On a balmy day, a Telugu family sat cross-legged on the ground facing the sanctum sanctorum of a temple. About an hour later, as the sun shone brighter, the couple and their two daughters moved to a platform adjoining the outer enclosure of the sacred structure. They had already paid homage to Ram, Sita and Lakshman but their patience and time were reserved for an important task. They wanted to have a second round of talks with the temple administrator, who hadn’t arrived yet. The parents were keen to marry off one of their daughters in the temple premises. The staff were also adamant about not allowing another fancy event within the Prakara or temple boundaries. Their concern was sincere. Frequent weddings inside the Sri Seeta Rama Chandra Swamy Temple bothered the devotees, for whom the temple was built hundreds of years ago.
Shamshabad is located on the outskirts of Hyderabad and enjoys a global label as it houses the international airport. A 10 km drive from this landmark will take you to the village of Ammapalli through well marked roads. A wide arch on one side of the road welcomes visitors to possibly one of the oldest temples in the Deccan region. Standing on almost 9 acres of land, the temple and its affiliated structures have an ancient allure. This is perhaps the reason why the temple is now one of the most sought after wedding venues for the who’s who in Hyderabad. Some of those who have married here come from film fraternity and powerful political and business families.
The design of the temple is architecturally unique and attractive. The entrance tower or gali Gopuram of the temple complex is multi-storeyed with jharokhas or balconies and idols of various shapes, sizes and colors depicting characters and stories from Hindu scriptures. This unique lean tower forms the backdrop for setting up mandaps just outside the complex for many important weddings. It is lit with lasers usually to enhance the grandeur when wedding rituals are in progress.
At any given time, the temple is overbooked for weddings. Sathyanarayana Murthy has witnessed his abode transform from just a wedding venue for poor villagers in the 90s to now glitzy events filled with burly bouncers and stunning decor. He has served as the temple’s chief priest for the past two decades.
“I was brought to the temple as I was considered a specialist in conducting marriage rituals of Lord Sita and Ram in a proper manner. When I first entered the temple in 1995, I had I felt like I wanted to spend the rest of my life here. It was isolated and covered in forest, yet it was beautiful. Until 2000, I barely saw a devotee a month and I was the only one managing everything the temple. Word of mouth spread and devotees began to flock from 2013. Around 50,000 people attended the Sri Rama Navami festivities that year. As of 2016, there are had a sudden increase in large marriages.
The temple is also a favorite location for Telugu filmmakers. Around 450 movies, featuring popular actors like Sr NTR, Chiranjeevi and Mahesh Babu have been filmed here.
One of the highlights of the religious site is the well located outside the entrance to the temple complex. The body of water is surrounded by large rectangular steps on one side and narrow corridors on the rest of the three sides, making it a perfect location for pre-wedding shoots. Every day, it’s common to see potential partners holding hands or staring at each other while a photographer takes a candid shot.
On a weekday, a Kerala-themed shoot was underway. The man wore a gold colored shirt and lungi and the woman wore a silk saree. They were accompanied by a team including photographers, assistants, makeup artists, drone operators and stylists.
Mahesh of Veda albums, who was one of the photographers assisting the shoot, said, “Nowadays, this place is highly preferred by customers. It works well for us because we can finish 60% of the shooting before the wedding here. There’s a body of water, an attractive temple, pillars, greenery, and other backdrops ideal for long, close-up shots.
According to Mahesh, who has been to the temple several times, it takes 4-6 hours to complete filming. “Sometimes on weekends it gets so crowded with pre-wedding shoots that we have to ask the other group to hurry up.”
Temple authorities say they receive 4-5 inquiries a day.
There are various wedding venues inside and outside the temple complex that can accommodate from 300 to 1,000 people in the price range of Rs 11,000 to 25,000. Inside the temple complex, the inner side of the periphery is a sheltered passage supported by gray stone pillars. The tall coconut trees found on every corner add to the beauty of the temple. The Gopuram (tower) of the main temple has the idols of Krishna, Vishnu and others in different poses, visually telling stories.
The temple has its own origin story. It is believed that Ram, Sita and Lakshman visited this region during their exile. Although there is no concrete evidence to support this claim, the black stone idols are believed to date from the 11th century.
A. Vinod Rao, whose ancestors had built the temple, is the founder-administrator of the temple. According to him, the temple was built in phases and the oldest structure may have been from the 16th century. “It’s a cosmopolitan temple,” he said, pointing to its architecture which has impressions of different styles and cultures. “The first rays of the morning sun fall directly at the feet of Lord Rama. It was built that way.
It is believed that craftsmen and experts from Karnataka and Rajasthan participated in the construction of the temple.
It’s hard to miss the fact that some of the idols are either missing or damaged. The structure also developed cracks in several places. Project Architect Bhavana Reddy and Conservation Architect Arunima Shankar and their team took on the arduous challenge of restoring the temple. Currently, the team is working on the exterior entrance tower.
Reddy said the temple was built with brick and lime mortar, stone and wood, and efforts are underway to use the same materials. “We sent the lime to Vellore for testing. We wanted to find the lime that matches the lime used in the construction of this temple. We found Gulbarga lime to be the most suitable,” she said. “To understand and continue the story, I also watched old movies where parts of the temple were visible, that was before that they are not damaged.
Not stopping at simple restoration, the team is also releasing a well-researched book on the history of the temple.