CHENNAI abounds in inscriptions of eras bygone which mostly register various donations—land, livestock, gold, jewels and many others—to temples. Couched in these lithic documents are important and authentic information relating to political, economic, social and cultural history that give us a flavour of life in times long gone. The majority of the inscriptions in Chennai are in Tamil though other languages and scripts have also been used.
The names of various areas of present-day Chennai that are so familiar to its citizens are, in fact, centuries old, albeit a bit altered. The inscriptions found on the walls, pillars, floors and various other places in the temples are testimony to this. Epigraphs of the Pallavas, the Cholas, the Pandyas and the Vijayanagara dynasties as well as those belonging to the time of chieftains like the Telugu Chodas speak of the villages of Ezhumur (Egmore), Settruppedu (Chetpet), Ayanapuram (Ayanavaram), Veppery (Vepery), Villippakkam (Villivakkam) and Tampuram (Tambaram), to mention only a few.
Nungampakkam (Nungambakkam) is mentioned in the famous Thiruvalangadu copper-plate inscription of Rajendra Chola I of the 11th century A.D., now carefully preserved in the Government Museum in Egmore. The territorial subdivisions in which these villages were situated are also given in the inscriptions. Ambattur was the headquarters of Ambattur-Nadu, while Ezhumur was the headquarters of Ezhumur-Nadu. These nadus were, in turn, under bigger territorial divisions called kottam (also called Valanadu), among which Puliyur Kottam and Puzhal Kottam are the best known in and around the Chennai of today.
One of the oldest inscriptions belonging to the Pallava period was discovered in a cave temple in Pallavaram. It belongs to the reign of Mahendravarman I Pallava of the 7th century A.D. and contains many of his titles. The ancient Parthasarathy temple in Thiruvallikeni (Triplicane) also has a Pallava epigraph etched in Tamil, dated A.D. 808 belonging to the reign of King Dantivarman, thereby clearly recording that Chennai of today was part of the extensive Pallava empire even in the 9th century A.D., towards the close of this imperial power. It mentions a land grant to this temple. Inscriptions of later Pallava kings such as Aparajta, Nripatunga and Kampavarman are seen in the equally ancient Adipuriswarar temple in Thiruvottiyur in north Chennai.
A rare and important inscription found in the Adipuriswarar temple is written in Sanskrit and etched in the Grantha script. It is found incised on the base of the central shrine and belongs to the time of the illustrious emperor Rajendra Chola I of the 11th century A.D. Consisting of only two verses in three lines, it is one of the unique epigraphs containing several technical terms describing various parts of temple architecture that were obviously in vogue in the Chola era. This inscription assumes particular importance as it mentions the name of the architect, Ravi alias Vira Chola Takshaka, who constructed this central shrine, which is in a unique apsidal shape, not commonly seen in the temple architecture of south India.
A Chola inscription reflecting human emotions is seen in the Thiruvottiyur temple. This bilingual stone record (partially in Sanskrit and partly in Tamil) is dated A.D. 959, 10 years after the fateful war at Takkolam (near Arakonam) between the Cholas and the Rashtrakutas in which Rajaditya, the Chola crown prince, was killed and the Chola army defeated. This epigraph outlines the entire life and career of a distinguished Chola army general, Vallabha alias Velan Kumaran, from Kerala. He became a friend of Rajaditya and later his army commander, but was unfortunately not on the battlefield of Takkolam when the Rashtrakutas killed the prince. Stricken with grief at his failure to protect his master or even to die with him, Vallabha renounced worldly life, went to the river Ganga, subsequently came to Thiruvottiyur and became a monk under the spiritual name Chaturanana Pandita. He headed a famous monastery there and came to administer it and the Thiruvottiyur temple as well. Irrigation is a topic discussed in depth in many epigraphs. Pallava and Chola inscriptions provide the important information that three ways of irrigation were known and practised by the agriculturists of the north Chennai region—by damming rivers, by using hand piccotas, and by using baskets. As there were not many rivers in this area, the use of methods two and three seem to have been widely prevalent. The inscriptions frequently mention tanks for irrigation purposes. Epigraphs from Koyambedu mention the lake ( eri ) of that village.
Trade and economy
Meticulous details of land measurements are given in the inscriptions found in Chennai. Various units of land such as veli , kani , kuli , patti and ma figure in the lithic records. The Thiruvottiyur inscriptions furnish us with the ratio between some of the units of land. For example, 14,648 kulis went to make 7 and 1/8 velis and 10,752 kulis were equal to 5 velis and 2½ ma of land. Another inscription states that one veli of land was equal to 2,000 kulis of land measured by the 16-span rod (one of the units of measurement probably introduced by the government and used in the territory around present-day Chennai and elsewhere too). Yield of land, grain measures, grain price, land value, currency, weights, loans and rates of interest all figure in the inscriptions in Chennai as do taxes, fines and dues. Arbitrary taxation and tax evasion are also recorded.
Merchants and trade guilds are also mentioned. It is interesting to find that merchants living in one village gave money to temples in other places. An inscription mentions that merchants of Poondamalli gave gifts to the Siva temple at Trisulam near Pallavaram and oil-mongers, also from Poondamalli, donated to the Thiruneermalai temple (near present-day Chrompet).
Several inscriptions record that women too contributed to the temples in their own right. Some had settled here from north India, such as Ariyammai from Aryadesa and Nimbaladevi from Viratadesa (Hangal, near Dharwad in Karnataka).
The part played by the local governments and the amount of autonomy they wielded are clear on reading the inscriptions. Even very powerful Chola kings such as Rajaraja I and Rajendra I did not curtail the freedom of the village assemblies, which had a wide range of powers. The Sabha and Ur, which were the village assemblies, functioned in places such as Velachery, Koyambedu, Manali and Poondamalli.
The fact that Mylapore was an important trading centre on the east coast from very early times is well attested by authentic literary and epigraphical sources. Ptolemy, a Greco-Roman traveller, wrote about this seaport in the second century A.D. The fact that it continued to be an important port even in the Vijayanagara era is seen from the inscriptions of the 15th century A.D. of the reign of Emperor Devaraya II. There were 300 ports in the Vijayanagara times, of which Mylapore was one of the most important. One of the purposes for which the Portuguese settled at San Thome was trading with places on the east coast.
The larger and historically well-known temples in Chennai are not the only ones containing important information. Many Chola inscriptions have been noticed in the small Seliamman temple in Velachery (once part of Kottur Nadu) as in many other such inconspicuous shrines.
These ancient epigraphs, several hundred in number, so painstakingly etched on granite, are testimony to the ancient history of this city and its multifarious activities. They should be preserved carefully as they are part of our history. The Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment Department of the Tamil Nadu government should consult experts from the Tamil Nadu State Department of Archaeology and the Archaeological Survey of India before undertaking any major renovation in the temples to ensure that no damage is done to these lithic records as they are voices from the past.
Professor K.V. Raman, a distinguished scholar, was the former Superintending Archaeologist, Archaeological Survey of India (Southern Circle-Madras). Subsequently, he was the Professor and Head of the Department of Ancient History and Archaeology, University of Madras. He is the author of several books, including Early History of the Madras Region , Sri Varadarajaswami Temple-Kanchi, and Temple Art, Icons and Culture of India and Southeast Asia .
Dr Chithra Madhavan has a PhD from the Department of Ancient History and Archaeology, University of Mysore. She is the recipient of two postdoctoral fellowships from the Department of Culture, Government of India, and the Indian Council of Historical Research. She is the author of several books on the history and temples of Tamil Nadu.