Click here for more...

Click here for more...

(ARCHIVE) Vol. XIX No. 9, august 16-31, 2009

Thiruvalluvar’s shrine

Pradeep Chakravarthy and Ramesh Ramachandran

Ramesh and I have in the last four years had endless conversations on temples. It was therefore, in the natural progression that I was able to convince him to visit one in the heart of Madras, yet off the beaten track. It was the temple dedicated to Thiruvalluvar in a street called after the great Tamil poet-saint, off Mundagakanni (corrupted from the original Sanskrit – Mandhakini) Amman Koil Street and behind the Thanithorai market in Mylapore.

The way to it was surely nothing compared to what the environs would have been in Thiruvalluvar’s times (see box), but amongst the usual eyesores of haphazard buildings we noticed four pre-1930 constructions that we hoped would continue to remain till readers visited the temple after reading this article. The temple is not a place for the student of architecture. The entrance archways are poor specimens of cement art with garish bas reliefs. To the left was a dilapidated building titled the library and the opening hours had been carefully painted out so we weren’t sure whether it functioned at all!

Thiruvalluvar the icon

Crossing the threshold, the main shrine is Thiruvalluvar’s. It is a simple, two-roomed shrine enclosed by an open-pillared portico. To the left are what were probably the original shrines for Shiva (Ekambareswarar) and his consort (Kamakshi). The temple has several sub-shrines, most of them in small niches in the wall. To the rear, near a neem tree surrounded by snake stones, was a shrine for Amman. All these suggest that the temple was originally a village temple that slowly gained prominence as a Shiva temple and then became the shrine for Thiruval­luvar.
Possibly testifying to times when the temple was more patronised is a separate Palli Arai, or divine bedchamber. This was an important nightly ritual when the processional deities were symbolically laid to rest for the day.

Festivals in the temple fall into two categories, one for the Shiva temple and the other for the Thiruvalluvar shrine itself. The temple has no property and depends entirely on the Mundagakanni Amman Temple. In the Shiva temple, all festivals celebrated in a Shiva temple are celebrated, except the grand 10-day Brahmotsavam.

In the Thiruvalluvar shrine, Chithra Pournami (full moon night in the Tamil month of Chitrai – March/April) is an important date. On this day, a symbolic marriage of idols of Thiruvalluvar and his wife Vasuki is conducted. Thiruvalluvar Day, a day notionally fixed by the Government, also has special poojas. The 8th day of the 10-day festival of the Kapaleeswarar temple in the month of Panguni (March-April) is an important one for the Thiruvalluvar temple. On this day, the image of Thiruvalluvar is taken in a palanquin to the Kapaleeswarar temple in Mylapore and he becomes the 64th saint who is taken in procession along with the other 63 saints who devoted their lives to Shaivism and are commonly called the Nayanmars. This is an important honour, since Thiruvalluvar is not one of the Nayanmars.

All the festivals are funded by devotees of the temple and funds from the Amman temple – “it’s always touch and go,” says the priest. The functions in the Valluvar shrine are in part sponsored by a Mudaliar family whose ancestors were Tamil scholars. The family members themselves don’t know much about it, but it is likely that their ancestors may have even donated the bronze images in the Valluvar shrine.

To one side is a chamber with a large pedestal with ugly cement images of Thiruvalluvar and a cylinder inscribed in Tamil that reads, “This is the base of the illupai tree near which Valluvar was born.”

We caught up with Bala Kumar, the son of the priest, who could not give us much information except that his family had been associated with the temple for five generations and that it was endowed by one family. He mentioned the Government taking away the original Thiruvalluvar statue that had been damaged and a box with palmleaf manuscripts. He also regaled us with several rather fanciful stories of Thiruvalluvar, which went well with popular legend!

Except for the stone idols, there are no traces of the structure of the original temple after the renovation by the Government. The processional deity of Ekambareswarar is stored in a temple vault and the ones of Thiruvalluvar and Vasuki are clearly a century or two old.

The Thiruvalluvar shrine seen from the street.
Photographs by Ramesh Ramachandran.

