The last stretch of road to Padavedu is bumpy and our car almost gives up. It chugs along hesitantly on the rocky terrain and stubbornly comes to a halt in the middle of the road. We are, for now, stranded at the entrance of Padavedu’s Renugambal temple. A map (that looks like a board game with the ‘you are here’ sign missing) shows a maze of small roads that lead to at least 10 ancient temples. And so, we roll the dice and begin our journey on foot.
For a place with a history as illustrious as Padavedu, not many people have been there or even heard of it. And those who know of it relate only to the Padavedu Amman temple. Seventeen pristine villages, surrounded by hills and fields, with over 12 ancient temples (and more lying undiscovered) from the 12th Century, Padavedu is a treasure trove of stories, mysteries and ancient history.
We drive down the Vellore-Thiruvannamalai highway, past mist-soaked hills, sugarcane fields, banana plantations, brick kilns and paddy fields, turn right at Santhavasal junction, and drive through 10 kilometres of picturesque rural Tamil Nadu to get to Padavedu. This region, which was, many centuries ago, marked by two forts (a Big Fort and Small Fort) was apparently home to 1008 Shiva temples and 108 Vishnu temples. It was also the capital of the Sambuvarayar chieftains, who ruled in the 12th and 13th Centuries. The northern gate of the fort was called Santha Vaasal.
The Sambuvarayars, who were first under the Cholas, subsequently came under the rule of Kempegowda. Hence, many of the original temples found in the area have Vijayanagar inscriptions, iconography and style since they were built and renovated during the time of Venru Mann Konda Sambuvarayar (1322-1337 A.D.), his son Raja Narayana Sambuvarayar I (1337-1373 A.D) and grandson Raja Narayana Sambuvarayar III (1356-1375 A.D.).
Due to some natural disaster, the temples lay buried and it was only through the efforts of Srinivasan Services Trust, a part of the TVS Group that many have been unearthed and renovated since the early 1990s. We find a statue of Hanuman under a large old banyan and learn that the village once had eight Hanuman statues placed in the eight cardinal directions to guard it, which seems to be characteristic of the Vijayanagar empire. Only five remain.
Of the temples here, very few retain their original façade. The Renugambal temple, retains for most part and so one can spend time looking at the sculpted pillars, panels and domes of the temple. Set against tall coconut palms and rolling hills, the view from the temple is one to experience. Then again, most of the temples in this region are of that sort. The Yoga Ramar temple too retains some of its original look, even if the rajagopuram is bright and new. The iconic feature is of Rama in Ardha Padmasana, and next to him, Hanuman seated with a book in hand. This too seems a characteristic feature of that time. And from here, you can revel in the view of a temple atop a small hillock, dedicated to Lord Murugan.
A couple of kilometres northwest of the Rama temple are open fields where famers are busy working as the sun begins to set between the hills. We walk along the culled-out mud path, followed by three local children who have taken it upon themselves to be our guides. Suddenly, amidst bottle-green banana fields, we find the sculpture of Nandagopal (flute in hand), under a tree. Crumbled rocks, presumably from the old temple, are piled nearby.
Most of the temples have been renovated, but stand on the very spot the idols were found. From the Lakshmi Narasimhar temple (which is also on a smaller hillock), one can have a panoramic view of the Javadi hills and the valley below. The Venugopalaswamy temple atop Athimalai Hillas can only be reached by a tractor and a long flight of stairs on Saturday mornings at dawn.
Other finds in the area were a statue of Shiva in human form in a hillock called Kailasaparai and even a statue of Buddha, which seems to suggest that Buddhism had a following here.
Padavedu is an explorer’s dream and as we walk around with a camera in hand, we find ourselves not just clicking pictures of Nature but of the children who run along to match our steps, point us to the temples, clap their hands when we show them the pictures and wave us goodbye only in the hope that among all those memories tucked inside the camera, there is one of them as well.