On the Chola trail in Kumbakonam with doses of history, myth and reality
As they say, human stories flourish almost anywhere. So here is one from Pakkirasami Padaiyatchi. In Udaiyalur village near Kumbakonam in Thanjavur district, I meet the 81-year-old who can barely stand owing to a deformity in his spinal cord. But nothing stops him from worshipping the Sivalingam behind his house, as many times as visitors drop in. “I am the caretaker of this lingam which is 12 feet deep under the ground,” he tells me nonchalantly. “Before me, my father, grandfather and their ancestors were the caretakers,” he remembers being told by his family.
On a hot and sunny Sunday morning, what has driven me to this tiny hamlet literally inside a dust bowl in nondescript surroundings? From the main road I walk past an expanse of boxy houses dotting the narrow deserted lane littered with garbage. A few twists and turns lead me to the plantain grove belonging to Pakkirasami. He is already waiting in anticipation because a bunch of his grandchildren have informed him about a visitor coming the moment they spotted my vehicle.
He tells me when you stand on this land you go back over a 1,000 years. And immediately takes out a puja thali and performs a small aarti. This place, as he claims, is supposed to be the final resting place of the great Tamil King Raja Raja Cholan.
I am told members of Raja Rajan Educational and Cultural Society, Thanjavur, the Tirukayilai Siva Bhootha Gnanam Sivanadiyar Thirukkottam and the Gangaikondacholapuram Development Council Trust apparently hold the view that Raja Raja Cholan was interned after his death at Udaiyalur. There are, however, reservations over the exact location of his sepulchre. Based on some scattered evidences, supporters of the theory have been demanding an excavation to identify the location of the king’s Samadhi. But epigraphists and government archaeologists based on external investigations so far have not been able to link the various inscriptions to confirm the existence of the emperor’s Pallipadai in the region.
But this has not deterred people from coming and visiting the spot in big numbers. Pakkirasami tells me with the money raised from public donation, a small mandapam was raised earlier this year. Till hitherto, the half submerged Sivalingam was sheltered under a small pandal constructed with sticks and thatched leaves totally betraying the site’s significance, if any.
The story, however, does not end here.
There is a thoughtless sprawl that perhaps has the potential and tries to connect you to the ancient. Udaiyalur is just a kilometre away from Pazhayarai, once known as the capital of the Cholas. And there is a temple located on the banks of Palkulam on the eastern side. It is called the Paalkulathuamman temple whose doorway has two stone pillars bearing inscriptions. These were copied, reported and published in the Annual Epigraphy Report 1927-28. The two pillars were earlier said to be lying next to the Sivalingam in Pakkirasami’s farm.
Locals says historian K. Sethuraman of Kumbakonam University worked on the subject in the 1980s but could not establish from the inscription any link to Pallipadai, the sepulchral shrines that were raised over the remains of kings during later Chola period in 10th and 11th Century. Epigraphist Dr.K. Balasubramanian from Thanjavur, apparently reported that the inscription speaks about some structures built in memory of Raja Raja Cholan. But the State Archaeology department has not found any reliable evidence to conclude that the inscription is related to the emperor’s pallipadai, according to retired archaeologist C. Santhalingam.
Pakkirasami shows me a file that documents visits of historians, epigraphists and archaeologists, politicians, bureaucrats, students, tourists and general public to his farm. On his advice I also visit the pallipadai of Panchavan Maadevi, one of the wives of the great King at nearby Patteeswaram.
ssThere is no foundation inscription revealing its date or builder, but it is believed that it was erected by Rajendra Cholan I in homage to the saintly character of his step mother.
If we leave aside the evidences, what disappoints you at these places are the dilapidated structures and trees growing on the temple walls. The utter neglect is a sign of destruction as the area is filled with bushes, the temple gate is locked and snakes slither in the compound. There is little doubt that these buildings belong to a different Century. The least we can do is to preserve them and not obliterate history. After all
Raja Raja Cholan was said to be the harbinger of the heights of Chola glory and it was during his reign from 985 to 1014 CE that the Chola Dynasty started to emerge as a great Empire.
To keep peoples’ interest alive in history, the trail can actually be made remarkable by giving it shape. Just imagine a rail-road track, carved stone pillars, coconut groves and banana farms, quaint houses and replace them with a visual retreat where caparisoned elephants and horse driven carriages once moved on the streets, luxuriously green fields swayed and the common land was pocked with innumerable intricately carved stone temples. Automatically there will be a sense of immersion in beauty and history! It is not possible to dismiss Kumbakonam’s importance with its 200-odd temples scattered all over the small town.
The entire experience of roaming around leaves you with a connection to the place and you wonder why certain places strangely attract you more.