The Tamiraparani river covers a total of about 2816 km. From its source in the Podigai hills to the Gulf of Mannar, it is about 120 km long and at one time was the only river in the State that started and ended in one district. It has a large catchment area that receives water from both Monsoons and then flows through thickly wooded forests, across several precipices of which Banatirtam is the most magnificent.
Around Singampatti that still has a palace and a venerable old zamindar, it is joined by Pambar. Later, the Karaiyar and Servaiyar join. At Papanasam, it falls to 300 ft. Other tributaries, including the Ghanta river join here and it follows a steady course across Tirunelveli, Srivaikuntam and then finally, the Gulf of Mannar. Here the average depth is six ft although during floods it could be 15 ft or more.
This is from 1911. Charting the above course today is not easy. Several new dams in the upper reaches of the river have reduced the water flow substantially. Azhwar Tirunagari and Srivaikuntam, which in the 1914 floods lost almost half their population, today see a dry river bed where trees have grown. The temples on the banks, however, have survived. They are not in the popular heritage tour circuit or for foreign travellers and largely unknown outside the districts. However, they provide a fascinating glimpse into the art and architecture of the Pandyas, the Cholas and the Madurai Nayak kings, who ruled these parts.
This is the most fertile region of the river and is more productive than parts of the Cauvery Delta itself. In fact, grain measures from the 11-16th centuries reveal that they were larger in size than those used in the Chola country at the same time. Consequently, you have large temples of at least 3-4 acres with towering gopurams and several art works.
The Tirukutralanathar-Kuzhalvai Mozhi ammai is an important temple. The sthala vriksham is the jack fruit — a reminder of the tree’s importance in the economy of the mountainous region since the ancient Sangam times. The temple is one of the five sabhas of Nataraja. The deity here is in the Chitra sabha — or seen as paintings. The 16th century murals, done in the dry fresco style, are seldom seen and have yet to be documented and published but are of a high order from the post-medieval period. This is on the banks of the Chittar.
Another important temple in the vicinity is the Kasi Viswanatha temple in Tenkasi, famous for its tall pillars and outstanding Nayak 16th century sculptures. The temple was a favourite of a Pandya king, who in verse has promised that he would smear the dust from the feet of any devotee who comes to the temple, worships it and contributes to its upkeep. The sculptures of the many forms of Siva are particularly interesting for devotees and iconographers. Vindhanur is the early name of Tenkasi.
In the southern part of the tributaries are the towns of Tirukurungudi, famous for its Vaishnava Nambi temple. The river runs close to the main street and has on several occasions in the past, washed away habitations. The temple has several inscriptions on its walls that detail how water needs to be shared. The wooden carvings in the Chitra gopuram are the most imaginative and well preserved.
Further downstream are the temples of Veeravanallur. Tirupudaimarudur, which has paintings and wood carvings, shows the influence of the Venad rulers from present-day Kerala. They had a palace in Cheranmahadevi and frequently came hunting to this region and Kalakkad. The temple was renovated in the 1383-1444 period. The paintings are in the entrance gopuram and show scenes from the lives of Nayanmars and other puranic lore. Cheranmahadevi has magnificent temples like the Ramasamy temple with two storeys. Brahmadesam close by has superb wooden doors, a rare stone bell and one of the largest Nandis from the Rajendra Chola time.
Cheranmahadevi also has the Thuvarapathi Appan temple that had a library and a math established when the Hoysalas had alliances with the Pandyas. This region is in medieval times frequently mentioned as the key revenue generator for the Pandya empire. During the times of Raja Raja, he seemed to have visited this area frequently going by the number of inscriptions. The art work in the temples in this region are priceless and need to protected.
Just after Pachaiyar joins the Tamiraparani, but before Chittar is where the famous Nellaiyappar temple is located.
The oldest part of the temple is a small shrine called the Pazhaya Nellaiyappar temple, which is deep in the recesses of the prakaras. Padal Petra sthalam, it finds a place in Muthuswamy Dikshitar’s oeuvre. The lamps and the vahanas in the temple are worth seeing as is a rare musical thala inscription on the floor of the Muruga shrine.
Beyond Tirunelveli as the river enters Tiruchendur district, temples eulogised by Nammalwar flank the sides. Srivaikutam is famous for its sculptures and paintings and Alwar Tirunagari for a rare mandapam, in the middle of the river, that is designed to resist water flow. The temple nearby has some of the most delightful monkey sculptures peeking out from roofs for those who care to search.
The Adichanallur site has remnants from a site 3000 years old. Burial urns, gold ornaments and other artefacts have been found from excavations in 1876, 1903, 1906 and in the last few decades. Sadly, the most beautiful objects are in the Berlin and Paris museums but we have the oldest South Indian bronze in Chennai. The archaeological report continues to be unpublished and therefore dating it is guesswork.
One hopes that with the interest in the river this year, government, pilgrims and heritage enthusiasts will visit and work towards the conservation of these temples and their treasures. Also that efforts will be made to bring back from abroad sculptures taken away.