The Glorious ‘Healer’

The story of the ancient temple at Thiruvamiyur

A kilometre away from the Kalakshetra foundation at Thiruvanmayur, sprawled over an acre of land, stands the ancient temple of Lord Marundeeswarar. Believed to be a healer of all ailments, Lord Marudeeshwara, considered an incarnation of Lord Shiva, derives his name from two words---‘Marundu’ which means medicines and ‘Eshwar’ which means ‘God.’

The devotees of the ‘Lord’ believe that the revered sage Valimiki, the author of the Ramayana, had visited this temple and was blessed here. This incident, they say, gave the place its name --- Thiruvanmiyur, is in fact a corrupted version of its original name, Thiruvalmikiyur.

Even though the temple is dated to be at least 1300 years old, there is an ambiguity as to the history of this temple, mainly because renovations have, over the years, have either totally or partially obliterated crucial historical evidences that could have helped date the temple.

Therefore, there are some who date this temple back to the Chola dynasty and claim that some inscriptions engraved both inside the temple itself as well as in other temples of Chennai ascribe it to that era; others argue that the temple belongs to the era of the Pandyan rule over the Tamil land.

In any case, there is enough evidence to show that this temple existed in the 7th century CE; Tirugnanasambandar and Tirunavukkarasar, two prominent Shaivate poet-saints(Nayanars) who lived around the 7th century CE, have sung praises of the temple, proving that the temple existed then.

The temple itself was not a complete structure, for, until very recently, an unfinished Gopuram stood at the front entrance of the temple.

The town of Thiruvanmiyur developed around this temple. The earliest settlers in this place were the priestly classes, who, in search of reasonable accommodation outside the ‘expensive’ city, trickled in. The others --- the ‘pujai’ article vendors, the weavers, the blacksmith, the potters and the sculptors---followed.

Thiruvanmiyur was then a village and like every other village in India, ‘the Varna system’ or the caste system determined the residential arrangements in the village. The ‘upper castes’ lived in the centre of the village while those unfortunate enough to be born into the ostracised Shudra castewere pushed to the outskirts.

A regular day around the huge tank outside the temple would be what some would describe as a ‘typical village scene’; a bullock cart plying people around, a blacksmith beating away at his iron anvil, a potter in one corner, weavers weaving yards of cloth into beautiful saris, a bronze sculptor creating bronze sculptures of the Lord that he would sell to the devotees, while women washed clothes and children bathed in the common tank. This was true until as late as the 1980s, after which the township began to metamorphose into what it is now.

Although an old and a rather ‘symbolic temple’ religiously, not many chose to visit the temple as it lay outside the city limits, leading the temple to a state of disrepair.

It was only the Brahmotsava and more significantly the Theppam or the Float festival which were the real crowd pullers. Brahmotsava is the temples annual 11-day festival was (and still is) conducted in the month of Panguni (March April). Each caste in the village were given a specific day to worship the ’Lord’ in the Brahmotsava, for instance the fisher folk living in the outskirts of the village were given the last day. This tradition was followed well into the 1970s.

The Theppam marked the end of the Brahmotsava. Only one of the two ‘Theppam’ festivals around the city (the other one being in the Kapaleeswarar temple in Mylapore), old residents remember this to be a festival that attracted people from the various parts of the city. It was a grand affair; from making the ‘Theppam’ or the raft for the ‘lord’ to sail, the building of which typically took about three days, to setting it afloat and watching the planks carrying ‘the Lord’ drift slowly to the centre, people participated with great alacrity and numbers. For many, the festival was like a fun-and fair; the golden lights set the entire place aglow and the tantalising aroma of ‘sundal’ wafted through the still air. Women laughingly thronged the shops that sold bangles, trinkets and ribbons; children went about eating their favoured food items.

Over the years, however, the temple festivities have undergone a tremendous change. The Theppam, which was celebrated with such pomp and fervour, had to be stopped in1983 when long dry spell hit Chennai which dried up the water in the tank. It was then replaced by other events like the Kolam festival which was held on the floor of the dry tank but could these could never capture the popular imagination like the Theppam and had to be stopped eventually. The float festival was revived in March this year, in which 50,000 reportedly participated.

Massive renovations to the temple were undertaken in 2009 including finishing the incomplete Gopuram at the entrance and adding a car park outside the temple.

This huge structure that was once nerve centre of the place is now only a small part in the bigger scheme of things. From the tiny hamlet whose commercial activities centred around the temple to the huge IT hub that it is today, the temple has seen the enormous change- a change that, one would hope, does not reduce this historical edifice as just another ‘old’ building.

- Uttara

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