Another Surprise in Mamallapuram

BY: T.S. SUBRAMANIAN

At the site of the excavated brick sanctum sanctorum near Tiger Cave in Mamallapuram, Dr. T. Satyamurthy, Superintending Archaeologist, ASI, Chennai Circle, and his team

Nov 2, CHENNAI, INDIA (FRONTLINE) — The discovery of a late Tamil Sangam age temple 50 km from Chennai strengthens the view that a string of Seven Pagodas existed along the Mamallapuram coast.

THE remains of an ancient brick temple, possibly 2,000 years old, have been discovered on the beach near Tiger Cave in Mamallapuram, 50 km from Chennai. According to archaeologists involved in the excavation, the temple; dedicated to Muruga, also known as Karthikeya, may date back to the late Tamil Sangam age, between 1st century B.C. and 2nd century A.D. An inscription in Tamil on a rock near the excavated site led to the discovery of the temple. The rock, lodged in sand, was exposed fully by the tsunami that struck Mammalapuram on December 26, 2004.

The original temple was damaged severely by what archaeologists think was a tsunami or a massive tidal wave action. Subsequently, the Pallava kings converted it into a granite temple in the 8th and 9th century A.D., which too fell to tidal waves or a tsunami.

Lord Karthikeya (Murukan)

The credit for discovering this temple complex goes to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Chennai Circle. Its Superintending Archaeologist, T. Satyamurthy, who is the director of the excavation at the site, said the brick temple "definitely belongs to the late Tamil Sangam age. There is no doubt that it is 2,000 years old. It is the most ancient temple discovered so far in Tamil Nadu. I can say that with authority."

According to G. Thirumoorthy, Assistant Archaeologist, ASI, the Pallava rulers filled the sanctum sanctorum of the brick temple with sand, placed granite slabs over it and used it as a foundation to build a new temple. This temple had a vimana (tower) made of granite blocks with carvings. So the temple had two distinct phases: the late Sangam age and the Pallava period.

The temple could have had a third phase of construction, according to Satyamurthy. The ardha mantapa and the mukha (entrance porch) of the temple complex, which have been unearthed, could have been built by the Cholas, he said.

The late Sangam age artefacts that were excavated include broken stucco figurines, which were perhaps under worship in the brick temple; a painted hand portion with a bangle of a stucco figurine; terracotta lamps; beads; roofing tiles made of terracotta; spinning whorls; a broken terracotta animal figurine; and hopscotch. The ASI has also brought to light the prakara (compound wall) of the brick temple.

An important discovery was that of two carved, granite pillars of the Pallava period. Both the pillars have inscriptions in Tamil. While one pillar mentions the seventh regnal year (813 A.D.) of the Pallava king Dantivarman, the other has an inscription belonging to the 12th regnal year (858 A.D.) of another Pallava king, Nandivarman III. The inscriptions on the pillars speak about donations made to a Subrahmanya temple at a place called Thiruvizhchil, which is the present-day Salavankuppam, where the Tiger Cave monuments are located.

The inscription on one of the two granite pillars

Other Pallava age artefacts unearthed include carved granite blocks from the collapsed temple vimana, a bronze lamp with a carving of a cock (the vehicle of Muruga or Subrahmanya), and roofing tiles. The granite blocks have carvings of Ganesa, elephants, mythical animals and floral motifs. A copper coin belonging to the Chola period was found on the surface of the site.

THE discovery of the temple complex has strengthened the arguments of those who believe that a string of Seven Pagodas (temples with vimanas) existed on the Mamallapuram coast. Although many dismiss it as a fanciful imagination, the discovery in February 2005 of the remains of a massive temple, dedicated to Siva, close to the Shore Temple at Mamallapuram, revived the debate about whether the Seven Pagodas did exist after all. After last year's tsunami washed away the beach sand and revealed dressed rock in a square area close to the Shore Temple, the ASI excavated the spot and ran into the remains of a temple, which would have rivalled the Shore Temple in size and grandeur (Frontline, May 7, 2005). The Shore Temple, which is on the fringes of the sea, is said to be one of the Seven Pagodas and it is the only one that exists.

The monuments at Mamallapuram were built by the Pallava kings, whose reign began in the 4th century A.D. Kancheepuram, situated about 55 km away, was their capital, and Mamallapuram, their port. Mahendravarman I, who ruled between A.D. 580 and A.D. 630, was a builder of repute and a poet, playwright and musician. Under his son, Narasimhavarman I (A.D. 630-668), the Pallava rule is believed to have reached the heights of glory. The Pallava reign came to an end when the Cholas overran them in the 9th century A.D.

The Atiranachandesvara Cave Temple, popularly known as the Tiger Cave and which is located 2 km ahead of the Shore Temple, has two temples: the one on the southern side resembles a tiger's head and has bas relief of elephants, and the one on the northern side has a Sivalingam.

