Vandals work

Print edition : February 13, 2009

A rock painting in red ochre showing a human figure astride a horse, in the Tirumalai hill.-K. GANESAN

THE Tirumalai hill in Sivaganga district of Tamil Nadu stands in the midst of paddy fields as far as the eye can see. The plentiful November rains have filled the lakes to the brim. At the foot of the hill is a pond, which is covered with lotuses. A serene setting like this would take the focus away from the rocky outcrop if you were not an archaeologist or, it appears now, a mere vandal.

The hill may be obscure now but resonates with ancient history. Rock paintings dating back to the 5th century B.C.; two Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions of the first century B.C. (Sangam Age); several Jaina beds (pillow lofts) hewn out of the rock floor of the caverns; a swastika sign incised on a Jaina bed, not found in other Jaina sites in Tamil Nadu; a rock-cut temple of the 8th century A.D. of the early Pandya period; and a structural temple of the 13th century of the later Pandya period are the highlights of Tirumalai.

There are several sites around Madurai where prehistoric rock paintings, Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions and Jaina beds are found to coexist. Tirumalais distinction is that the two temples belong to the continuous chain that links the prehistoric with the medieval times.

The defaced painting of a man wearing a bird mask.-K. GANESAN

V. Vedachalam, retired epigraphist of the Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department, says, Tirumalai is one of its kind.

The structural temple is replete with 30 Tamil inscriptions of the Pandya kings Jatavarman Kulasekaran, Maravarman Sundarapandian and Jatavarman Parakramapandian, belonging to the 13th and 14th centuries. The inscriptions talk about a prominent merchant guild of the period called thisai aiyirathu ainuttruvar (meaning, the guild whose members travel all over the country to trade goods); the tax levied by the administrative assembly of the nearby trading centre of Azhagai Managar on salt, paddy, pulses, pepper and other commodities transported by the guild; and the use of a portion of the tax towards maintenance of the temple, among other things.

An inscription even talks about how the administrative assembly and all the members of the thisai aiyirathu ainuttruvar met in full quorum, without any absentees, to decide the quantum of tax to be levied on the commodities that passed through the commercial town.

A red-ochre painting, a human image, drawn in triangles in outline. Both have been vandalised.-V. VEDACHALAM

The Annual Report on Indian Epigraphy, 1924, says that this inscription seems to record an agreement arrived at by various communities, fixing the taxes to be paid to several articles of merchandise for the benefit of the temple at Kunrathur-Nayanar. Vedachalam said, The inscriptions at once testify to the location of Tirumalai on an ancient trade route between the Pandya and Chola countries. Tirumalai was then called Kunrathur. It fell in the administrative division called vadakalavazhi nadu of the Pandya country, he added.

The rock paintings, done in red ochre, are quite varied. A masterpiece depicts two men fighting, each trying to block the other with an outstretched hand and their other hand raised fully, with the fingers spread out, as if they are about to slap each other. The two men are shown with masks resembling birds with prominent beaks. The men have been painted in solid form. Of the 70-odd rock-art sites found in Tamil Nadu, only in two other sites (Keezhvalai and Settavarai in Villupuram district, Kidaripatti near Madurai and Chandrapuram near Vellore) men have been depicted with bird-like masks.

The other paintings are of human beings, formed out of triangles or lines that resemble a damaru (a small two-headed drum); a man riding a horse; a man holding a sickle; a crane; a deer; a dog; and so on. The human beings, drawn out of triangles, are in outline.

K.T. Gandhirajan, who specialises in art history, said: Tirumalai is the only place in Tamil Nadu where paintings are available in both solid form and in outline, all in red ochre. This is rare. In his perception, the Tirumalai rock art resembled those at Bhimbetka in Madhya Pradesh in style and execution.

A view of the Tirumalai hill in Sivaganga district.-K. GANESAN

It is difficult to come across human figures in geometrical forms in red ochre. Tirumalai, and Azhagarmalai in Madurai district are the only places where they are found, Gandhirajan said.

On December 19, 2008, Gandhirajan discovered in a rocky shelter at the foot of the Tirumalai hill paintings in red ochre of a hunter leading a dog by a leash, a child walking beside a hunter and a deer. The hunter has been drawn using triangular shapes and is shown wearing a bird-mask.

The importance of these sites is perhaps lost on ordinary people. Each and every rock painting of Tirumalai has been defaced with names scrawled on them and the inscriptions and the Jaina beds have been vandalised and desecrated. On the masterpiece that shows the two bird-headed men, vandals have inscribed the names Viman and Ramu. Hundreds of graffiti have been chiselled or painted on the Jaina beds. On one bed, the election symbol of a political party in Tamil Nadu has been carved.

