This is a neglected Pallava treasure on the Tiruchirappalli Rockfort says Prof. S. Swaminathan
There are two iconographic compositions which owe considerably to the Pallavas: the Somaskanda and the Gangadhara. Perhaps the former is a special Pallava conception. Both these have captivated artists through the ages.
The earliest, (or is it one among the earliest?), is Mahendra Pallava’s Gangadhara in the cave temple in the Rockfort complex at Tiruchirappalli. The popular shrines of Tayumanavar and of the Uchchi Pillaiyar are much fancied by the devout and only an occasional art-buff enters the precincts of the cave temple that houses this Siva composition. Then there are pilgrims who rest their tired limbs on their way back from the strenuous climb atop, and the noisy hangers on who crowd every place of religious or cultural fame. The cave temple deserves better.
It is not the cave temple alone that deserves better. There are at least two more ancient sites that should have been in the itinerary of the public. One is an ancient site, older to the Pallava cave by about 500 years. It is a cavern, a holy resort of Jain ascetics. To attest this, we have stone-beds where the holy men practiced severe austerities and a number of inscriptions, the earliest being in Late Tamil Brahmi of the 3rd century CE. Unfortunately this is lost, again due to our negligence. Three inscriptions in Early Vattezhuttu have been fo und and these are dated to the 5th century CE. All these mention the name of the patrons of the Jaina ascetics.
At a lower level is another cave temple. This was excavated by the Pandyas, perhaps a century later to the Pallava one above. A family lives in the precincts, unhelpful enough to drive away straying visitors. I suggest that the Trichywallahs pay a visit to this temple also, as this is believed to have been designed following the Hindu Shanmatha doctrine of Adi Sankara. (I wish some God-person attributes some divine powers to the gods hiding in these caves. Perhaps this is the only way today to make people ‘honour’ these divinities!)
Importance of the Temple
First let me state in brief why the Pallava cave temple is important. Firstly, it is one among the earliest cave temples of the Tamil country. It is believed that the Pallavas introduced excavating hard rock in the south. At least Mahendra Pallava boasts so in his Mandagappattu cave shrine. May be the Pandyas were doing this around the same time. The Tiruchy cave is the southernmost cave of the Pallavas. How come he came all the way to Tiruchy to excavate a cave temple in an inaccessible hill, we don’t know. Was it under his rule at that time, I am not clear. But here we have one which is important in the art and religious history of India. We must try to imagine how this hill would have looked without the Tayumanavar Koil, Uchichi Pillaiyar Koil and all the sundry shrines, and then we may wonder how Mahendra chose the site at a height of 200 feet and how his artisans managed the excavation. Like the other Pallava monuments, this cave temple also holds some puzzles.
The cave temple, a typical early Pallava style, is dedicated to Siva. Mahendra calls the shrine Lalitankura-pallavesvara-griham. Lalitankura is one among the many titles of Mahendra, and it means ‘charming-scion’. This name is found on the girder connecting the two inner pillars of the cave temple. The sculptural content includes two Pallava dvara-palas guarding the now-empty garbha-griham and the famous Gangadhara panel in bold relief. This panel is an exquisite composition. It is a pity that all of us miss it. I shall be discussing about it in greater detail alter.
That the cave contains some important inscriptions is another special feature. Some of them are the routine listing of the innumerable titles (birudas) of Mahendra Pallava, a decease that infects our rulers of the past and the present. There are 80 of them engraved in this shrine, mostly on the pillars. (Mahendra can boast of almost 130 titles! His great grandson, Rajasimha, had even more, about 250!) But a poem consisting of eight couplets, most likely composed by the king himself, not only describes the Gangadhra panel that it encloses, but also presents a puzzle, an example of dhvani normally met with in Sanskrit poetry, here for the first time in a sculpture.
Pallava Grantha script
I may take this opportunity to mention something about the script in which the inscriptions are written. The language of the couplets is Sanskrit, and they are written in the script called Grantha, or more appropriately, Pallava Grantha, giving credit to the inventors. It is a script used in the Tamil country to write Sanskrit. It was so till the last generation. It is also the one from which developed the script for Malayalam, and, hold your breath, script for most of the languages of the East Asian regions such as Java, Sumatra, Borneo, Thai, Laos, Khmer, Combodia, Vietnam etc. This happened through the political and cultural conquest of the East by the Indian rulers, starting with the Pallavas.
General description of the Temple
To start with I will give a general description of the cave temple. When you cross the gate that takes you to the Uchchi Pillaiyar temple, you find on the left the cave temple, called by a mouthful name, Lalitangura Pallavesvar Griham. What you see is a cave supported by four pillars with two half pillars (technically called pilasters) on each end (Figure above). The façade looks rather simple. The pillars are plain, square in cross section at the bottom and top, but eight-sided in the middle. This is typical of the early Pallavas. The pillars become more and more sophisticated, and to some extent the design of the pillars gives clue to the chronology of the caves themselves. There are circular low-reliefs on all the four sides of the pillars. They are beautiful geometrical shapes, worth a close look. The brackets above the pillars are again plain. Titles of King Mahendra are inscribed on the faces of these pillars, mostly in Pallava Grantha and a few in the Tamil script.
Beyond the pillars is a mandapa (hall), and in the rear the hall is a series of four pillars very similar to the ones in the front. The medallions on the faces of these pillars are again worth a few minutes. To your right, that is, on the eastern wall of the cave, is the garbhagriham (sanctum).
