The first ever depiction of Nataraja in stone in South India – Seeyamangalam – Avanibaajana Pallaweshwaram

On the mahendra trail. ( some disjointed conversations – mostly as it is but some are imagination)

Saturday 8.45 AM. Somewhere in a dusty road from Dindivanam to Vanthavaasi.

Chandru : Is this the right way. Let me check, pull over please. Hey, is this the route to seeyamangalam
Villager: you took the wrong turn on the bridge
Driver: Oh, we will turn back

Venkatesh: hey, there is the Bridge. Go straight
Chandru: There there, you can see the ASI board.

Anonymous: Guys, can you pull over for a minute, need to relieve myself.
Gang: Me too, pull over. There by the shade of the big tree.

Ragothaman: are you guys done, we got to hurry. ( satheesh got a flight to catch)
Vj: Satheesh, can you pass me that packet of Grant sweets savories. Roasted masala peanuts, wow, send that to the front as well.

Narayanaswamy: small village coming up, lets check if we are on the right route
Chandru: Hello, is this the way to the cave temple.
Village lady: Take this path, turn right and then head straight. YOU DON’T HAVE TO ASK ANYONE !!!
Chandru: thanks, take that turn

Venkatesh: hey, there is a hillock
Gang: where? Where?
Satheesh: But the road is leading away from the hills !
Chandru: Yes, lets check again, pull over by that man. Hey, cave temple…
Villager: Oh, you passed it
Driver: But we came that way only.
Villager: you took wrong turn, keep to your right just after the village
Driver: ok, just see the back, am reversing. ( very small mud road for an Innova car)

Chandru: Take that exit.
Vijay: yeah yeah, that look like headed in the right direction

Chandru: Atlast we are there

Vj: But sir, we came to see Mahendra Pallava cave temple, the first every relief sculpture of dancing Shiva as Nataraja ! But this one is a full fledged structural temple with towers ( Gopurams and Vimaanams)

Chandru: The cave is the nucleus of the temple – its Mahendra’s and he named it Avanibaajana Palleswaram. Later kings built the structures around the main cave shrine.
Vj: oh, ok ok. Understood. But not a soul in sight….

Venkatesh: come come, lets go
Vj: Hi venkatesh, fancy hat a la indiana jones, after some treasure is it.
Venkatesh: No sir, this is my favorite hat, picked it on a trip to srilanka!!! Hey someone is coming towards us..

ASI staff: Hello
Chandru: Hello, morning
Vj: Hello, we want to go inside, we have come from very far!!!
ASI: sir, you can view everywhere, but the main shrine is locked. The key is not with me, its with the priest. You can peep through this key hole for a view.

Vj: hello, we have come from very far to see the main cave shrine only. We know Mr ########### and Mr. ###########, do you want me to call them over phone to give you instructions!
ASI: Sir, I will give you the priests handphone number Sir. You can try Sir. Sir, You are dropping all VIP names sir !! ( count the number of sirs now)
Vj: give the number, we are all very eager.

Tring tring: hello, we are at the temple. We are large group, can you come.

Vj: Guys, good news, says he will be here in 5 min, lets go around meantime and see the others.

Vj: Chandru sir, why did Mahendra Pallava choose such a god forsaken sorry desolate place for this excavation.
Chandru: good question vj, don’t have the right answer, but one common feature of all Mahendra cave sites are a small hillock near a water body. Maybe the serene atmosphere inspired him.
Vj: oh, where is the water body in this case
Chandru: there, you can see. Since its not rainy season, not much water. You climb that rock , you will get a better view
Vj: Hmm, whats that sir, a very lovely small shrine on top of that rock.

Chandru: It’s a later construction. Shrine of Lord Muruga. Care full while you climb!!
Vj: wow, rock cut steps ( after climbing half way only the steep nature of the climb dawned on me)

Ashok; Hey vj, I am also coming up
Chandru: in rainy season, this would be filled with water. Can you see that pillar like stone in the centre of the lake bed. It would look like a shiv linga standing on the water surface. Did you know that the main diety of this temple is called Thoonaandavar ( pillar god) – some works suggests that it could be this stone pillar that gave it its name !!!

Vj: Wow, what a sight. Careful guys, its slipper especially while you get down – don’t trust my knees, better to slide down – wearing jeans anyway. Don’t laugh guys, let me see your courage and style when you attempt to get down. Hmm.

Ragothaman: lets go around the main shrine. There are some culverts here,
Satheesh: Vj, come here, remember your post on the rock cutting techniques in mallai. See similar holes are found here.
Vj: wow, lets take a few photos. Wait, let me put something against it to give our readers a sense of its relative size.
Nothing handy, here let me put my inhaler !!

Chandru: Hey, here comes the priest. Lets go in

Goat Herd: Hello sirs, where are you from. Did you see the damage to the vimaana – the yaali on one side was struck by lightning. We are asking everyone to help to repair it, but no one is coming forward !!

Ashok: Oh, when did the lighting strike….

Priest: Here sir, let me open it

Chandru: See how the later Mandabams are plush against the rock surface.

Satheesh: Its pretty dark in here
Priest: Its much better now sir, earlier it used to pitch dark and lots of snakes as well. I used to let a mongoose inside first to check. They removed the outer roof and redid it. Now we get some light and air, but along with it dampness as well !!

Vj: Chandru sir, even this hall pillars are not Mahendra style ( what is mahendra style ….we will carry a separate series on that)
Chandru: Wait vj, the main cave is still further ahead.
Vj: hey, there, I can see a Mahendra pillar

ASI: sir, no photography
Vj: Hey, we wont take pictures of the main shrine. We want to take only the outer sculptures, pillars etc. please. We know Mr. ###########
ASI; hmmm

Satheesh: vj, come here. There are more sculptures here. Look on top, there is a Makara thorana. There is a Gana riding the mythical beast as well.

Vj: One minute, did you notice the right side door guardian’s head dress. He has horns but….( we will discuss this later as well)

Chandru: do you see the designs on the pillars.

Vj: wow, the majestic lions. They have started fluting the pillar capitals as well ( so, we there pillars without these earlier. To be discussed in subsequent posts )

Narayanswami: Guys, see these sculptures on the two sides
Vj: Satheesh, the book you borrowed from Sps sir, Dr Kalaikkovan’s Mahendra Kudavaraigal, can you check. Looks like two guys with fly wisks

Satheesh: These are listed as Amalaiyar
Vj: What is that !! Got to check. See those waiting ladies as well with flower baskets

Ragothaman: Chandru sir, there is an inscription on this pillar, but doesn’t look like tamil.
Chandru: Its Pallava Grantam. It’s Mahendra pallava’s inscription.

Vj: great, satheesh see if the reference is there in the book
Satheesh: Oh, yes, let me read it

This temple called avani baajana was raised by lalitanguran through his good deeds like ornaments in a jewel box.

Vj: great, 1300 year old verses singing the praise of Mahendra
Ragothaman: There are more inscriptions on this side of the pillar but in a different font
Chandru: They are tamil verses of later pallava kings – Danti varama and nandhi varma
Here see this pillaster to the right. Here is the famous dance pose – the first ever dancing pose of shiva ie shiva as Nataraja in stone in south india, on the same position of the left you can see shiva, Parvathi with nandhi. Can we request the priest to show camphor here
Ashok: Hang on, here I come as well

ALL QUIET….as we take in the spectacular sight

We will discuss each of these sculptures in depth in coming weeks as well as the other caves on the trail.

Picture courtesy: all friends on the tour, and Chandru sir/Swaminathan sir earlier – first tour. Special thanks to Sps sir, Chandru sir and Swaminathan sir for making this trail possible

Ragothaman, Satheesh,Venkatesh, Chandru sir, Ashok and myself
Ref: Sri K.R. Srinivasan – Cave temples of the Pallavas, Dr KKN’s Mahendra Kudavaraigal ( tamil)

28 thoughts on “The first ever depiction of Nataraja in stone in South India – Seeyamangalam – Avanibaajana Pallaweshwaram

  1. அன்புள்ள விஜய் புதுமையான முயற்சி
    உங்களுடன் இப்பயணத்துக்கு வந்த அனைவருக்கும் வணக்கம்

    மிக நன்றாக இருக்கிறது
    இருட்டில் இருந்து வெளிச்சத்துக்கு கொண்டு வந்திருக்கிறீர்கள்


  2. The 5th photo from below : The name of Siva is Vrushapanthigar. No other cave temples have a sculpture like this (as far as I know). And the name of Main Deity is Thambeswarar.The inscription on the left pillar belongs to Nandi Varman II(731-796AD). Happy to see the photos of sculptures in colour which I have taken in B&W long ago. There are many cave temples in that area. Try to capture them, please.

  3. conversation format ரொம்ப நல்லா இருக்கு… எனக்கும் இது குடவரை கோயில் முதல் பயணம் தான்!! 🙂

  4. எல்லாம் சரி, அது என்ன கடைசி foto-வில “உங்கள் விஜய்” — ? ? எதுக்கு இந்த வெளம்பரம் ??

  5. எளிமையான வர்ணனை.. பலமான சிற்பங்கள். சீயமங்கலம் போன்ற குகைக்கோயில் சிற்பங்கள் பார்க்க ஒருநாள் போதுமா.. கல்லினால் செதுக்கப்பட்ட நடராசரைப் பார்க்கவே ஒருநாள் தேவைப் படும். மத்தளம் அடிக்கும் சிவகணம் அவர் நந்தியாரா? பாம்பு ஒன்று அழகாக படம் எடுத்து ஆடுகின்றது.. வலதுகைப் பக்கத்தில் இன்னொரு சிவகணம் ஆனந்தத்தில்..

    அசத்தி விட்டீர்கள். உங்கள் எங்கள் விஜய் இல்லை நீங்கள்.. ‘நம்’ விஜய்.



  6. Excellent discovery of architechural marvels. Wish i could have joined you ashok in this adventure, Beautiful reproduction of the sculptures. Good work. Best wishes to continue the same.

  7. Ah Vj,

    not just a typical and stupendous effort from you.

    You did me (among scores of other visitors to this site) an unforgettable favour by taking through this peerless structure.

    One doubt from the comments above… in your convos you mention that the inscription is in Pallava Tamil or Pallava Grantha and the same are from Mahendra or in praise of Mahendravarma Pallavan. But there is another comment (in the comment column) that the inscription belongs to Nandivarman II Pallavan and is of 731-736 AD antiquity. Could you pls. clear the confusion either by posting a reply here or enlightening me on gmail-chat?

    In any case, a beautiful, beautiful temple. Can you also tell me if the two gopurams pictured are the original creations of the Pallavas. Of course from your last photograph (of the group including you), the gopuram to the left is so typically Pallava is it not? it takes us back to Kudumiyanmalai and Thirumayyam in that the left gopurak seems to magically and miraculously sprout out of the mountain, is it not…. I think you should try to get similar closeups, if possible from the existing photographs.. I think they will make tremendous pictures.

    What do you say VJ? But a million thanks all the same.

  8. சீயமங்கலம் குடவரைக் கோயில் பற்றியும், நடராஜரின் முதல் சிற்பம் பற்றியும் இன்று வரை கேட்டதில்லை. அரிய முயற்சி. வெளிக்கொண்டு வந்ததுக்கு பாராட்டுகள். இதன் தொடர்பான மற்ற விளக்கங்களுக்குக் காத்திருக்கிறேன்.

  9. Hi Vamsee, tks.

    Lakshmi -bang on – copied vamsee style

    Theni sir, car was already overflowing…!! count me as two count

    Viswak sir, i checked again in Mahendra Kudavaraigal Book – the granta verse is referring to Lalithanguran ( pl see the tamil version of the post for actual inscription). ofcourse there are two more tamil culverts which are mentioned belonging to danti and nandhi varman.

    Narayanaswamy sir and Venkatesh – yes, it was a pleasant trip and memories etched in

    narsi – sir, please dont call these discoveries. we are just presenting them in a format which is easy on the net

    thiru sir, ungal vijay was not meant to be promotion, more a personal association with my loving readers.

    Cheenu, the gopurams and vimanams are later additions. there are lot many inscriptions in the structure – right from cholas ( madurai konda parakesari) – surprisingly there are three inscriptions of Aditya Karikala ( very rare) and a few of Raja raja as well, Kulottuga II, Pandyas ( Maravarman Vikrama Pandian) to Vijayanagara times ( Kambana Udayar).

    Geetha amma, thanks, yes a detailed post will follow on the sculptural beauties.


  10. விஜய்,
    புதுமையான பதிவு poteryinstone-ல். கலக்கிட்டீங்க. இருபத்தேழு நாட்கள் சென்றுவிட்டன இருந்தும் அருமையாக நினைவில் வைத்து எழுதியுள்ளீர்கள்.
    சூப்பர், அப்படியே மற்ற குடைவரைகளையும் எழுதுவீர்களல்லவா…

  11. விஜய், அற்புதம். உங்களுடைய புதுமையான இடுகை முறை அருமை. முக்கியமா #### @@@@ !

  12. Interesting entry Vj. The photos are all amazing, I really regret missing the trip. Love the way the photos pop up when clicked on them. I have seen this technique before, but it fits perfect to the site.

