Most ancient living temples in South India have the custom of “Thaer Ottam” festival annually. The word ‘Thaer’ meaning chariot and ‘Ottam’ means run. This is akin to Rath Yatra which is well known in Puri. But unlike at Puri, the chariots in South Indian temples are not built every year. It is a one-time construction, made of wood, strictly according to the Shilpa Shastra and with regular maintenance, they last for years together.
On festive occasions, the deity of the temple is decorated very beautifully and taken in procession on the streets around the temple in the ‘Thaer’(chariot). The chariot is pulled by the citizens with the help of the huge ropes which are attached to the front side of the chariot. It is believed that pulling a chariot by the ropes brings great merit to an individual and so it is considered an honour to pull the ropes of the chariot. This is also seen in the ‘Rath Yatra’ of Lord Sri Jagannatha even today.
The “Thaer Festival” of Sri Kapaliswara temple of Mylapore was celebrated a few days back.
This brought to my mind the unusual story of the sacrifice of a wood sculptor by name Perunthachan Kuppamuthu Asari. The word ‘Perunthachan’ denotes ‘great sculptor’ (those who work with wood or stone are referred as ‘Thachan’). They also have the title ‘Asari’. This story has its origin at a place called Kalayar Kovil.
Kalayar Kovil is a town in the Sivaganga district of Tamil Nadu. Kalayar Kovil was the bastion of the famous Marudhu brothers Periya Marudhu and Chinna Marudhu who were one of the earliest freedom fighters in the 18th century. They had assisted Rani Velu Nachiar in her fight against the British and after her period, were chieftains of Kalayar Kovil. (You can read Rani Velu Nachiar’s story here)
Kalayar Kovil is renowned for its grand temple for Lord Shiva who is addressed as Swarna Kaleeswarar. This temple has been in existence from very ancient times and also said to have been visited by Shri Sundaramoorthy Nayanar in the ninth century CE. The temple is built in a space of four acres with two huge Gopurams (towers) adorning it. The 157 feet Gopuram, one of the tallest Gopurams in Tamil Nadu, was built by a Pandya king and the smaller tower was built by the Marudhu brothers.
The Marudhu brothers were ardent devotees of Lord Shiva and of the deity of this temple, in particular. So much so, that when they were in hiding when hounded by the British, the British threatened to blow up the temple tower. That threat made them to surrender to the British as the temple was dearer to them than their lives. Their last wish before they were brutally hung by the British was that their heads should be buried facing the temple so that they could see Lord Shiva always! The British also complied to their wish.
Coming back to the story, when the Marudhu brothers were ruling over Sivaganga, Periya Marudhu had a deep desire to get a huge Thaer constructed in wood for Lord Swarna Kaleeswara. Accordingly, they searched for the best sculptor in the area and selected an experienced elderly sculptor by name Perunthachan Kuppamuthu Asari. He was summoned and Periya Marudhu described to him at length the beautiful chariot he had envisioned. The sculptor discussed the matter and agreed to make the chariot within a given time frame.
After some days, Kuppamuthu Asari came back to Periya Marudhu and asked him a favour.
He said, “Your Highness! I have a request. When my job is completed, I will claim my reward which should not be refused by your Highness, come what may. I want to have your assurance on the same”.
Periya Marudhu being a great philanthropist said, “Certainly! You need not have any doubt on that aspect. You can take my word for it. Please complete the work at the earliest and I assure you of all help in the form of materials etc. I wish to have the maiden run of this Thaer on Thai Poosam”. Thai Poosam usually falls on the full moon day of the Tamil month of Thai, (mid-January to mid-February according to Gregorian calendar).
The sculptor went back and started making the chariot. Some months later, the magnificent Thaer was ready. It was a sight to behold with all its beautiful sculptures all around and the sheer size looked so imposing!
The Marudhu brothers were elated that they could perform the maiden run as scheduled. The whole town was in a celebratory mood and all preparations were on for the festival.
The Murti of the Lord was placed on the top-most pedestal on the chariot and Periya Marudhu, by virtue of being the king would also sit high up on the platform just below the pedestal. The Marudhu brothers were dressed up in all their finery ready for the maiden run of the Thaer. Periya Marudhu sat atop on the chariot and the huge ropes resembling massive pythons were held by the citizens and they tried to pull the chariot. The chariot did not move an inch.
