In a tiny village, some four km from bustling Mayiladuthurai en route to Nidur, stands a little temple that’s nondescript in every way. A tar road carries negligent citizens who barely cast a glance upon its multi-coloured walls or the name board that hangs rather forlornly, rust steadily eating up its letters. Once built by the good people of the village, houses stand tall around the temple, with its cement pathway leading to the modest ardha mandapam. The corridors around it are scrupulously clean, thanks to the voluntary service of a family that has taken up this work for the past 30 years.
The nandavanam, they inform me, was choked with brambles, and has now been painstakingly cleared – for some distance at least. Of the significance of the temple itself, they have no idea. “It’s a Meenakshi temple. The gurukkal does his poojai each day and leaves very early.” They shrug and watch as I wander through the uneven stone corridors. The walls of the ardha mandapam are covered with rows and rows of inscriptions, spilling all over the columns, almost encroaching into alcoves meant for sculptures; some dusted with white chalk, most almost invisible.
“It’s just a small temple,” say the caretakers. “No one comes here.”
But they should. This little temple ought to be besieged with a score of visitors, paying obeisance to a goddess who oversaw the handing over of an empire to its rightful heir. A temple that was witness to one brave general’s formidable oath to see the Chola reign passed on from father to son. And to a dutiful cousin, an emperor who held it in trust, administered it admirably, and handed it over willingly to its rightful heir when the time came.
And lest people forget, he inscribed it all in painstaking fashion upon the walls of this temple — so nobody could say that he failed in his pledge.
The Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple at Pallavarayanpettai stands testament even today to the reign of Emperor Rajadhi Raja the Second, who ruled from 1163 CE to 1178 CE, placed upon the throne by his uncle Emperor Raja Raja the Second. History also says that it was Kulothunga the Third who next ascended the Chola throne. Clinical, matter-of-fact, the details laid out.
The stone walls of Pallavarayanpettai, however, tell us a story that’s even stranger than the best of fables: of the last days of Emperor Raja Raja the Second, marred by plots of treason and betrayal against his sons, youngsters one and two years of age; of his desperate attempts to hide them in exile under the aegis of General Pallavarayan, who raised the children in anonymity. Of a faithful king who, crowned in the interim, ruled the land well, even as he knew he was under constant surveillance by his peers.
Sadly, General Pallavarayan did not live long enough to crown the little princes. He died, it is said, at the feet of his beloved Devi Meenakshi, in the temple he himself had built. And so it was left to Emperor Rajadhi Raja to etch the details of his life on the walls of the Meenakshi temple himself, hoping that those who read it, someday, would know the truth and absolve him of any desire to covet the empire. Best of all, it was a tacit acknowledgement to his mentor General Pallavarayan himself that his pledge had been carried out. He had been named Edhirili Perumal after all — He Who is Without Enemies.
Today, amidst luridly white-washed walls (painted splotchy red at places to serve as impromptu notice boards) the inscriptions still stand — although you would be hard put to find the right words, unless you knew exactly what to look for. Fortunately, I am aided here immeasurably by Kudandhai N. Sethuraman’s work Aruludai Chozha Mandalam, which dissects the inscription in great detail and puts forward the theory that Emperor Rajadhi Raja the Second was the son of Emperor Raja Raja the Second’s sister, Neriyuda Perumal. Historians have hotly contested the presence of this sister; proposing various theories about Edhirili Perumal’s antecedents. Even revered historian K.A. Neelakanta Shastri refuses to take sides on his innocence or culpability.
As far as I’m concerned, the stark walls bearing his own testimony do more to convince me of his bona fide intentions towards his cousin. There’s a matter-of-factness to it; a detached listing out of facts that, in itself, proclaims the truth of those times. Months of uncertainty, of a king whose health was failing, who had to choose his nephew to succeed under the wrathful eyes of who knows how many chieftains and rulers. And yet, undaunted, his nephew did carry out his mission.
I run my hands over the inscriptions and in my mind’s eye I can almost see Rajadhi Raja standing by the mandapam, shielding his eyes against the noon sun, trying to see through the mists of time. Watching sculptors chisel his own life onto those walls. Hoping against hope that future generations would believe in his loyalty to the Chola Empire.
I mislay my cell-phone and purse as I walk out, lost in reflection; the caretakers run after me, eager to deliver my possessions into my hands. “Why so careless?” they chide. “What if they were stolen?”
“This is the temple where an emperor made a pledge to hold an empire in trust for his cousin, and delivered it safe, without a thought to covet it,” I answer. “If a possession could be safe anywhere, this place is probably it.”
Fanciful, maybe. But true, I think.