| A cluster of musical stone pillars in the Nellaiyappar temple. Picture by Nellai M.S. Shankar
Tirunelveli, July 25: Shiva is the Destroyer in the Hindu trinity. But here he is Lord Nellaiyappar, the Protector of Paddy, as the name of the town itself testifies — nel meaning paddy and veli meaning fence in Tamil.
Prefixed to nelveli is tiru, which signifies something special — like the exceptional role of the Lord of Rhythm or the unique musical stone pillars in the temple.
Temples often have columns portraying dancing damsels or musicians playing their instruments, but rarely do the mute pillars themselves make music. In the Nellaiyappar temple, gentle taps on the cluster of columns hewn out of a single piece of rock can produce the keynotes of Indian classical music.
“You can hear the saptha swarangal (the seven basic notes) come like a wave as it were from the stone pieces,” says a senior priest.
“Hardly anybody knows the intricacies of how these were constructed to resonate a certain frequency. The more aesthetically inclined with some musical knowledge can bring out the rudiments of some rare ragas from these pillars,” he adds.
The Nelliyappar temple chronicle, Thirukovil Varalaaru, says the nadaththai ezhuppum kal thoongal — stone pillars that produce music — were set in place in the 7th century during the reign of Pandyan king Nindraseer Nedumaran.
Archaeologists date the temple before 7th century and say it was built by successive rulers of the Pandyan dynasty that ruled over the southern parts of Tamil Nadu from Madurai. Tirunelveli, about 150 km south of Madurai, served as their subsidiary capital.
The rulers following Nedumaran made some additions and modifications, but left the 10 musical stone pillars in front of the main Shiva shrine untouched.
Each huge musical pillar carved from one piece of rock comprises a cluster of smaller columns and stands testimony to a unique understanding of the “physics and mathematics of sound”, temple authorities said.
In all, there are 161 such small pillars that make music in the Nada Mani Mandapam before the main shrine of Lord Nellaiyappar, the chronicle says.
Two equally impressive musical pillars adorn the shrine dedicated to Goddess Gandhimathi Ambal in the temple complex spread over nearly 14 acres.
To pilgrims, as awe-inspiring as the deity are the isai thoongal, meaning musical pillars in Tamil.
The chronicle says, quoting well-known music researcher and scholar Prof. Sambamurthy Shastry, the “marvellous musical stone pillars” are “without a parallel” in any other part of the country.
In the South though, several temples boast of such pillars, like those at Azhavar Thirunagari, Tenkasi, Kalakaadu, Kuttralam, Shenbagarama Nallur, Suseendaram near Kanyakumari, Thiruvananthapuram and Madurai.
But the pillars of Tirunelveli stand out.
“What is unique about the musical stone pillars in the Tiruelveli Nellaiyappar temple is the fact you have a cluster as large as 48 musical pillars carved from one piece of stone, a delight to both the ears and the eyes,” says the chronicle, citing local Tamil poet Nellai M.S. Shankar.
Generally, musical stone pillars can be classified into three types, says Shankar, who has done a study on them.
The first is called Shruti pillar as it can produce the basic notes — the swaras on the basis of which the Theavarm (collection of devotional hymns) and the Vedas would be rendered.
Second is the Gana thoongal, which can generate basic tunes that make classical ragas like Harahara Priya. The third variety is the Laya thoongal, pillars that produce taal (beats) when tapped.
The pillars at the Nellaiyappar temple are a combination of the Shruti and Laya types, Shankar said.
“This is an architectural rarity and a sublime beauty to be cherished and preserved,” he adds.