At SaluvankuppamTamil Nadu is an old and perhaps aboriginal temple built to honour the Hindu deity Murugan. Archaeologists believe that this royal heritage site, unearthed in 2005, and had a double-layered structure: a brick temple that seems to have been constructed during the Sangam period (the 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD) and an 8th century AD granite temple, built during the Pallava reign, and on top of the brick shrine. The Archaeological Survey of India conducted a comprehensive analysis and reported that the brick temple could be the oldest of its kind to be pulled out in Tamil Nadu. This case study aims to emphasize the socio-political importance of the Saluvannkuppan Murukan temple in the era in which it was built and today.  

Saluvankuppam Murugan Temple: Oldest Murugan Temple on Earth - Sheet1
Front View of the Temple by Ravichandar84 ©www.commons.wikimedia.org

Architectural Style and Relevance

The temple houses a stone Vel (divine spear) at its entrance, the structure faces north (unlike most Hindu temples), and 27 courses of brickwork were used to build its two-meter high Garbhagriha or sanctum sanctorum. The bricks used in the Saluvannkuppan Murukan temple have a striking resemblance to the ones used in other Sangam age construction sites including ArikkameduPuharMangudi, and Uraiyur. The ASI-led temple excavations brought to light, a plaque made from terracotta featuring Kuravai Koothu, a dance form that is also mentioned in the Tamil epic Silappadikaram. The temple is encompassed by a Prakara or a compound wall dating from the Sangam period. The Saluvannkuppan Murukan temple is one of the biggest brick temple complexes dating to the pre-Pallava period, the temple is built on a cushion of alluvium on which a layer of man-made bricks has been placed. Above this are four layers of man-made brick partitioned by four layers of laterite. The temple façade features two types of bricks: large-sized laterite bricks from the Sangam period and thin, tabular bricks of a later age. The bricks have been plastered together using lime.

Saluvankuppam Murugan Temple: Oldest Murugan Temple on Earth - Sheet2
The Divine Spear by Jopazhani – ©www.commons.wikimedia.org

Historical Importance 

Although the ancient town of Mahabalipuram was constructed by the Pallava king Narasimhavarman I during the 7th century AD, reports suggest that a small port may have functioned at the same site much earlier. Megalithic burial urns dating to the very inception of the Christian era have been uncovered near Mahabalipuram. The Sangam period Perumpānattuppadai talks about a port named Nirppeyyaru which some researchers identify with the modern-day Mahabalipuram. Some studies have identified Sadras near Mahabalipuram as the site of the port of Sopatma described in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea.

The Discovery

From data collected from the site, including structural orientation, brick size, inscriptions, and artefacts collected, the ASI team concluded that the Saluvannkuppan Murukan temple immediately antedates the Pallavas. Further to this they also inferred that no other temple of the same type has been reported from south India. The granite spear and the plaque depicting women dancing Kuravai Koothu led to ASI’s conclusion that this is perhaps a Lord Subrahmanya temple. The temple was scooped out by a team of archaeologists from the ASI, based on clues obtained from a rock inscription unveiled by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Initial excavations unearthed an 8th-century Pallava-era shrine. Detailed excavations revealed that the 8th-century temple building had been constructed on the brick foundation of a Sangam shrine. Artefacts from both the Sangam age as well as the Pallava period were found. A terracotta Nandi (the bull of god  Shiva ), terracotta lamps, potsherds, and a Shivalinga-first ever to be made of greenstone, are amongst the artefacts obtained from the site. While most of the items found date back to the Sangam period, artefacts of a later period including a Chola copper coin were uncovered.

Saluvankuppam Murugan Temple: Oldest Murugan Temple on Earth - Sheet3
Photograph Showing the Two Types of Bricks Used by Ravichandar84 ©www.commons.wikimedia.org

Impact on India’s Urban Fabric

The Modi-Xi meet infused a new buzz into Mamallapuram. With fancy lights, excited media, and graffiti the UNESCO-monuments of the ancient town got a facelift and visitors flocked in droves- several grabbing selfies at the very spots the two leaders had got their photos. In a recent development, Madras High Court’s Madurai bench directed both Central and State governments to put up display boards containing information about ancient heritage sites at airports, bus stations, malls, and other public places. A division bench, comprising of Justices N Kirubakaran and B Pugalendhi, observed that the government has to work towards the popularity of ancient monuments through such methods so that people, including foreigners, visit these monuments. If the display boards, pictorially describe the sites, this will attract tourists and help preserve these ancient buildings, the judges indicated. They also cited the Saluvankuppam Murugan temple as an example. As the judges rightly pointed out, while Mahabalipuram is thronged every day with thousands of visitors, the ancient temple in Saluvankuppam, which is situated just 7km from Mahabalipuram and was unearthed through the tremendous efforts of archaeologists, is still not well known. 

Author

Sowmya is an architectural journalist and writer. In this column, Sowmya takes you through stories on eco-architecture, biophilic design, and green buildings from across the globe.

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