Many of the features of the garbha-griham proclaim its Pallava origin. First let us look at the dvara-palas (gate-keepers) guarding the shrine. One on each side, they are carved in bold-relief. They are similar in certain respects. Both are in semi-profile, two armed, turned towards the shrine-entrance, standing with one leg bent and raised up and the other planted firmly on the ground, carry a massive club, their palms resting on it, etc. When you find time you may look at the sacred-thread they are wearing, their dress and ornaments. These would reflect the contemporary fashion.
The garbha-griham is almost a cube of about 9-foot each side. There are two pits, one, we can guess, is for the lingam to be installed. But what about the other? Was lingam the object of worship in the Pallava cave temples is the question that is being debated by pundits. I shall also be touching upon this later.
Now let us look at the western wall, the main object of our study. Here is the celebrated Gangadhara panel. This is a large composition. In the centre is Siva as Gangadhara with attendant figures on the sides and top. Let us start with the hero. The four armed Siva is standing with His left leg planted firmly planted on the ground. His right foot is raised and is held up by the head and an arm of a crouching Siva-gana below. Siva’s upper right arm holds a strand of His tresses into which Ganga is descending. Ganga is shown in the human form, a small female figure with both the hands in the ‘namaste’ posture.
The lower right hand of Siva holds the tail of a serpent with its hood raised up. His upper left holds an akshara-maala and the lower one rests on His hip. These are conventional postures. Now let us look at the makeup. His sacred-thread is vastra-yajnopaveeta, made of cloth. The ornaments can be listed: coiled valayas around the wrists, elaborate keyooras above His elbows, makara-kundalas on both ears, large enough to rest on His shoulders, a broad necklace, an udara-bandha around His belly.
Siva’s head-dress is an elaborate jataa-makuta, a rather unusual one. It is decorated on the front and held in position by a coronet. Rest of the jataa is coiled on the top. On the top right side is the characteristic moon and at the bottom, but on the left side is a skull. Behind the head is the siraschakra.
Let us look at the dress. His veshti, reaching up to both the ankles with the central fanlike pleat of the kachcha hanging between legs, is worn the way it is done even today, an example of continuity in tradition. The artists have done this excellently, every fold, clear and crisp. Around His waist, He wears a kati-bandha. Another uttareeya hangs loose in a loop in front and has tassels on either side. Isn’t this a remarkable composition? Now let us follow the other actors in this scene. I have mentioned the gana whose head and palm are supporting the right leg of the Lord. The crouching gana, identified with Kumbhodara, holds a serpent on his right hand. On the other side, corresponding to the descending Ganga is found an animal, not easily distinguishable. Because of the prominent hump it could be a bull. Is it taking the place of vrshabha-dhvaja?
On either side on the top are two flying vidya-dharas. Below, kneeling on either side of Siva, are two identical figures. All these four figures are attired very similar to the Lord, with the lower pair being somewhat less ornamented. Their one arm is raised in adoration and the other is on the hip. Who could these people be, in the royal dress in Siva’s camp? They look out of place in the Shambo-ki-baraat! We shall come back to this later. Behind the two kneeling figures are two identical rishis, identified by their huge jatas and bearded face. Their inner hands too are raised in veneration.
Now let us take a few steps backwards so that we can get a full picture of the panel in order to appreciate the beauty of the composition. This bas-relief is an outstanding composition. It is also the earliest composition in the Tamil country. That the artist could achieve aesthetic excellence on their very first attempt is astounding. This must have inspired his illustrious son, Narasimhavarma, to attempt the world’s first open-air bas relief in Mahabalipuram. I may mention that Mamalla’s unique contributions to the world of art are two: the monoliths and the open-air reliefs. The former had inspired quite a few, including the incomparable Kailasanatha Temple in Ellora, but none attempted the open-air reliefs thereafter!
The whole composition is an illustration of total balance. It exudes the Pallava grace, every square inch of it. Every character is perfectly modelled. There is no overcrowding, no dramatisation. It is beauty in simplicity. Worthy of contemplation, so savour the scene as best as you can. I don’t want to say anything more, it would speak for itself.
On either side of the panel are two half-pillars (pilasters) on which are written 8 couplets, four on either side, in Sanskrit in the Pallava Grantha script. I have mentioned before that this inscription is important. It is important for a variety of reasons. First it is a great poetry composed by the king himself. We may keep in mind that Mahendra Pallava was an all-rounder. His political achievements are legendary. He also initiated excavating cave temples in hard rock in the south. He wrote two satirical plays, Mattavilasam and Bhagavatajjukam. He was also a great painter/artist: chitra kaara puli is one of his titles (self-given!).
About The Author:
Subramaniam Swaminathan retired in 2000 as Professor of Mechanical Engineering from IIT Delhi, where he served for more than three decades. He was a part of the team to receive the best invention award by the NRDC in 1983. He was honoured as one of the 50 faculty members to receive Meritorious Award by IIT-Delhi as a part of its Golden Jubilee Celebration.
Prof Swaminathan is an expert on several aspects of Indian culture and heritage. He coordinated SPIC MACAY concerts within IIT Delhi for several years. He is the author of the illustrated book, Mahabalipuram, Unfinished Poetry in Stone. His favourite topic is called culture-scaping. This, according to him, is landscaping focusing on our heritage and culture. He has given a series of talks on the Oral Tradition of Sanskrit in a number places. He has done extensive documentation of the Ajanta painting tradition, and this has been the subject of talks by him from the IITD days as well.
Prof Swaminathan is a founder of the Tamil Heritage Trust.