The Dhenupurishvarar temple at Madambakkam, a small suburb close to Tambaram, is one of the oldest Chola temples in the city of Chennai. It probably dates back to the reign of Parantaka. Chola II, also known as Sundara Chola (956-973 A.D.). It is likely that this temple was rebuilt of stone in the later Chola period.

The main sanctum (garbha-griha) of this temple, which faces east, houses Lord Siva in linga form. This sanctum is apsidal in shape with a rounded rear end. Apsidal shrines such as these are known in Sanskrit as gajaprishta vimana, literally meaning ‘back of an elephant’ since in form they resemble the hind portion of an elephant. They are also known as chapa (meaning bow) as they resemble a fully stretched bow in shape. Such apsidal temples were a common feature of the Chola age especially in the Tondaimandalam region which was wrested by them from the Pallavas. Such apsidal structures of the Chola period can also be seen in the principal shrines of the Siva temples at Tirumullaivayil, Padi, Trisulam, Kodambakkam and other places in Chennai.


In the Dhenupurishvarar temple, the sanctum for Goddess Dehnukambal is located very close to the main sanctum and faces south.  In front of these two shrines, and also in the circumambulatory (pradaksina) passage around them, can be seen numerous pillars with characteristic features of the Chola and Vijayanagara styles of architecture.

The front mandapa, with numerous pillars containing exquisite sculptures, belongs to the Vijayanagara period. Various incarnations and manifestations of Visnu and Siva as well as other Gods and Goddesses are depicted in bas-relief, revealing the talent of the sculptors of the Vijayanagara age. There are carvings of a majestic standing Narasimha, Garudaruda Visnu, Krishna killing the demon Bakasura, Garuda, Hanuman, Siva seated with Parvati by his side, Ucchishta Ganapati, Sarabhesvara, Durga, Shanmukha and many others, thus making this mandapa a veritable treasure-house of Vaisnava and Siva iconography.


The entranceway to this temple has an unfinished gopura above it, constructed in the Vijayanagara times. There is a neatly maintained tank adjacent to the temple where the annual float festival takes place.

Saint Arunagirinathar who lived in the 15th century A.D., and who wrote the famous ‘Tirupugazh’, composed a hymn on his visit to this temple.

Approximately a dozen inscriptions have been discovered in and around this temple. Two of these found near the precincts of this temple are datable to the 10th century A.D. They are both fragmentary and record the gifts of land to this temple, the income from which was to be used for providing food offerings to the deities1.

Many more inscriptions are found etched on the walls of the main shrine, and on the walls of the veranda running around this shrine. They belong to the reign of the Chola and Vijayanagara kings. Two of these are of the period of the later Chola King Kulottunga Chola III (1178-1217 A.D.) and are dated 1188 A.D. and 1214 A.D. respectively2. Another record is dated 1218 A.D. and belongs to the period of Rajaraja III (1216-1250 A.D.)3. Two epigraphs of Jatavarman Sundara Pandya I4 (1251-1268 A.D.), the most illustrious ruler of the Second Pandyan empire and one of Jatavarman Sundara Pandya II5 have also been discovered here. Among the Vijayanagara rulers, the inscriptions of Devaraya II (1422-1446 A.D.)6 and Sadasiva Raya (1543-1564 A.D.)7 are found on the walls of the central shrine.

These epigraphs register in detail various gifts given to this temple in the form of land and livestock, the latter having been donated for the supply of ghee for maintaining lamps in this temple. Two of these lithic records also reveal the important part played by the assembly of this village, which consisted of several important persons, in connection with the proper functioning and maintenance of this temple, and the festivals connected with it.

One of these epigraphs, datable to the reign of Sundara Pandya I, states that the assembly of the village, seeing that it was not possible to maintain lamps, offerings and festivals in this temple from the income available for these purposes, assigned the northern division ‘with its wet-lands, garden lands and house sites’ to the temple but retained some land for their own use. They decided also to pay the dues on them from their own pockets and agreed that ‘if, at some point owing to unfortunate circumstances, we are induced to sell this land, we shall do so for the price at which it then sells to the sacred treasury of this temple’8.

The inscriptions also reveal that the original names of Lord Dhenupurishvarar were Sirreri Aludaya Nayanar, Sirreri Udaiya Nayanar and Sirreri Mahadeva. Goddess Dhenukambal was called Nampirattiyar. The town of Madambakkam was known in the Chola days as Ullaguyyavanda-Chola-Chaturvedic mangalam. It was situated in the ancient territorial sub-division of Nedukundra-Nadu, in Puliyur-kottam alias Kulottunga-Chola-Valanadu, a subdivision of Jayamkonda-Chola-mandalam. The fact that Madambakkam was also known as Anidhiramangalam is known from a Chola inscription found in the Bhu-Varahasvami temple at Tiruvidandai which records a donation of gold to the Sabha at Anidhiramangalam alias Madambakkam in Nedukundra-Nadu from the interest of which they agreed to supply a certain amount of ghee every day for a perpetual lamp in the Tiruvidavandai-Devar (Varahasvami) temple.

Even today a number of festivals are celebrated in this ancient temple, one of the most important being the Panguni Uttiram festival in the Tamil month of Panguni (March-April). This temple is a protected monument under the care of the Archaeological Survey of India.


  1. R.E. Nos. 188 and 189 of 1961-62.
  2. R.E. Nos. 318 and 323 of 1911.
  3. R.E. 321 of 1911.
  4. R.E. Nos. 191 and 192 of 1961-62.
  5. R.E. 322 of 1911.
  6. R.E. No.319 of 1911.
  7. R.E. No. 320 of 1911.
  8. R.E. No. 322 of 1911.

Dr. Chithra Madhavan

Source: Journal of Indian History and Culture, March 2004.

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