30 August 2015
"Welcome, Stapathi! Please be seated. I haven't seen you in a very long time? Were you on pilgrimage?
"Ayya! For the last six months, after completing the thousand-pillar hall in Madurai for the Dalavoy, I have been on a sthala-yatra to the temples of Tondaimandalam. I returned late yesterday, and after a visit to the temple of Lord Ranganatha, I came here."
As usual, the Dalavoy was lying back luxuriously on a swing - a large round cushion supporting his back. One servant was operating the large fan from a corner of the room. The usual bevy of officials, clerks, diplomats and petitioners were standing around, hands folded, waiting his command. In the last few years, both the King and the Dalavoy had been spending more and more time in Tiruchirappalli than in Madurai. Upon hearing that I was waiting outside, he had immediately sent orders that I was to be ushered in, side-stepping all other business.
"Tell me," he said, "which temples did you visit? Tirupati, I am sure. Did you see the image of our Lord there?"
The Lord he referred to, I knew, was not the Lord of Tirupati, but the Lord of Vijayanagar and his old master, the late Maharaja Krishnadevaraya. When Vishwanatha Nayak had come south to wrest the Madurai kingdom from his own father and bring it back under Imperial control, Ariyanatha Mudaliyar had also been sent there by the old Emperor. When that job was done, Vishwanatha was appointed Viceroy of the kingdom, and the Mudaliar became Dalavoy. After all, whom else could the Emperor have trusted the job of administering one of the richest provinces of the empire, but his two most trusted lieutenants?
"Yes, I did visit Tirupati" I replied, "The constructions made during the old Maharja's time at the temple are breathtaking. I also visited Kalahasti, where thold Maharaja has built an enormous gopuram, and Kanchipuram."
"Only three places in six months? Did you stand around admiring the sculptures for two months in each place? Your body has also become thin; perhaps like the Rishis of old, while meditating on an intricately carved pillar, you forgot hunger and sleep for months at a time?"
This, from him! When we were building the thousand pillar hall in the Meenakshi temple, he would make all of us Stapathis stand around for hours while he inspected every single pillar minutely to ensure they met his standards. Well, it's always the senior's prerogative to poke fun at his junior...
"No sir," I answered, "I visited several other temples in Tondaimandalam, from big to small. Some of them are in such bad shape that it broke my heart. It is about these that I came to see the Dalavoy. With the Dalavoy's permission, I will narrate what I saw."
"Ah!" he exclaimed, with what I knew to be mock anger. "So you want to spend more money from the public coffers on more useless sculpture?"
I understood that this was mere sport, and when a game starts, one has to play.
"The Dalavoy's statement is unfair. Temples are homes for the gods, and when we take care of our gods, they will take care of us. When there is already a temple, is it not our duty to maintain it in their name?" I asked. This was obviously for the benefit of the other people standing around.
"Moreover," I continued, "the temples of the Tamil country are not just places of worship. For many of these villages, they are the only big public structures, where all the activities of the people can take place. The people of the villages pay their taxes to the state. Is it not the state's duty to help them maintain their lands? With the Dalavoy's permission, I will relate to him about one such place."
He smiled. Then, with a motion of his hand, indicated that I should continue.
"The village is on the banks of a small river in Tondaimandalam. The elders of this place met me at Kanchipuram and requested that I come to their village and accept their hospitality on the way to Tirupati. The Shiva temple in the village is very ancient and very dilapidated. The Lord in this place is called Singheshwara and his consort is called Poomulainayaki. It is said that the temple is over five thousand years old, and that it was built by Karikala Chola himself."
Interrupting me here, the Dalavoy smiled and said, "If it is five thousand years old, how could it have been built by Karikala Chola, who lived only a thousand years ago? Somehow, I doubt these stories, Sthapati. I think people make them up so that people will give large donations to these temples."
Before I could reply, my nephew who had come there with me boldly stepped forth and said, "The Dalavoy may indeed be correct, but it is a good thing for this world that such temples are well-maintained? Do the ancients tell us that in the service of a higher truth, a small exaggeration is not a sin?"
