Trip To The Beautiful Ancient Parthasarathy Temple In India

The Parthasarathy Temple in Triplicane, has been a resting place for pilgrims for the last five thousand years. Enjoy the narration, as the author takes few kids on a heritage walk to this temple!

By Pradeep Chakravathy

Trip To The Beautiful Ancient Parthasarathy Temple In India
A caricature of the author explaining to kids about the temple's rich heritage

Can you take us to a temple in Chennai?”, asked Sanjay. I said ‘Sure’, but with some hesitation. Sanjay is a successful leader who has worked in the IT field and is now doing his own consulting for organisations. I had never associated him as being historically-inclined. 

Sanjay's three children — Aila, Ayaan and nephew Saket — were all brought up in the US, Bangalore and Delhi - they were city-bred, ensconced in a liberal environment and were not exactly frequent visitors to temples. They were probably doing their first trip to Chennai. To tip the balance were Sanjay’s parents, also from the North. A very different group of people compared to what I was used to.

I was not sure about their interest in history and the mythology that surrounded temples in Tamil Nadu. Still, I decided that it would be a great opportunity to test my own hypothesis that there is much more to ancient Indian temples than just religion; and that history does not have to be a jumble of dates and kings, but could be contextualised and made meaningful for the younger generation.

The Parthasarathy temple in Triplicane was our destination. As we all got into the vehicle, I thought it was important to get a sense of what the children liked and more importantly, what they did not. “What bores you about temples?” I asked and thankfully (predictably) the answers were quick and candid. The crowds, the dirt, the noise, the ‘why should I go?’ were all the negatives I heard and I heartily agreed and congratulated myself for having chosen a weekday morning. What do we like about temple visits? It was the food!

Parthasarathy temple has a lovely pillared porch and we spent a few minutes there, especially around a sculptured jester in a comical pose having a long cone-shaped hat. The story about Tenali Raman (a jester) was narrated and the children too shared some stories about their favourite comic characters. Soon, the sculpture was not a boring, meaningless image on the pillar but a very ‘live’ character that they had seen in other forms on TV and in books. The mood was now less lethargic.

Trip To The Beautiful Ancient Parthasarathy Temple In India
A pictorial representation of the flag-staff

Inside the temple, we looked at the gold-plated Dwajasthambha (flag post between the sanctum and the entrance). We spoke about how the flag-staff was an important part of the palace. In Tamil Nadu, there is a very strong and clear connection as to how kings used temples to further legitimise their authority; and how in turn, temples used kings to garner political support to protect their wealth. Now I got the rapt attention of the elders as well.

On the side of the Dwajasthambha is a carving of some of the incarnations of Vishnu. I resisted the temptation of naming them and the children enjoyed a small guessing game. Then I asked whether the sequence of the avatars also indicated an old Hindu concept that life began first in water. The children’s thought the trail, however, led to sea monsters upon seeing the Matsya Avatar (Fish avatar) and they enquired whether the temple tank had its own monsters. OK, the original mythological idea was diluted, but it was all in the spirit of things.

Poet and saint of the 8th century, Tirumangai Azhwar’s verse on the temple, attributed the beauty of the town to its water bodies and we all agreed on the importance of water conservation. How can we save water? This was our discussion as we went inside.

Another pillar and yet another sculpture of a warrior in a curious pose! What was the sculptor trying to tell us? The children had enthusiastic and imaginative answers. Could we touch the pillar and recognise the quarried stone, and why was this a preferred material for construction in the past, I asked.

As we left the pillars we watched the greedy pigeons fluttering around. We then passed by many small but fine elephant statues. I recited some poems about elephants; the children, in turn, supplied their own stories/riddles, and there was much speculation on the elephant statues and the reason they were there.

We then crossed a sculpture of Trivikrama, Vishnu’s 5th incarnation. The children and I pieced the story together and discussed their relevance for today. "Not having a big ego", was an unexpected response that took me back. I did not expect this from a 7-year-old but I guess that with a father for a leadership/HR consultant, I should have anticipated such an answer.

The temple’s oldest inscription dates back to 808 AD. I spent some time talking about this inscription, as also other interesting ones and their significance to us. The children were all eyes on the food stalls nearby. So after this round, we did a quick darshan – an hour had passed!

I knew that the visit was a success when two of the children actually held my hands and asked for more explanations for some sculptures! Knowing when to stop is the hallmark of a wise one. We parted ways with all of us having learnt something. 

Message to parents

I may not be able to take your child to the temple but here are some things that you can do. The Parthasarathy temple is a small one, so you can imagine the wealth of ‘sight-seeing’ opportunities possible in larger temples.

  • Contextualise information to current day problems. Images have not changed much down the years!
  • Some research on the inscriptions and history of the temple helps. Do not mindlessly repeat the sthalapurana. All of them are concoctions from the 16th century to encourage people to come back to temples after the Muslim invasions. The inscriptions are more interesting and relevant and available in English.
  • It is a good idea to visit the libraries of the State Archaeological Survey on Halls Road. They have old, out-of-print books by K R Srinivasan, S R Balasubramaniam and others, which trace the evolution of temples from a social, political and historical context. The libraries also have the inscription reports for all temples and monuments across India.
  • Ask a lot of questions, and let children create their own stories from the sculptures. They can even try drawing some of them and learn a few songs associated with the temple.
  • We have to recognise that a lot of our pride in our country rests with our heritage. We need to pass this on to our children.
  • Though this article is focused on a temple, most of the principles apply for other such historical monuments or even natural reserves and wildlife parks.
  • Know when to stop! Our job is to kindle a love for learning and curiosity in children, not to smother them with information!
Pradeep Chakravarthy, the author of ‘Thanjavur - a cultural history’.

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