Not all mysteries in archeology need an Indiana Jones or a Lara Croft to make it reveal its secrets, however, if ever there was one that would even baffle them, it is the wonder that stands forgotten in the glory of the famed Murugan temple in Tirupparankundram. That the famed shrine itself is a cave temple is not common knowledge, however there exists another cave at the foothills of the same hill but a little further away to the left as you drive around it.
The main cave face.
The first and foremost is the date assignable to the original excavation. The rather plain bulky set of two pillars and pilasters (half pillars) combined with the lack of any artistic fluting on their corbels help us to assign an early 8th C CE date to the cave.
It is very rare to see reliefs on the outer wall of excavated caves as usually we get to so only door guardians. However, in this cave there are many niches into which deep relief sculptures have been carved. We will visit them in the second part of this post as we need to move to the inside - to view some very intricate sculptures, whose superior iconography seem to suggest a 12th C CE to 13th C CE date.
The popular reasoning is that this was an extant Jaina cave which was later converted. Let us look at the shrine that has been cut into the left wall as we enter the cave. Inside this beautifully framed shrine is a relief sculpture of the androgynous from of Shiva as Ardhanari gracefully leaning on his bull mount.
The four armed sculpture has clear demarcation of the Shiva and Sakti portions, with him wearing a thigh length garment while hers is a sari to the knee.
Ardhanari in the Sanctum
For all its grace and form, there are many aberrations in the form. Firstly we do not get to see relief sculptures of this form in any contemporary sites. Secondly it is quite plain that its size is too small for this sanctum’s proportions. The height of the pedestal is more suitable for a seated figure and not a standing figure. The the placement of the bull is also strange. A study of the evolution of the ardhanari form clearly shows the difficulty the sculptor has in balancing the male and female body proportions.
Such early examples are the forms in the Dharmaraja ratha and the Agasteshwara temple in Perungudi. While the Sama banga profile of the Dharamaraja sculpture lacks aesthetic appeal, the problems of the larger male proportions are evident in the Agasteshwara sculpture.
Ardhanari – Dharmaraja Ratha
Ardhanari - Agastheswara
The sculptors hence bring the Rishabava Vahana and let the form lean on its head to provide the counter balance. This is seen in the later day Chola sculptures including this stunning beauty from Vriddachalam and also seems to be the accepted norm as far as Elephanta.
Ardhanari – Vriddachalam
Ardhanari - Elephanta
The problem now with the Parankundam sculpture is the bull is positioned on the opposite side ie. Not on the male side but is on the female side and hence doesn’t lend the necessary balance to the composition. These are not consistent with the the amount of planning that is needed to complete a rock cut cave shrine.
Things seem to further go wrong as we explore the rather crude attempt to shape the pedestal below, but the most crucial aspect of the puzzle rests in the totally unconnected curly patterns on the top.
At first glance it would be easy to dismiss them as a tree etc but then only the Daksinamurthy form is shown with a tree canopy on top. This is where we need to explore the Jaina aspects. Take a look at these images.
We shall explore more such in part 2….
Photo Courtesy: Mr. Udayan, Mr. Arvind Venkatraman , the hindu archives.