Nobody knew that Kuppamuthu Asari, the sculptor had placed a wedge under the wheels.
Just then Periya Marudhu remembered that he had not rewarded the sculptor. Climbing down from the chariot, he looked around for Kuppamuthu Asari. Addressing his brother Chinna Marudhu, he said, “We should have rewarded the sculptor for his work. Maybe the chariot did not move because we did not give him his due”.
Kuppamuthu Asari was coming from behind the chariot and in the pretext of inspecting the chariot had removed the wedges. Due to the huge crowd it was not noticed.
Periya Marudhu asked him, “Asari, you have made a marvelous chariot and I am greatly pleased by your workmanship and commitment. You deserve anything you desire. What do you want as a reward for your workmanship?”
Kuppamuthu Asari was a bit reluctant but put forth his demand. “I wish to be king for one day today. That is all I desire” said he.
Chinna Marudhu’s blood boiled on hearing this audacious demand of Kuppamuthu Asari. He took out his sword from its sheath. “You… you… you are so greedy that you want to be king for one day huh? I will kill you” Saying so he lunged forward, but Periya Marudhu stopped him.
“A word given is meant to be kept” he said calmly. “I had promised Kuppamuthu Asari that I will give him whatever he demands as his reward. So I will not go back on my word”.
Saying so, he removed his crown and placed it on the sculptor’s head and tied the belt with the sword on to his waist and gave him the scepter to hold in his right hand.
Chinna Marudhu was still trembling with anger but could not overrule his elder brother. The crowd of citizens assembled were also taken aback by this avaricious demand of the sculptor. There was lot of grumbling amongst the crowd at this action of their king.
“Look at Kuppamuthu’s greed” said one.
“Yeah too much, even considering his workmanship” said another.
“The king should have negotiated his reward right at the beginning. Kuppamuthu is taking advantage of our king’s goodness!” said yet another.
As the whisperings went on, Kuppamuthu Asari with the royal crown, sword and scepter, climbed the chariot and sat in the place where Periya Marudhu had sat a few minutes ago.
He being the king now, gave the go ahead for the chariot to be pulled. The Marudhu brothers along with the citizens pulled the chariot to quite some distance. When the chariot had to negotiate a curve, something untoward happened. The wheel of the chariot hit a small boulder and in the ensuing jerk, Kuppamuthu Asari, the ‘king’, fell down from the chariot and was run over by the massive wheel of the chariot.
Shocked by the sudden happening, everything came to a standstill. Kuppamuthu had been run over on his front and was bleeding profusely. Periya Marudhu, totally shaken by the incident rushed to rescue Kuppamuthu, while calling for help.
Kuppamuthu signaled to him to stop and with great difficulty, told them to read the palm leaf manuscript he had kept at the altar of his house. He then passed away, much to the shock of the onlookers and the Marudhu brothers. The manuscript at his house had a message written by him addressed to the king Periya Marudhu. It read as follows:
“Respected King, Your Highness Periya Marudhu Ayya, I am writing this because I am very sure you will not deny my reward which you have promised me.
Right after you had given instructions to make the chariot, I had started to make the figurine of Lord Ganesha, for the chariot. Ominously, the tusk of the figurine broke. I started afresh and the same thing happened. This happened continuously three times and an experienced sculptor that I am, this did not bode well to me. I consulted my ancient texts of Shilpa Shastra and combined with astrology in which also I am an expert, the indication was that the King would die on the day of the maiden run and the death would be caused by the chariot. It was after that, that I came to you and put forward my condition for the reward.
I am an old sculptor and I have lived my life fully and have nothing to lose by giving up my life, whereas you are the savior of the people and you have to live long to protect the people from the invaders and enemies and keep this kingdom prosperous. I am extremely sorry for any misunderstanding I may have caused. May you live long! May the country prosper!
– Signed – Perunthachan Kuppamuthu Asari”
Periya Marudhu and Chinna Marudhu were stunned beyond words. They had known of sacrifices in the battlefield by young warriors wanting to protect their king and their motherland. But this sacrifice was exemplary.
Chinna Marudhu and all the citizens who had commented on the behavior of Kuppamuthu Asari were ashamed.
They paid their respects to this great soul and granted many villages and assets to the family members who had lost their patriarch.
This is the moving story, of an exemplary sacrifice, the unusual sacrifice.