The sleepy hamlet of Irukkanthurai stands three kilometres from the Bay of Bengal. Around 300 houses looking like colourful cubes stand silent under the scorching sun as a team of village elders, epigraphists and historians led by Madurai-based archaeologist C Santhalingam walk through the streets to reach the 1000-year-old Kailasanathar Temple. Spread over an acre, it makes for the centre square of Irukkanthurai.

History unfolds as Santhalingam squats to wipe off the dust from the walls in the basement of the main Temple. He then takes an estampage of the stone inscription that surfaces. “Irukkanthurai, a village in Radhapuram taluk in Tirunelveli district, was once a bustling port town with a flourishing trade,” he declares.

Revelation

Santhalingam, also the secretary of Pandyanadu Centre for Historical Research (PCHR), never thought he would be part of the discovery when he got a call from his friend M Arumugam of Valliyoor. He expected it to be a routine business of decoding stone inscriptions. But for the team consisting of research scholars R Uthayakumar also from PCHR and C Pandisvaran and C Deepa from Madurai Kamaraj University, it was a revelation.

After dabbing the inscriptions with ink, Santhalingam pores over the paper to read the 10th century Vattezhuthu script. “The inscription records the presence of a merchant guild in the place where traders in large numbers congregated. The active merchant community has built this temple,” he infers.

“The name of the town is suffixed with ‘thurai’, which means port,” he says. “The coastal belt from Thoothukudi to Kanyakumari has many such small towns but I wonder how this place escaped the eyes of archaeologists,” he adds.

All this came to light when the villagers planned a kumbabishekam of the age-old Irukkanthurai Mahadeva Temple popularly called by the locals as Kailasanathar Temple. Since the temple had no written history, the temple authorities on noticing inscriptions in the temple basement sought more information.

There are around 25 inscriptions in the temple of which some are written in Vattezhuthu characters, some in Tamil script, some fragmented and some are in damaged condition. The inscriptions document donations received and the endowments created to fund the day-to-day functioning of the temple.

Of the 25 inscriptions three belong to early Pandya period while the rest belong to Chola period. Inscriptions of Rajendra Chola I period are engraved in Tamil script. “One inscription refers Irukkanthurai as Singalanthakapuram. King Rajendra Chola was called as Singalanthakan after his victory over Ceylon. To mark his supremacy the name of the town must have been changed. The inscription must have been written after Rajendra’s victories over Kadaram and Purvadesam (far eastern countries such as Cambodia and Indonesia). Also the name of the temple is referred as Thumburu Naratha Iswaram,” points out Santhalingam.

Social history

Another inscription on the right door jamb of the sanctum sanctorum mentions that the door frame was installed by a cloth merchant Aruvai Vanigar “Aruvai Vanigars are also referred as Saliyars, who are known for their textile business. The temple also has Saliyar Kinaru (a well in the name of the community) to provide water for the temple. It affirms the financial status of the textile merchants in the town, who must have spearheaded the temple construction,” explains Santhalingam.

Only a few members of the community are left in village now as majority have apparently moved to Vadassery near Nagercoil for better living.

There are references to Valanchiyar, the gemstone merchants as well. They too significantly contributed to the construction of the Irukkanthurai Mahadeva Temple. “Valanchiyar had strong trade links with Ceylon and China. Presence of active merchant community proves that the port town had active trade links with neighbouring towns and also some foreign countries. A survey along the shore has to be done to find remnants that would ascertain foreign trade links,” says Santhalingam.

Splendour on stones

Popular merchant guilds of ancient Tamils are Manigramam, Ainootruvar (experts in foreign trade), Valanchiyar (gem stones), Anjuvannam (horse merchants), Peruniraviyar (general merchants), Aruvai Vanigar or Saliyar (textile merchants).

One of the inscriptions referring the donation of 50 sheep to the temple denotes the Tamil letter of ‘ai’ in ‘Aimbathu’ in the shape of a trident. Such reference to ‘ai’ is found in the Thirunattar Kundru Vattezhuthu record.

Another inscription belonging to early Pandya period in this temple records the donation made by a woman Chithi Kodan Thukki. Probably, it could be the earliest reference to the Tamil word ‘Chithi’ (aunt).