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.
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.
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.
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
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 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…
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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