I recently conducted a heritage tour of the Nagercoil-Suchindram area and as part of the preparation read the magnificent book Suchindram by KP Pillai (Kalakshetra Publications). It greatly helped me to understand the evolution of the complex and what struck me most was the contribution of the Devadasis to the place. This article is based on my reading of the book and my visits to the place. I thank my dear friend Chandar Seetharaman for the pictures featured here.
O Thanumalaya who resides in Suchindram with a woman as one half!
The moon shows your compassion,
Your third eye your righteous wrath,
The Ganga showcases your greatness,
The poison your manliness,
The lion calls to mind your narrow waist,
And the swan displays your graceful walk.
Thus runs a verse by Kavimani Desika Vinayakam Pillai. The Suchindram temple with its central sanctums to Lord Sthanumalayan and Lord Then Thiruvenkatanathan is a delight to the eye in every aspect, beginning with its soaring rajagopuram. Though the sub shrines of Kailasathu Mahadeva and Konraiadinatha within the complex are much older, it would appear that from the 9th century every dynasty and empire wanted to outshine its predecessor in endowing this temple with art and architecture. The precinct is full of shrines, sub shrines, mandapams, corridors, pillars and walls that are replete with sculptures. To most visitors however it is the 18 foot Anjaneya which matters. Having visited this monumental statue people then hurry around the main sanctums and leave. What they miss are the sculptural wonders that dot the rest of the complex.
A remarkable aspect of this temple is the wealth of endowments the community of Devadasis has left behind. The ancient connect that this group of women had with this particular shrine is evident from inscriptions beginning from the 13th century. It is however quite likely that the practice existed from much earlier. In his monumental work on the temple, KK Pillai (The Suchindram Temple, Kalakshetra Publications, 1953), writes that the Devadasis in this village were divided into two principal groups – the superior variety were known as the sirappukkudi or melilangam while the second grouping was the murakkudi or kililangam. The latter was assigned daily routine work while the former attended to the temple on ceremonial occasions. As late as the 19th century there were as many as 32 Devadasi families in the village and they comprised Tamils and Malayalis. Around 72 women from the community were employed by the temple in 1819. The ceremonial attached to the induction of a woman as Devadasi to the shrine was elaborate and well documented. The retirement too was as per a proper procedure. The Devadasis were richly honoured by kings of successive dynasties and it is interesting to note that during the time of the Venad rulers the title Rayar was given to some of them. The Devadasi system at Suchindram flourished till 1930 when it was done away with by royal decree.
Given their social importance it is no wonder that many parts of the temple are attributed to donations by Devadasis. The entrance porch or Natakasala has eight pillars at the base of each of which is a statue of a woman. These figures commemorate the eight Devadasis who contributed to the construction of the space in the 16th century. Coaeval is the porch in front of the Ilayanayanar or Subramanya shrine here which is the work of the Devadasi Sitamma. She and her mother Malaikutty are commemorated with statues flanking the entrance. Their traditional Kerala hairdo is a thing of beauty.
One of the very elegant pavilions here is the Chitra Sabha where Lord Nataraja is worshipped in the form of a glass painting. The construction of the central portion is attributed to Mathukutty Malayamma of in the 19th century. The same lady also endowed a Vasantha Mandapa where the Lord and His consort are brought during the spring season and placed on a swing to enjoy the cooling breezes. But by far the most intriguing story is that of Aramvalartha Amman. This girl is believed to have come from her native village of Terur along with her mother Palliayarai Nachiyar, and vanished within the sanctum of Lord Thanumalaya in 1444 AD. The descendants of this family built a sanctum for her within the temple complex. By the 18th century Aramvalartha Amman was accorded the status of the Lord’s consort and a thirukkalyanam or wedding is performed each year during Masi Makham (Jan/Feb).
Apart from the Devadasis the connect to the performing arts is reemphasised by the presence of several musical pillars. Maharaja Swati Tirunal composed two songs in praise of Siva here. Kalaye Parvatinatham is in Shankarabharanam/Rupakam while Vande Maheswaram is in Arabhi/Chapu. It was also Swati Tirunal who put an end to the dreaded practice of Kaimukku here – any Namboodiri suspected of a crime had to dip his hand in boiling ghee and emerge unscathed to prove his innocence. The shrine of Sakshi Ganapathy at the temple was where this ordeal was gone through.
In recent times mindless restoration work by way of polished granite and random positioning of barricades has taken away some of the charm of this temple but what remains is still worth a long and lingering visit.
This article appeared in The Hindu dated June 24, 2022
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