A scorching June sun beats down on a group of excited men near a village in the Southeast Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. They’re watching a backhoe as its metal teeth claw away at a sand dune. But as the hours pass, the search yields nothing. Dispirited, the men are on the point of giving up. Suddenly, though, it’s all worth it: something truly remarkable appears. It’s the peak of a glorious Hindu temple lost beneath the sands many years earlier.
The team, who all lived in the nearby village of Perumallapadu, had actually given up the previous day after their excavations had revealed a big fat nothing. Mannem Manohar, a 21-year-old engineering grad, told The Week in August 2020 what’d happened.
“A shepherd who lives on the outskirts of our village came to us,” Manohar recalled. “He said that we should dig at a particular spot. We did not take him seriously. But he was insistent.” Many of the men were skeptical. Who was to say that this shepherd knew what he was talking about? Yet they still decided to reassemble with the backhoe early the next morning.
And that shepherd, it transpired, clearly did know what he was talking about. Because after the back hoe had been at work for 60 minutes or so, there it was. To be precise, the turret that’d once stood above the entry to the ancient temple emerged. But now the mystery became even deeper. How had this temple been lost in the first place?
Proving that every cloud can have a silver lining, the temple’s discovery can in part be put down to Covid-19. A native-born Perumallapadu villager, 36-year-old Potugunta Vara Prasad, was working as a software developer in the Swedish capital Stockholm as the crisis broke out. When that happened, Prasad had a choice.
Prasad’s company told him he could stay in Sweden and carry on working there. Or he could return to his homeland and operate remotely. Fortunately, software development’s an occupation that lends itself well to remote working. Prasad made his choice: he’d return to Perumallapadu. The pull of family helped him make up his mind.
Prasad’s wife and son were in Perumallapadu, as were his mom and dad. He traveled to India and once there went into quarantine for four weeks. Prasad soon discovered that he wasn’t alone in coming back to his home village – around 50 others had done the same thing. And in August 2020 Prasad spoke to Indian publication The Week about his experience of returning.
“After the quarantine period, I felt lively, meeting my friends, family and walking around the village,” Prasad recalled. “We spent the initial days playing cricket and gossiping.” But fun as that socializing was, there was something else on Prasad’s mind. It was a topic that he’d long pondered on: the lost temple.
As a kid in the village, Prasad had heard tales about this lost holy site somewhere near Perumallapadu. “Deep in my heart, I always wished to see the temple,” he explained. “I wanted to find it in my lifetime.” Prasad’s religious guide, who lived nearby, also encouraged him to track down this lost temple.
Now back home and with some time on his hands in between software work and Zoom calls, there was space in Prasad’s life to think about fulfilling that wish. He and his friends began to discuss the idea of finding the lost temple. And he also lobbied the local elders about the prospect.
Prasad recalled that the elders initially “had a lot of doubts,” but he persevered, “I came back with a plan and presented it to them,” he explained. “Then we sat together and brainstormed. Finally, there was a consensus on going ahead with the excavation.” It began to look like Prasad’s dream might actually become a reality.
Merely deciding to search for the missing temple was a long way from actually finding it, of course. Local residents had tried to find the legendary temple in the past without success. So there was absolutely no guarantee that Prasad and his buddies would fare any better in their search. But Prasad figured it was still worth a try.
Prasad set the ball rolling by putting up some of his own money. But as well as money, permission from the authorities was also needed. Prasad and his friend Mannem Manohar, whom we met earlier, contacted the relevant department. Like Prasad, Manohar had come back to Perumallapadu when the pandemic broke out.
“We approached the local endowments department and sought permission. We explained the importance of the temple,” Manohar told The Week. “A few days later, they gave us oral permission.” So with official backing, it was time to start the hunt for the lost temple.
It was the middle of June 2020 when a group of villagers assembled near Perumallapadu, ready to start digging in their hunt for the temple. Before work began, there was a pious prayer session. Once that was over, a celebratory mood infected the temple hunters, who included Prasad’s religious guide, the man who’d encouraged him to embark on the search.
As we’ve heard, that first day of excavation drew a blank, and the villagers began to lose faith in the venture. It was only the intervention of the shepherd that helped the team to pinpoint the right place to dig. And as we know, on the second day of the quest, the crew from Perumallapadu found their holy grail: the top of the lost temple. Cue scenes of jubilation.
Prasad described the moment when they’d uncovered the temple. “I had tears in my eyes,” he recalled. “It was an unbelievable feeling.” The team crowed around the visible part of the turret. Many took pics with their phones, posting them on social media. And an inevitable snowball effect ensued. The lost – or now found – temple went viral.
Before long, crowds from the surrounding Nellore district had arrived at the scene. Plenty came simply to satisfy their curiosity. Some were there to say prayers, turning their journeys into something akin to religious pilgrimages. Representatives from the local authorities also arrived. And there was a distinct fear now that things were getting just a little bit out of control.
One of the government representatives who arrived, an official called Geetha Vani, took a stern view of the increasingly tumultuous proceedings. “The area has been designated as a containment zone and such crowds cannot be allowed during a pandemic,” he told The Week. “We held discussions with the villagers and immediately stopped the activity.”
Speaking with the instantly recognizable tone of government officialdom around the world, Vani continued, “We barricaded the site and secured the place so that it does not turn into a picnic spot. It is dangerous for people to go inside the structure as it can collapse anytime. We have to ascertain the facts related to this temple. We have written to the collector and endowments department.”
