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The praying caves

LAKSHMI SHARATH | Updated on November 15, 2017

Avanibhajana Pallaveshwaram temple in Seeyamangalam.

Ananda Thandava Shiva.

Shatrumalleswaram temple in Thalavanur. Photo: LAKSHMI SHARATH

A hide-and-seek game on the trail of ancient Pallava cave temples, near Chennai.



It is a small village house with striking green walls bordered by red paint. Supported by two pillars on either side, the house has neither a gate nor a porch. I hesitate a bit, as I see the door ajar, with just a thin curtain that barely hides the modest interiors. I hear the strains of a hymn and see a woman lost in prayer. Just as I decide to leave she senses my presence, smiles and calls out to me.

“It is rare to find people from the city interested in a small village like ours,” she says, as I explain that I am in Seeyamangalam, 80 km from Chennai, with friends to visit some of the ancient cave temples, built by the Pallava king Mahendravarman I in the 7th century, long before the dynasty's Mahabalipuram monuments were built. We had found the temple locked and the locals told us it might remain shut that day, due to a bereavement in the village. I ask the woman, the wife of the temple's caretaker Balaji, if they can help us. “No problem. We will open it for you,” she says. “Just call him on this number, he has gone into town,” she adds, urging us to be a bit discreet as the villagers may object.

We wait at the temple, watching a flock of parakeets that have made the gopuram (temple tower) their home. My friend and guide, Arvind, explains that the tower was a later addition by the Vijayanagar kings.

We are soon joined by Balaji, who leads us into the rock-cut cave temple. A simple shrine with pillars and pilasters, the deity here is Stambeshwarar, a form of Shiva.

The originally built temple was extended by the Cholas and Vijayanagar kings, who also added the gopurams. Called Avanibhajana Pallaveshwaram, Avani being a title of Mahendravarman I, the temple has one of the earliest interpretations of the Ananda Thandava, or Nataraja, posture of Shiva carved on one of the pilasters. Balaji points out that the sculpture's expression is unlike any seen in the Nataraja sculptures of the 10th-century Chola period; there are two shiva ganas (attendants) — one playing a mrindangam and the other praying with folded hands. “Technically, this is not yet a Nataraja,” says Arvind.

The yalis, or mythical lions, greet us on the pillars and the dwarapalakas, or doorkeepers, flank the deity. We chat for a while with Balaji on the Jain and Vishnu temples in the region, before heading for the next destination.

We pass through some of the smaller villages of Tamil Nadu. Ayyanar, or village deity, shrines give way to gawky scarecrows in lush fields. Small streams have returned to life, watered by the recent rains. With neither a hotel nor any eatery around, we buy some biscuits and pakodas from a local shop.

Our next destination proves a tongue twister — Kilmavilangai. We drive along a small mud road and halt near a rusty ASI board that says: “Rock cut cave temple.” All we can see for miles around, however, are lush green fields. An old man watches his cattle and eyes us sceptically, as his wife brings him lunch. And then I see it. Behind a tree, covered by thorny shrubs is a small rock that has the markings of a bas relief sculpture of Vishnu. Unwilling to talk much, the old farmer did say, however, that hardly anyone comes here looking for this rock. To him, it is just a stone, neither a temple nor art.

We drive towards Ginjee, passing by fields set against rocky outcrops. The hills loom large as we take many detours, only to bring us to a rusty board again. A lone woman is working on her crop and a kingfisher fixes us with a look. We walk across the fields along a narrow path, towards a hill packed with boulders. A wired fence marks the cave shrine located at the foothill. An old man appears seemingly out of nowhere and announces himself as the caretaker.

We are at Thalavanur's Shatrumalleswaram temple, where we find a lingam flanked by dwarapalakas. Startled by a howl behind us, we turn to find a stray dog following the old man.

This rock-cut shrine is slightly ornate, with makara toranas (ornamental archways) and lotus carvings adorning the façade. A small flight of rock-cut steps leads us to the shelters of Jain monks who once meditated here. “Mahendravarman showed leanings towards Jainism initially, and then moved towards Hinduism, which is probably why one would find Jain settlements near his cave temples,” says Arvind.

Our last destination for the day should ideally have been the first. The hills part as we walk along a narrow path towards the first-ever Pallava rock-cut temple that later inspired many monuments at Mahabalipuram — Mandagapattu built by Mahendravarman I. We find the cave temple, meant to house the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, empty.

Arvind points to a Sanskrit inscription in which Mahendravarman declares that he is not building the temple from any perishable material — namely, brick, wood, metal, or limestone or stucco. “That is why he is titled ‘Vichitrachitha', an innovator in many ways,” Arvind explains. The inscription refers to the temple as Lakshita Yathaanam.

Whether they are lost amongst thorny bushes or perched atop hillocks in splendid isolation, these rock temples nevertheless lend a certain magic to a dusty hamlet and gives an identity to a forgotten town, recreating an ancient past in their own quiet way.

Getting there

The Mahendravarman Pallava cave temples are scattered around Ginjee, Thiruvannamalai, Tindivanam, Kanchipuram, Arakonam, and Chengelpet among other districts. They are best covered on a day trip from Chennai. While Mandagapattu and Thalavanur are near Ginjee, Seeyamangalam and Kilmavilangai are closer to Vandavasi in Thiruvannamalai. It is advisable to carry along lunch and water.

Published on January 26, 2012

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