The Frenchman & the Shiva Temple

The French Connection
Dr.U.Ve Swaminatha Iyer (Uvesa) was a 19th century scholar, who published over 90 books on ancient Tamil literature. In 50 years, he collected over 3000 heritage manuscripts by  house-to-house hunts across the Madras Presidency. Strangely, one Tamil treatise was  even sourced from France! Here’s the French connection.


  Dr. U.Ve Swaminatha Iyer  &     Dr. Julien Vinson

Dr. Julien Vinson, Professor of Oriental Languages at Paris, admired Uvesa. The two never met, but exchanged long letters in chaste Tamil! One day Prof. Vinson mailed a copy of the original palm-leaf manuscript of Villai Puranam (The Villai Story) from the Bibliothique Nationale. It was an epic of 494 verses describing the Temple of Vilva-Vanam (The forest of Bel Trees), written by a hitherto unknown author, Veera-Raghava Kavi. Vinson’s request was simple: could Uvesa write a treatise on this?

Uvesa was delighted with Veera-Raghava’s classic epic, but where on earth was the Vilva-Vanam and its temple? Since Bel tree was mentioned, it was surely a Shiva Temple? That narrowed down the search to —– oops, about a 1000 temples! Then there was another clue inside the epic: the Goddess of the Temple was Kuil-Ammai. Now, Kuil is the Tamil word for the Sanskrit Kokila (Indian Cuckoo). There was a Shiva temple near Pondicherry where Shiva’s consort is Kokila-Ambal; in ancient times it was called Vilva-Nalloor or Vilveswaram. Under the French rule (remember, this was the 1890s) this became the Villianour Commune! Bingo! Uvesa visited the temple and later published a scholarly treatise!

After I read this story, I was inspired to visit it.

I follow Uvesa’s Trail
Ashok drove us from Bahour to Villianour— a 15 Km drive through winding rural roads. We stopped often and asked the villagers for directions. They not only guided us; some even followed us on their motorbikes and corrected us if we took a wrong turn.  Either the Pondicherry folks were naturally helpful, or the God Shiva was directing them to help us. Anbe Shivam. 1

Villianour is close to the banks of the river Uravaiyar; the Temple is bang in the centre of town. The first sight that hits you is the massive Ther 2 (about 50 feet tall) on the Road. As we parked the car, Ashok found a second Ther nearby. Why two Thers? The flower-seller at the entrance answers my stupid question: “Ayya, look carefully, there are 3 Thers, one each for Kokila-Ambal, Shiva and Ganesha”!


The temple entrance: Note the 2 Thers, one on either side

The legends and History
The temple is probably of 12th century vintage, built by the Cholas. One legend says that Shiva appeared in the Bel Forest (Swayambhu Lingam 3) to redeem Brahma from a curse. Hence the deity is called Vilva-Senar. Thus, even today the idol is dissolvable mud, so the Abhishekam is performed after it is covered with a brass pot. Another legend is that Manmada (the Indian Cupid and Love-God) contracted a skin disease and became grotesque; who wants an ugly God of love? So he prayed here and became handsome again. Hence the popular name of this deity:Tiru-Kameshwara.  In another variant, the Chola King Dharmapala prayed here and got completely cured of leprosy. And there are more modern anecdotes of the childless becoming parents, marital discord being solved etc. If you have any problem at all, you need to just whisper in the small Nandi’s 4 ear and the message gets directly relayed to Shiva himself!

Oh, forget the legends, I was as charmed by the temple as Uvesa was!


Ashok tries lifting the huge ropes that are used to haul the Thers during festive processions

The feminist temple…
Quickly, it became clear that this is a women-power temple: more importance is given to Kokila-Ambal rather than Tirukameshwarar. We already saw that she has a separate Ther for herself. There are 2 Dwaja Sthambhas 5 in this temple (normally there is only one), because the God and Goddess each have their own. The usual architectural norm is to have a small shrine for Chandikeswara by the side of the sanctorum for Shiva. Here, Kokila-Ambal has an extra shrine by her side for Chandikeswari. I have never seen a female form of Chandikeswara before!

