Surprise, shock and joy is what the writer experiences when she discovers the temples of Kaappalur

The sun falls beyond the low-lying hillock of Kuruvimalai and the sky is painted pink, lavender and streaks of yellow, as I drive at a slow pace towards my destination. Buses and cars shriek past, and I try in vain to spot a sign that might set me on the right path, along the Thirupathi-Thiruvannamalai route – and finally, Eureka! There’s a small board marked Kaappalur, and I know I’ve hit the jackpot.

How many of those rushing past me on their own errands know what an ancient, prosperous centre lay, just a couple of kilometres from the National Highway? That it hadn’t just been called Kaappalur, but Kaappur, or Kaamappullur in inscriptions that dated back several centuries? Would the man grazing his cows with such unconcern, by the pock-marked road, know that the Sabha of Kaamappullur had granted land to Urupputtoor Narasinga Trivedhi by order of the Pallava Emperor Kampavarman? Or that legendary Chozha Emperors such as Paranthaka the First (907 – 955 AD), Sundara Chozha, Raja Raja the First , Rajendra the First and even Kannara Deva the Third, the Rashtrakuta royal, had all made grants and chiselled inscriptions?

Aan, there is a temple there,” says the man with supreme disinterest when I question him, and asks, “Do you want sugarcanes?” Turns out Kaappalur possesses another distinction: sugarcanes, and jaggery.

I refuse his kind offer, the interested sniffs of his herd, and drive on until I reach the outskirts of a tiny, messy village, where banyan trees and plastic bag flowers seem to live together in not-so-perfect amity. Kaappalur, minus the effects of modernity, would have once been a very pretty place indeed with its tall, flourishing banyans, neat roads, miniature-tiled houses held aloft by cracked pillars, and rustic maappillai thinnais — the remains of an agrahaaram — and its quiet lanes which suddenly produce statues of headless warriors (I would learn later, that this was Aravaan.)

Now, though, my object was clear: I had to find the Thirukameeswarar Temple, which, archaeological experts say, must have been of brick construction as far back as the eighth century, after which it was renovated as a stone structure — likely, in the Chozha period. Inscriptions pertaining to the Vijayanagara Empire dot the outside walls of the front mandapam, although these have now been painted over. Inscriptions of Rajendra I and Vijayalaya Chozha were discovered when the temple was recently renovated.

The locals trail behind me as I amble along, touching some of the 96 pillars that fill the complex and gape at a very realistic snake carved on the ceiling. Thirukameeswarar watches us silently, even as his guards, the dwarapalakas, sport a slight smile.

Despite its lack of stunning sculptures or richly carved pillars, this Shiva temple possesses an ancient allure; whispers of the past flutter through the windy corridors albeit determined efforts to modernise it. I don’t really want to leave, but I do have another temple to visit: the Vijayaraghava Perumal Kovil, for which I ask directions from a local resident — incidentally, the descendant of a certain Nanni Veerachi, who has a street named after him in the village!

I travel for barely a minute, until I reach a random pillar wedged in the middle of the road — oh, of course; this must be what remains of the dwajasthambam. My eyes rise to meet the temple — and my jaws drop in shock. This is nothing of the temple that it used to be. . It’s as though a painter has gone berserk with a boatload of paints. Over a base of deep, mournful grey paint are splattered red, orange, yellow, blue and green, all grinning madly at the unsuspecting passer-by.

There’s nothing to connect this with an ancient stone edifice dating back to AD 904 or even earlier. Inside, aside from stray inscriptions on heavily painted columns in the Maragathavalli Thaayaar sannidhi, this vinnagaram has been completely modernised, and sports a present-day donor’s name.

I cross the courtyard where several children play games, and leave the precincts. The temples of Kaappalur may have changed beyond recognition — but at least, they still exist. And that gives me hope.