Thirukazhukundram or Thirukazhugukundram, would bring back fond memories for most Chennaites. For, invariably it would be the place where schools would take you for excursions. Can’t blame them, the choices were not great - toss up between a 99% humidity, baking sun @ 42 deg, thrown in the beach sand - Mahabalipuram, a lecture on bovine mechanics - Madhavaram Dairy , a supposedly bird watch while you end up seeing just monkeys and a few specs of white (couldnt afford decent binocs and the pooled Rs 3 cheap plastic one was dismantled even before we paid up - not that it could magnify anyting anyway ) - ok the white specs were to be cranes travelling XXXX kilometers and so the teacher went on to justify the educational tour tag - what the heck, my backyard had more birds anyday than @ Vedanthangal, last but not least it was the umteen time we got to see the shaggy cross between a cow and a deer, a python so lazy that it didnt move for like 3 years, even the chameleons were bored seeing us, the crocs were thrown into what looked like a community toilet and there was absolutely no venom left in the poor cobra to milk @ Guindy Snake Park. The graduation to the next level would be Sengi fort.
They all had a commonality - all within a couple of hours drive, cheap ( aka no entry fees) and relatively deserted on weekdays - so kids wont get lost. Tirukalukundram scored a vital point as it had ( till recently) the added attraction of the avian visitors - two vultures who turned up at the appointed hour to partake in the brunch. ( its thiru Kazhugu - vulture - kundru - hill lock and Pakshi theertham - bird sacred water - literally translated !!!).
Off we went - neatly packed like sardines in the rickety old school bus and then paired with your best pal or if you are too mischievous or talkative with a girl ( ultimate punishment till we realised that it was not, but which time we were too old to sit in the same bench as them - so much for co education !!) and make the torturous climb up the steep and unforgiving stairs - they don’t seem too steep when you are young and a ` few kilos’ lighter.
So its no surprise that this most sacred of sacred places - maybe one of the very few temples which have been sung by Appar, Sambandhar and Sundarar, is not top of the list for many. Though its just a short detour 14 kms from Mahabalipuram, not many make the trip once they start wearing colored clothing of their choice ( out of school i mean - no more navy blue i swore till i realised that it was part of corporate dressing)
When Arvind suggested a quick drive down ECR to visit this site, i quickly wound up and parked near tiruvanmiyur temple tank ( free parking !!) and hit ECR. As we passed Mahabs, seeking directions - the road turned pleasantly good and green on either side. Just as we took the last diversion ( mean the last curve to avoid) we could spot the majestic hill come into view.
As our luck could have it or otherwise, we hadn’t done our background reading well and skipped the all important Pallava Rock cut cave - Orukal Mandabam ( one rock cave) and attempted to climb to ” the temple on top of the hill“. There is considerable debate on these two shrines and hence i used the italics. We will jump to that debate in a later post when we cover the rock cut cave.
Enough of the ramble ( must be the after effects of staying up all night and reading Chetan Bagat in one go ) I am going to depend very much on Sri K. R. Srinivasan’s Cave Temples of the Pallavas henceforth, and attempt to post on the topic of the post.
After a steady ( meaning stopping every five steps and almost coming close to having a heart attack twice) - we reach the summit blaming it on the heavy lunch…we were disappointed by a a very small stone structure. All this trekking for this !!! It was some auspicious day and looked like the whole village had turned up in all their finery to have darshan of the lord - vedagirirswarar. We tried our best acrobatic moves, attempted to outdo the leaning tower and managed to fit our heads inbetween the nandhi’s ears while our torso was a full 4 feet away - to just get a peak of the moolavar. Just as we came around,we noticed that the surrounding corridor had deep clefts - where we could see the base rock and in it - pay dirt. Atlast some Pallava sculpture - relief panels at that and SOMASKANDA !!
We were all eager to check what was its styling. Classic Pallava relaxed styling despite all the wearing of the stone - you can always spot a Pallava art work. Its got a certain laid back styling and freedom in it - and a poetry that runs through it. Next question - Pre Rajasimha or post Rajasimha
Just then, we heard some commotion, a road side hero - self professed custodian of the hindu temple arrived, showering the choicest of abuses on us and accusing us of not knowing Hindu culture ( maybe it was our bermudas and camera bags) - despite our best attempts to educate the romeo that we were not taking the Garba Graha nor were these panels under worship - he was more inclined to show of his new found role to his fellow tribesmen. Pretty soon we had a whole village assembly around us with all sorts of mustached elders passing judgments. not withstanding that we had paid a hefty camera fee and there was no photography board !! It was plain ridiculous, stupid, atrocious….and if not for the fact that we were inside a temple precincts, would have asked them to just … off. All my focus was on the reminder of the two panels - one was a very wonderful Shiva seated stylistically on rishaba - now you know what i mean by classic pallava styling.
I did shoot it but then it was close to delirium and we had to give up the last one.
Anyway, surprisingly the somaskanda capture, despite the poor light and emergency shot, is good enough to attempt a detailed study
Brahma and Vishnu are inside the panel
Shiva is in his usual pose, Parvathi /Umai - well will let you decide
A snug baby skanda with his characteristic head dress.
Surely a post Rajasimha panel. The throne is pretty standard, but the vessel here is quite different from what we have seen in other such panels - its not the standard vase but more like a high bowl. Another interesting variation!!
So,now is the tricky problem. Obviously, since the temple was sung by the trio - they are dated to Mahendra’s period - 630 AD around. But Rajasimha was three generations later, so how do we explain the presence of a stylistically later dated panel in an older temple - quite simple - the temple on the hill was existing prior to this panel being sculpted. The confusion arises since the lower cave ( which we will see subsequently) has not been sung - none of the caves of Mahendra have been sung upon, while this temple on the hill has been specifically sung. So the conclusion ( book ref given earlier) is that there must have been some sort of temple structure that existed earlier - then later pallava - Rajasimha or post him did some renovation and created the current structure by standing 3 stone slab -megalithic style shrine - on which these ( hopefully i can get you the third panel via friends shortly).
More on this interesting theory with inscriptional support which lends a new angle - when we see the Pallava cave in the base of the hill shortly.