You don't expect to hear about a birthday celebration inside a rubber plantation, especially if the birthday boy happens to be Raja Raja Chola. We were deep inside the woods, watching the sun stream through the trees. For miles and miles around there was absolutely no one. A gentle stream, once upon a time a river, flowed through the verdant greenery. We chanced upon a Shiva temple but we had to squint to see the path through the woods that led us to a rock-cut cave temple behind it. And that is where we saw the 11th Century inscription that told us that Raja Raja Chola had celebrated his birthday here. A double celebration for the monarch, as he had also apparently conquered Muttom, erstwhile flourishing town and a fishing village today.

We were deep in southern Tamil Nadu, bordering Kerala, and this journey was part of the Naanjil Naadu tour organised by INTACH Tamil Nadu. We had just landed in Thirunandikarai, a village in Kanyakumari district, where we found these temples. The stream, which looked more like a puddle of water, was called Nandiaaru and the place took its name from its location on the banks of the river.

Dual influences

The architecture of the Shiva temple resembled many monuments built in Kerala. Dating back probably to the 10th Century, the sanctum was circular in shape. We met a few villagers who spoke both Tamil and Malayalam fluently, proving that we were virtually on the boundary of the two States.

We spent a few moments in the shrine and then walked down the path lined with dense rubber plantations to the ancient cave temple. Built around the 7th Ccentury, it was probably a Jaina monument. Our guide, V. Vedachalam,?a retired senior epigraphist from the Tamil Nadu State Archaeology Department, showed us more inscriptions, including one about Vikramaditya Varaguna of the Ay regime, one of the oldest dynasties to have ruled this region from way back in the Sangam era to the 10th Century.

As we heard the birds call, a few of us climbed up the monument and spent a few moments lost in the picturesque locale. Vedachalam pointed to another inscription that spoke of Veeranandi, a Jaina monk who had lived here in the 8th Century and had spread Jainism in the area.

The silence was overwhelming. We walked into the empty cave and traced the outlines of some of the frescos painted on the walls. Almost all of them had disappeared but the faint outlines kept us guessing about the gods and demigods sketched there. The art was lost but the architecture remained. More inscriptions told us more stories about the destination. We indulged in debate, discussion and fantasy, putting together the various pieces of information narrated to us through the inscriptions and explained by our expert art historian. The stories were intriguing, the destination fascinating, and we celebrated the discovery of this treasure in our own little way.

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