Pulicat: Houses of Worship

By  Staff Writer

This sequel to Dutch tales and the archaeological discoveries of South India portrays myriad shades of community practices influenced by predominant three religions that exist in the settlement of 15th-century regime in Pazhaverkad. In the previous article, we saw the rich cultural and historical heritage of Pulicat, a bustling seaport now barely surviving as a fishing village. This town embraces diverse community coexistence since the arrival of Portuguese, Dutch and Muslim immigrants. The rule of Vijayanagar empire set the foundation for the oldest local religion, Hinduism, to thrive in parts of Pulicat.

In the dawn of the 15th century, the Portuguese arrived on the shores of Pulicat seeking asylum with the Vijayanagar Empire. The Portuguese subsequently leased a part of the land on the north side of the Pulicat lake, and set their foothold with their fort that was later destroyed and replaced by a Dutch fort. The Portuguese established the first church in Tamil Nadu on the Coromandel coast when they identified the statue of Mary to be the one they had lost in their voyage. The chapel was named “Our Lady of Glory” which was demolished in 2008, the present shrine located in Kottai-Kuppam was constructed on the foundations of the old “Our Lady of Glory”.


Our Lady of Glory Church, demolished in 2008 (Source: “Pulicat and Sadras – Confluence of History, Culture and Environment”)


An avatar of traditional Portuguese architecture, old “Our Lady of Glory” was dominated by Gothic style and characterized by complex structural forms. Composed of stone structures but obliged to regional influences, the Parish church was stripped out of its true features and characteristics of the Gothic style. Traces of Gothic style of architecture were observed in the rectangular windows with pointed arches and by traditional form ultimately derived from the Christian cross (cruciform). The nave (central aisle of the church, area near the door usually at the west end) and the transepts (perpendicular arm) had sloping roofs on metal supports and the intersecting points had a flat roof with battlements on the parapet above. The bell tower on the northeastern side and the stone slab installation with Portuguese inscriptions at the entrance of the church were installed by Peter Paul Flagman. These inscriptions can still be found in the new structure.


Striking blue façade of St. Antony’s church


The only surviving church of historical importance in Pulicat is St.Antony’s church, patron to fisherman, located closer to the lake on the north-eastern part of the town amidst old fishing houses. This quaint structure was built in 1700’s by the Dutch. The striking blue old structure facing the Western side is oriented towards East-West direction. Coincidentally or intentionally this church faces the Parish church; in an overview the churches face each other.  Similar to Gothic revival style churches, this church rests on buttressed foundation, and the prominent Tuscan columns with circular pilasters and entablature with simple cornice stands on a rectangular base.

Two pairs of paired pilasters adorn either side of the doorway. The rectangular double folded door with semi-circular arch and the placement of opening draws great attention to the facade. Above the classical entablature, a horizontal plane is fragmented into three portions by rectangular pilasters with pointed arch openings, and a wider bay in the central portion with smaller bays at the ends. The facade reflects a distinct renaissance style, with its pyramid shaped spires above the base pilasters housing the wooden cross. This spire resembling a small obelisk adjoins the curved relief work with paired circular pilasters with a central idol in the semi-circular arched niche. The pediment above the central bay hosts a larger Christian cross.


An obsolete, unused TV room, housed adjacent to the church


Although a small shrine, the interior of the Church is divided into two sections by a semi-circular arch and difference in level, into chancel and nave. One-third of the length is the Chancel that houses the Altar. The Altar is accentuated by a small podium and three dwarf walls at ascending heights which holds the relic of St. Anthony. The two-thirds of the nave is enclosed by three windows on the south side and two windows on the north side with a semi-circular arched frame. The window shutter is inscribed with a cross. The timber truss framework supports the roof tiles, sloping towards north and south.


Interior nave of the church, with timber truss roof seen above


Unfortunately, the importance and significance of the church are forgotten, and they are often considered ‘just another ancient altar and an old cross’. The overlooked churches of Pulicat hold their ground (albeit with some difficulty) parallel to the diverse Hindu temples in different styles suited to the location. Accounting to Vijayanagara Empire and Chola dynasty in Pulicat several temples were built, almost one on every street. Notable surviving temples from this era are Adi Narayana Perumal Temple and Samayaeswarar Temple.