The tiger-headed temple is actually a porch or a mantapa, from where the king perhaps gave audience. The one with the lingam has Somaskanda panels on the rear and sidewalls and a panel of Mahishasamardini. Although some scholars believe the cave temple was built by Mahendravarman (A.D 582-610), it was actually built by his son Narasimhavarman I (A.D. 630-668). There are bilingual inscriptions in Pallava-Grantha and Nagari scripts in Sanskrit language on the walls of this temple. On the floor are found inscriptions in Tamil belonging to Raja Raja Chola, who built the Brihadeeswara temple in Thanjavur around 1,000 A.D.

Scholars differ on whether the cave temples were built by Paramesvaravarman, who is also known as Narasimhavarman II and Rajasimha. The Shore Temple and the Kailasanatha temple at Kancheepuram are the creations of Rajasimha (A.D. 690-728).

On the beach, about 300 metres to the north of the cave temple is a rock with three inscriptions on its sides. The inscriptions in Tamil on the western and southern sides belong to Parantaka Chola and Kulotunga Chola. The inscription on the eastern side was revealed after the tsunami washed away the sand around it.

S. Rajavelu, Epigraphist, ASI, found that the inscription in Tamil belonging to Rashtrakuta king Krishna III who ruled the area in 9th century A.D. praised him as the "conqueror of Kachi and Thanjai", that is Kancheepuram and Thanjavur, and spoke about the existence of a Subrahmanya temple at Thiruvizhchil in "Aroor kottam (division)".

This inscription raised the curiosity of the ASI archaeologists. "So when we excavated [the mound nearby], we got a good result," said Satyamurthy. Thirumoorthy said: "We first found an outer wall which gave us hope. Then we found the plinth of the temple. It was square in plan. It had an inner core, built of both brick and granite."

The finding of the inscriptions in Tamil on the two carved granite pillars thrilled them the most. The inscription on one pillar speaks about a Brahmin woman called Vasanthanaar, wife of Sri Kambattar of Sandilya Gothram, hailing from Maniyir, presently Manaiyur, near Trivellore. She donated 16 kazhanchu (small balls of gold) to the Subrahmanya temple. The sabaiyar (the village assembly) of Thiruvizhchil was to use the interest accrued from the gold to keep the lamp of the temple lit perpetually.

The inscription on the second pillar, belonging to the reign of Nandivarman III, spoke about a Kirarpiriyan of Mamallapuram, who donated 10 kazhanchu of gold to that temple. The interest that accrued from the gifted gold was to be used by the ooraar (residents of the village) and sabaiyar to celebrate a festival during the Tamil month of Kaarthigai. This pillar has a carving of a trishul (trident) on one side.

The inscriptions confirmed that the ASI had excavated a Subrahmanya temple. This motivated the team to dig further.

The sanctum sanctorum of the temple, built entirely of bricks, is almost square in size, measuring 2 m by 2.2 m. It has 27 courses of bricks. The bricks were laid over a foundation made of three courses of laterite. There are other brick structures as well.

Artefacts such as roof tiles, terracotta lamps, spinning wheels and a pointed hand of a stucco figurine

The outer surface of these structures has a thick coat of lime plaster to prevent water from seeping through. The bricks measure 40 cm x 20 cm x 7 cm. Some bricks are smaller in size. The bricks have been sent to the University of Manipur for optically stimulated luminescent dating.

The bricks are similar to those that had been found earlier at Kaveripoompattinam near Thanjavur, Orayur in Tiruchirapalli district, which was the capital of the Cholas of the Sangam age, Mangudi near Tirunelveli, and Arikkamedu near Pondicherry.

"We have got the full layout of the temple," said Thirumoorthy. Although similar structures (which could date back to 2,000 years) have been found at Kaveripoompattinam, it cannot be definitely said that they were (Hindu) temples. They could be Buddhist structures. "However, for the first time, we have discovered a brick temple in Tamil Nadu, dating back to the Sangam period," he added. A painted, stucco figurine of Muruga must have been in the sanctum. Since the sanctum is small, no rituals would have been conducted within, he said.

Satyamurthy was sure the brick temple belonged to the pre-canonical period, that is, before Agama texts and shilpa sastras came into existence in the 6th or 7th century A.D. For these texts entail that temples should face east or west, whereas the excavated temple faces north.

According to P. Aravazhi, research scholar, ASI, three working levels were exposed just outside of the temple, which indicated that the temple must have been built in three phases.

On its eastern side are deposits of shells in various layers of the earth. Satyamurthy said: "What is interesting is not the discovery of the brick temple but that we can record stratigraphically the remains of the paleo-tsunami deposits.... If not tsunami, a tidal wave had pulled down the temple on the eastern side. We are finding more debris on the eastern side and less on the western side."

Geophysicists from the Centre for Earth Science Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, have taken up the study of the deposits to date them.

Dr. Terry Machado, scientist of the Centre for Earth Science Studies, was, however, circumspect. He said if it was tsunami, there should be continuity of deposit all along the coast. "We are looking for similar deposits in other excavated sites such as Kaveripoompattinam, Arikkamedu and Korkai... Whether the temple was destroyed by a tsunami or a storm surge, we cannot say. If it was a storm surge, it would have been localised around the Mamallapuram coast."


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