THIRUPPORUR: A LEGENDARY BATTLE WAS FOUGHT HERE
Kandaswami of Thirupporur is one of the more important temples among the 33 abodes of Murugan that are said to grace the lands of Thondaimandalam. The sanctity of Thirupporur is very high and probably very ancient. One of the inscriptions in the Kandaswami temple, etched on two pillars in the mandapam in front of the Devayanaiyamman shrine, dates back to the seventh century. There are other inscriptions of 11th, 12th and 13th century describing gifts of cattle, grain and lands made by individuals as well as the assemblies of various localities for the performance of specified rituals and festivals in the temple. Incidentally, one such gift was received by the assembly, the mahasabha, of the neighbouring village of Kayar, and in return the mahasabha agreed to maintain the service of providing food-offerings and burning of lamps at the temple.
Thirupporur is said to have been sanctified by a great battle that Murugan fought here. According to the sthala-purana Murugan, after demolishing Surapadama, faced the remaining asuras here and destroyed all of them at this spot. Thirupporur, which literally means the town of the sacred battle, derives its name from this legend. In the past the town was also known by the Sanskrit name of Yuddha Puri.
Legend also maintains that Murugan explained the essence of ‘pranava’ to the devas at Thirupporur. The low hill to the west of the town is therefore known as the Pranava Malai, and it is said that Siva in the form of Kailasanathar dwells on this hill. In the Kandaswami temple there is a beautiful panchaloha idol of Murugan in the act of teaching ‘pranava’ to Siva. It is also said that ‘pranava’ worshipped Murugan and remained here in the form of the hill. At the foot of this hill there still stands an old luxuriously green neem tree. The sthala-purana claims that the tree is Mahalakshami herself, who took this form in compliance with the curse of a rishi. Under the tree there is a small temple known as the Vempadi Vinayakar, the shrine of ‘Ganesha sitting under the neem tree’.
The ancient temple of Thirupporur Kandaswami was completely rebuilt in the middle of the 17th century by a saint of the Veerasaiva sect, Sri Chidambara Swami. Chidambara Swami came from Madurai and renovated the temple with the help of a large number of his devotees. He is also said to have got constructed the temple tank, the Thirukkulam next to the temple, then. This Thirukkulam is one of the largest and most beautiful temple tanks in the region, and unlike many others, remains fairly clean and full throughout the year. This vast tank on the Madras-Mahabalipuram highway imparts a rare grace to the town. Driving down the road and suddenly coming to this big square tank with its clear waters one gets the feeling of having entered a great town, which Thirupporur indeed was a couple of centuries ago.
On the northern end of Thirupporur there stands the matham of Chidambara Swami with its own small tank. This is where Chidambara Swami is said to have lived during his sojourn here. The matham is being maintained by some Veersaiva devotees. The Kandaswami temple has been taken over by the government, but is formally in the charge of a Veersaiva Swami, who is said to be in the direct lineage of Chidambara Swami, and is recognised as the chief Dharmakarta by the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Commission. The Dharmakarta lives in the Kovil Matham just outside the main gate of the temple. This matham stood here even in the eighteenth century, and it is possible that Chidambara Swami himself may have graced this place with his stay and teachings.
A place so sacred and so rich in tradition and history does not disappear from public memory even if its diverse links with the public life are systematically severed. Kandaswami of Thirupporur, therefore, though no more a centre of cultural life of the region, as it was in the eighteenth century, remains an important place of pilgrimage for many. Some visitors can be seen going around the temple and the few streets around it on any day. On sundays and other holidays, and on special days of festivals, the temple is almost crowded. On such days the many houses around the temple which have started functioning as public eating places find it difficult to cater to all the customers that they get.
Most of the visitors to Thirupporur come by public transport. But there are many who come in groups in chartered mini-buses. Rights for collecting parking fees from vehicles coming to the temple are auctioned out for around 20,000 rupees annually. This gives some idea of the popularity of Thirupporur as a pilgrim centre. Similarly, the rights for collecting hair offered at the temple are sold for around 40,000 rupees. Many people it seems come here to have the tonsure ceremony performed, but many also come to hold marriages and other major family functions at this sacred place.