At that point, for the first time, the Dalavoy noticed my nephew standing next to me. Indicating him, he asked, "Who is the youngster?"
"Master, this is my sister's son Ganeshan," I said. "His parents apprenticed him to me last year. He is a smart lad, and learns very fast. He's a little too fast and loose with his tongue though." I added, gently rapping my apprentice on the head.
"Very good! I feared that after you there would be nobody who could take up your profession in the country." he remarked. Turning to Ganeshan, "Learn from your uncle! He's a patient and talented man, and you must continue all his good works."
My nephew bowed with folded hands and stood back. Then, the Dalavoy beckoned one of his officials and made a small sign. That gentleman brought forth a set of documents and gave it to me.
Reading it, I was shocked! This was a grant of a sum of money for the construction of a gopuram, a compound wall and a pillared mandapam, along with money to be used for daily pujas and general repairs to the temple at Maippedu. There was also another - a letter of introduction to the Gingee Nayak asking him to support the project. It had obviously been prepared some time before I even arrived there.
How did the old man know which temple I was going to suggest, even before I told him? How had he prepared all this so fast?
"Are the papers in order?"
"Yes,... Master... But... How..."
Ariyanatha Mudaliyar answered without answering. "Tondaimandalam does not come under our master of Madurai, but under Krishnappa Nayak of Gingee. You must ask for his permission before undertaking your project. I will give you what material assistance is in my power. I suggest that you ask our astrologer to find a good day, and journey to Rajagiri Fort in Gingee to ask his permission. I doubt that he will refuse, because he is a good man. Then, you can go straight to Maippedu and start the work."
I understood that he would say no more, and so I took my leave. As I left, his secretary who had given me the document also came out with him.
"Sir," I asked, "How did the Dalavoy have this document in advance? How did he know what I was going to ask?"
Laughing softly, the secretary explained.
"Do you think, Sthapati, that he did not know the answer to the first question he asked you? When you had planned your journey, you made several arrangements. My master came to know about them, and started planning all this almost as soon as you left."
"The first thing you should know," he said, "is that Maippedu is my master's home town. He was an orphan there, taken care of by his uncle, and left at a young age. As you know, he rose in the service of the Empire, and was appointed Dalavoy here when the late Vishwanatha Raya was appointed Nayak. He never forgot the place he was born in, and when he befriended you, he believed he had found the right man for the job."
"Couldn't he have asked me straight up? Would I ever refuse the Dalavoy's request?" I asked.
"True, you would have consented," the secretary agreed, "but there is a lot more that had to be done. The Gingee Nayak, though a good man, may feel that the Dalavoy is meddling in his domain, and that would not be good. However, if the request came from a Sthapati and the villagers themselves, there is no reason for Krishnappa Nayak to refuse, is there? Besides, he does not wish to give you orders, Sthapati; he wanted you to see the temple and decide for yourself that it had to be done.
"So, he wrote a letter to his cousin in Maippedu telling him that you were an important person who had to be hosted, but for reasons of state, nobody should know that it was he who had requested this. He knew you wouldn't be able to resist. Then, he asked me to prepare these documents for you about a month back, because we were unsure when you would be arriving. I'm sure you will satisfy his long-held desire."
"Your master, lying in that bed of his moves in mysterious ways. Truly, I have had a double-darshan of Lord Ranganatha - one in the house of God and once in this palace!" I said.
A few weeks later, with the sanction of the Gingee Nayak and the money provided by the Madurai Dalavoy, work began on the temple at Maippedu. There was much to be done - the Vimana had fallen, there was no enclosing wall, and most of the sub-shrines were barely standing. I drew up plans, hired workmen and started building. My nephew and apprentice, Ganeshan worked by my side - in fact, it would be better to say that I worked by his side, given the amount of enthusiasm he showed for the project.
Several more days passed. The days turned into weeks and the weeks into months. Finally, a year into the project, Ariyanatha Mudaliyar wrote to me that he would be visiting soon. I showed the letter to Ganeshan,
For a few weeks before the Dalavoy arrived, I had to go to Kanchi to procure supplies. I left the work in Ganeshan's hands.
