The Eri Katha Ramar temple in Madhurantakam is both historic and unique. Historic for its connect with the Pallavas and Cholas and unique for the Tyagaraja Utsava Sampradaya kritis inscribed on granite slabs. The stucco images of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana in the sanctum are large and impressive, dating to Pallava times. The village, however, commemorates the Cholas, for it bears the title of Uttama Chola, the son of Gandaraditya and Sembiyan Mahadevi, who ruled from 973 AD to 985 AD, being the immediate predecessor of Rajaraja.
Fronting the Rama sanctum here are slabs on which some Tyagaraja kritis are inscribed. These were due to the efforts of ‘Postal’ or Srirangam Sundaram Iyer. In the 1950s, this employee of the Postal Department was inspired by the Ramacharitmanas slabs at the Tulsi Manas Mandir in Varanasi to do the same for Tyagaraja kritis at the samadhi in Tiruvaiyaru. Funded by donations from the public, the project was a massive one but Sundaram Iyer persevered. Scholar T.S. Parthasarathy assisted him in inscribing these kritis in Telugu, Tamil and Sanskrit, while S. Anantharamakrishnan of Amalgamations helped in transporting the slabs. The work was completed over several years.
That Sundaram Iyer undertook a similar activity at Madhurantakam, though on a far smaller scale, was relatively unknown. An inscription below the slabs has it that this was made possible by a Ramayana harikatha performed by the exponent T.S. Balakrishna Sastrigal at Purasai Deivika Sangam.
Unlike the Tyagaraja samadhi, where marble has been used, granite is the medium here. In addition to the lyrics, the meanings of the inscribed compositions are also given. All the songs are from Tyagaraja’s Utsava Sampradaya kritis, where he ritually worships Rama, going through all the prescribed services from waking up to finally rocking the deity to sleep.
The shrine to Rama here also has an association with Sri Ramanuja, for it was here that he was given the Pancha Samskaram or Samasrayanam by Periya Nambigal. The spot where this initiation took place has a four-pillared pavilion.
The temple shows the impact of various kingdoms in its style of construction and embellishment. What is also significant is that it appears to have been put together with the material available at hand. Thus, the pillars in the hall fronting the sanctum are of varying designs including some which are fluted and uniquely tapering upwards. The corbels are largely unfinished and some even have the intended design etched on them. The gavakshas (cow-eye shaped roundels) that line the upper level of the sanctum are completely carved on one side while the other side is not. Those that are finished display a wonderful series of Krishna leelas, and not episodes from the Ramayana as would be expected. Apart from the stucco images, the sanctum has processional icons of Rama, Sita, Lakshmana and Hanuman, and also one of Vishnu (Karunakara Perumal) with Sridevi and Bhudevi.
However, the sanctum that has true celebrity status here is that of Karunakara Perumal’s consort Janakavalli. Located to the left of the main shrine, this was a work-in-progress for long, with stones being assembled at the site and left to remain there. In the 18th century, the British became a powerful presence in the area, though nominally it was under the Nawab of Arcot’s control. In 1769, the latter handed over the jagir of Chengalpattu to the former and this was confirmed in 1788 by a firman from the Mughal emperor. The British appointed collectors to administer their new estate and in 1794, the new incumbent was Lionel Place, the man who first turned Vedanthangal into a reserve for birds.
For the repair of the Madhurantakam tank, Lionel suggested that the stones assembled for the Janakavalli Thayar shrine be used. Legend has it that the locals dissuaded him and advised that he leave it to Rama to protect the tank from breach during the rains.
The monsoon duly arrived and was severe, but the tank held. The Kothandarama at the temple became better known as Eri Katha Rama (he who protected the tank). Lionel was grateful and funded the completion of the Janakavalli shrine at East India Company’s expense. The lintel fronting the sanctum bears an inscription in Tamil and Telugu to this effect. Lionel, who is immortalised in this, is also commemorated at Placepalayam in Tiruvallur district.