A lot needs to be done to restore the centuries-old Adi Narayana Perumal Temple in Pulicat that’s considered an architectural marvelText and photosAnusha Parthasarathy

Six years have passed. But, R. Mani, a native of Pulicat, still remembers how it felt when he first saw the ruins of the ancient temple of Adi Narayana Perumal, an architectural marvel. “I hacked my way through thick vegetation till I finally saw the majestic entrance. And just a few mt ahead, the temple materialised in all its splendour, despite many years of disuse.” Soon, it drew heritage lovers and architects. “Laterite is porous and difficult to sculpt. But one of the unique features of this temple was that the whole wall and vimana were made of laterite blocks,” says Xavier Benedict of AARDE, a non-profit architecture and design service organisation that has been active in Pulicat since 2007. “There were even sculptures made out of laterite stone. You cannot find laterite in Tamil Nadu; this is evidence of Pulicat’s importance as a trade port.”

Pulicat’s tryst with trade and ancient dynasties is legendary. From the third century BCE, it was under the early Cholas, Pandyas, Sangam Cheras, Pallavas and then under the medieval Cholas. Geographer Ptolemy’s records of ancient ports include mentions of Podouke (now Pulicat). When it came under the Vijayanagar Kingdom between the 14th and 17th Centuries, Pulicat was called Anandarayan Pattinam, and Krishnadevaraya changed it to Palaverkadu. It was during this time that the Adi Narayana Perumal Temple was built. The temple fell into disuse around 150 years ago. It began functioning after Mani chanced upon it. Eventually, the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department (HR&CE) adopted it. A sum of Rs. 60 lakh was sanctioned to renovate the structure, and this June, they demolished parts of the temple. The entrance and the vimana of the main shrine have disappeared, and part of its copper walls are covered with cement plaster. This led to anxiety among the locals, heritage lovers and others working to preserve the temple. After much hue and cry, work has been temporarily stopped.

“We surveyed the temple,” says J. Chandrasekaran, PRO and secretary, R.E.A.C.H foundation, an organisation that looks at conserving heritage. “To be able to sculpt on laterite like that meant there were artisans of considerable skill in the area.”

Another feature of the temple is the miniature engravings that run across the supporting beams in the ardha mandapa , depicting in detail, the story of The Ramayana . This is still intact. Apart from this, the smaller mandapa before the main shrine and two small shrines on the side still remain in their original form, though dilapidated. “The temple staircase had intricate carvings, which are no longer noticeable. The laterite block carvings on the outer wall are also completely gone,” says Xavier. He feels lime plaster could have easily solved the problem. “Laterite needs to breathe. Cement is an alien material and doesn’t allow any space. Lime plaster, on the other hand, is natural and there is a reason why buildings of those days continue to exist today,” he says.

A source in the HR&CE agrees and points out a different aspect. “It is impossible to find people who mix lime plaster as it was done hundred years ago. People use only cement these days, with some exceptions such as the Archaeology Department. We’ve stopped the renovation and are preparing an estimate to use lime plaster.”

For temples that come under the control of the HR&CE, archaeological aspects may not always be considered during renovation, feels S. Suresh, Convener, INTACH Chennai Chapter. “Temples under the ASI and those under the HR & CE follow different norms and policies when dealing with renovations. While ASI focusses on temples where there are sometimes no deity or when the monument itself is more important (such as the Tanjore Big Temple), the ones under HR&CE are temples with many footfalls. If the temple is declared a monument and comes under the ASI, then there are many rules that come along with it. But sentimental and historical value don’t count otherwise.”

Chandrasekaran believes it’s not too late to save the temple. “There is still time. We can suggest ways to rebuild the vimana and keep the laterite blocks intact wherever possible. For this, though, the HR&CE must consult with archaeologists and find a common ground.”

Suresh is also of a similar opinion. “Even if the temple is under the HR&CE, it would’ve been good if norms relating to ancient monuments are followed. Maybe they could consult with the ASI, but how feasible it is remains to be seen.”

As for Mani, he rues, “We go all over the country and worship different gods, but there is one right in our backyard and we don’t take care of it.”

Laterite needs to breathe. Cement is an alien material and doesn’t allow any space. Lime plaster, on the other hand, is natural

Xavier Benedict

AARDE Foundation