A tryst with Pallava Cave Temples

A fascinating trail of ancient Pallava Cave Temples just 85 km from Chennai.

I am in Seeyamangalam, a village 80 km from Chennai with a group of friends and our agenda is to visit some of the ancient Pallava Cave Temples, built by the king Mahendravarman 1 in the 7th century, long before the Mahabalipuram monuments were built. The dusty roads ends in a dead end, where we find the temple locked. Our arrival has sparked off a bit of curiosity as we wait at the temple. A flock of parakeets has made the gopuram their home. My friend and guide Arvind explains that this was a later addition built by the kings of the Vijayanagara dynasty. Another Muruga temple atop a rock was built at a later period as well, with small steps carved on the stone.
The silence is interrupted by the sudden roar of a bike and the caretaker arrives and takes us inside the rock cut cave temple. A simple shrine with pillars and pilasters, the deity here is Stambheshwar, a form of Shiva. I walk towards the pillars and realize the temple has been further extended by the Cholas and the Vijayanagara kings who built the Gopurams as well. I learnt that the temple was called Avanibhajana Pallaveshwaram, Avani, being a title of Mahendravarman 1. The temple has one of the earliest interpretations of the Ananda Thandava posture of Shiva that we know as Nataraja carved in one of the pilasters, while the other has a low bass relief of Rishabhantara.  There are two Shiva Ganas in the sculpture, one playing a mridangam and the other praying with folded hands. “Technically, this is not yet a Nataraja,” mentions Arvind.

Hidden rock cut temple

The yalis or the mythical lions greet us on the pillars and the dwarapalakas or the door guardians stand in front of the deity on either side. The sun filters in as we watch the play of light and shadows created by the sun for a while and continue our quest.

The journey takes us through some of the smaller villages of Tamil Nadu. Ayyanar shrines or temples of the guardian gods of the village give way to gawky scarecrows at lush fields. Small streams come to life , watered by the recent rains.
Our next destination is a tongue twister - Kilmavilangai. We drive through a small mud road and halt near a rusty Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) board that says ‘Rock cut cave temple.’   I am in the midst of a paddy field and all I can see for miles around me are lush green fields. An old man watches his cattle and keeps an eye on us skeptically, 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 elements of bass relief sculpture of Vishnu, lost in the dense undergrowth.  The old farmer was still skeptical at our intrusion that he refused to answer all our questions, but he did tell us that hardly anyone comes here, looking for this rock. To him, it is just a stone, neither a temple nor art.
We drove towards Gingee passing by the fields set against the rocky outcrops. The hills loom large as we take many detours only to find the rusty board again. A lone woman is working on her crop and a kingfisher fixes us with a look. We walk across the fields and follow a narrow path, only to meet a hill loaded with boulders. We hear a howl from the rocks as we move ahead. We look around the thorny bushes and the howl repeats itself. There is no one at sight. We see another hill ahead of us loaded with boulders and we walk towards it. A wired fence marks the cave shrine located at the foot of the hill. An old man appears out of nowhere and announces himself as the caretaker.

We are at Thalavanur, where the temple, Shatrumalleswaram is carved at the edge of another hillock, overlooking boulders. The temple houses door guardians flanking a linga. As we lose ourselves in the rocky terrain, a shiver runs through us as we hear the howl behind us. We turn around, startled to find a stray dog following the old man.

The rock cut shrine is a bit ornate, unlike the others. There are the makartoranas in the front façade along with lotuses. A small flight of rock cut steps carved on the hill takes us to the shelters of Jain monks who probably meditated here until they reached salvation. “We call them Jain beds,” says the old caretaker. “Mahendravarman showed leanings towards Jainism initially and then he moved towards Hinduism- which is probably why one would find Jain settlements near his cave temples,” adds Arvind.

I look out from the entrance of the cave temple and see an enormous boulder blocking my view. The silence stirs you a bit. The old caretaker settles into a corner, patting the stray dog. 

Our last destination for the day should have ideally been the first. The hills part as we walk through a narrow path to see the first ever Pallava rock cut temple that has inspired many monuments at Mahabalipuram. We are at Mandagapattu, which is the first prototype of a rock cut cave temple built by Mahendravarman 1. A flight of steps leads us to the cave temple, carved for the trinity, flanked by the door guardians or the dwarapalakas. The shrines are empty.

Arvind shows us the Sanskrit inscription. Here, Mahendraman declares that he is not building the temple from any perishable material – brick, wood, metal and limestone or stucco.  “That is why he is titled as Vichitra-chitta, an innovator in many ways,” he explains. The temple in the inscription is referred to as Lakshita Yathaanam.

We sit for a while, lost in our own thoughts.  These cave temples, I feel, go beyond religion, history or even art. To me, they add a certain magic to a dusty hamlet and gives an identity to a forgotten town and brings to life a dead past that probably forms a part of us. Finally, it is all discovering a facet of our civilization, etched in a rock covered by thorny bushes.


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