Sculptor father and sculptor son seems to be a bad formula. The curious urban legends of sculptors killing or maiming themselves for ‘ defects’ ( usually toads found inside the stone!) finds itself repeated in so many sites that we were actually happy that there was at least an attempt to concoct something new this time around !

It was late evening when we reached the twin caves of Thirumalapuram (Thirunelveli district about 5 kms from Kallidaikurichi - older name Tirumalaipuram) in pursuit of our tryst to cover the caves of the Pandyas. Despite the sites being ASI protected monuments it took a lot of direction seeking, blind turns and pure serendipitous luck to arrive there.


The long shot gives you an idea of the plain rock face which would have dauntingly stood before the nameless sculptor or his more generous master/ king as they envisioned their masterpiece. Would they have envisioned their creation standing for a thousand years and beyond?


Its a relatively small excavation comprising of two pillars and two pillasters (The cave on the north face of the hillock is finished with reliefs on its inside as well, while the one on the south has been left unfinished - which incidentally lends itself perfectly to this urban legend which we will see shortly!)

Lets take a closer look at the north face cave. The pillars have some really nice carvings and are fluted.


The piece de resistance of the finished cave must have been its monolithic nandhi but sadly only its base and one of its hooves remains. To fully appreciate the task envisioned by the sculptor, you must understand how he must have felt as he shaped the bull, knowing fully well that even one wrong move would endanger the entire work. We will see this in more detail when we tour the unfinished second cave helps us in this task, as we can see how the stone at the center has been reduced leaving the enough rock to carve the Nandhi.


The date for this cave is assigned to the second half of the 7th C CE and of Pandya style. This is ascertained by the monolithic Shiva linga - carved out of the base rock, a feature which is not present in the Pallava caves of the same period and the presence of Ganesha relief.

One of the door guardians sports a very majestic mustache which has been curled upwards in the style that is in vogue in rustic Tamil Nadu to this day.


Further there are high relief carvings trinity Brahma and Vishnu, plus a very unique dancing form of Shiva.


The posture of his is not the classic Natraja thanadava but more of his chatura pose and he is dancing in gay abandon to the merriment of his Ganas. The throw of the upper left hand accentuates the feel while his lower left hand holds the book of dance – a feature unique and met in Pandya sculptures of this period.


There are two Ganas ( were !) on his two sides - the one to his right has been defaced while the one on the left is of profound interest to students of Music. We will see these in more detail in the next part of this post.

There are few vestigial remnants of paintings which supports that view that most if not all of the early caves were embellished with mural paintings. It is also interesting to note that the reliefs are actually separated by carvings of actual pillars in relief.


However, it must be mentioned that the overall proportions seems a bit dwarfish especially the lower torso which is quite baffling considering the expertise that has gone into the facial expressions and overall stonecraft - the shortening of the lower torso and legs is singular sore feature on the sculptor.

A short walk in the dropping light led us the locked gate of the second unfinished gate. We had now built up our own crowd of delirious camp followers who maybe thought we were movie directors. They tried their best to first dissuade us from wasting our time in seeing this cave which had ‘no’ art.


To be fair to them the art work was pedestrian as evidenced by what must have been a amateurish attempt at sculpting maybe a Ganesha on the outer wall. After watching us trying to peer inside the rusty mesh for a couple of minutes they must have realised that we were indeed hard nuts and gave us the number of the ASI person responsible for the site and we made the call with a healthy sprinkling of ” I know so and so in ASI !” and he promised to come over.


As we waited for the ASI person to arrive, the ever present goat herders kept our company with an absorbing tale on the two caves. The master sculptor who was excavating the north cave had a talented son who would bring his ‘coffee’ from home every day. He would then observe his father work the stone and would go around the hill and replicate the same moves on the stone there. He took care to match the strokes with those of his father’s hammer, so that his father’s hammer strikes would mask his own. He continued in this fashion when one day, the father suddenly stopped mid stroke and heard the sound of the hammer on chisel. He immediately set off to find the source and came across a boy stooped over a stone. But since he was turned away from him, he couldn’t recognize him but seeing the work he realized that someone was copying his design. Enraged he stuck the lad on his head with his hammer and slew him on the spot. Only then he realized that it was his own son but it was too late!

We have seen many variations of this tale now, like urban legends, we need to coin a term for these sculpture legends, how they first came to be and how they manage to reach even the real off beat locations is a mystery by itself.

The key finally arrived and as we had been adequately warned - there was nothing inside but for a delightful insight into a cave excavation that had been abandoned - the work in progress giving us vital clues as to how they attempted the insitu Nandi etc.


You can see how a pillar of the mother rock has been left in the center of the cave excavation and slowly reduced from the middle. You can also see the patterns cut into the rock wall to excavate more depth. It must be pointed out that the stroke marks left on the stone differ from those we find in the Pallava caves of mallai.

Photos: Arvind Venkatraman

Leave a comment »

Category: Sculpture

Tags:  , , , , , ,

Related Posts:

Read this in தமிழ்தமிழ்

This entry was posted on Monday, November 5th, 2012 at 7:45 and is filed under . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

23 Comments so far


Very interesting, and good photographs. And yes, I have heard this story/legend before.