With its legendary fame and sanctity, Kandaswami of Thirupporur, thus remians a fairly prosperous and active temple. Annual total income of the temple, according to the Dharmakarta, amounts to around 7 lakh rupees. The annual expenses of the temple run to around 5.5 lakh rupees. The temple has thus been accumulating some funds for the last three or four years.
Almost all of this income of the temple comes from individual contributions. Since the Shrotriyam rights of the temple on the lands of Thirupporur and Karungulipallam have been made into ownership rights the temple now holds the patta for 249 acres of wet and 434 acres of dry cultivation. But the income that the temple draws from these lands is marginal. The 1961 census lists Kandaswami of Thirupporur as one of the temples that is in the curious situation of owning extensive lands but having little income from them. In 1961 total income of the temple from almost 600 acres of land was 11,000 rupees. Now the temple earns about 30,000 rupees from its lands.
Every June at the beginning of the agricultural year an open public auction is held for sale of the rights of cultivation on the temple lands. Long lists of lands to be auctioned are printed and published in some of the local Tamil newspapers. And on the day of auction all the prospective tenants get together in the temple premises. This of course is merely to comply with a meaningless bureaucratic ritual. Because the lands that are being cultivated by a family for long can hardly be alienated to others in an auction. In any case the original Shrotriyam rights did not imply a right to dispossess the cultivators, and the later ownership rights can hardly be stretched to this in practice. But the ritual of auction does leave sufficient scope for mischief, heart-burning and consequent litigation. And, the ritual consumes part of the meagre incomes that the temple derives from its lands. About one eighth, or 13 percent to be exact, of the income is expected and permitted to be spent as collection charges.
From these various auctions, of lands, of parking rights, of rights of collection of hair, etc., the temple earns a total of perhaps one lakh rupees. Payment to the temple in lieu of its rights in the share in the produce of 249 localities around it and its manyam rights in certain other localities is in any case small. The temple gets around 6000 rupees as recompense for these rights. As mentioned earlier this amount of compensation was fixed way back in the eighteenth century when these rights were first taken over by the government. The remaining 6/7ths of the income of the temple thus arises from contributions made by individuals for various services and pujas.
It is conceivable that the income of the temple in the eighteenth century was not much more than its income now in real terms. In fact, converted into paddy, the income of the temple then and now seems quite comparable. But the eighteenth century income largely arose from the shares allocated for the temple from the produce of the localities around it, or from the revenues of the lands assigned to the temple. Those incomes thus were part of the fiscal arrangements of the public polity. The temple got what was budgeted for it from the public funds. Besides these budgeted incomes the temple may also have got some voluntary contributions from the devotees and pilgrims. But the public funds have now been replaced by private contributions, much of these obtained in almost a commercial manner, through specified fees on the varied ritual services offered by the temple.
This new arrangement, however, completely changes the status of the temple. It is no more an institution of public life, no more an instrument of the public expression of the cultural aspirations and strengths of the localities that budgeted and provided for it. Individuals in the localities may still feel the pull of the sanctity of the Kandaswami of Thirupporur. But the localities themselves have nothing to do with it. The locality of Thirupporur itself is in fact so little concerned about the temple and its sanctity, that on a holiday, when the temple is full of pilgrims from far off places, a brisk fish and meat market runs right opposite the temple, not a hundred yards away from the main gate, outside the beautiful circular mandapam of the flower garden, which was once attached to the temple. The temple has thus become a private matter, a matter between the soul of the individual pilgrim and the Kandaswami of Thirupporur.
The Kandaswami of Thirupporur remains – but not as the cultural capital of the 249 localities around it.
J. K. Bajaj and T. M. Mukundan
Centre for Policy Studies, Madras