History recounts Pullalur in Tamil Nadu as the venue of battles and bloodshed. Pradeep Chakravarthy, on a visit to the village, tries to unravel some mysteries.

Every time we think history, we think battles and wars. So many years of history created from battles have done nothing to convince humankind of the futility of such loss of blood. Such thoughts were far from our head as Anusha and I were driving down the Chennai–Kanchipuram highway on a pleasant December morning.

Passing Kanchipuram on the left, we drove towards Arakkonam. After the Tirumalpuram Railway station we got into quieter roads flanked by rice fields and bordered by palm trees. The road finally and languorously reached Pullalur. Everything about Pullalur is low key and slow. Certainly nothing there has anything to do with speed and war. The cows refuse to give way, the people think for a few minutes before slowly pointing out directions and the temple priest won't let us go till we have some refreshments. By the time he has taken two steps to get to his bike we are already in our car but that doesn't help as we amble along to the Vishnu temple and then to the Shiva temple.

Stone images

The Shiva temple has no gates and boundary walls either. The Vishnu temple is in better shape. There is an incongruous Rama shrine added on. “The village had an old Vaishnavite who worshipped a Rama bronze image and before he passed away, he gave the images to the temple and consecrated these stone images as well,” we were told. There was more of Rama to come, but this was the first clue.

Unless you have an interest for inscriptions, these two temples will bore you to death, there are some lovely bronzes and a few stucco images but the walls guard their secrets well. The town seems to have had, apart from the two temples now, also those for Durga Bhadrakali and an important one for Rama. Inscriptions that record gifts to the Rama temple call the town Tiru Ayodhi and the temple as dedicated to Sri Raghava. Parantaka I's queen Seyya Bhuvana Sundaramudayar donated a lamp and lands in circa 941AD. Subsequent Chola Kings have added to the Rama temple and gifts include tracts of land being made tax-free for wise men who recited the Ramayana and the Bharatam.

The temple also has a rare inscription from Rajamahendra who ruled between 1060-63. Significantly most of the ten inscriptions in the Shiva temple and the Vishnu temple refer to the Rama temple. The Epigraphy report also mentioned a field called Devaradiyal Manyam, a land that was gifted to a lady by the Kanchi Ekambaraswara temple in the 17th century. No one had heard of this land though.

Our search ended in a small brick temple in the middle of thick shrubs. Stucco images from the tower told us it was a Vishnu temple, possibly remodelled in the Vijayanagar or later times.

Touched up

The interior was empty, the roof missing and many of the bricks stolen. For a forgotten temple, the whitewashed interiors were an oddity, why did someone choose to lavish care on the interior of the temple that had no idol and a gaping hole in the roof? The REACH Foundation had unearthed traces of paintings, part of a forehead and a crown and a handsome torso. Could these be Chola images? This temple itself dedicated to Rama? The inscriptions point in that direction but the painting is so damaged by the whitewash it's difficult to date it though the style is reminiscent of Lepakshi. If they are indeed Chola, then they become a rare example since we know of Chola paintings only in Thanjavur.

We sat by the roadside on a pillar (which we later discovered had an amorous theme to its side!) and waited for a very large contingent of goats to cross the narrow road. “Why was Pullalur so obsessed with the Ramayana?” The village seemed to have a knack for attracting battles. In the Pallava times, Pullalur must have seen much bloodshed when the forces of Pulakesi (610–642 ACE) and Mahendra Varma Pallava (571–630ACE) clashed with each other in the mid 7th century. Then again, in the Chola period, the nearby village of Takkolam was the sight of a bloody battle and again in Aug 1781, the village was the battlefield for the British against the French and Hyder Ali. It is said that some palm trees still carry bullet holes of the third battle.

Early records

For a village of this size, there is one more mystery the village holds and will probably never reveal. Who won the Pullalur battle? The Kasakudi copper plates that record the gift of the Kodukoli village by the king to a set of Brahmins, mentions that among the illustrious ancestors of Nandivarman, who ordered the grant was Mahendravarman “who annihilated his chief enemies at Pullalura”. We can easily conclude that the Chalukyas did indeed lose if it wasn't for an inscription in the Meguti temple in Badami. The inscription is dated in a curious style – “3735 years since Mahabharata war, Saka era 556” ie. 634-5 CE with the Mahabharata war dated to BC 3138.

The inscription adds that Pulakesi II, “With his six fold forces, the hereditary troops and the rest, who raised spotless chaowries, hundreds of flags, umbrellas, and darkness, and who churned the enemy elated with the sentiments of heroism and energy, he caused the splendour of the lord of the Pallavas, who had opposed the rise of his power, to be obscured by the dust of his army, and to vanish behind the walls of Kanchipuram.”

So who won the Pullalur war? Pulakesi II or Mahendra Varma Pallava? The truth is buried in the sands of time though both kings seem to have conceded loss of their territories to the other. Pulakesi could not conquer Mahendra's capital Kanchi and Mahendra retained his capital but lost his northern territories.

Pullalur has no traces of witnessing three (and more?) battles, all of them very significant ones. Perhaps it guards its bloody secrets well to remind its visitors that wars and military conflict will continue to have little effect across centuries and other forms of conflict resolution are better off. Is someone listening to the walls of Pullalur and Badami or to the rice fields that were three times soaked in blood of the fallen?

For more information, visit http://www.poetryinstone.in

Contact the author at pradeepandanusha@gmail.com

(Photo courtesy: REACH Foundation)

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012