Our Tirunelveli Temple Run – Part 10: Some temples near Sankarankovil, and Thoughts on Our Disappearing Heritage

When you travel, it is not what you look forward to, and what you expect to see, that captures your attention. It is always the unexpected which remains with you, long after you return. And so it was, with our trip to Sankarankovil. Which is why, this post is going to be slightly different from my other posts in the Temple Run series.




This post isn’t going to be about the temples themselves, but something which I couldn’t help but notice as we visited temple after temple – our disappearing heritage. We visited temples stunning in their beauty, in their detail, in the amount of work which had gone into making them stand strong, despite the passage of centuries. However, there is another side – of neglect, of indifference, of apathy, and also a lack of appreciation and knowledge of the rich heritage they encapsulate. Our visit to some ancient temples around Sankarankovil highlighted both, the richness of detail and aesthetic heritage, and also the complete lack of it today.

This is what we saw on the ceiling of one of the temples we visited.

Thiruvilayadal on the ceiling of the Vaidyanathaswamy Temple, Srivilliputhur


These ancient murals depict the stories of Shiva, called the Thiruvilayadal, literally, the divine plays. The colours are vibrant, despite the fact that they are fading, and in a bad state. This was the Vaidyanatha Swamy Temple at Srivilliputhur. The town is well known as the home of Andal, and it is the Vishnu temple here which is most visited. Just a short distance away is this one, an equally interesting temple of Lord Shiva as Vaidyanathaswamy, the divine healer. There is lots more that can be said about this temple, but this was the first temple in the region we saw these kind of exquisite ancient paintings in, and it is them that I shall always remember. The paintings are apparently going to be “restored” soon, but I can only hope they manage to retain their beauty.

This was the sight that greeted us at another temple….



My eyes were drawn, from the tops of the pillars, to the ceilings, covered as they were, with paintings galore. The priest here was, for once, happy to see someone show an interest in the paintings, and, seeing my camera, himself asked me to click if I wanted to. I certainly did not need any further encouragement!





It was difficult to take my eyes off them as we walked in….

Depiction of the 12 rasis or signs of the zodiac, in a grid


Inside, there were more treasures. The walls of the inner mandapam were covered with murals too, depicting the story of the Lord here. From this following sequence of paintings, can you make out the story yourself?



As far as we could understand, with some help from the priest, the temple is a truly ancient one, with many stories. One speaks of an elephant, boar, and tiger, praying to the Lord. A hunter aims his arrow at them, and the Lord arrives, to protect his devoted creatures. He blesses not just the animals, but also the hunter, all of whom turn out to be the Gods, cursed to be born on earth! One of the paintings show Indra, along with his son Jayanta, and his celestial elephant circumambulating the Lord.  This event gives the village its name – Kari-valam-vanda-nallur (the town where the elephant circumambulated the Lord)!



Another story in the painting relates to Sukracharya, the preceptor of the demons, who has a divine vision of the Lord here. He sees the Lord as white as milk, and He is thus known as Pal-vanna-nathar (milk-white in colour).



The goddess here is Oppanai-ammal, in Tamil, meaning one who is so beautiful she needs no additional help (or make-up). In Sanskrit, her name is Atulya Sundareswari, the one who is beautiful beyond compare! It is believed that she meditated here, to attain the Lord, who manifested here to marry her.





The temple is huge, and very interesting, with shrines to various deities. However, the paintings and murals are what remain with me even now, 6 months after my visit!  And what is it that I remember? Their beauty, and detail, yes.... but more than that, the condition they are in. I wonder, the next time I visit the temple... will they still be there? 



At the entrance to yet another temple was this…



A huge stone urn, with a spout, now used as a wash basin. The temple itself was simple. There were no murals to speak of, but as we circumambulated the shrine, we noticed that the outer walls, newly whitewashed, were covered with inscriptions in Tamil!



They were barely visible, and even the priest couldn’t tell us what they spoke of. I couldn’t help but wonder if this brightly whitewashed temple too had ancient murals at one time. There was certainly nothing now to tell us if there once were.

Another outer wall of the temple. Look close and you will notice that the whole wall is covered with inscriptions


Outside, was a marker, with steps leading down. It was evidently a pond, and a huge one too! Yet, there wasn’t a drop of water in sight, and the pond was overgrown with weeds!



