A temple beautified by the devadasis

The Suchindram temple owes its art and architecture to the endowments made by the devadasis

June 23, 2022 06:47 pm | Updated June 24, 2022 11:26 am IST

The towering gopuram of the Suchindram temple 

The towering gopuram of the Suchindram temple  | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

O Thanumalaya, who resides in Suchindram with a woman as one half!

The moon shows your compassion,

Your third eye your righteous wrath,

The Ganga showcases your greatness,

The poison your manliness,

The lion calls to mind your narrow waist,

And the swan displays your graceful walk.

Thus runs a verse by Kavimani Desika Vinayakam Pillai. The Suchindram temple with its central sanctums to Sthanumalayan and Then Thiruvenkatanathan is a visual delight in every aspect, beginning with its soaring rajagopuram. Though the smaller shrines of Kailasathu Mahadeva and Konraiadinatha within the complex are much older, it would appear that from the ninth century onwards every dynasty wanted to outshine its predecessor in beautifying this temple. The precinct is full of shrines, mandapams, corridors, pillars and walls that are replete with sculptures. However, it is the 18 ft Anjaneya that draws visitors’ attention.

A remarkable aspect is the wealth of endowments the community of devadasis, who had a strong connect with this temple, has left behind. This is evident from inscriptions beginning from the 13th century. It is, however, quite likely that the practice existed from much earlier.

Interesting information

In his monumental work on the temple, K.K. Pillai (The Suchindram Temple, Kalakshetra Publications, 1953), writes that the Devadasis in this village were divided into two principal groups — the superior group was known as the sirappukkudi or melilangam, while the second one was called the murakkudi or kililangam. The latter was assigned daily routine work while the former attended to the temple on ceremonial occasions. As late as the 19th century there were as many as 32 Tamil and Malayali devadasi families in the village. Around 72 women from the community were employed by the temple in 1819. The elaborate ceremonial induction of a devadasi into the shrine has been well documented. The retirement too was as per a proper procedure. The devadasis were richly honoured by kings of successive dynasties, and it is interesting to note that during the period of the Venad rulers, some of them were given the title ‘Rayar’. The devadasi system at Suchindram flourished till 1930, when it was done away with by royal decree.

Pillared corridor at the temple

Pillared corridor at the temple | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Given their social importance it is no wonder that many parts of the temple are attributed to donations by devadasis. The entrance porch or Natakasala has eight pillars at the base of each of which is a statue of a woman. These figures commemorate the eight devadasis, who contributed to the construction of the space in the 16th century. Coaeval is the porch in front of the Ilayanayanar or Subramanya shrine, which is the work of the devadasi Sitamma. She and her mother Malaikutty are commemorated with statues flanking the entrance. Their traditional Kerala hairdo is a thing of beauty.

Elegant pavilions

One of the elegant pavilions here is the Chitra Sabha where Lord Nataraja is worshipped in the form of a glass painting. The construction of the central portion is attributed to Mathukutty Malayamma of the 19th century. The same woman also contributed for the construction of a vasantha mandapam, where the Thanumalaya and his consort are brought during the spring season, and placed on a swing to enjoy the cool breeze. But the most intriguing story is that of Aramvalartha Amman. She is believed to have come from Terur village along with her mother, Palliayarai Nachiyar, and vanished within the sanctum of Thanumalaya in 1444 AD. The descendants of this family built a sanctum for her within the temple complex. By the 18th century Aramvalartha Amman was accorded the status of the Lord’s consort and a thirukalyanam or wedding is performed each year during Masi Makham (Jan/Feb).

Apart from the devadasis, the connect to the performing arts is re-emphasised by the presence of several musical pillars. Maharaja Swati Tirunal composed two songs in praise of Shiva here. ‘Kalaye parvatinatham’ is in raga Sankarabharanam, rupaka tala, while ‘Vande maheswaram’ is in Arabhi/Chapu. It was also Swati Tirunal, who put an end to the dreaded practice of Kaimukku here – any Namboodiri suspected of a crime had to dip his hand in boiling ghee and emerge unscathed to prove his innocence. The shrine of Sakshi Ganapathy at the temple was where they went through this ordeal.

In recent times mindless restoration work by way of polished granite and random positioning of barricades has taken away some of the charm of this temple but what remains is still worth viewing.

The Chennai-based author, a historian, writes on music and culture.

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