana above it in apsidal (like an elephant’s back) form, said Dr. Nagaswamy. The architect was Ravi Veera Chola Thatchan.

Chaturana Panditha, head of a Saivite math, who was staying in the temple premises, inspired Rajendra Chola to rebuild the temple. In the 16 century, the Vijayanagara rulers built the pillared mantapas with sculptures of prancing horses, Krishna playing the flute etc.

The temple has about 150 inscriptions belonging to various dynasties including the Pallava rulers such as Nripatungavarman, Aparajithavarman and Kampavarman, the Rashtrakuta king Krishna III, the Chola kings Parantaka I, Kandaraditya, Parantaka II, Uttamachola, Raja Raja I (regnal years 985-1014 ACE), his son Rajendra Chola I, Rajadhiraja I, Rajendra II, Kulotunga I, Kulotunga II, Raja Raja II, Rajadhiraja II and Kulotunga III (1178-1216 ACE), the Telugu Cholas, the Kadavarayas, the Yadavarayas, the Sambuvarayas and the Vijayanagara rulers. The inscriptions throw a fund of information on the economic, agricultural, social, cultural and religious life, the irrigation system and the taxation methodsof the times. “Some of the inscriptions give a great insight into the forms of temple worship and practices, what songs should be sung in the morning, the rendering of Thevaram, Tiruvachagam and Tiruvembavai when the processional deities were taken around the streets, the endowments made forthe upkeep of the temple etc.,” Dr. Nagaswamy said. For instance, women from Arya Desa, who lived in the locality, had made donations for the temple’s upkeep. One of the inscriptions provides an interesting piece of information that when Kulotunga III stood on the Tiruvottriyur street and worshipped the processional deity, a woman approached him and requested him to gift land for the maintenance of the temple. And the king obliged.

When contacted, P. Dhanapal, Commissioner, HR and CE Department, said the flooring of the corridor around the Adipurisvarar sanctum was being relaid because the original granite stones were uneven, some had sunk even to a depth of several inches and people could not walk. “We are using only unpolished granite slabs for re-flooring,” he claimed. The Sivalingams had earlier been placed on “irregular pedestals” and so “we are re-organising the lingams,” he said. The inscriptions had been wrongly placed in the past on the floor. They were being removed now to be installed in a suitable place. The Sivalingams had not been thrown around and no Avudiayar (pedestal) had been broken, Mr. Dhanapal said. It was under the advice of the Archaelogy Department that polyurethane coating had been given to sculptures, he added.

M. Jothilakshmi, the temple’s Executive Officer and Assistant Commissioner, HR and CE, said the temple’s renovation was taking place only after obtaining the opinion of the chief sthapati and the advice of the engineers and estimates were prepared. The granite floor around the main sanctum was being relaid because it suffered from undulation. The newly built cement concrete mantaps in front of the Murugan and Kulandai Easwaran shrines were built because the devotees wanted shade.