At Thiruvellarai, Olympia Shilpa Gerald experiences the mystique of a quaint temple and discovers a swastika-shaped well and rock shrines as old as time itself

The air reeks of dried leaves and dead bats as I clamber into a musty cave half-hidden by a giant banyan tree. It is unsettlingly quiet as I sit cross-legged inside a six foot tall recess hollowed out of rock. With the surreal feeling of emulating an act performed aeons ago, I relive the legend of the sage who sat meditating at this spot before instructing a king to build one of South India's oldest temples here.

At Thiruvellarai, there is a whiff of mystique mingled with a decided antiquity. Priests recite literary verses to emphasise that the temple, which is among the 108 divyadesams (shrines dedicated to Lord Vishnu), predates Srirangam, less than 20 kilometres away. It is not just the quaint temple and ancient caves, but Pallava rock-cut shrines and a well in the shape of a swastika that make the town worth a visit.

It is only on stepping out of the cave onto an outcrop that I realise the temple is built on a white rock, giving its name ‘Thiruvellarai'. Myth has it that the Sri Pundarikakshan Perumal temple was built by the king, Sibi Chakravarthy. The sovereign stumbled on Maharishi Markandeya at his cave while pursuing a wild boar, an incarnation of Vishnu.

I sit down to listen for the trills of birds nesting in the foliage of the knotted banyan. Suddenly sounds pierce the air, courtesy a gaggle of village children, teasing the echoes in which Thiruvellarai abounds. The majestic, unfinished gopuram and rampart-like walls at the entrance give the temple the aura of a fort. The subsequent white carved gopuram leads you into precincts with massive wooden doors, stone pillars and intricately sculpted images of the holy trinity. If you are keen on religious details, temple priests can enlighten you on the auspicious faculties, the deities enshrined and the annual festivities. Or you can simply wander amidst the stone walls breathing in the lingering incense and savouring the silence.

Determined to go no further barefoot, I take the lane leading behind the temple. A children's park ends in a familiar blue signboard by the State Department of Archaeology indicating a protected monument. At first sight appears a matrix set in stone, which on closer look reveals a swastika. Four entrances, one at each arm of the swastika, lead to 51 steps descending to ledges jutting into the water. The well, dating to 800 A.D., was built by Kamban Arayan during the reign of Pallava king Dhantivarman. Verses inscribed on the walls exhort people to do good deeds.

Though the well goes by many names, I find the ‘maamiyar-marumagal kulam' (mother-in-law daughter-in-law tank) intriguing. Locals attribute it to the privacy afforded by the entrances where the two cannot see each other during a bath. There is some truth in it, I discover. Believing the place to be deserted, I descend the narrow steps that take a 90 degree turn, to find three kids silently baiting hooks for fish. Deciding to leave little unexplored, I egg the cab driver along a bumpy stretch that opens out into a rugged, rock-strewn landscape dotted with little shrines hewn out of stone. While one dedicated to a goddess harbours a watery secret in the form of a rock pond, the quaintest of the lot holds a sanctum sanctorum and deities carved out of the very rock on which it is built.

Passing a few strange rocky formations, I find myself at the back of beyond. The only sign of civilisation is a petrol pump a mile away. Surrounded by centuries of sacred rites, I can agree with the sage's choice. You can still find solitude among the stones and lose yourself in contemplation. Here, only the echoes will keep you company.