By Sharon St Joan
In his book, Vellore Fort and the Temple through the Ages, A.K. Sheshadri writes extensively about the Jalakanteswarar Temple.
Tracing the history of temple building in Tamil Nadu, he mentions that during the early Sangam period, many temples were built of brick and wooden beams, and that this method of building continued until the time of the rock-cut temples – those dug out from the solid rock of hills. The rock-cut temples survive to the present, but the early brick and wooden temples mostly do not.
During the post-Sangam period, up to the seventh century CE, many of the Gods known locally came to be identified with more widely known Sanskrit Gods. Mayon came to be seen as identical to Krishna or Vishnu. Likewise, Koorravai was seen as Durga – and Seyon or Murugan came to be known as Karthikeya. This was a synthesis which took shape between the eighth and the thirteenth centuries.
During this time, Tamil Nadu was gaining recognition as the land of many temples. The Cholas and others carried on this great temple building tradition.
Later, from the fourteenth through the sixteenth centuries, temple building in south India burst into a major expansive phase during the reigns of the Vijayanagara kings, who ruled from their capitol in Karnataka. The imposing features associated with Hindu temples today; such as large gopurams (entrance towers), long corridors, and mandapams (pillared halls) were added. Across the Indian south, many hundreds of temples were expanded, some were entirely rebuilt, and new temples sprung up.
In the view of the author S.K. Sheshadri, who spent decades excavating the fort in Vellore and the temple within it, the first stage of both the temple and the inner fort was constructed by one of the Sambuvarayar kings, Vendrumankonda Sambuvarayar, in the early fourteenth century CE. An inscription with the date 1274 CE, though not quite consistent with the dates of this king, places the temple construction at around the same time as the Sambuvarayars.
Vellore lies in the region once known as Tondaimandalam, which was ruled by the Sambuvarayar chieftains. Today there exist inscriptions in and around eight towns near Vellore. These give the old name of the deity of the temple, who is Shiva, as Jwarakantesvara, which means the God who destroys “jwara” or “vyadhi,” that is “fever” or “disease.” Today the temple is known as the Jalakanteswarar; however, S.K. Sheshadri points out that “jala” means “water” in Sanskrit, and “destroyer of water” doesn’t make much sense. It makes more sense for God to be the “destroyer of fever,” or “healer,” as the original name “Jwarakanteswarar” suggested.
The Jalakanteswarar Temple stands in the northern area of the massive Vellore Fort. The ground level of the Fort has actually risen by more than nine feet, and the original level of the Temple was much lower than it is today. This is all rather complicated, but the effect of the difference in levels was that the original drainage system was covered up by earth that was added later, and without proper drainage, during the rainy seasons, water accumulated inside the temple, causing damage to the structure. When the Archeological Survey of India undertook the systematic excavation supervised by S.K. Sheshadri, they uncovered the original ground level and restored the drainage system to proper working condition.
Beautiful early structures and shrines were discovered that had lain covered in mud for centuries, along with a lovely square tank (pool) reached by descending steps, to the east of one of the wedding halls, and also a ring well in the inner courtyard of the temple.
The temple complex covers two acres. The main gopuram is rectangular, with the base constructed of granite blocks. Near the top of the tower are sculptured yalis, who are mythical lions.
Beyond a second gopuram lies an inner courtyard. There are traces of paintings on the ceilings of both gopurams.
In front of the shrine to Akilanteswari, are located nine burning oil lamps for the nine planets. Akilanteswari is one of the major forms of the Goddess Parvati.
There are two large wedding halls for the sacred marriage of Lord Shiva, as Jalakanteswarar, and the Goddess Parvati, as Akilanteswari, which takes place anew every year.
The Nataraja Shrine is a pillared hall, containing beautifully carved sculptures of the ten incarnations of Vishnu – although this is a Shiva temple, not a Vishnu temple. (Nataraja is the dancing form of Shiva.) It is thought that the temple was originally dedicated to the worship of both Vishnu and Shiva, and that this shrine within the temple may have earlier enshrined Ranganatha, or Narayana, the God who rests on the divine serpent Adi Shesha, while drifting on the cosmic ocean. There is also a double set of kitchens indicating that the temple was for the worship of both Gods, as is the case for the Chidambaram Temple, further south near the coast of the Bay of Bengal.
With its intricately carved, graceful sculptures, and its lovely architectural forms and shapes, the Jalakanteswarar Temple transports one gently into the magical presence of the eternal and the sacred.
Photos: Nanditha Krishna