Hidden Histories: How charity in stone turns into a shrine
It would be an interesting study to see if the donations still vest in the temples; if so, whether their incomes are being put to the use they were originally meant for.
For years I have passed a stone slab let into the wall of a building on TTK Road. Rectangular on three sides and semicircular on top, around two feet in height and a foot in width, it is at floor level. Under the curved top is a frieze depicting a Nandi worshipping a Sivalingam and below that is a long inscription.
The stone is now an object of worship thanks to the Nandi and Sivalingam. Flowers are regularly offered and once in a while it gets washed with turmeric water. Over the past few months, several people have found it a convenient place to abandon unwanted pictures of deities. A shrine is in the making.
One early morning, long before the arrival of the faithful, a friend and I deciphered the inscription, which was in Tamil. It recorded the donation of this property in 1822 to the Tiruvanmiyur Marundeeswarar Temple, by one Pachaiyappan, son of Kathavarayan, residing at 1/4, Bazar Road, Royapettah. It stipulated that the rental income be used for celebrating pradosham at the temple. It expresses the hope that the trustees of the temple would fulfil the donor’s wishes, failing which the latter cursed them to suffer eternal damnation.
Similar stones stand on either side of the Kapaleeswarar sanctum inside the Mylapore temple. These are of much later vintage. The one on the right records the donation of a Saidapet coconut grove in 1896 worth Rs 2,500 by Arumuga Mudaliar of Rakkiappa Mudali Street, for the celebration of the first day of the temple’s annual festival. He has also recorded his gift of a house on Nattu Subbaraya Mudali Street, meant to cover the cost of preparing a rice dish every day for the late-night worship.
The stone on the other side speaks of Ammayi Ammal’s gift of a house on Muthugramani Street in 1918 for the observance of the second day’s festivities. She also records her offering of a necklace and a gem-studded pendant. The Nandi and Sivalingam topping these stones receive their daily quota of flowers and prayers too. So do two other inscriptions, standing on either side of the Amman sanctum in the Tiruvanmiyur temple. Some inscriptions are not so lucky. One that has vanished was on Gaudiya Math Road, recording that a shop was gifted to the Masilamaniswarar Temple in Tirumullaivayil.
All of these stones date to the 19th and early 20th centuries. They follow the same design except that donations to Vishnu temples depict the conch and discus and are in Telugu. Triplicane and George Town abound in these. All the stones record in great detail the location of the properties, sometimes even stating what borders them on each side, rather like a modern survey document. It would be an interesting study to see if these donations still vest in the temples and if so, whether their incomes are being put to the use they were originally meant for. Or are the trustees suffering from hell-fire?
Sriram V. is the convener of INTACH, Chennai Chapter.