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Inherent interest in history and archaeology

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Chithra Madhavan:There is a rich history behind every small ancient temple.Photo: Maheshwar singh
Chithra Madhavan:There is a rich history behind every small ancient temple.Photo: Maheshwar singh

The audience is spell bound with her lectures and is in awe when she reveals less-known facts about temples and their history. Dates, periods, dynasties are all at her finger tips. Every small temple means something to her.

Chithra Madhavan who packs up this kind of information is a post-doctoral Fellow, Indian Council of Historical Research. Research is her breath, talking to people about the history of temples and making them aware of culture is her passion.

“I would like to remain a researcher all my life,” says Chithra. She has visited innumerable temples throughout Tamil Nadu, probed into their history and architecture. “Hundreds of less known temples which have a rich heritage background exist all over our State. Wish I could create an awareness about them to the public,” she says.

“One need not travel too far, as there are many in and around the city. To name a few — Manimangalam Rajagopala Swamy temple near Tambaram; Unamancherry Ramar Temple near Vandalur Zoo.” She describes a temple dedicated to Lord Venkateswara at Thirumukoodal. “It is on the banks of the confluence of three rivers — Palar, Cheyyar and Vegavathi — enroute from Chennai to Kancheepuram.

Books authored

In order to bring to light some of the small but historically important Vaishnavite temples, she has brought out a series of three books — Vishnu Temples of South India (Tamil Nadu). She says that these books have been received well and people have come to know a lot of details through her writings.

Being well-versed in Sanskrit, epigraphy (study of inscriptions) has been simple for her. “Inscriptions in the temples tell us a lot about the civilisation, culture, money and life of the early people. Epigraphs exist both in Tamil and Sanskrit.

Some of the inscriptions are on copper plates and have been reserved in some places,” she said. Reading them she has gained knowledge about different dynasties such as Pallava, Pandava, Chola, Vijayanagara and Marathas. These records throw light on civil, military, administration, life, education, culture and religion of the people of those times.

Lectures and walks

Wanting to share all that she had gathered over the years, historian Chithra started giving lectures. For instance, during talks about temples, she would throw light on history, sculptures, inscriptions, gopurams, mandapams with photos and power point presentations. These one and a half hour long lectures would also focus on kings, saints and composers who had visited or sung about the temples.

Chithra has given a series of lectures (about 13) at the Tatvaloka Auditorium, Eldams Road, about Temple art and architecture of South India.

The audience got a fair idea about several places — right from the Chalukya cave temples to the huge temple complexes that have evolved over years.

“All temples began in caves. Architecture slowly evolved to monolithic temples (carved out of a single rock) — similar to the five rathas of Mammallapuram. Then came the structural stone temples.

Once these came about, kings from different dynasties improved them by adding praharams, mandapams and gopurams,” elaborates the historian.

She has given talks in schools. Children have learnt a lot about the archaeological importance of places such as Hampi, Konark, Gangaikondacholapuram and others.

Chithra also undertakes temple walks. She takes small groups of interested personnel around temples of Mylapore, North Madras and South Madras.

Bronze gallery walk is another popular programme of hers which is held at the Madras museum. “In this nearly two-hour walk, I explain at length about the architectural importance, period and historical value of the bronze sculptures there. There has been a good response for this,” explains Chithra.

The historian has tied up with dancers and musicians to enrich her talks. For instance, if she explains about temples in Kancheepuram, the dancers present items about it, musicians sing kritis of various composers who have sung about the place. “This helps the audience to understand the concepts better,” says she.

Early life

Chithra's interest in the subject was aroused when she was hardly 14. Visits to temples such as Srirangam, Halebid and Belur kindled her interest in architecture and sculptures. This made her take up a post graduation in history in which she stood first in the University of Madras.

She has obtained her Ph.D. in ancient history and archaeology from the University of Mysore and her doctoral dissertation has been published as a book. She was also awarded a fellowship from the Department of Culture, Government of India.

Chithra wants to write many more books to help people understand our heritage better. Her only plea to society is: Try to renovate ancient temples without tampering with the original structure.

By pasting tiles and granite on the walls and pillars, many of the inscriptions are lost. Along with this, our association with the past also gets lost.

Inscriptions, architecture and sculpture are the only evidence of our rich lineage and knowing it makes us proud about our past. Persevere to preserve the past.

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