When Padmapriya Baskaran set out to explore the 70-kilometre long course of the Cooum River, as part of a research for Madras Day celebrations in 2014, she didn’t foresee that there was a book in the making. The extensive research that ensued gave birth to The Gods of the Holy Koovam , which will be launched at the Madras Literary Society Library on February 12. Serving as a directory on religious places of worship that dot the course of the river, it comprises 114 temples and the legends behind them.
She says, “Venkatesh Ramakrishnan, author, historian and lead of The Cooum Cultural Mapping Project had suggested that I visit a few and write about them on my blog. However, after visiting Thakkolam, Kesavaram and then Cooum Village off Arakkonam Road, the fascinating revelations and stories surrounding the river, made me explore further.”
‘Cooum’ meaning underground water was a word used to refer to wells in the past. In fact, the Koovapuranam , part of the Skandapuranam , says that sins that cannot be washed in the Ganges can be washed by the Cooum waters. Apart from Koovapuranam that has been out of print, another book Topographical Inscriptions of Madras Presidency that was sourced with great difficulty, served as reference points for Padmapriya. Since Cooum was a headquarters for 24 cheris and 18 kottams , the project got bigger and she sought the help of Vaidyanathan Ramamurthy, another heritage enthusiast, who knew the areas along the river thoroughly.
“We can conclude that the river is as ancient as the puranas. One of the swayambu lingams that originated from the Cooum is in the village and it changes colours that indicate rains (white when it would rain and red when it wouldn’t). It is not touched by bare hands and only flowers grown on the banks of the river are used to adorn it,” she says.
Padmapriya shares a few highlights like the first evidence of a structural temple built in the 7th century by the Pallavas in the Selliamman Temple, Chitrambakkam. She says, “A huge temple tank in the Cooum Village illustrates the investment in water management in those days, though today it is completely damaged. Similarly, in Perambakkam’s Lord Choleeswara Temple which is known for curing nervous disorders, there is evidence of a Muslim man giving grants to the temple after being cured of the condition, upon praying to the Lord.”
While some temples haven’t been able to cope with the vagaries of nature, there have been some that are dilapidated or have vanished due to lack of patronage. “In Rajankuppam, there was a Shiva temple that today stands buried under a brick kiln. When we tried to unearth it, we were stopped by the residents. Another beautiful temple in Senji stands at the risk of being completely eaten up by the vegetation around it,” she says. While a large section of the places of worship are Shiva temples, largely due to the heavy influence of the Chola period, apart from Perumal temples; there have been evidence of Buddhism too in the region. She says, “A seven-foot walking Buddha is said to have been found in the Cooum village. It was on display at the Amaravathi Gallery at the Government Museum in Egmore, but today it is not there.” The adventurous quest has also had its share of impacts and setbacks. “The Kailasa Eswaramudaiya Mahadevar Temple, Kesavaram, had been completely encroached, making it inaccessible. The encroachers agreed to give some space after a payment of Rs 1.1 lakh. Another temple in Thozhuthavoor was found infested with snakes and was encroached by some residents. While we cleaned up the place and readied it for worship, today we hear it is all set to be encroached again,” she says.
With a large section dedicated to temples in the familiar territory of Chennai, some pages would be a revelation even for long-time residents. “Many wouldn’t be aware that Egmore gets its name from ezhorur (referring to seven saints who worshipped the Ardhanareeswarar), which has also been mentioned by Appar (one of the Nayanmars). Sadly, Cooum River is just a cesspool of dirty water for many,” she says. Padmapriya says that the work has been rewarding. “It has been a path no one has travelled. It cost me around a lakh, but that’s nothing for the kind of learning it has been,” she signs off.