Adi Narayana Perumal Temple


This temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu, Adi Narayana Perumal temple owes its presence to Balavandakulu, 18th King of the Vijayanagara Empire, although the exact date of its construction is unknown. Housing three shrines, its red laterite blocks have withstood the test of time. The lesser known material of Coromandel coast (but found in abundance in Malabar and Konkan coast), transcending geographical boundaries made this laterite temple a phenomenal piece of architecture. Along with rare laterite blocks, stones and bricks were used with lime plaster.



Recreated model of Adi Narayana Temple by AARDE Foundation (Source: “Pulicat and Sadras – Confluence of History, Culture and Environment”)


The main shrine of Adi Narayana Perumal (Lord Vishnu) is in the centre. The entry to three main shrines in the complex is through a pillared mandapam (hall) over transitional space antrala (a small antechamber between the shrine and mandapam). The mandapam leading to the main shrine has the most interesting inscription depicting the story or Ramayana in the central aisle beams, these figurines resembling comic strip contained within 8 inches of height. Carved square stone column supporting the stone structure hold the Thaayar Sannadhi (‘Shrine of Holy mother’) on the south-west and a wooden structure supported by wooden columns leads to Aandaal Sannidhi (Devotee of lord Vishnu) on the north-west. The temple follows the traditional layout of a South-Indian Hindu temple, featuring the house of Garuda (lord of eagles), the vehicle of lord Vishnu facing the main shrine. The Dwjasthambam (flag post) with beautifully carved Balipeetam is housed on a raised platform between the gateway and the house of Garuda.

The structural system of the temple follows the same protocol with its stone columns, beams and ceiling slabs. The Vimana above the Garba Grihas are made of brick moulds and lime plaster over the surface of laterite block.


The glorious gateway to the Adi Narayana Perumal temple stands ruined. Resembling an entrance to the fort, it is difficult to decipher if the gateway had a Gopuram (Source: “Pulicat and Sadras – Confluence of History, Culture and Environment”)

The intriguing outer surface of the main shrine created with Laterite moulds and moulded niches (Source: “Pulicat and Sadras – Confluence of History, Culture and Environment”)

The concept of Visual illusion on column inscriptions: seems like two monkeys eating fruits, but truly, its four monkeys facing different direction (Source: “Pulicat and Sadras – Confluence of History, Culture and Environment”)


Drawing attention to Samayaeswarar temple, is an interesting and unique feature that is most commonly found only in north-western India and arid regions. Although parts of Tamil Nadu are semi-arid, unlike the grand Chand Boari stepwells of Jaipur, it is hard to speculate whether the construction of step wells were utilitarian or an architectural statement in Pulicat. The complex houses an abandoned well with small steps leading to it. Defying the geographical traditional consideration for temple entrances, the entry to this temple is on the southern side rather than favoring east. The main wooden door, withered and deteriorated, has become inaccessible hence a small new door was created adjacent to the main door. The doorway is adorned below highly ornamented wooden beams on carved wooden brackets above the wooden column leading to the mandapam.


Entrance to Samayaeswarar Temple (Source: “Pulicat and Sadras – Confluence of History, Culture and Environment”)


The southern mandapam leads to another mandapam on the northern side, the shrine. The Garbha Griha dedicated to Lord Shiva is on the western side and the Nandi and Dhwasjasthambha on the eastern side, typical of a Hindu temple. The sanctuary is set in the open ground and has interesting inscriptions – figurines on the column narrating stories of the past. Permanent and unusual changes have changed the characteristics of the temple, including the reconstruction of the main Vimana, along with additional figures and statues in an arched niche above the mandapam significantly altering the style of 15th century Chola temple. Evidently, they were unable to withstand the test of time. There are three shrines in the temple complex including the Shiva Shrine, however the other shrines have crumbled necessitating removal of the deities. What’s left of it, is a makeshift shrine with a wooden support system and a brick shrine with a vaulted roof.


Mandapa of the main shrine, Nandhi shrine, Balipeetam & Dwajasthambam (Source: “Pulicat and Sadras – Confluence of History, Culture and Environment”)


Pulicat has diverse religious practices, and they maintain communal harmony enabled by blurred lines of difference. The ruined temple shares its wall with a mosque. The Keela Pallivasal, a century old, colonial influenced mosque abuts the Samayeswarar temple. Typical of an inclusive society, Muslims have resided in Pulicat since the Chola period.

