At the first temple they visited as a couple, they didn’t just pray. They spent six hours taking pictures of the gopurams and vimanas, discussing style and structure. Rajashekaran, who is in construction and Vidhu, an Assistant Professor of Architecture met at an epigraphy class over a mutual love for temple architecture and history and married soon after. Naturally, a failed honeymoon to Ooty turned into a 12 day trip across Tirunelveli on a shoestring budget. “We had 12 days. We swore this trip would have nothing to do with temples, but can you blame us?” enthuses Vidhu.
What followed was an extensive trek across districts, opening their eyes to the marvels of Tamil Nadu’s hidden histories and mysteries around its architecture. “Tamil Nadu’s amazing architectural history is often connected to Thanjavur. If you go to Madurai and Thanjavur, sure you’ll see lots of temples. But we wanted to go to Tirunelveli because we know the Cholas and the Pallavas did a lot for architecture. But the Pandyas are undiscovered. No one actually knows much about the Pandya eras contributions,” says Rajashekar.
Preparations were massive, because the couple wanted to spend little on food and miscellaneous expenses. “We got an Etios hatchback, no driver. We drove ourselves around, packed vegetables, pulses, masalas, electric cooker and a stove. When we got hungry, we cooked inside the hotels we stayed. We barely spent much over 12 days.” Their days began at 6 am, endlessly documenting and stopping only to cook.
The highlight was a set of caves that Rajasekharan likened to the Ellora of the South. “The Pallavas developed a unique form of inscription called the Granta, and the Pandyas developed the Vathezhuthu. Again, not a lot have evidence of the latter because while preserving these caves, chemical paint often reacts with the rock and these inscriptions are barely seen or even fall off,” he says. The caves while unfinished, have the finesse of the Ellora. “This could have easily been our Ellora.”
Tamil Nadu also has its own dragon – the Yaazhi. “We saw these wonderful life size sculptures of half elephant-half lion creatures. Sometimes there are also half-goat half-lion creatures. They’re found across panels in certain temples, but few of us know the significance of them,” says Rajashekar.
Frescoes in Villupuram, the origins of Pillaiyar worship among the Chalukyas and even the goddess that we often now derogatorily refer to as ‘Mudevi’ were scattered across their long journey. But they also began to see signs of sheer neglect of these sites along their way. “Some of the sculptures are just thrown onto the ground, as a signal to display their neglect. This is also where smuggling begins. They are then buried in the ground and later taken away. These are 14th-15th century treasures that we are losing to lack of knowledge,” says Rajashekar. But little by little, the couple hope that the innumerable stories behind these oft-neglected ruins will reach people. “As the tradition goes, a woman normally visits a temple after her marriage to pray for the good of it. We visit temples as a couple to do the little good for the temple that we possibly can,” says Vidhu.