There is something about temples located in small windswept towns. They may be lost in the annals of time, but their tales live on. Sometimes it is not the deities or the demons that make up the legends, but nondescript humans who eventually become legends by themselves. One such man is Sivanadiyar Govindarajan, who lives virtually in a temple in Kadavur Mayanam.
It all started with a message on Facebook — an innocuous suggestion from a Chennai-based novelist, specialising in heritage, who writes under the pen name of Anusha Venkatesh. I was driving down coastal Tamil Nadu and my agenda was to get away, far from the madding crowds and lose myself in some obscure fishing villages and backwaters. I had just visited Chidambaram and was planning to give the rest of the temples a miss when the phone beeped. “Do not miss Kadavur Mayanam it is untouched by modernity,” said the message, adding that I would find an ancient temple there, located close to Thirukadaiyur.
We promptly landed in the main temple at Thirukadaiyur, dedicated to the deities, Amrutagateshwar and Abhirami .It wore a festive air as several old couples in their 60s and 80s renewed their wedding vows, celebrating their “sashitaboorthi” and “sadabhishekam”. And then we heard several stories, including the popular legend of Markandaya, who at 16, defied death through devotion. But no one seemed to have heard about Kadavur Mayanam. “If you would like to see another temple where Markandaya prayed to Shiva, it is just about five minutes from here,” said a priest. We decided to explore.
The Markandaya myth was the main motif in almost every shrine in the area and our search for Kadavur Mayanam led us to a small hamlet, barely 3 km away from Thirukadayur. We drove in circles, much to the amusement of our driver who wondered about our enthusiasm for heritage. More shrines and more stories later, we had almost given hope when a priest finally asked us, “Are you referring to the temple from where the water for the Thirukadaiyur deities comes from? It is right behind the Abhirami temple. It's called Meynyaanam.”
And we were back at Thirukadaiyur, but this time the roads took us away from the milling crowds into an entirely different world. There were no shops, the houses disappeared, leafy trees took the place of signboards and there was not a soul around. Just two roads away from the Abhirami temple and we were gazing at the walls of an old temple, located on the shore, lost to the world. The sea breeze brought with us an old world charm and through the gateway, we saw a massive gopuram.
We walked through the entrance into a vast open courtyard. Silence filled the air. A goat was lying down in the entrance, sheltering itself from the afternoon heat. As we walked in, looking for someone, we saw the roof painted with rich colours while stories were portrayed on the outside walls. And then we heard a voice singing in a rich baritone. Startled initially, we finally met Sivanadiyar Govindarajan, the man who, as Venkatesh said, was the “one-man army who had not left the temple to crumble.”
Govindarajan had an ageless look about him, yet he has been associated with this ancient temple from the age of seven, making garlands, cleaning it and telling visitors stories and singing songs about the temple. Barely two roads away, Thirukadaiyur was teeming with devotees and yet, Govindarajan says that the water for the deities there comes from the tanks located in the compound here. “It is believed Kasi teetham flowed in the wells here,” he said. Venkatesh later told me that in Thirukadaiyur, a huge metal pot was kept in a cart to transport the water here. “In the early days, bullocks were used to transport the water across the sandy shores,” he added.
Govindarajan was a living legend and a treasure house of stories. In the silence of the temple, his voice boomed. He bade us sit in a circle and started narrating stories in English. When we replied in Tamil, a smile broke out: “This is the Brahmadeeshwara temple, where Shiva gave Brahma the power to create.” He added that “all three Devaram saints have sung in this temple between the 7th-9th centuries.”
Venkatesh later told me that there are only such 44 temples around, adding that the name of the temple originated from the word “meygnanan”, which meant true knowledge. “But important Shiva temples are also associated with mayanams which refer to cemeteries, one of the abodes of the deity. Maybe that is why people are a bit scared to enter it,” he said, adding that a lot of burial urns from the Stone Age were unearthed here a few years ago.
The temple was also known for the Markandaya legend and his penances to Shiva. We looked around and saw the walls richly painted with stories and portraits. Inscriptions found around the compound spoke of various endowments made to the shrine by Chola kings around the 10th-11th centuries.
As we walked around, Govindarajan was in no mood to let us go. He started singing hymns as we heard him spellbound. He even added in between that his cassettes had been sold overseas. But then we waited for him to finish his concert. “Not very often I get audience like you,” was his parting shot, “En appan, en ayyan — sivan ennai paarthukkolvaan” — Shiva, my father, my lord will take care of me.