The residences of traditional Muslims on the street leading to the Periya Jamia Pallivasal (Mosque) built around 17th century AD still possess their character. The perpendicular street on the western side leads to Chinna Palivasal (Small Mosque).


Entrance to Periya Jamia Pallivasal (Source: “Pulicat and Sadras – Confluence of History, Culture and Environment”)


The Periya Jamia Pallivasal is at the end of the street with the Muslim quarters of the village. This layout is much like temples at the end of an Agraharam. The rectangular entrance gateway structure is a wooden doorway with criss-cross jalli work and above that, is the parapet which holds the small Terracotta minarets with crescent and star symbols at the top. The rectangular roof has a traditional support system with timber logs, providing shade to the traditional resting/sitting area (Thinnai) and on the inner side, the asbestos sheet roof slopes down. The roof of the entrance structure is supported by intermediate square stone columns and circular brick piers in the edges, now painted white. The facade of the mosque has a sloped chajja above the columns and top of the chajja is the parapet with small minarets at regular intervals.


Recreated model of Periya Jamia Pallivasal by AARDE Foundation (Source: “Pulicat and Sadras – Confluence of History, Culture and Environment”)


The layout of the mosque was oriented to align the prayer hall (the Qibla, pointing towards the city of mecca) at an angle to the adjacent street. The rectangular walled enclosure houses the main prayer hall, the adhan (call for prayer) structure, the Ablution tank, the Khabristan (graveyard) and the toilet block.

The prayer hall is on the western side of the complex. The entry to the prayer hall is marked by a small well-proportioned Adhaan tower. The tower is raised over a square structure platform for the Muezzin, supporting a small dome on the four columns with foliated arches in between them, which is accessed by seven steps. The colonnaded mosque is then divided into main inner prayer hall and the outer verandas (also used for praying). The three outer verandas are situated in the North, South and East direction of the main prayer hall. The verandas are secluded from the main hall by thick walls, with three entrance doorways leading into the main prayer hall from three different sides. The main prayer hall is divided into five rows and five columns by the colonnades (16 columns). These columns support the roof system at different heights, with the central portion being the highest. As observed in every mosque, the hall has a Mimbar and Mihrab on the western wall toward kiblah. A small arched corridor opens to the southern veranda directly connecting with the open ablution tank.

On the eastern side, the complex house a graveyard. The graves are marked with intricately carved gravestones; these gravestones stand vertically on the northern side. Interestingly, the carvings on gravestone reveal Mustafa Maraikkyar as the founder of the mosque, confirmed with the local Muslim populace.

The structural system of the mosques is similar to the temples of the time, but the architectural characteristics of the mosque are by-large based on Islamic laws. The main support systems are strikingly unique – the columns are square at the base and at the top, but interestingly the central part of the column is divided into two parts with the lower portion being octagonal and the upper, lengthier portion being hex-decagon (16 sided). All the inscriptions on the columns and the beams are adorned with floral patterns. On the eastern side entry, the columns in the veranda are distinctively ornamented. These two columns have an added square section with detailed carving. This probably would have been done to mark the entrance. However it is uncharacteristic of Islamic mosques in the sense that there is no dome on top of the mosque.


Chinna Pallivasal (Source: “Pulicat and Sadras – Confluence of History, Culture and Environment”)


The Chinna Pallivasal planned much alike to the Periya Jamiya Pallivasal has an inner prayer hall, with the Adaan tower and ablution tank in a similar layout. The inscription reveals the mosque was constructed in 1708 AD. It’s fascinating, that in bright sunshine the sundial casts a clear shadow. This shows the correct time, reading the shadow cast by the sun. The sundial was installed in 1914 AD. However, a marker was used to find time before the sundial was installed.

Pulicat has more to offer than historical past, with its marvelous, lesser known architecture. It shows the world humanity and coexistence in a community of people from different caste, religion and beliefs living together, in harmony.



This is Part 2 in a series of articles on Pazhaverkad. Click here to check out Part 1.

Our earnest gratitude to Ar. Xavier Benedict and AARDE Foundation for their insight and invaluable information. Illustrations and maps courtesy of their book, “Pulicat and Sadras – Confluence of History, Culture and Environment”

Leave a Reply