So the temple had been uncovered by the Perumallapadu villagers, led by Prasad, who’d even been prepared to put his hand in his own pocket to fund the venture. That was good news, obviously. But it does raise some puzzling questions. Such as: how do you “lose” an entire temple?
It’s not as if Hindu temples aren’t important to local people. The last census in 2011 in Nellore district where the lost temple lies showed that something approaching 90 percent of the population were adherents of the Hindu religion. So it seems likely that there’s no shortage of people who’d have had a keen interest in not allowing a temple to simply vanish under the dunes.
And the Sri Potti Sriramulu Nellore District, to give it its full and somewhat extravagant name, is a place with plenty of temples. These sites are much revered by the local population. It’s easy to see why as well. The devotion of many Hindus is enough to make the temples special places within the community. Then there’s the stunning architecture that elevates many of them.
Perhaps Nellore’s most famous temple is Talpagiri Ranganatha Swamy, which dates back to the 7th or 8th century. The Pallava dynasty that ruled over southern India for some 600 years from the 6th century onwards, built the original structure. Like the village of Perumallapadu and our lost temple, it lies close to the River Penna.
The Ranganatha Swamy Temple is in the city of Nellore, the region’s principal metropolis. And you have to turn to superlatives to describe this extraordinary building, which was further developed by the Hindu king Raja Mahendra Varma during the 12th century. Its centerpiece is the main entrance, soaring some 70 feet into the skies.
At the top of this towering doorway are seven 10-foot tall vase-like structures, properly known as kalisams and each coated with gold. But what attracts the eye most is the incredibly ornate riot of statuary that completely covers the seven-floor entrance tower. Dozens of human figures in a variety of poses are bordered by decorative stones. It’s an extraordinary sight.
The entrance of the Ranganatha Swamy Temple leads into a complex of sacred buildings. Among the delights there are the Sanctum Sanctorium, where the 1,000 titles of one of the Hindu faith’s most important deities are written on the walls. The god in question, Lord Maha Vishnu, is even said to have once visited this site.
So the exquisite grandeur of the Ranganatha Swamy Temple gives you an idea of how important these sacred buildings are to India’s Hindu faithful. Which brings us back again to the question: how was an entire temple misplaced by the villagers of Perumallapadu? And given the story of the temple’s extensive renovation as recently as the 1850s, the puzzle becomes even more mystifying.
That renovation of the Perumallapadu temple was the result of a series of events that are very strange indeed. Back in the 1850s, a revered village elder called Vemana Narsapa Naidu died. The villagers then took his mortal remains to be cremated on the outskirts of the settlement. The body was placed on the funeral pyre, and the mourners prepared to light it.
But according to village lore, at that point something extremely unusual happened. A family member, in keeping with tradition, whispered some final messages to Naidu just before the fire was to be started. At that point, the “dead” man sat up, fully alive. And Naidu had a message of great importance for the villagers.
The gods had asked Naidu to order the restoration of a certain temple dedicated to the god Shiva and said to have been built by Parasurama. The latter is one of the ten incarnations of the Hindu deity Vishnu. This temple was subsequently restored to former glory. It was called Sri Nageswara and it’s the very temple the villagers uncovered near Perumallapadu in the summer of 2020.
The Week quotes a guidebook published in 1961 and held in the Andhra Pradesh State archaeology archives. It states, “[Naidu] restored the temple, dug a koneru (pond) and reared a tamarind grove with his property. The temple is in the shape of a tower. [A Hindu deity named] Nandeeshwara is installed in front of this temple.”
So that’s the story of the temple up to around 60 years ago. But the tale obviously lacks a crucial element. After the site had been revived in the 19th century, how was it later lost during the 20th? To explain that, it seems we have to turn to the River Penna, the course of which runs near the site of the Sri Nageswara temple.
The story goes that a flood half a century ago was so severe that it actually altered the route taken by the River Penna. The surging waters even led to the people of Perumallapadu to abandon their original village. They relocated to a new spot just over half-a-mile from the old site.
So it was this calamitous flood that overwhelmed the Sri Nageswara temple. The site was buried beneath the sands in the process, with debris from the overflowing River Penna scattered across the surrounding lands. After that, over the decades the villagers had forgotten where precisely their revered temple had been located.
To date, excavations have still only partially revealed the splendors of the Sri Nageswara temple. Around 25 percent of the structure has been uncovered, including the turret and the main walls. Those sections are mounted with statues of Hindu deities.
But experts at the Andhra Pradesh State archaeology and museums bureau had no prior knowledge that the temple lay hidden under the dunes by the River Penna. So they’re now in the process of researching the details of the temple’s origins. Speaking to The Week, its deputy chief O. Ramasubba Reddy outlined what’s known – and unknown – about the temple.
“Only lime mortar, wood and bricks were used,” Reddy explained. “This structure doesn’t seem to have the influence of the Pallava-Chola style of architecture, which is found in other temples in this region. It’s difficult to tell the age of the temple till we have a closer look at the inscriptions.”
So there’s much still to be learned about this long-lost temple. In the meantime, the villagers of Perumallapadu have taken it upon themselves to guard the site of the newly emerged temple. Potugunta Vara Prasad, the IT guy who returned to his village, has every reason to be proud of his efforts to locate the site. And there’s one final twist to the story.
You’ll remember Vemana Narsapa Naidu, the temple’s 19th century restorer. Well, it turns out that a descendant of his, Vemana Dasaradha Rama Naidu, actually lives near Prasad. Now in his 70s, Dasaradha told The Week, “My grandparents told us stories about the temple and the village, when it was situated on the riverbank. All I want to do is go inside the temple and spend time there.”