HERITAGE These Pandya period temples are full of remarkable sculptures and engravings. PRADEEP CHAKRAVARTHY

T he towering heaps of granite dominate the barren lands on the right side of the road as we speed across Sankarankoil (near Tirunelveli) to reach Tenkasi Road. Several small village god shrines dot the road. One which even has a Tirthankara, now revered as a Hindu sage! The winding road from Subramaniapuram brings us closer to our destination, the village of Darukapuram.

A chance epigraph had stimulated my curiosity and the Madhyasthanatha temple's porch, promises more interesting stories. Each of the 10 pillars has interesting carvings from the Nayak period. Many are conventional, women (with parrots) and meditating saints. Others are more creative, for instance an ascetic holding a linga above his head.

The temple has a corridor with more pillars and a separate shrine for the consort again boasting an impressive row of pillars with the yali. The consort's shrine, it is learnt, was built much later. The main shrine has history that speaks beyond the whitewash that covers the walls, including two panels of Nayak period (16-18 {+t} {+h} centuries) mural.

Tamil inscriptions

Inscriptions from the Pandya period date from 1481 ACE. All are in Tamil, recorded in 1915. They are mostly gifts of land to the temple. One unique and interesting instance is that of gifting the village of Pattakurichi in Ari-Nadu for compiling an almanac (panchanga). Some mention a deity called Malaiyadikurichi Udaiyar. Others speak of Tirunelveliperumal.

Gifts of sheep (usually 50) to maintain lamps vary across many Pandya kings. One specifically mentions a hanging lamp. The village had a powerful Brahmin community that was influential enough to wrest sweeping tax concessions from the king. In 1575, Puliyur Kilavan Piralaya Vidangan Abhayampukkan living on the street called Kulasekharaperunderuvu defrayed the expenses to be met in regard to the tax called viniyogam on the water tank Ulaguyyavanda Pandya Pereri, that still exists. This was an invaluable help since the temple treasury at that time was empty. Complex assessment rates for lands are also recorded.

Significantly most inscriptions call the village Malaiyadikurichi, although a hamlet of that name lies close to Darukapuram, result of bifurcation at a later date.

The elegantly carved doors lead to the main shrine again set behind a pillared portico. Renovation is on and Ramanathan, the young son of the erstwhile Thalavanpattai Zamindari, is a cheerful and willing guide. “Our ancestors were granted this land in the 13 {+t} {+h} century and though our fort is no more, we have many connections with this village here,” he says. The copper plate grant that confirmed this giving away of lands by the King of Ramnad in gratitude for killing a single horned beast is not available.

A must-see cave temple

Night is approaching and the small village has many more secrets. Choosing the bike, we reach the foothills and quickly walk up to the Mahadeva temple in Malayadikurichi. Obscured by later constructions, this cave temple is a must see for all those who believe asymmetrical design is a modern invention. The cave has four pillars and each has a few roundels, one foot across. Some have enchantingly asymmetrical designs that are amazingly contemporary. Others have symmetrical masterpieces and one has a unique four-armed figure, rear arms holding fly whisks.

The setting of the cave temple and the Nandi image outside speak of Pandya vintage. The cave temple is one of the few that are from the Pandya dynasty. The right side wall is covered with inscriptions but sadly they are yet to be reproduced in print.

One of them mentions that the cave temple was constructed by Sathan Eran of Sevur for King Maran Sendan (610–630 ACE) in the latter's seventeenth regenal year, i.e. 626 ACE. As we come down the hill we pause by a small temple for Vishnu (Soundararaja) from the 13 {+t} {+h} century.

Everything is new, except for a few stones on the walls that have fragments of inscriptions and a pillar that sadly marks the boundary now. Inside are lovely Nayak images of Garuda and a rare one of a devotee kneeling on one foot. One hand rests on his knee and the other is in a meditative gesture. “This Vishnu temple is actually in the Malaiadikurichi village,” informs my guide.

We do a quick round of the hill, pausing at a ferocious Durga and then stop for tea in the old house that is all that remains of the family. Time has taken a toll on this building too, but has not yet allowed the lovely stucco work outside to crumble. The unknown mason has fashioned closed doors with slats, ferocious lions and twining creepers out of mere stucco!

None told me old stories of past rulers and times of prosperity but the few photos of grim looking people from this family as well as others such as Ramnad, Singampatti and Sivapuram are eloquent with past days of glory. I bid goodbye, hoping to go back again. Even though the trappings of royalty are lost the hospitality still lives!

Darukapuram and Malaiadikurichi are on the Sankarankoil-Puliangudi road. Ask for directions at Sankarankoil. Visit early in the day to climb the hilltop to admire the view.

Contact Ramanathan on 99766 49098/ 04636 235246.