This was the Thenmalai Tripuranadeswarar Temple, a pretty one, standing at the foothills of a small hillock, looking out at the huge pond. We could only imagine how beautiful it once must have been!

At the Shiva temple at Devadaanam, we encountered a huge crowd. They had come from villages all around, to clean up the temple! “What a brilliant concept!” was my first thought. And then, I entered the temple, and stood shock still! The ceiling and pillars were painted, not with ancient pigments, but bright, garish, neon colours! Inside, there was more….. White bathroom tiles formed the floors, and, thanks to the washing and cleaning activities, it was difficult to walk without slipping! This was one of the few temples I found myself unable to concentrate on the Lord, and notice any redeeming features.



The last temple we visited, at a village called Darukapuram, was being whitewashed too, and most of the murals had been painted over. A few were left though, as if to tantalize us.

Signs of the zodiac again, but in a circle!


All over the ceiling, however, we noticed these figures of aquatic creatures, and wondered if this was the norm at all temples.

A variety of aquatic, amphibian and reptiles, on the ceiling... interesting depictions


The last four temples we visited – the ones at Karivalamvandanallur, Thenmalai, Devadaanam and Darukapuram, were all temples built in the same period as the temple at Sankarankovil. Along with the Sankaranarayanaswamy temple at Sankarankovil, they are believed to represent the five elements. The temples are strikingly similar, when it comes to architecture and style, but the difference is in the maintenance and preservation. While Sankarankovil is obviously the best maintained (see my earlier post for the beautiful murals here), Karivalamvandanallur ranks a close second, despite the fact that the murals are fast fading, and as for the rest, only a few even know about them, or visit. They are now growing in importance, with boards at the temples, labelling them the Panchabhoota sthalams of Sankarankovil.



It has been 6 months since I returned from my trip, and it is these temples I think of, as the epitome of our disappearing heritage. At Sankarankovil, and Karivalamvandanallur, we get a glimpse of the grandeur and beauty, at Darukapuram, we see it being washed away, and Devadaanam seems to show how changing concepts of beauty, and lack of knowledge and appreciation of heritage have impacted our temples.

This post wasn’t meant to be a rant, but that it what it has turned out to be. I struggled to write it, torn between exclaiming about the murals and lamenting of the state they are in. besides, this wasn’t the first time we had encountered this issue. We have seen this in practically every temple we visited – the idea of changing times, and changing sensibilities. Further, it brings up another thought – if change is indeed the only constant, are we the ones holding on to the past, and refusing to move with the times, and acknowledge the inevitability of change? What do you think?


Information:
  • You can easily visit all these temples in a day, from Sankarankovil. They are, these days, getting increasingly popular, with a board at the entrance to the Sankaranarayanaswamy temple announcing their importance as temples dedicated to the 5 elements. These small villages are difficult to find on the map, but are well known to auto as well as car drivers in Sankarankovil, and you can easily find one ready to take you. Start early in the morning, and you can easily cover most of these temples before lunch.





 This post is part of my series on my #summertrip 2015, and I hope to take you along with me as I recount stories from my month long trip, which took me across the country. To get an idea of all the places I visited, and what you can hope to read about, click here

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      Comments

      1. I am fascinated by your blog Anu..glad that I am here.
        It is sad to read the state of affairs of our temples seeped in heritage and culture going to the dogs due to the sheer negligence of we the people.
        I echo your sentiments as I do keep looking at the architecture marvels with brilliant murals and carvings.
        The locals do not know the worth of these historic marvels.

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      2. fantastic temple and beautiful pictures

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      3. Unimaginably detailed and play of colors and symmetry.
        I wonder if it is possible to create such wonders today :)

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      4. Been to Karivalam vandha nallur, Sankaran kovil, Srivillipputhur & Rajapalayam recently & was absolutely enchanted by the ancient temples & the tales associated with them. Couldn't go to all 5 Pancha Bhuta Sthalas mentioned (though have been to the more popular Pancha Bhuta Sthala yatra only recently) this time but will certainly plan a yatra to Thirunelveli district temples. TFS wonderful pics & info. 👍 Shambho 🙏

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