Mandagapattu – The forgotten legacy of first ever rock-cut cave temple of Tamil Kingdom

Tamil Nadu is rightly called the ‘Land of Temples’ with thousands of temples of various Tamil dynasties adding to the beauty of the land. A trip down south takes us down the memory lane of the great Tamil rulers who have built the magnificent stone structures, brick temples and cave temples across Tamil Nadu that have stood the test of time and survived thousands of years. If stones could talk, the carvings of the great temples of Tamil Nadu would reveal the secrets of the ancestral past. As we admire the Tamil kings for their creativity, architecture, urban planning, administration and their practices, their farsightedness to inscribe valuable information in the temples for the future generations, requires a special mention.

Sasi from “Walkwithus” sharing details on the evolution of temples in Tamil Nadu

In March 2017, around 20 of us in CTC (Chennai Trekking Club) signed up for a heritage trip. During our trip, Sasidhar and Ananth from ‘Walkwithus’ shed some light on the evolution of temples in Tamil Nadu. ‘Walkwithus’ is a group of tamil history enthusiasts who organize temple walks to create awareness about tamil heritage and are also actively involved in promotion and conservation of various places which hold significance in Tamil history. On March 11, the CTC group started from Koyambedu at 2:30 am and after picking up few more people along the way, we started towards the first temple of the trip – the historic Mandagapattu cave temple.

The early form of Pallava art shows the doorkeeper dwarapalas carved at both ends of the rock cut cave. The pillars are plain in the early Pallava architecture and there are no stone carvings adorning the walls and pillars.

Not many in our group had heard of this temple before and we were astounded by the facts shared with us during this temple visit. As the history goes, the early Pallava rulers of the 2nd-6th century who were followers of Buddhism, Jainism and Saivism built the temples with bricks. However, in the 7th century, King Mahendra Pallava I (மகேந்திரவர்மன் 600–630 CE) came up with a revolutionary concept to carve out a temple structure out of a rock mountain and come up with a rock cut cave temple (in Mandagapattu) that can survive thousands of years compared to the brick structures. The Ajantha/Ellora caves and the Badami caves were built even prior to the 6th century, however, it did take some time for the idea and concept to travel down south. In the age of brick masonry temples, it was Mahendra Pallava I, the ‘Vichitrachita’, who took up the mission of carving out a temple from a 140 feet hillock.

The rock cut structure has a slightly projected ardhamandapa to show its difference from the entrance

This temple is believed to be the first attempt of Pallavas with rock cut forms. Hence, the pillars are plain and there are no stone carvings adorning the walls and pillars. The lone inscription in the temple in Pallava Granta (Sanskrit) in the temple suggests that this could probably be the first of a kind timber-less, brick-less, mortar-less, metal-less mansion built for Brahma, Vishnu and Ishwara. Here’s the sanskrit form of the grantha inscription found in the temple:

अतद्निष्टकंद्रुं [मलो]-      हमसुधं [ विचित्रचि] त्तेन             निम्मर्पितन्न्रपे [ण] ब्रह्मो –          श्वरविष्णुल [क्षि] तायनं

Pallava Granta inscription describing the temple to be probably the first of a kind brick-less, mortar-less, timber-less, metal-less structure built for worshipping Brahma, Vishnu and Ishwara.

There were no idols present inside this monolithic rock cut cave temple. However, there were three cells – one each for Lord Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma with traces of paintings seen in the back walls of the cells. Sasidhar was suggesting that the traces of paintings on the walls possibly implied that dieties could have been painted in walls instead of being worshipped as idols. He also added that idol worship would not have been followed in the 5th century and may have started only in the later stages.

The historic rock cut temple with traces of painted dieties has become a graffitti board for irresponsible tourists to come and scribble their names

The Mandagapattu rock cut temple lies in a sorry state dumped with trash and lacking proper maintenance, though it’s under ASI. Lost in the pages of history, Mandagapattu still holds a significant place in history signifying the evolution of long-lasting temple structures. It is strongly believed that the rock cut temples in Tamil kingdom started from here and the Pallavas evolved slowly from this stage to the amazing Mahabalipuram rock cut temples. Irresponsible tourism and lack of maintenance has taken a toll on this cave temple and the protected monument has become a graffiti wall for tourists. We don’t always require a world heritage day to remind us to preserve our historical sites. Next time, you visit a temple or a protected monument, do your bit to preserve them by not scratching your names/poems in its walls, alongside snapping a few selfies with the monument.

More on pallava temples coming up in part 2 of this series…

Contact of WalkwithUs group:

Reaching Mandagapattu:-
Mandagapattu is approximately 160 kms from Chennai and 30 kms away from Villupuram. There is no public transport available to this place.

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10 thoughts on “Mandagapattu – The forgotten legacy of first ever rock-cut cave temple of Tamil Kingdom

  1. கல்லிலே கலை வண்ணம் விஜய் பிளாக் பார்க்க முடியாதற்கு தங்களது இந்த பிளாக் மிகவும் பார்பதற்கு சந்தோசமாகவுள்ளது.Ayyampet J.Balachandran,Thanjavur District.


  2. Excellent work. Congrats! keep it up. May God and the souls of our ancestors shower their blessings upon you to do such magnanimous presentations.


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