Today is Vijaya Dasami when countless children begin their education. On this day, it is appropriate to reflect on the lost monasteries of Thiruvottriyur, all of them great centres of learning in their time-
Thiruvottriyur is better known now for its factories and the problem of sea erosion. The religious minded know of the temple of Adipuriswara/Padampakkanathar and Tripurasundari and those in South Chennai are forever planning to visit it some day. The shrine itself, large by city standards, presents a strangely unplanned layout. The two sanctums, one to the Lord and the other to the Goddess, were once separate temples and unified into one unit at some unspecified date. A wall now encloses both and in between the two is a third shrine to Thiruvottreeswarar, built in the late 19th/early 20th Centuries. The main gopuram to enter the temple complex was built to align with the last-named sanctum and so has no spatial connect with the two older shrines. Add a whole lot of later un-aesthetic constructions, and you today have a rambling complex devoid of any cohesion. Worse, it detracts completely from the sanctum of Adipuriswara and the pavilion dedicated to the lord as Tyagaraja which fronts it, both being of great beauty.
What is also strange is that the surrounding streets too do not appear to bear any connection with the temple, which considering that Mylapore and Thiruvallikeni retain their links with their respective shrines despite the depredations going on, is rather puzzling. A casual read of historic accounts however tells us that this was not always the case. Thiruvottriyur was a centre of great learning with plenty of monasteries surrounding the shrine, at least till the 16th Century CE or so. That almost nothing survives of these great schools is an indication of how much we have lost.
K.V. Raman, in his Early History of the Madras Region, writes that Thiruvottriyur has a continuous history going back to the 7th Century and two hundred and odd inscriptions record its development almost until contemporary times. As per the scholar, donors came from all over the country, including Kashmir! In the 10th Century came Niranjana Guruvar, who built a temple here dedicated to Niranjaneswarattu Mahadevan – a name that suggests that the benefactor was from Kerala. He established a math here to teach the Soma Siddhanta of the Pasupatha cult and that attracted many monks. One of those who came to study there was Chaturanana Panditha, who as Guru Vallabha had been the preceptor to Rajaditya, the elder son of Parantaka Chola I (907-953AD). When that prince was killed in the battle against the Rashtrakutas at Takkolam, Vallabha took to monastic orders, being known thereafter as Chaturanana Panditha. In due course he became the head of a new Soma Siddhanta Math at Thiruvottriyur and after him, it would appear that a series of pontiffs, all of them taking the same name, headed the establishment. In the 12th Century, a Vagisha Panditha was also associated with the same math. The poet Kamban who lived at the same time and composed his Ramayana at Thiruvottriyur, is also said to have been a devotee of this monastery which was also known as Thirumayana Matha. The head pontiff of the Math had a say in the management of the temple and kept an eye on its accounts as well.
That women too established centres of learning here is evident from an inscription that says Ariyammai, wife of Prabhakara Bhatta who came from Margapura in Aryadesa (somewhere in North India), established the Rajendra Cholan Math at Thiruvottriyur. According to Dr. V. Raghavan, it is very likely that Ariyammai and her husband were part of a large migration from the banks of the Ganga to the south, following Rajendra Chola’s conquest. By the 11th Century, the Kulothunga Cholan Matha, named after the regnant monarch, came up here and a village was given to it so that it could support fifty devotees each day. In the 13th Century, with the Chola power on the wane and independent rulers coming up, we hear of Vijayaganda Gopala Deva, ruler of Kanchi, endowing the Thirugnana Sambandha Matha at Thiruvottriyur with a village in Puzhal, for the feeding of a sub sect of Shiva devotees – the Maheswaras. In the 14th Century, an Angarayana Matha had come up here, at the behest of the Vijayanagar ruler Harihara II. Women from the courtesan community had their teaching centres here too, with the seniors being responsible for passing on their learning to the younger members of the sect.
Both Sanskrit and Tamil were taught at the temple. In keeping with the belief that it was here that Panini received the fourteen Maheswara Sutras from Shiva himself, a grammar school flourished in the shrine for the propagation of Sanskrit. The institution functioned from the Vyakaranadana Vyakhyana Mandapa here and it was known in Tamil as the Vakkanikkum Mandapam. Tamil was greatly encouraged by the continued singing of Thevaram and Thiruvempavai for which King Virarajendra I (11th Century CE) reclaimed sixty veli (roughly 360 acres) of land and endowed them for the perpetual recitations of these hymns. The courtesans were in particular responsible for keeping the practice alive. As late as the 16th Century, we know of Jnanaprakasar, who after studying at Thiruvarur came to Thiruvottriyur to write of the glories of this temple, in 568 verses.
None of these great institutions and schools is in existence today at Thiruvottriyur. A fragment of this hoary past survives in the Nandikeswara Temple just outside the main shrine complex. Now touted as a temple where Nandi is worshipped as a deity with a human face, it was in reality a monastery endowed in the 13th Century by the king Vijayaganda Gopala Deva for Ariyavratam Konda Mudaliar and his disciples. By the early 20th Century it had become what it is now. The famed singer Bangalore Nagarathnamma was a munificent donor to it. Today it has clearly seen better days and the priest has no idea of what the place was once. Not far from here is a street that bears the name Nandiodai Periya Thottam – clearly a garden that belonged to this monastery at one time.
Present-day Thiruvottriyur gives no indication of what it was in its heyday. But scattered around the four streets are stone slabs with carvings that may on closer inspection yield a story or two.
This article owes much to two sources:
Early History of the Madras Region by Prof K.V. Raman, Amudha Nilayam, 1959
Madras and Tamil Nadu, an Anthology of the writings of Dr. V. Raghavan, Dr. V. Raghavan Centre for Performing Arts, 2016
This is part of a series I write on lost/barely surviving landmarks of Chennai. You can read the earlier parts here
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