Saturday 23 July 2022

Undiscovered Vishnu temple in Mamallapuram

Mamallapuram has many interesting monuments. Most were abandoned by Indians, stumbled upon by various English and French art enthusiasts, and recovered by archaeologists, under the offices of the Archaeological Survey of India. The earliest was the discovery of several sculptures below ground level at Arjuna’s Penance, by Lord Napier in 1872. A few years later, in 1880, the mostly buried Atiranacanda Mandapam near Tiger cave was extricated from layers of sand, by Alexander Rea. A more recent discovery was of a buried well and some associated sculptures near the Shore temple, in the 1990s. The most recent discovery has been what is called a Sangam era temple near Atiranacanda Mandapam, following the 2004 Indian ocean tsunami.

Sangam era Murugan temple, Saluvankuppam
"Inscribed Rock" in Mackenzie's map

Based on the discovery of a stone spear, speculation was that this was  a temple for Skanda or Murugan, though it doesn’t have an image of the deity. Oddly, in the place of the sanctum, there is a deep pit. Equally oddly, it is a half rock, half structural monument, mostly made of bricks (which bear similarity to pre-Pallava bricks elsewhere in Tamilnadu).

This puzzling monument was already described by Colonel Colin Mackenzie, in 1802, as Inscribed Rock (Monument 33). In 1840, says Walter Eliot, this the inscription was transcribed. Eliot appended the transcript in the 1844 paper authored by himself, Braddock, Taylor and Mahon. The meikeerthi indicates this was inscribed by Kulottunga Chola the third.

After the 2004 tsunami, the ASI discovered a second inscription below the sand level, that of Rashtrakuta king Krishna. But there are no Pallava era inscriptions. Only some Pallava monuments in Mamallapuram have inscriptions, so this is not too odd. For example, Atiranachanda has two Pallava and one Chola inscription, but Tiger Cave has none.

In the book Seven Pagodas of the Coromandel Coast, a collection of papers about Mamallapuram, compiled by  Captain MW Carr in 1869, is this transcript by Mackenzie. There is also a map, which shows the Saluvankuppam area, including Tiger Cave, Atiranachanda Mandapa and this Inscribed Rock (now called Murugan temple). West of the Murugan temple, and north of Atiranachanda Mandapa, is a monument labeled Inscribed Stone, in Mackenzie’s map. Near it is an ASI monument marker(Monument 36).

Mackenzie's Stone

Tamil Inscription on Mackenzie's stone

I suspect this Inscribed Stone is the remnant or component of either a buried or lost temple to Vishnu. The inscription itself is in Tamil an is very brief.

ஸ்வஸ்திஸ்ரீ இச்சகதலதமானார்க்கு மதிதவிட்டாகி மாப்பட்டியில் திருவமிதிக்கு இருமாநிலமும் திருவிளக்கு கழஞ்சு பொன்னும் குடுத்தது

Svastishree iccagathalatamaaanaarkku maditavittaagi maappattiyil tiruvamidikku irumaa nilamum tiruviLakku kazanju ponnum kuduttadu

My reading:

ஸ்வஸ்திஸ்ரீ இச்சகதல
வமிதிக்கு இருமா[நிலமும்
திருவிளக்கு [கழஞ்சு பொன்]
னும்குடு [த்தது]

Translation: SvastiSree. Two maa of land for food (tiruvamudu) and two kalanju of gold for a lamp (tiruvilakku) are donated for this jaga-tala-tam-aanar and uditta-battar and ara-patti-????

The main temple in worship in Mamallapuram is called Sthalasayana: Sthala means place (or  ground); Sayana means reclining. This word is in stark contrast to the usual pose of reclining Vishnu, when he is always AnantaSayana – reclining on Ananta, or Adisesha, his thousand headed serpent. There is no serpent in the temple. In contrast, the Vishnu in Mahishasura Mardhini mandapam, reclines on his serpent : which is how he is depicted almost everywhere else – in Srirangam, Tirumeyyam, Tiruvanathapuram, Tiruvekka (Kanchipuram) etc. Historians say this temple is of perhaps Vijayanagar vintage (13-15 century AD) rather than Pallava era (5-9 century AD).

Between the two Siva shrines of the Shore temple, is a Vishnu shrine, called Narapati SimhaVishnu Graham. Apparently there is an inscription on the lintel, but perhaps it has eroded : I have never seen it. This shrine also has a Vishnu reclining not on the serpent, but on the bare rock. Perhaps this was the original Sthalasayana; some commentators say that it is called Jalasayana by the locals.

Let us quickly look at two other sets of monuments: Five Rathas and Trimurthi mandapam. Trimurthi Mandapam has three shrines, one each for Vishnu, Siva and BrahmaShasta (Skanda or Murugan, wearing his trademark channavira, but standing in Brahma’s place, with rishis rather than warriors on his side). Also there is a Mahishasura Mardhini on the wall, without a separate shrine. It is an interesting grouping of these three gods and the goddess.

