Tracing the history of temples in a town that remained an international trading centre

Just 48 km down National Highway 45B from Madurai there once stood an international trading centre named ‘Sengattuirukkai Idathuvali’ under the geographical division of Venbu Naadu. The town flourished in the medieval period. Inscriptions dating to the 13th century refer to four streets that were occupied by the members of the merchant community — Veerapandiyaperuntheru, Vikramapandyaperuntheru, Srivallabhaperuntheru alias Desiyasiriyapattanam and Palivilangilperuntheru.

Merchants from Ceylon were supposed to have settled in the Vikramapandyaperuntheru and an international trading group, Thisaiyayiratthuainootruvar, occupied Srivallabhaperuntheru.

If you are curious about the present name and status of this trading centre, come to the well-known town of Aruppukottai.

Like Madurai, Aruppukottai also has a temple for Goddess Meenakshi. It is 800 years old. Among locals, the temple is known as Sundareswarar Temple and Chokanathaswamy Temple.

It is believed that the temple was erected during the rule of Jadavarman Kulasekera I (1192-1218 AD) and extension works were taken up during the reign of Maravarman Sundara Pandya I (1216-1238 AD).

The temple consists of a garbhagriha, ardhamandapam and mahamandapam. A separate shrine was constructed for Amman to the south of the main shrine. Around these two shrines lie subshrines of other deities.

“The unique style of Pandya architecture is empty niches. But this Shiva temple is without empty niches,” says C. Santhalingam, retired archaeological officer.

“Images are installed in the niches of the main shrine by donors and donors’ names have been carved on the side of the niches.”

The temple is a treasure trove of 15 inscriptions that has the details about the temple, rulers and donations made to the temple.

A 13th century inscription belonging to the period of Jadavarman Kulasekera I reveals that the temple was originally known as Kural Mani Eswaramudaiyar Temple. According to the same inscription, Kulamanjar alias Sangananpuravarimaaraayan (a member from weaver community who was also a revenue official) built the doorjamb for the arthamandapam.

Records say that during the period of Maravarman Sundara Pandya I, a goldsmith named Rettai Alagan installed a stone image of Goddess Durga on the northern niche of the sanctum sanctorum.

In 1227 AD, one Vilupatharayar donated a processional deity of Lord Shiva and an irrigation tank named Pugalohaakandaperyeri. During the same period, a merchant Segalsevathadevan alias Iluppaiyurkilavan installed a stone image of Lingothabavar on the western niche of the sanctum sanctorum and an idol of Arundhavamseitha Nachiyar. The donor belonged to the Valanchiya community from Ceylon and lived at Veerapandiyaperuntheru.

One Avani Narayanan Devan installed a bronze image of Thirugnasambandar which is referred to as Aludayapillai in the temple.

There are also inscriptions with details about donors of a flower garden, land, perpetual lamps and oil.

Between Sengattuirukkai Idathuvali and Aruppukkottai, the town had many different names. An inscription dated 1664 AD contains the first reference to the name Aruppukkottai, a corruption of Arumbukottai. (Arumbu means buds and kottai means fort.) According to local legends, the area was largely planted with jasmine.

Another legend tells of valiant warriors of the area who harvested the heads of their enemies and brought them to the fort. ‘Aruppu’ means harvest.

An official, Cholagangan, consecrated a temple dedicated to Alagaia Alvar in 1168 AD. Though there is no trace of the Vishnu Temple now, inscriptions relating to it are found at Valavanthamman Temple. Paddy was donated to the temple during the reign of Jatavarman Kulasekera Pandya I.

The main image of the Amman Temple is an eight-armed Valavanthamman slaying a demon. A Setupathi inscription near Aruppukkottai confirms the existence of the Amman Temple in the 16th century. This record also refers to a tank, Vagaikulam, donated for performance of puja in the temple for the merit of Setupati Katha Raghunatha Deva (1647-1672 AD). The ‘bali peeta’ has a fragment of Vattezhuthu inscription.

Virappa Nayaka (1572-1595 AD) constructed a fort at Aruppukkottai. But the town is far older. “Sepulchral urns were unearthed at Aruppukkottai. These findings push Aruppukkottai’s antiquity back to the early Iron Age,” says Mr. Santhalingam. Next time you go to Tiruchendur or pass through Aruppukkottai, remember to breathe in the antiquity of the town.