Seerkazhi: What The Landmark Discovery Of Panchaloka Idols And Copper Plates Mean To Tamil Nadu's Religious History

Seerkazhi: What The Landmark Discovery Of Panchaloka Idols And Copper Plates Mean To Tamil Nadu's Religious History

by S Krishnan - Tuesday, April 18, 2023 04:23 PM IST
Seerkazhi: What The Landmark Discovery Of Panchaloka Idols And Copper Plates Mean To Tamil Nadu's Religious HistoryA landmark discovery of vigrahas and copper plates in Seerkazhi.
  • The discovery of a number of vigrahas and copper plates in Seerkazhi Sattainathar Temple is a landmark event, and for the first time, copper plates with Saiva hymns were found here.

Over the last few years, there have been a number of discoveries of vigrahas of various gods in many parts of Tamil Nadu.

Many Sivalingas, Vishnu murtis, Lakshmi, Thavvai, Lakulisa and many more idols were discovered during excavation. Predominantly, the idols were made of granite stone.

The reason they lay buried could have been because the temples that housed such vigrahas were demolished or left with no care over a period of time. On the other hand, there were few places where the panchaloka vigrahas were found to be deliberately hidden under the ground for specific reasons.

Panchaloka vigrahas.
Panchaloka vigrahas.

The Agamas stipulate that during times (kalabam) of invasions, epidemics, fire, etc, the idols needed to be safeguarded.

They also mention that after digging a pit for concealing the vigrahas, river sand needs to be poured into the pit before the idols are placed there. After the distress times are over, they can be taken out and pujas can be resumed.

Hence, we can conclude that it has been a practice to hide the idols since ancient times.

However, when such a crisis prolongs or when the people who hid such vigrahas are killed by the invaders, the knowledge is lost and the idols remain beneath the ground for years. It is interesting to note that they are now emerging due to a number of reasons.

A vigraha that was unearthed from the site.
A vigraha that was unearthed from the site.

In light of this, the discovery of a number of vigrahas and copper plates in Seerkazhi Sattainathar Temple is a landmark event.

The temple is under the administration of Dharmapuram Adheenam, a Saiva Mutt that has been in existence for centuries.

The current Adheenam is performing kumbhabhishekam (consecration ceremony) to a number of temples under the control of the mutt. Sattainathar Temple kumbhabhishekam is slated to be held on 24 May after a gap of 32 years.

It is customary to have a yaga sala associated with the kumbhabhishekam, so when the workers were digging a place for constructing the yaga sala near the west gopuram, they found idols.

The digging was stopped for a while and resumed carefully under the supervision of HH Adheenam. What was unearthed then was a treasure trove.

There were 22 panchaloka vigrahas including those of Ganapathi, Murugan, Somaskandar, Saiva saints such as Appar and Gnanasambandar.

Apart from them, 55 peetas, a number of puja utensils, 493 copper plates were all found in the same location.

Based on the initial assessment, these panchaloka vigrahas were found to be from the 12th-13th Century CE, which was towards the end of the later Chola era.

Based on the style of Tamil letters written on the copper plates, they also seem to be from the same period.

Apparently, they were buried to safeguard against invader attacks, and lost for centuries. The initial reading of the copper plates in display shows that the pathigam written on them is the Thiruvenguru hymn of Sambandar.

Thiruvenguru is another name for Seerkazhi. It seems that the hymns were written on the copper plates along with the pan (raga) of them.

This is another important point as there were lot of debates as to when these pans were assigned to the verses. As of now, it looks like the dating goes back to the later Chola era.

A similar group of artefacts was last found in 1987 at Esalam Temple near Villupuram. Those copper plates bear details about the grant given by Rajendra Chola to his Guru Sarvasiva Pandithar.

The Esalam copper plates revealed some interesting aspects of Tamil history. But the Seerkazhi discovery goes one step ahead.

Here, the copper plates (at least a portion of them) contain the Thevaram hymns sung by Thirugnanasambandar, one of the four important Saiva saints who belong to the 7th century AD. It must be noted that Seerkazhi is the birth place of Sambandar.

While a number of copper plates of Pandyas, Cholas, Pallavas and other kings who ruled Tamilagam were found before, they all deal with grants to individuals or temples. But for the first time, copper plates with Saiva hymns were found in Seerkazhi.

It must be noted that these hymns, collectively known as Thevaram, sung by Saiva saints Appar, Sundarar and Sambandar during 7th-8th centuries were lost subsequently for a couple of centuries though some of them were sung in temples.

Copper plates.
Copper plates.

It was due to the efforts of Chola Emperor Rajaraja, the palm leaves containing these hymns were recovered from one of the rooms in the Chidambaram Nataraja temple. Even at that time, many of the manuscripts were completely destroyed by termites.

It was said that originally there were 38,000 such hymns but about 8,227 were recovered. Of these, 4,158 hymns were sung by Sambandar. Rajaraja Chola then took the help of Nambiyandar Nambi to arrange them properly into categories of Thirumurais.

The hymns were classified and documented using palm leaf manuscripts.   Subsequently, the Thirumurais were sung on a grand scale in many temples. Grants are given to Othuvars (who have the expertise in singing the hymns) for singing them on important occasions. For examples, Rajaraja employed 48 Othuvars in Thanjavur temple for singing these hymns. 

Subsequently, as they were written only in manuscripts, few of these hymns were also lost and some of them are available only partially. 

There was only one occasion where a Thevaram song was found in a stone inscription. In a place called Thiruvidaivaayil, one pathigam (hymn) of Sambandar was found in an inscription."

Seerkazhi: What The Landmark Discovery Of Panchaloka Idols And Copper Plates Mean To Tamil Nadu's Religious History

Interestingly, that particular hymn was not found in any of the manuscripts. Unfortunately, the entire inscription was destroyed during renovation.

During the reign of Vikram Chola, his official Manavirkoothan Kalingarayan did a number of renovations in Chidambaram Nataraja temple. His works were described in 36 verses in the inscriptions found in the temple. The 30th verse says:

Muththirathaal Esan Muthal thiraththai Padiyavar

Othamaitha Seppettinul ezhuthi - Iththalain

Ellaikkiriva Isai Ezuthinan Koothan

Thillai Chitrambalathe Sendru

Meaning, the hymns sung by Appar, Sambandar and Sundarar were inscribed on copper plates and it was Kalingarayan who carried out that work. Similarly, there is an inscription of Jatavarman Kulasekara Pandiyan (1190-1218) in Atroor near Thiruchendur.

The inscription mentions that the Saiva hymns of Sambandar written on copper plates were worshipped by one Panchavan Brahmadhirajan, an official of the Pandyas. Based on these two pieces of evidence, it is clear that the hymns were also inscribed on copper plates.

However, none of these copper plates were found so far until the discovery of the plates in Seerkazhi, that too with the dating of the Chola period.

Hence they assume an important place in Tamil history and also in the religious history of Tamil Nadu.

Currently, these copper plates are under the analysis of experts. What would be interesting to know is the information about what is written on the other copper plates and if there is any new hymn that was unknown to us so far.

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