The chances of your finding the Sri Chidambareswaraswami Temple in Choolai by yourself are slim at best. The locals have no idea of it and Google Maps, which confidently leads you down Avadhanam Paupiah Road suddenly takes you into a side lane and abandons you there. The temple itself is right on the main road but takes some finding, for it is tiny and has no gopuram. The most arresting feature on sighting the shrine is the top panel of the two doors – they comprise wooden sculptures no doubt recycled from an old temple chariot. Looking up you can make out exquisite icons of Nataraja, Ganesa, Subrahmanya and other divinities.
The temple itself is a miniature model of Chidambaram. As soon as you enter you find a niche to your left containing an exquisite stone idol of Lord Govindaraja and His consorts. Fronting you is the main sanctum that houses the processional idol of Lord Nataraja, with Sivakami to His left and a small shrine with a crystal linga to the right. Abhishekam and puja is done to the last named each morning, exactly as it is done in Chidambaram. To the rear is a pavilion with a stone idol for the Goddess, rather akin to that of Goddess Sivakami at Chidambaram.
This miniscule temple probably has a link to Carnatic Music. The connections are all through hearsay. Choolai as the name indicates was an area with kilns for making bricks and plenty of pottery. Another place with a similar background is Thottikalai aka Kalasai, which is located in the ThiruvallurDistrict. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, one family from that village was prominent in East India Company affairs with Thottikalai Kesava Mudali and his grandson Vedachala both being high-ranking dubashes who made a huge fortune much to the distress of Lionel Place, an East India Company official who is commemorated in Placepalayam not far from Thottikalai. The family deity was Chidambareswara and a temple to the Lord of that name was maintained at the dubash’s expense in Thottikalai. According to the Sarva Deva Vilasa, the 19th century work on Madras, the whole of Black Town turned out to watch as Vedachala set out in procession to conduct the annual festival at Thottikalai.
One of the prominent thoroughfaresin Choolai is ThottikalaiKumarappa Mudali Street, commemorating yet another of the family members. And this is not too far from the Chidambareswara Swami Temple. Could it be that this shrine too was sponsored by the same family? That may well be so, though the list of trustees presently with the temple does not go beyond the 1890s, the first being Kanchipuram VenkatesaMudali. The priest is however confident in his assertion that the antiquity of his temple dates back to Raja Raja Chola!
In the passage on Vedachala’s procession in the Sarva Deva Vilasa, there is mention of Doraiswami, a musician, who travels on an elephant in the retinue. This is identified by Dr V Raghavan as Pallavi Doraiswami Iyer, the composer, whose time span is now identified as being between 1782 and 1816 and who lived in Madras under the care of his maternal grandfather Nayam Venkatasubba Iyer. More details emerge about him from a monograph written by CS Iyer for the Music Academy. It was his stay in Madras that made him fluent in Telugu, the language in which he composed most of his 49 songs, most of them being on Siva as Nataraja. His two sons , Sabhapati and Govinda Sivams were disciples of Tyagaraja. Doraiswami Iyer was a painter and most significantly, illustrated the themes of his songs. He added explanatory notes beneath each of his works, all of which were done on handmade art paper.
How are we to link the Choolai and Thottikalai temples and therefore establish the connect with Pallavi Doraiswami Iyer? It is in an article on this composer, written by MusiriSubramania Iyer that we find the following lines – “All his kritis are in praise of Lord Siva, which is significant when we consider the fact that Nataraja is the presiding deity of the Chidambaram Temple at Choolai, Madras, belonging to Zamindar Vedachala Mudaliyar, one of the early patrons of Duraiswami Iyer,” Musiri belonged to the disciples’ lineage, having learnt music from TS Sabhesa Iyer, who was a great grandson of Pallavi Doraiswami Iyer.
In 2014, Vijaya Murthy, who belongs to the same family brought out a book containing 16 compositions of Doraiswami Iyer. Most significantly, the work contained colour reproductions of the composer’s paintings. His corpus of songs may be small in number but his combining them with paintings makes him unique. And to think that the tiny Choolai temple may have been the venue for some of his works!
On this Thiruvadirai Day I wish everyone gets Nataraja’s blessings