Taking Tyagaraja to Eri Katha Rama

Temple Gopuram, Eri Katha Rama Temple, Madhuranthakam

The Eri Katha Rama temple at Madhurantakam is historic. The stucco images of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana in the sanctum are large and impressive, dating to Pallava times. The village however commemorates the Cholas, for it bears the title of Uttama Chola, the son of Gandaraditya and Sembiyan Mahadevi, who ruled from 973 to 985AD, being the immediate predecessor of Rajaraja. It is quite likely that the vast Madhurantakam tank was excavated during the time of this ruler. The shrine to Rama here also has an association with Sri Ramanuja, for it was here that he was given the Pancha Samskaram or Samasrayanam by Periya Nambigal. The spot where this initiation took place has a four-pillared pavilion. 

Various Architectural Styles

The mandapam showing a variety of styles in its pillars

The temple itself shows the impact of various kingdoms in its style of construction and embellishment. What is also significant is that it appears to have been put together with what material was available at hand. Thus, the pillars in the hall fronting the sanctum are of varying design including some which are fluted and uniquely tapering upwards. The corbels are largely unfinished and some even have the intended design etched on them, never to be completed. The gavaksha-s (cow-eye shaped roundels) that line the upper level of the sanctum are completely carved on one side and absent on the other. Those that are finished display a lovely series of Krishna leela-s, and not episodes from the Ramayana as would be expected. The sanctum has apart from the stucco images, processional icons of Rama, Sita, Lakshmana and Hanuman, and also one of Vishnu, with Sridevi and Bhudevi. Lord Vishnu here is known as Karunakara Perumal and His own set of festivals. 

Janakavalli and Lionel Place

The sanctum to Janakavalli

However the sanctum that has true celebrity status here is that of Karunakara Perumal’s consort Janakavalli. Located to the left of the main shrine, this was for long work in progress, with stones being assembled at the site and left to remain there. In the 18th century, the British became a powerful presence in the area, though nominally under the control of the Nawab of Arcot. In 1769, the latter handed over the Jagir of Chengalpattu to the former and this was confirmed in 1788 by a firman from the Mughal Emperor. The British appointed collectors to administer their new estate and in 1794, the new incumbent was Lionel Place. Faced with the prospect of repairs to the Madhurantakam tank, he suggested that the stones assembled for the Janakavalli Thayar shrine be used. Legend has it that the locals dissuaded him from such a thought and advised him to leave it Lord Rama to protect the tank from breach during the rains. The monsoon duly arrived and was severe, but the tank held. The Kothandarama at the temple became better known as Eri Katha Rama (he who protected the tank). Place was grateful and funded the completion of the Janakavalli shrine at company expense. The lintel fronting the sanctum bears an inscription in Tamil and Telugu to this effect. Place, who is immortalised in this, is also commemorated at Placepalayam in Thiruvallur District. He is also the man who first turned Vedanthangal into a reserve for birds. 

The lintel recording the ‘Kumbini’s’ Dharmam

Postal Sundaram Iyer

Fronting the Rama sanctum here are slabs on which some Tyagaraja kritis are inscribed. These were due to the efforts of ‘Postal’ or Srirangam Sundaram Iyer. In the 1950s, this employee of the postal department was inspired by the Ramacharit Manas slabs at the Tulsi Manas Mandir in Varanasi to do the same for Tyagaraja kritis at the samadhi in Tiruvaiyyaru. Funded by public donation the project was a massive one and Sundaram Iyer persevered. Assisted in the inscribing in Telugu, Tamil and Sanskrit by the scholar TS Parthasarathy and helped in transporting the slabs by S Anantharamakrishnan of Amalgamations, the work was completed over several years. 

Inscribing Tyagaraja Kritis at Madhurantakam

Tyagaraja Kritis outside the sanctum

That Sundaram Iyer undertook a similar activity at Madhurantakam, though on a far smaller scale, is completely unknown. An inscription below the slabs has it that this was made possible by a Ramayana Harikatha performed by the exponent TS Balakrishna Sastrigal at Purasai Deivika Sangam and that the funding was through contributions on the final day when the Rama Pattabhishekam was narrated. The donors appear to have been a prominent family from Landon’s Road, Kilpauk. Sadly for us, the date is no longer decipherable. Unlike the Tyagaraja samadhi where marble was used, granite is the medium here. In addition to the lyrics, the meanings of the inscribed compositions are also given. All the songs are from the Utsava Sampradaya kritis of Tyagaraja, where he ritually worships Rama, going through all the prescribed services from waking up to finally rocking the deity to sleep. 

Tyagaraja did not visit this shrine, but Sundaram Iyer ensured that his songs made it there. 

This article appeared in The Hindu dated March 24, 2023


One response to “Taking Tyagaraja to Eri Katha Rama”

  1. vaidyseshan Avatar

    You have packed information so nicely.

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