"Ganesha, I am leaving you in charge, because I believe you are ready for this. The stucco sculptures on the Rajagopuram have to be finished before the Dalavoy arrives." I told him.
"The will be, Uncle." he replied, adding, "Don't worry." I'm sure I saw a twinkle in his eye then, but its meaning didn't strike me until later.
The Dalavoy reached Kanchipuram while I was still there. I met him, informed him of the progress, and joined his party for the journey back.
We reached the village in the evening, and rested until morning in a village elder's house. The Dalavoy had numerous questions about the temple, and I tried to answer them all. The next morning, after breakfast, we proceeded to the temple. Ganeshan was with us, and there was something strange about him. He barely met my eyes, and when he did, he had a mischievous twinkle in his. I could tell he was trying hard to not smile all the time.
When we approached the Rajagopuram, I felt that my heart would stop. On the right side, just above the stone part, where the stucco work starts, the coiled serpent bed of Mahavishnu. Lying on it, one hand patting the snake, head resting on a large cushion, was Ariyanatha Mudaliyar himself, turban and all!
"Ganesha, what mummery is this? How could you commit such a sin? You have brought shame to me!" I started scolding him. I moved to slap him, but the Dalavoy restrained me.
"Calm down, Sthapati. Let the lad explain." he said, pacifying me.
"Uncle," my nephew started, "the poets compare their patrons to the gods, and even invent stories about their patrons helping the gods when they were in trouble, placing them one step above the deities. We sculptors are condemned to portray our patrons as mere worshippers, in Anjali posture. In a small temple such as this, we cannot even create a large mandapam and place a life-sized statue. We would have to make do with a small portrait sculpture. Is the Dalavoy not a god to us? Is he not the protector of the Madurai Kingdom, as Narayana is the protector of the world itself?"
At this, the Dalavoy interrupted, "Is he not also always lying down on his swing with a cushion under his head like Mahavishnu in the Ocean of Milk?" and burst out laughing. "Your nephew is talented both with his hands and with his tongue. He will perform many great deeds!" he added.
This was getting to be a habit. Once more, I was speechless in his presence. My anger melted away and I embraced my nephew.
The village of Maippedu is now known as Mappedu, and is on the banks of the Cooum. Ariyanatha Mudaliyar is supposed to have been born here, and as mentioned in the story, he rose to become one of the most important servants of both Krishnadevaraya and Achyutadevaraya of Vijayanagar. When Vishwanatha Nayak came south to take up the governorship of Madurai, Ariyanatha Mudaliyar became his Dalavoy. He served as Dalavoy to both Vishwanatha and his son Krishnappa Nayak. It was under him the Madurai kingdom was reorganised into the Palayakkarar system He is commemorated in the Madurai 1000 pillar hall as a donor, and in the temple of his home-town, as Ranganatha himself.
The temple website of Mappedu gives a date of 1501 for Ariyanatha Mudaliyar's constructing the Rajagopuram. However, Vishwanatha Nayak only died in 1563, and the Mudaliyar served as Dalavoy to both him and his son. Even if we assume he left home at 14, that makes him 76 years old when Krishnappa Nayak comes to the throne and 83 when he built the Madurai 1000 pillar hall. I felt this was unrealistic, so I took the liberty of assuming that he was born around 1520, making him 50 years old when Krishnappa comes to the throne and about 60 when he builds the Madurai hall. This leaves him old enough to be generally lying down on his swing but young enough that he can travel from Tiruchy to Mappedu if the need arises.
The Karikala whom the Sthapati refers to is not Karikala Chola of the Sangam age, but Aditya II Karikala of the later Cholas, Rajaraja's brother whom, as Ponniyin Selvan fans would know, was murdered rather mysteriously. He was probably stationed at Kanchipuram, because many of his inscriptions are found around that area. Specifically, there is an inscription of his in the Mappedu temple itself. I have felt for some time that the confused histories of the Nayak times where Karikala is succeeded by Kulothunga or Rajendra could be muddling Aditya II the later Chola with Karikala Peruvallal the Sangam era king. I used this confusion in the story.
This story was also published at the Cooum.in site Here