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VOL. XXIV NO. 4, June 1-15, 2014
An ancient temple that's losing its ­inscriptions
(by Chithra Madhavan)

Gangadeeswarar temple, Purasawalkam.

Crowded Purasawalkam has an ancient Chola temple for Siva right in its centre, whose tall, five-tiered gopuram is visible from the main road. It is dedicated to Gangadeeswara, the form of Siva who received the River Ganga on her torrential descent from the heavens.

This area gets its name from the Purasai (Palasha) tree, or Flame of the Forest, which must once have grown in abundance here. Perhaps it was a sacred grove of these trees. Our ancients knew it had a number of medicinal uses other than religious significance and wanted to preserve it. Alas, there is but one Purasai tree here today. Luckily, it is the sacred tree of the Gangadeeswarar temple and, being inside its precincts, is well protected.

This temple is said to be one of the oldest in Chennai; it is certainly one of the better-known shrines in the city. The mandapa opposite the main sanctum, from where you can also see the shrine for Goddess Pankajambal, is very modern. Apparently it was constructed in 1964 when the temple was renovated. A rare stone image here, not usually seen in temples, is of Bhagiratha, a king who performed penance to Siva for bringing the River Ganga to earth from the heavens. A wonderful sight is the very well-maintained temple tank full of water. The temple itself is clean and well maintained.

A view of the Temple-tank.

All this is there, and more. But, is something missing? The ancient inscriptions are missing. A temple of the Chola times it certainly was. A few stray Chola pillars are mute testimony to the temple’s antiquity. The best way to date a monument is by reading the stone records etched on the walls, replete with many a date and nugget of information. Sadly, they are not there in this temple, having been wiped away during one or perhaps many renovations. By a stroke of luck, a few of the inscriptions that had survived earlier renovations were spotted in the past, and copied. If not for them, no one would know that this is an ­ancient monument.

Only one Chola inscription has been discovered in the Gangadeeswarar temple. This lithic record in Tamil etched in the ancient Tamil script of the Cholas, dates to the 13th Century CE. Interesting but perplexing is the fact that this epigraph registers a donation made by a man named Neelakanka­rai­yan to the temple in Tiruvan­miyur (probably referring to the Marundeeswarar temple).

A few other inscriptions have also been found in this temple and these belong to the reign of the Vijayanagara emperors. One such inscription can be dated to the 15th Century CE and perhaps belongs to Deva Raya I or Deva Raya II. It is written in the Tamil script of Vijayanagara times, but is unfortunately in a damaged condition, with only some portions readable.

On a stone slab found in this temple is another inscription belonging to the Vijayanagara times of the 16th century CE. It too is in Tamil. Unfortunately, this too is slightly damaged. It records that a person was employed in this temple to light the lamps daily. Another Vijaya­nagara inscription of the 16th Century CE found on the north wall of the sanctum sanctorum (garbha griha) is also in Tamil. This fragmented epigraph mentions devotees praying at the temple and giving gifts to the shrine.

The inscriptions in the temples of Chennai are very important to students of history and archaeology and to those interested in our city’s past. But, over time, a sizeable number of inscriptions have been lost ­because of mindless renovation. These epigraphs are now few in number and most of them are fragmentary. We have lost and are losing much history by way of defacing our inscriptions. When will we ever learn?

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In this issue

Why do we lag on civic needs?
Madras Landmarks
Decongesting stations in city necessary
How about Art, not banners?
Remembered when U.Ve.Sa. Celebrated 81
Thus was made the statue of Munro
An ancient temple that's losing its­inscriptions
'Two States' in 1923
An Evening with a Short-eared owl
SPEED, thy name is Blackbuck

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Dates for Your Diary
Readers Write
Quizzin' With Ram'nan


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