November 5th, 2012 at 7:55
Andrea Kirkby

The story of the father and son, or master and apprentice, is found in Europe as well; at Roslin, Scotland, there is a pillar said to have been carved by the apprentice, who was murdered by his master (http://www.rosslyntemplars.org.uk/index.php/rosslyn-chapel/images-of-rosslyn-chapel/apprentice_pillar1/); there’s a bracket in Gloucester Cathedral carved with a falling figure, said to be an apprentice mason pushed off scaffolding by a jealous master; at Saint-Ouen, Rouen, the master mason Alexandre Barneval is said to have killed his apprentice, who created the lovely northern rose window, out of jealousy. However the version you report is rather lovely in the fact that the father doesn’t know, until it is too late, that he has killed his own son - different from the tales I know where the master is an evildoer right from the start.

November 5th, 2012 at 13:59

I like your use of the word ‘tryst’. In old photographs from here I was 1st struck by the anatomically accurate depiction of the dwarf. Thanks for your attractively presented info on this fascinating cave!

November 6th, 2012 at 0:53

Amazing anecdotes and local parabes… :) Thanks for sharing. Shall explore the place the next time am around there :)

November 6th, 2012 at 5:52

welcome Ramjee

November 7th, 2012 at 11:04

True Kathie. got introduced to the word first from the address of Nehru the day before our nation was born…vj

November 7th, 2012 at 11:05

wow, thanks for the interesting info Andrea. It is really amazing how these legends cross frontiers…vj

November 7th, 2012 at 11:06

thanks Raji maam

November 7th, 2012 at 11:06

All photographs are very nice. Keep posting .All the very best. Looking for more posts :)

November 9th, 2012 at 17:35

Super photography and photographs. Keep going :)

November 9th, 2012 at 17:36

படங்களுக்கும் பகிர்வுக்கும் நன்றி…

http://www.geevanathy.com/2012/11/some-useful-websites.html மூலம் உங்கள் தளம் வருகை… தொடர்கிறேன்…


November 12th, 2012 at 9:10

படங்களுக்கும் பகிர்வுக்கும் நன்றி…

(geevanathy.com/2012/11/some-useful-websites.html) மூலம் உங்கள் தளம் வருகை… தொடர்கிறேன்…


November 12th, 2012 at 9:10

the place is 9 kms from kadayanallur and 25 kms from sankarankoil town. the nandi was intact for a no of years but defaced in early 1920’s due to some extremist views. the period is attributed to sengan 665 AD. There is cave temples of early pandyas at chokkampatti 2 caves, one at pechiparai,virashikamani.. we will send u the pics of others soon

December 20th, 2012 at 21:57

Full of useful information. Thank you Mr Vijay. I hope you will post more useful information for the travel community.You are inspiring and motivating travelers. Good luck for all your good efforts.

December 24th, 2012 at 12:02

சமீபத்தில் திருமலாபுரம் குடைவரைக்கு நாங்களும் மதுரையிலிருந்து குழுவாக சென்றிருந்தோம். மாலை நேரம் சென்றிருந்ததால் அந்த இன்னொரு குடைவரையை பார்க்க முடியவில்லை. தந்தைமகன் கதை போல இன்னொரு கதை கழுகுமலையிலும் சொல்லப்படுகிறது.
படங்கள் அருமை. பகிர்விற்கு நன்றி.

December 28th, 2012 at 8:10

சமீபத்தில் திருமலாபுரம் குடைவரைக்கு நாங்களும் மதுரையிலிருந்து குழுவாக சென்றிருந்தோம். மாலை நேரம் சென்றிருந்ததால் அந்த இன்னொரு குடைவரையை பார்க்க முடியவில்லை. தந்தைமகன் கதை போல இன்னொரு கதை கழுகுமலையிலும் சொல்லப்படுகிறது.
படங்கள் அருமை. பகிர்விற்கு நன்றி.

December 28th, 2012 at 8:11

you did not miss much மதுரைவாசகன்., but for the experiences of understanding their sculpting methods. vj

January 11th, 2013 at 15:49

thanks for your nice words Joseph. rgds vj

January 11th, 2013 at 15:50

thanks Ram. do send the photos when you have time. rgds vj

January 11th, 2013 at 15:51

pl visit the cave morning 10 to 1 pm as it will be open pl visit virashikamani,pechiamman koil too near abt 25 kms away

January 14th, 2013 at 11:32

[...] Peumthachan, a master sculptor who kills his talented and capable son due to jealousy. Vijay finds a similar story in Thirumalapuram The master sculptor who was excavating the north cave had a talented son who would bring his [...]

January 15th, 2013 at 14:30

Thanks for article.Very interesting, and good photographs. And yes, I have heard this storyof the legend before anyways thanks for sharing.

January 13th, 2016 at 15:07

Is it near kadayanallur Thenkasi or Kallidaikurichi near Ambasamudram. The other sites say the first one. Only in this site says it is near Kallidai. Please clarify.

February 22nd, 2016 at 17:01

Leave a Reply

Name (required)(*)
Mail (will not be published)(*)