Last week I went in the company of friends to the hill temple of Tiruneermalai just off Chromepet. It is one of the historic shrines around the city that I had meaning to visit for years. Picturesque beyond description, it comprises as can be seen in the picture, a large tank, a hill and two temples, one at the base and another at the top. Rather uniquely, Vishnu is in four postures, standing, sitting, reclining and walking.
Considering that Bhoothathalwar (7th century CE) sang in praise of the Lord here, the temple must be of Pallava vintage. Of that period is nothing to see for it probably was then an edifice of brick and wood that perished over time. The Cholas rebuilt it with stone in the 9th century and the rulers of Vijayanagar extended it in the 14th and 15th centuries. The work of the last named period is evident in abundance here though the sanctum is probably Chola. Inscriptions are in plenty all around the two temples, making them an epigraphist’s delight. These pertain to Chola, Pandya and Vijayanagar times. When you also consider that this is also a site of megalithic importance, you can see that Tiruneermalai has been a continuing witness to historic development over ages.
When Tirumangai Alwar of the 8th century came here and sang his 19 verses, the hill was completely surrounded by water. This must have been a frequent phenomenon, giving the place its name. Several historic accounts note the presence of water and lush green groves. And it is not so surprising considering that Chennai and its environs were once noted for their water-bodies. Even now, Tiruneermalai has plenty of water in its vicinity- apart from its own tank there are the Pallavaram Periya Eri, the Kadapperi and the Pallikaranai Marsh.
In the 19th century, the temple came to be governed by Venkatachala, a rich dubash. The Sanskrit work Sarvadeva Vilasa, (translated by Dr V Raghavan) notes that Venkatachala rebuilt the temple tower and car. The latter now stands outside the lower temple, shrouded in plastic sheets. The book has a fascinating description of a soiree conducted by Venkatachala in a large grove near the temple. Performing in it were the courtesans of the patron and Sonti Venkataramanayya, the guru of the noted Carnatic music composer Tyagaraja.
The British appear to have not considered the temple of importance though there are unverified stories that Clive camped here during the Arcot wars. In the 20th century Tiruneermalai became the venue for unostentatious weddings, the most famous being that of MS Subbulakshmi and T Sadasivam in July 1940, with Kasturi Srinivasan of The Hindu being witness. The place also became notorious as the venue where lovers fearing parental wrath got surreptitiously married, earning it the sobriquet of ‘Thiruttuthali Malai’. But that is another story.
This article was published in The Hindu under the Hidden Histories column on 26th February 2013