Seventy-seven kilometers (48 miles) to the southwest of Chennai lies the town, Madurantakam, site of the well-known temple of Sri Kodanda Rama or Eri Kaatha Rama, which was built around 700 AD during the time of the Palava kings.
Driving along the road, we see a large tank off to the right. A tank in India is a sacred, artificial lake near a temple. Some temples have many tanks, and every temple has at least one.
On the left, further back from the road lies the Eri Kaatha Ramar Temple, dedicated to Lord Rama, one of the central figures of Indian culture and history. Rama was an incarnation of Lord Vishnu and the hero of one of the two great epic poems of India, the Ramayana.
Along with his statue in the temple, stand his wife, Sita, and his brother, Lakshmana. India is a land of myth and magic, and, occasionally over the centuries even down-to earth westerners have found themselves face-to-face with the unexpected or the miraculous.
For around three hundred years, the British occupied India; during part of that time, local British officials in charge of districts were called Collectors, since tax-collecting was an important part of their duties. In 1798, the Collector for the district was a British military officer, Colonel Lionel Price. His name is recorded variously as Price, Blaze, or Place, and the story varies a bit from one account to another, but the essential facts remain the same.
The eastern parts of Tamil Nadu are subject to floods. It had been raining for days on end. In some years, such heavy rains had been known to cause the temple tank to overflow and flood the town, with people losing their lives.
Colonel Price was very concerned, feeling responsible for the safety of the people in his district. Late one night, worried, he walked around the tank, in the pouring rain, watching the waters rising and lapping against the edge.
There he encountered two teenage boys carrying bows and arrows. One of them reassured him, telling him not to worry, that the tank would not overflow its bounds. Oddly, he felt much reassured, and went away, to sleep soundly for the rest of the night. The next day, the sun was shining, and the rains had stopped. On an impulse, he visited the temple across from the tank, and was astonished to find inside, statues of the two boys he had seen the night before in the pouring rain. They were Rama (hero of the Ramayana), and his brother, Laksmana.
Amazed, he told the temple priests about his encounter with them. Wanting to do something to express his gratitude, Colonel Price built a shrine to one of the temple deities, the Goddess Janakavalli Thayar (another name for Sita, heroine of the Ramayana), who had been waiting for some time for a shrine. An edict with the name of the Collector, describing him as the benefactor, can still be seen today in the temple at Madurantakam.
From that time, the temple came to be called, Eri Kaatha Rama, which means “Rama who saved the tank.”
Continuing our drive and progressing a long way further south to a wilder, less populated region of Tamil Nadu, we come to the district of Puddokottai, which lies 390 kilometers (242 miles) south of Chennai, or Madras.
Puddokotti is very rural, beautiful, with grassy meadows on either side of the road. It is said to be really dry and not very fertile, which is one of the reasons it has remained rather backward, not caught up in the advance of “progress.” “Dryness” is a relative concept, and compared with the U.S. desert southwest, Puddokottai seems to me to be practically drowning in water, with ponds or tanks every few feet along the roadside.
Anyway, it’s true that there’s not the kind of jungle growth that one often finds in India. Clearly, it is a very poor area, with people sometimes living in little thatched-roof huts. Though they are poor, they are surrounded by open countryside, not trapped on city streets, which must be a blessing. The animals look remarkably well cared for. The dogs, the cows, and the goats all look like they’re getting lots to eat. This is not to say that some of the farm animals will not be sold, as they are everywhere in the world, but for the time being, they look happy and full of life.
A beautiful Brahminy Kite floats from tree to tree, with a white head and chest—a magnificent sight.
Top image: Rama and Lachsmana / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons
Second image: Rama and Hanuman fighting Ravana, an album painting on paper, around 1820 / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons
Third image: Rama and Sita, The Coronation, 1040 / Picture Publishing Corporation / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons