The ancient port town of Mamallai is the uncrowned King of stone sculpting but it has eclipsed quite a few masterpieces in its glory. In our continuing quest to bring out such stunning yet forgotten works of art spread across our land, today we see the 7th C CE cave shrine of Sri Ranganatha Perumal in Singavaram, situated 4kms to the North of Senji in Villupuram district.
Please do read Saurabh’s indepth post .
An unique later day tall Mandapa greets visitors to the site while the actual shrine is atop a small hillock and is serviced by a long flight of steps. As you pass through into the main shine, you are welcomed by a set of matched pillars and pilasters have been hewn into the rock to form the entrance hall or Artha Mandapa. Only then do you realise that the structural temple has built over the cave shrine complete with its own door guardians.( sadly they have been plastered and painted over - we will never get to know how they would have looked in their pristine beauty)
A fantastic Sayana perumal – the sleeping form of Vishnu, all of 24 feet, has been fashioned from mother rock and is a sight to behold.
The scant visitors that the shrine receives however do not realise that there is another treasure just nearby. The Thayar shrine which has been added later has a small window to its side from where visitors can get a glimpse of a spectacular relief sculpture of Durga or Kotravai as her form was known in those times.
Kotravai in Tribanga - Singavaram
In classic sculpting tradition the composition achieves an aesthetic grace with increased flex ion, as compared to a school class group photo attention pose. You can see how the sculptor has stylistically slanted her body three times – the Tribanga and superbly offset the shift of the legs by having her place her right leg on the severed buffalo head – called Urdhvajanu in iconographic texts and counter balanced the same with the lower left hand slightly raised and resting above the hip. The early date confirmed with the Prayoga chakra on the upper right hand and her Conch on the upper left. The kneeling devotee to the right is thankfully not offering his head but only cutting his hand ( symbolic bloodletting) while his companion’s pose mimics that of holding a flower for her.
Considering that the cave has no inscriptions of the Pallavas and hence we cannot have a definite date for it - It would be an interesting exercise to arrange the similar compositions in stylistic order - all executed within a span of 100 years. The logic would be very simple, you would learn to crawl before you walk and once you walk you wouldn’t want to crawl. You can see the superior effect of the Tribanga over the Sama Banga postures of the ones in the Draupadi Ratha and the Varaha Mandapa and also how the left hand rests lower on the hip, the classical Kati Hasta, giving Singavaram a slightly later date than them.
Durga in Sama Banga – Draupadi Ratha
Durga in Sama Banga – Varaha Mandaba
In contrast, the multiple armed Adivaraha cave Kotravai has the sculptor striving for more aesthetics, using his artistic license in sculpting her with slightly exaggerated ( elongated ) legs, standing on the severed head of Mahisha, with the right leg coming entirely behind the left giving the entire composition a stylistic grace. Hence we would give it a post Singavaram date.
Durga in Tribanga – Adi Varaha cave.
So the chronology should be Draupadi/Varaha/Singavaram/Adi Varaha. Do you agree?
Surely Singavaram must find its place in the must visit list of the tourist and pious alike.
Images: Mr Ashok Krishnaswamy, Mr Arvind Venkataraman and Mr. Saurabh Saxena