  13. Vijay:

    Nicely written!

    N.Srininvasan has written, “… the gopuram to the left is so typically Pallava is it not? it takes us back to Kudumiyanmalai and Thirumayyam in that the left gopuram seems to magically and miraculously sprout out of the mountain, is it not….. ” Any similariteies here must be a coincidence, as the Kuduiyanmalai and the Thirumayyam temples were of Pandya oringin and Thirumayyam pre-dates the earliest Pallave cave (Mandagappattu) by at least 150 years.

  14. Ah, I noticed Chandru’s comments just now.

    Hmm.. Thanks for confirming that Thirumayyam is older than Mangadapattu… but I thought that the structures at Thirumayyam, Namakkal (I mean the Ranganathar panel, with both the God, the Demons and the accompanying sculptures) look typically Pallava.. though for the longest period the Pudukottai-Karaikkudi region was under Pandiya control (Thirumayyam Vishnu temple is typically called a Pandiya Nattu Divya Desam only – but I entertain a genuine doubt that if at all Thirumayyam in its entirety was a Pandiya creation). Sure the nearby Vettuvan koil is a Pandiya creation.. lot of sculptures like Rathi Manmadan, Kuravan Kuratti plus the Swambhoo of Satyamurti perumal at Thirumayyam are certainly Pandiya creations/ contributions.. but I think the Azhagiya Meyyar, Ranganatha Panel at Thirumayyam is certainly Pallava for its them is so similar to (first) Namakkal, and then the Anantasyayi at Mallai Rathas…

    Kindly educate me more both dear Chandru and VJ.


  15. One more thing friends… Certainly, I don’t doubt the antiquity of Thirumayyam panel (at least the Anantasyayi panel) simply because in the Vaishnava (Iyengar parlance).. Thirumayyam as a religious shrine is considered older than the Srirangam temple… which itself is (only as per legends) is considered a creation of Chola Nedumili or Kilivalavan of the BC era!!!!!!!!!!!!

  16. yes Vj..

    pls. change the title or name of the place to Aavanibhaja Pallaveswaram or Avanabhaja Pallawesvaram… Palleswaram does not sound good at all… it seems we are talking about the Tooth (Palle) God (eswaram) .. ha ha ha…

  17. Earlier Dvarapalaka than Thirumayam? how I love this early sculpture!
    Anyway, reminds me of travelling all day to Deogarh [DasavataraMandir, that masterpiece] from Bhopal, then having someone come running at me: ‘no photo, no photo.’ Also sculpture shed was locked, key at AIIS in Delhi!
    What a disappointment.

  18. I just noticed the title… It is actually AVANI-BHAJANA PALLAWESHWARAM.

    You may be right on the antiquity of the caves.. Pillayarpatti is certainly older than Mandagappattu. Thirumayam is probably later. The Namakkal caves are certainly Pandya, not Pallava. It is a fact that the Pandyas have excavated more cave temples than the Pallavas. In fact they started excavating cave temples before the Pallavas and this activity went on even after the decline of the Pallava empire.

  19. hi kathie,

    Yes – actually a long pending task ( was actually waiting for a photo of teh right door guardian from vallam mahendra cave) – the so called `horned’ door guardian is a topic on its own.

    mr chandru, thanks, have corrected. thanks for sharing the info on tirumayam and namakkal. looking forward to hearing more from you

    best rgds

  20. How do the Muttaraiyars of Sendalai fit into
    all this? Aren’t they in the Pudukkottai area, too? I get really confused about who built what.

  21. மிக்கவும் மகிழ்ச்சியாக இருக்கிறது தங்களது தளம் மற்றும் சார்ந்த விசயங்கள்.. பொதுவாக யாரும் முயற்ச்சி செய்யாத புதுவகையில் நீங்கள் புகைப்படங்களுடன் விவரித்திருக்கிறவிதம் மிகவும் அருமை. என்னுள்ளும் எப்போதும் அலைந்துகொண்டிருக்கும் எண்ணம் இதுகூட.. கோயில், சிற்ப்பம் இவை எப்பொழுதும் நினைத்தவுடன் சிலிர்ப்பூட்டுகிறது.. வாழ்த்துக்கள்..


  22. Hi,

    Me and my friends are planning to visit Seeyamangallam. We are very interested and eager to visit that place. Can you please provide us the sami Aadu Maiyappan’s contact number, so that we can contact him. Thanks in advance.

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