In his book called Thirumayilayin Thirukoilgal, published in 1989, Dr. S. Rajendran believes that the temple was built in the early part of the 16th Century. This is not evident, as the temple was extensively renovated in the early 1970s and most of the stone structures were replaced by concrete. The book also mentions that the temple’s history is documented in a book called Thirumayilai Thalapuranam by Nathamuni Mudaliar in 54 songs. I had little hope of finding this book but was delighted when the librarian at the U Ve Sa library showed me a thin volume. The work was in Tamil verse and chronicled the Puranas or many of Mylapore’s Siva temples. Parts of the book had been published earlier but the full version was published in 1929 by the author’s son, N. Singaravelan Mudaliar. The publishers were “Noble Press in Triplicane” and the cost of the book was 8 annas. Copies were to be had from the author, who resided in ‘Nattu Subarayan Mudaliar St, Myilai, Chennai 600 043’.

The chronicle itself has no historical insights to offer. The 54 songs on Thiruvalluvar are standard stories for many saints. The poet’s description of Mylapore is rather imaginative.

In Myilai are several fine houses.
In one house a lady in anger flings away her fine necklaces of pearls at her husband.
In another the lady throws away fine diamond necklaces for want of space.
There is no space for these ornaments in the street.
For the street is littered with several more that it is even difficult to walk.
Mylapore’s streets are rather differently paved nowadays.

A date Unknown

The final word on an authoritative date for the Thirukural is still not out. The Thirukural, a set of 1330 couplets on ethics and morals, is divided into three sections: Virtue (aram), Wealth and realities of life (porul), and Love (inbam). They are in 133 chapters (adhikarams), each chapter comprising 10 couplets (kurals). I caught up with the well-known Tamil scholar Dr. M.V. Pasupati, who also heads the U Ve Swaminatha Iyer Library in the Kalakshetra premises to talk about the Thirukural.

PC: What would you say are things that distinguish the Thirukural?

MVP: The Kural is to Tamil what the Vedas are to Sanskrit. The Kural has everything a person needs to follow to live an honourable and satisfied life. Therein lies its greatness. Thiruvalluvar was supposed to be a weaver, but this occupation is not mentioned, though farmers, kings, merchants and Brahmins are. Even more significantly, the kurals (couplets) have no references to the Pothigai hill or the Kaveri or Vaigai or Tambraparni Rivers, all important in Tamil literature.

Thirukural has a handful of references to Vishnu and Brahma. This is curious, as my (Dr. Pasupati’s) father, M. Venkatramayya Shastry, had edited and published an early Jain commentary of the Thirukural from a manuscript in the Thanjavur Sarasvati Mahal Library. I asked my father and his answer was simple: the Kural is the child of Tamil and anyone can take it on his laps and fondle it!

PC: What date would you assign to the Thirukural?

MVP: Thiruvalluvar has consciously made no reference of any historical personalities or even given a clue to his own times and identity. I think he really wanted to underline that the message of the Kural was timeless and applicable to all people at all times. However, the Kural mentions places, the Vedas and Brahmins. It also mentions that the Vedas were handed down by oral tradition. From a grammatical point of view, it predates the most important Tamil grammatical work, the Tholkappiyam. I say this because the Tholkappiyam says any poetry on love must be written in the Paripadal or kalipa meter. In the Kural, however, the subject is in kural form. I would say it probably dates from the 5th Century BCE.

Also note that Tamil texts like the Purananooru and Manimegalai contain direct references to kurals. Later Bhakthi literature doesn’t have references, as the times were focussed more on devotion and Hinduism’s revival as a means to Hindu Dharma (the Hindu way of life). After this there are several references to the Kural and the first printed version dates to 1918 when it was published by Thiruthanigai Visa¬lam-perumal Iyer. This was published with a commentary by Parimel Azhagar.

– P.C.


In this issue

Officialdom looks...
Down memory...
Arch Bridges...
Madras Week..
Memories of Kilpauk...
Karpagambal Mess...
Thiruvalluvar's shrine...
New Cricket stadium...
Chennais first ...
Historic Residences..
Other stories

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Our Readers Write
Quizzin' with Ram'nan
Dates for your Diary


Back to current issue...