Tirukameshwarar faces the East. At the entrance we found a Nandi in human form with his consort — welcoming all devotees. (Very different from the usual interpretation of  Nandi who blocks the view!) Kokila-Ambal faces the south and has a Nandi all for herself, in the outer prahara.


A view of the South Gopuram from the Nandi Mandapam

…soaked in artistic beauty
The entrance Mandapam 6 is over 30 feet tall, supported by exquisitely carved pillars. The pillars show horse riders performing dare devil feats. Each pillar is different in some detail and appears different when viewed from different sides.

Ancient architects have placed Skylights  at strategic locations so that the temple is naturally sunlit. One skylight is so designed that Tirukameshwara is sunlit with sharp focus on 9th, 11th and 19th of Panguni month (March-April) every year!

The temple abounds in artistic statues of major Indian deities: Valampuri Vinayakar, Murugan with 2 consorts, Muthukumaraswamy, a huge Varuna Lingam and a small Sahasra Lingam (with a bas-relief of 1008 lingams) Bairavar, 63 Nayanmars and more. Behind the sanctum sanctorum, on the inner prahara, is a huge gallery with outstanding bronze icons. Though they are protected by a grilled cage (security, of course)  one can still get an eyeful from the outside.


A lone kite patrols the high tower that was once a French outpost

As you come to the outer prahara you realise that the South Gopuram 7 is much taller, even more prominent than the entrance Gopuram. During the reign of the French Governor Dupleix, this was used as a watch-tower by his soldiers. But recently it has been painted in vibrant colours and magnetically attracts the devotees!


Elaborate Stucco Panel work on the II & III Level of the South Gopuram. Observe Ganesha, Vishnu with consorts Bhairava and Mahishasura Mardhini

A sad controversy
The temple is undergoing a major renovation. Yet, it is spotlessly clean despite the dust generated by the heavy repair work. More importantly, the temple authorities have ensured that normal worship by devotees has never been disrupted.

Although the PWD 8 is carrying the repairs with the advice of a traditionally trained Sthapathi, 9 the ASI 10 feels that some risks may have been overlooked. One worry is that the stone inscriptions of the 10th century said to be there could get erased/ damaged. The other, is that the ancient construction science was very different from contemporary methods; a well-meaning “improvement” may actually weaken the structure.  Strange isn’t it? We seek the Gods to protect our homes; but we are doubtful if we can nurture the House of God! I only hope that God prevails on all concerned to protect our heritage!

1.Anbe Shivam = Humaneness is Godliness

2.Ther = Wooden Chariot in which the Gods are taken in procession. Also called Ratham or Rath
3.Swayambhu Lingam = An icon of Shiva that was not man-made but created by an act of God
4.Nandi = The Sacred Bull that is the vehicle and personal assistant of God Shiva
5.Dwaja Sthambha = Flag mast in a Hindu Temple
6.Mandapam = Covered Pavilion
7.Gopuram = Tower, Pagoda or Pyramidal structure
8.PWD = Public Works Department, the state government machinery for civil projects
9.Sthapathi = An architect/ sculptor trained in the ancient Indian science of design
10.ASI = Archaeological Survey of India, a Central Government department that protects  monuments

All pictures are by the author, except those of Dr. Swaminatha Iyer and Dr. Vinson(which are courtesy Wikipedia)


2 thoughts on “The Frenchman & the Shiva Temple

  1. What a fascinating and quite striking temple, and I love the idea of its a temple signifying women’s power to some extent ~ I think I could lose myself looking at all the intricacies. Restoration and renovation are always a concern, as I am always worried that such can take away the certain aura of a place if not done well. Great post.

  2. Thanks Randall. Whenever I visit a monument, I worry that every maintenance that we do takes away something of the past glory!

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