Sad state of a glorious shrine
The Vishnu temple in Mannarkoil, near Ambasamudram, with its exquisite stuccos and murals, is in an abject state of neglect, and as always such a sight upsets the devotee and art lover alike, writes PRADEEP CHAKRAVARTHY.
The second gopuram of the Mannarkoil temple as seen from the first floor ... a unique architectural piece.
THE RATHER weather beaten signboard, approximately three km from Ambasamudram, enroute to Tenkasi, gave a good indication of the current state of the temple but didn't capture anything of its grandeur. Promising to take my guest from France to a building, the likes of which he would have never seen, we turned into the road and within two km reached the back of the Perumal temple at Mannarkoil.
The weather was overcast and there was a cool evening breeze, all of which lent a sombre air to the village and the temple, blackened with age and weeds almost as tall as the massive walls.
Circling the walls we came to the base of an imposing flight of stairs beyond which was a long mandapam littered with the huge wheels of the now disused temple chariot and the sculptures of a Nayak king and his family. Passing this we went beneath the gopuram to the main part of the temple.
The temple is one of the few ones with an ashtanga vimana. On the ground floor it has a sanctum for Vishnu, standing with his two Consorts. A narrow flight of stairs leads to the first floor where He is seated with his two Consorts.
An even more narrow flight of stairs leads to the second floor where he is reclining on Adisesha. All the images are in beautifully painted stucco. Each sanctum has a pradhakshina passage with the topmost one being barely two feet across.
I had visited the temple 10 years ago on a sunny morning and was able to admire the colours of the images all of which face east, and had hardly faded over the centuries. Unfortunately even the electric light had gone off and we could make out very little of the colours in the overcast evening.
Though it had not been vandalised, dampness had taken its toll especially on the second floor. But even the faint outlines of the Venugopala and Rama murals had astonishing grace and fluidity of form. Fortunately the wooden porch on the first floor let in enough light for us to admire the carvings of the Zodiac signs, some of which still retain their colours.
We sat for a while on a ledge and admired the surrounding countryside stretching to the temple pool and the Tamiraparani/Gatana River on one side and the western ghettos on the other. Also magnificent was the layout of the buildings within the three acres enclosed by the temple walls. We saw a small boy from the village assiduously doing his homework leaning against a pillar in the Kulashekara Azhwar shrine (probably built circa A.D. 1209). He waved back to us to say that the archakar had come.
The archakar had been a younger, energetic headmaster of the local school when I met him a decade ago. He was then actively trying to prevent the temple from being closed down and the icons shifted to Ambasamudram. But when we met this time, his energy had given way to frustration and despair.
He was too ill to show me around inside. We admired the fantastic bronzes of the Azhwars, Lord Rama and Rajagopalaswami. Particularly beautiful were the murals of Shiva and Brahma in the garbhagriha. He agreed to let me recite verses from the "Divya Prabhandam". It was probably the best experience, thanks to the fantastic acoustics in the mandapam. My new friend Sriram, who had finished his homework, joined me. My recitation was cut short by the archakar who told me that I had to wind up, "I don't keep the lights burning for more than an hour, to save electricity," he said.
Dusk had given way to night and we made one last pradhakshinam. I tried to read parts of the inscriptions that covered the base of the vimanam but had to rely on Mr. R Tirumalai's masterly monograph and the epigraphical surveys to understand the inscriptions. His work is called "Rajendra Vinnagaram" after the old name of the village.
The Cholas had probably built the temple in the 13th century. The inscriptions were recorded and translated in 1905 and 1916. They speak of a powerful Temple Mahasabha that received large grants of land from various Chola, Pandya kings. The kings seem to have done this when they camped in nearby towns such as Velaikurichi and Kallidaikurichi. Particularly interesting were those that referred to an edict that asked for the dancing girls of the temple to husk the rice and also referred to the gifting of the village of Velanjolai to the temple.
Land was gifted to 12 Brahmins who had settled in the village from towns such as Thirukurungudi, Tirukurugur (Azhwar Thirunagari) and Thirumaliruncholai (Azhagar Koil) in recognition of their recitation of the "Thiruvaimozhi" in the Thiruvaimozhi Mandapam (still called the same). Land was also gifted to more humble people like the temple watchman. An interesting inscription refers to the Mahasabha accepting the bequest of land from two widows only after their male relatives had agreed to the land being gifted to the temple. In cases where the signatories to a contract were illiterate, others had signed on their behalf! Inscriptions also record more routine matters like the appointment of Sankaranayanar as the dharmakarta in Kollam year 764.
Before we left, my friend and I sat by the steps of the temple tank, excavated by the Nayaks. Little Sriram tried to persuade us to visit the equally grand Sivan temple, which had been the location for a television serial. Our experiences had generated enough emotions in us and we decided to head back to Tirunelveli instead. The sense of space, the layout, the paintings, sculptures and bronzes were a feast to our eyes, and the acoustics to our ears.
The general state of abject decay from a former period of supreme glory had left us uneasy and quite melancholic. Perhaps with members of the younger generation like Sriram taking a greater interest, the temple will at least function minimally in the years to come.
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