Of the five rathas, four are in a row. Two have deities on the back wall in the sanctum – Draupadi ratha has a standing Mahishasura Mardhini sculpture. Dharmaraja ratha, designed to be a three storey temple, has only one completed sanctum, on the top floor, with SomaskandaH on the back wall. Bhima ratha,very incomplete, looks like it was designed to fit Vishnu in reclining pose; but a major flaw in the rock forced the sthapati to leave it incomplete. Whether it was intended for Sthalasayana or Anantasayana, we can only guess. Arjuna ratha also has an empty sanctum, but it has a figure on the back wall, seated on an elephant. Speculation is that it is either Indra or Muruga. Going with the Trimurthi mandapam pattern, I will guess that it is also Muruga. So both sets have temples for the same four gods. I ignore Sahadeva ratha, since it also has an empty sanctum.

Now let us look at the Saluvankuppam complex. The Atiranachanda mandapam is clearly a shrine for Siva – it has a Somaskanda and a lingam in the sanctum, and the inscriptions both say it is dedicated to Atiranachandeshvara. The tiger cave has an empty sanctum, and may not be a temple at all, but a music hall, as speculated by TN Ramachandran in 1933. The cave mouth is surrounded not by tigers but vyaalis : remarkably there is a mini tiger cave, about a mile south of the Shore temple, very similar in structure; it has a shrine featuring Durga or Mahishasura Mardhini. Prof Baluswamy of MCC conjectures that therefor Tiger cave is also a temple to Mahisharura Mardhini.

Atiranchanda Mandapa buried under sand before 1880
Photograph: Internet (perhaps  shared by ASI )

Atiranachanda mandapa 2014

As we noted earlier, the Murugan temple doesn’t have an image of the deity or even a proper sanctum, but it has the stone spear. We can consider the Inscribed stone, the mysterious monument which is the subject of this essay, to be the fourth monument of this Saluvankuppam set. Since the other three are temples to Siva, Durga and Muruga, this must be for Vishnu, in the pattern of Trimurthi mandapam and Five rathas.

Our strongest clue is the inscription itself. It is a donation inscription; land and gold for food offering and a lamp are donated to cagat-tala-tamaanaar and others. Caga is Tamil tatbhavam for jagat; tala likewise for sthala; tamaanaar (tam+aanaar) is unusual and most likely means the person (he who is). So cagat-tala-tamaanaar is  a Tamil phrase for Sthalasayana. It cant be for the Vishnu in either the Shore temple or the Adivaraha cave or anywhere among the main group in Mamallapuram; it must be for a local temple. If intended for any of the other three, why not inscribe on those? There is plenty of space. The most logical explanation is that, this Inscribed stone is part of the temple, waiting to be discovered from its burial under the same sand that buried most of Atiranachanda mandapa and most of the brick temple. The inscription may be of the Pallava era, based on the shape of some letters, though there is no mention of a king.

It is not clear whether this stone is the floor or the roof of a temple. One would expect an inscription to be on the floor, rather than on the roof. You see inscriptions on the floor in several temples in Mallai, including Atiranachanda, Shore temple, Adivaraha and Ramanuja mantapa. But, the level of this Inscribed Stone is almost the same as the roof of the Atiranachanda mandapa, and above the level of the rediscovered Sangam brick temple. Also, it is exteremely uneven for the floor of a temple. And there are no protuberant pillar bases. So it could possibly be the roof.

So, summarizing, there are three reasons why I think Mackenzie’s inscribed stone, is a buried Vishnu temple.

1.  Caga-tala –tamaanaar  inscription

2.  Level of the sand

3.  Grouping  of four

There are also several arguments against my conjecture.

The first and most obvious is wishful thinking: it would be awesome to just find an undiscovered monument, especially  of the Pallavas.

The second is that, I am unlikely to have stumbled upon something that experts, especially archaeologists, have missed. Wouldn’t Rea or Hunter or the 2004 ASI team have excavated it, if they suspected something?

The third is that, it seems unlikely for an inscription to be on the roof, rather than floor of a temple. It may have been a brick monument that has completely gone, not of Pallava but later era. There is an isolated and ignored torso of  a murthi, perhaps of Vishnu, cast aside among the bushes near the Atiranachanda mandapa. It looks like the remnant of a standing Vishnu. So there may be no monument underground.

These are feeble objections; someone else may have far much better reasons to consider my conjecture wrong.

But I hope someone at ASI believes me and sanctions an exploration. If there is nothing, no harm done, except some wasted time, money and labour. But what if there is a Pallava temple, and a full Sthalasayana?? Can we afford to ignore the possibility?

Related essays

Babington’s Gift – the third Atiranachanda inscription

Lingodbhavasculpture near Shore temple

Essays on Art

Essays on History


2000 Years ofMamallapuram – lecture in Tamil

Babington's third inscription - joint lecture with Dr Nagaswamy