Sometime during the 16th century CE Salem and its surrounding areas which include Namakkal, Dharmapuri, and Attur, came under the rule of Madurai Nayakar kings. The kingdom of the Madurai Nayakar kings consisted of 72 smaller administrative regions called palayams headed by local chieftains who were called Palayakarars. Salem under the Madurai Nayakars rule came under the Palayakarars known as Gatti Mudali and Nayaks. Besides collecting taxes, they ably administered the regions they ruled, maintained armies, built forts and built or extended temples. The temples they built and those that were extended by them are architectural gems, showcasing their keen interest in art and architecture.
NAYAK TEMPLE ARCHITECTURE
Nayak temple architecture had a distinct style. It was characterized by enormous multi-storied gateway towers called gopuram, richly decorated with brightly painted stucco figures of gods, goddesses demons and animals both real and mythical, and pillared mandapas. The large courtyards surrounding the central shrine of these temples were designed to accommodate the crowds who would gather to view temple rituals and processions of gods. The temple grounds were enclosed by high fort like outer walls called madhil – always useful in case of invasion from rival chiefs and invaders.
Lakshmi Narayanan temple in Sendhamangalam, 11kms from Namakkal in Tamil Nadu, is one such impressive structure. Sendhamangalam today is a sleepy village taluk in the Nainamalai foothills. It is also very near the Kolli hills in Namakkal district. But centuries ago it was an important admintrative centre of the Nayakar kings.
The temple of Lakshmi Narayana Perumal is extremely old. According to the local people no one really knows how old it is, but it has been there since ‘paattan,mupaattan kaalam’.This colloquial Tamil phrase is used often in rural Tamilnadu and is a charming way to state that something has been there or was done since time immemorial. Pattan is tamil for grandfather and mupaatan denotes their fathers – three generations removed before them.
The antiquity of the temple is supported by another important fact. Two kilometres from Sendhamangalam is the famous Nainamalai hill with the temple of Varadharaja Perumal at the very top. The hill itself is 2600 feet high with ancient stone steps going all the way to the top. There are more than 3000 steps and climbing them is no mean feat. Believed to have existed since four yugas – which time period spans millions of years, the temple was built during the Pallava period. To this day, it is an important pilgrimage destination and kula deivam (family deity) temple and thousands make the difficult ascent to the top every year, particularly in the sacred Tamil month of Purataasi.
The two temples are intrinsically connected. In the ancient mandapam leading to the sanctum sanctorum of Lakshmi Narayana Perumal are kept the idols of Nainamalai Varadharaja Perumal,Sridevi and Bhudevi. All those who are not able to visit the hill temple and the old and infirm can worship here. There is also a sealed and locked doorway which is believed to be the entrance to a secret passage way that goes all the way up to the Nainamalai temple. Mysterious and intriguing, isn’t it? The passage way was probably used as an escape route by local kings in times of war. Similar secret pathways are also believed to have existed in the Rasipuram Kailasanathar temple and the Kaala Bhairavar temple in Dharmapuri.
LAKSHMI NARAYANAN TEMPLE
In a tranquil rural setting, the towering multi-storeyed Rajagopuram and high surrounding walls of Lakshmi Narayanan temple are so unexpected that they take one by surprise. This could easily have been a temple in Kumbakonam where such huge gopurams are the norm. On entering, the massive doorway opens on a spacious open courtyard. The large pillared mandapam has ornately carved pillars showing mounted warriors in combat and mythical incidents.
Here we find a larger than life statue of King Govindappa Naicker on a stone pedestal. The statue depicts an authoritative king. The upward slant of the face, the hair knotted on top in a style known as a kondai that was typical of the age, an outstretched hand with a forefinger pointing in a commanding manner, the folds of the clothes and impressive jewelry all combine to create a regal and slightly fearsome personality.
This outer mandapam also has idols of other gods and a shrine for navagrahas.
A narrow passage leads to the sanctum through an inner mandapam.
In the sanctum the 6 feet high idol of a seated Lakshmi Narayanan with Thayaar on his lap is exquisitely beautiful. It is in the inner mandapam that the idols of Nainamalai Varadaraja Perumal with Sridevi and Bhudevi are kept. So we get to worship the deities of both temples here.
The Thaayar sannidhi is a small separate temple next to the main temple. Perundevi thaayar is as beautiful as her name suggests and a picture of compassion and grace.
A WALK AROUND THE TEMPLE
It is a temple to be seen and admired at a leisurely pace because it is full of surprises. My visit was a hurried one and I hope I can visit again to admire and be awed all over again.
The temple is near the Sendhamangalam bus station.
Distance from Namakkal – 11 kms.
Distance from Rasipuram – 26 kms
Distance from Salem – 53 kms