The swastika symbol incised on a Jaina bed in a cavern.-V. VEDACHALAM

It was a mortifying experience for Vedachalam to see the painting of the bird-headed men he had discovered in 1989 vandalised. Worse awaited him. When he walked up to one of the two Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions that he had discovered in 1989 along with S. Rajagopal and C. Santhalingam, his colleagues from the State Archaeology Department, he was shocked to find the inscription defaced with black paint. The inscription, belonging to the 1st century B.C., talks about how the chief (kon) of a village called Erukattur was instrumental in sculpting the beds for the comfort of the Jaina monks. It mentions the village chiefs title as kavithi.

Neither the State Archaeology Department nor the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has declared Tirumalai a protected monument. The State Department has not declared it a historically important site under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act of 1966. The ASI, too, has failed to protect it under its Ancient Monuments and the Archaeological Sites and Remains Act of 1958. There is not a single watchman posted to protect the priceless treasures. The temples are administered by the Sivaganga Devasthanam.

The granite-cumstucco relief of Siva and Uma.-K. GANESAN

Gandhirajan, who is now doing an extensive survey of Tamil-Brahmi sites, said that among the many monuments in Tamil Nadu that are not a protected, the most important one is Tirumalai. Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions, he argues, offer the basic evidence that Tamil is a classical language. However, they have been vandalised at many sites.

The Tirumalai paintings show a high degree of skill in execution, like those found at Bhimbetka, according to Gandhirajan. Local people call the damaru-shaped human beings udukkai manidhargal (drum-shaped men in Tamil). All human beings drawn in solid form there have bird-like masks. This must have a ritualistic significance or it indicates a clan identity, Gandhirajan explained. The Tirumalai artists belonged to a hunter-gatherer society, according to him.

In 1977-78, Rajagopal, Santhalingam and Vedachalam discovered the shorter Tamil-Brahmi inscription at Tirumalai, which has been read as va karandai. Karandai in Tamil means a cavern or a small hill. It, therefore, denoted a place where monks lived.

A high relief of Murugan at the 8th century rock temple.-K. GANESAN

The more significant discovery came in 1989 when the trio came across the longer Tamil-Brahmi inscription during their epigraphical survey of Tirumalai. It was then that Vedachalam discovered the series of paintings, too.

M. Sundararaja gurukkal, the priest of the two temples, recalls with excitement the discovery of the paintings. He said: Vedachalam was going round the hill, looking for inscriptions. I went along with him. It was then that he discovered the painting of the two men with bird-masks. This spurred him on, and he noticed more paintings on the nearby rocks. Some distance away, he discovered a Tamil-Brahmi script too.

The name Erukattur mentioned in the inscription has a long history. It finds mention in the Tamil-Brahmi inscription of the first century A.D. at Tirupparankunram near Madurai and in the Tamil Vatteluttu inscriptions of the sixth century A.D. at Pillayarpatti in Sivaganga district.

A view of the lotus pond and the paddy fields. In the foreground, the gopuram of the structural temple on the hill.-K. GANESAN

Dhayan Kannanar, a poet of the Sangam Age, belonged to Erukattur. His poems appear in the Tamil Sangam anthologies of Agananuru and Purananuru.

Vedachalam said, Erukattur must have been an important centre for several centuries. But there is no village by that name today in Sivaganga district.

V. Vedachalam, retired epigraphist of the State Archaeology Department, taking an estampage of the defaced Tamil-Brahmi inscription.-K. GANESAN

Vedachalam pointed out that a swastika symbol was found on Jaina beds excavated by King Kharavela in the Udayagiri hill near Bhubaneswar in Orissa, in the first century B.C. At a lower elevation of the Tirumalai hill is the rock-cut temple of the 8th century A.D. It has pillars with taranga podhika capitals, that is, with wavy patterns. (Tarangam in Tamil means wave, and podhikai means capital).

It has a bas relief panel of Siva and Uma. Although the images have been sculpted out of granite, the reliefs are covered with stucco.

Tamil inscriptions of the 13th and 14th centuries at the structural temple.-K. GANESAN

In the front mantapa is a high relief of Murugan. Below him in low relief are two ganas. One gana holds an umbrella to protect Murugan. The structural temple is also dedicated to Siva and Parvathi with sub-shrines for Ganesa, Murugan, Bhairava and others.

Gandhirajan said: I have surveyed many Tamil-Brahmi/Jaina sites around Madurai. Neither the ASI nor the Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department has cared to explain the significance of these historically important sites to the local people. When we explain to them about the historical treasure, which is about 2,200 years old, the villagers are surprised. It is time we involved the villagers in the protection of these priceless treasures.

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