History & Culture

Storehouse of information

Intricate: sculpture found in one of the pillars inside the Cheranmadevi temple.  

Persistence pays with visiting temples off the beaten path. While crossing Cheranmadevi, an hour from Tirunelveli, I had been intrigued by the Ramaswamy temple in the outskirts. The pillars outside had beautiful 16th Century images of Lord Rama affectionately resting on the shoulders of Hanuman. The area had interesting connections between the Pandyas, Cheras and Hoysalas. With a bit of persuasion we were able to gain entry and I had epigraphist Dr. Santalingam with me to share his expertise.

If walls can hold secrets, the four temple walls should get a prize. The temple is one of the very few Ashtanga Vimanas, Vishnu temples where the three forms of Vishnu are consecrated in three shrines, one over the other. There are only around six of these and four in the Pandya country. It is believed that they were built when the Vasudeva-Panchavira cult was at its height.

The temple’s front porch belonged to the 16-17{+t}{+h} Century but it did not obstruct the simple elegance of the early Pandya structure. The stairs led up to the first and second floors where one can find the main deities in a poor condition. Future repairs will hopefully not destroy them altogether.

The main deity in the ground floor is guarded by dwarapalakas, the statues belonging to the 12-13{+t}{+h} Century. The processional image is the one of Lord Rama after whom the temple is named. The subsidiary shrine was for Lord Vedanarayana.

Dr. Santalingam, was quickly reading epigraphs, sadly only a few have been published. The name of the town is actually Cheravan Mahadevi Chaturvedimangalam. This is an indication of the many matrimonial connections the Pandyas had with the Chera kings whose kingdom is not very far off. This part of the Thamiraparani banks were the breadbasket for the Pandyas and that explains why many of the villages today were once powerful, large cities in the height of Pandya power in the 13-14th centuries.

Kollam 476, Saka 1361: The inscriptions mention the temple deity being called Nigarilsola Vinnagar Azhwar and that it belonged to the Vaikhanasa form of worship. One devotee, Vatuka, a Brahman and an Agnichit, praises the Vaikhanasa who look after the lamps in the temple as how they look after themselves. The most interesting out of the 25 inscriptions is the one that registers that two of the temple priests, being held responsible for the loss of some temple jewels, borrowed three achchu from the temple and gave a written agreement that they would conduct the same from the interest accruing from the three achchu. This amount had been originally deposited there by Padmanabhan Murugan of Malai Mandalam for conducting worship on festival days in the Tamil month of Chithirai for the Tiruvaykulattalvar and the consort at the temple of Vanduvarapathi Emberuman in the same village. Sadly this temple has now been vandalised by devotees in the name of reconsecration. Several gifts of lamps are recorded, one by a Brahmin lady and also a gift of rosewater for the Chithirai festival.

A Kollam 676 inscription mentions the Punarvasu festival for Rama, meaning by then, the Rama shrine had been installed and the ancient ashtanga vimanam associated worship forgotten/reduced.

Beautiful sculptures

Another Kollam 685 inscription records a gift from Srirangam. Past wealth seemed to matter little when one looks at the weeds and trees slowly taking over the temple. The beautiful bronzes, sculptures and the accomplishment of finally gaining access into the temple were motivators to act to save a structure. The temple needs to be saved both from devotees who in the name of renovation will spoil it and from nature itself!

Cheranmadevi is an hour from Tirunelveli and close to Ambasamudram. The author can be contacted on pradeepandanusha@gmail.com. The priest can be contacted on 90435 48173.

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Printable version | Apr 22, 2021 3:13:22 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/storehouse-of-information/article2369180.ece

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