Mallai Trimurthi cave – a puzzle

An interesting sculpture chat !! ( Thanks to N for allowing me to post bulk of the conversation with some minor enhancements)

N: Hi vj, visited Mallai yesterday

Me: just seeing ur album, thanks for the credits.

N: Please do put in your comments to the photos

me: will do. a trick question for u, since you have posted the trimurthi mandabam photos, can you identify the deities in each of the 3 shrines

N: Brahma vishnu shiva

me: hahaha, pl look carefully and confirm sir,if it were so easy would i ask you

N: hmmm

me: how do identify a deity inside a shrine. In pallava times, you use two methods, if the deity is present – look for its attributes, if not present try and see the attributes of the door guardians. since both are present, check each shrine for this

N: i want to use Friend Help :-/ Can u tell me

Me: no sir, u try first, its important – for you to spend some time viewing

N: the middle one is shiva, where the linga is

me: s, you can see the Axe of shiva in his right hand. The left hand seems to be holding a rosary. The Linga seems to be a later implant !!

N: the lady outside is Mahishasuramardhini

me: s, Durga. The ornate work on top of her is spectacular

N: the god with tall crown is vishnu
The other is one is Brahma

me: hmm, Vishnu is simple – you can see the conch and discus. how do you say the other is brahma

N: Trinity is completed by Brahma .. That is y thrimurthi isnt it VJ

me: haha, mallai is full of puzzles. What is the most characteristic feature of brahma images?

N: 3 heads

me: can you see 3 there

N: no

me: what is the right door guardian holding in his hand ( left hand)

N: Not Clear

me: do you notice anything unique in the dress of the inner deity

N: X shaped belts

me: have u seen this anywhere for brahma??

N: and kind of lion cloth, No … i didnt

me: do you notice anything different about the crown

N: it has kind of horn

me: i think i can make this chat conversation into a post by itself

N: what is the peculiarity, tell me Vj

me: can i make this as a post, this chat conversation?

N: Yes
But dont disclose my name B-) 😉

me: N, doesnt disclose right!!

N: Yes, i dont want extra fame 😉 it is pointed in form

me: haha, the right door guardian is holding a Shruk(a long handled laddle)used for pouring ghee in a sacrificial fire, connected to vedic sacrifice /ritual. The left holds a flower /bud. So the assumption of yours – that is denotes brahma is partly correct.The door guardians are rishis, elderly men with beards, all go well with the brahma concept, but inside the deity is not bearded, but a young one

N: yes, Tell me

me: further the conical head dress, the x belts – are features of a warrior god who is said to have taught the vedas to brahma

N: Skanda

me: Can you look closely at the photos and see what the two flying ganas are holding?

me: its skanda – in his brahma sasta form

N: brahma sasta form means

Me: I am no expert, but this wonderful article and photos will clarify the head dress and the X pattern.

Murugan research article – all credits to the site

“The deity is shown wearing a short conical basket-like head-gear (karanda-makuta) with a thick giralet of flowers (kannl) around the base. According to ancient Tamil tradition, kannl was the attribute of the warrior.8 The deity also wears the double shoulder-string (channavīra), another attribute of the warrior. Both the attributes, found mostly in the earlier sculpture of the Pallava period, emphasise the fact that Murukan was essentially a warrior-god. “

The site listed above is a fantastic resource of Skanda/Muruga and would recommend a serious read for everyone.

Paradise regained – Tanjore Big temple Moat figurines

Who e’re while the happy Garden sung,
By one mans disobedience lost, now sing
Recover’d Paradise to all mankind,….

goes John Milton in the opening lines of Paradise regained. This is how i feel now. After the previous post, which was in the lines of Paradise Lost, harboring absolutely no hope of even spotting this moat sculptures which we saw in the antique snaps.

But Sri Selvaraj our reader, immediately recognised the figurines – he was absolutely certain that he had seen them 40 years back and promised to trace them out, despite the heavy encroachments surrounding it now. But inorder to build the tension the recent unabated rains did’nt allow immediate access.

However,today, as promised he produced possibly one of the most rewarding mails to me. The photos of the sculptures and that they are still safe in the walls exactly as captured in the century old pictures. Here they are.

Feel so happy, truly paradise regained !!

Later Pallava Doorguardians – Mathangeshwara Kanchi

To continue the thread on the Door guardians – we proceed today to a very innocuous looking temple lost midst all the developments in Kanchi. Arvind had a tough time spotting this temple and many thanks again for his untiring efforts to get us these images from the shrine – The Mathangeshwara Temple ( will feature its twin the Mukteshwara shortly as well).

The dating of this temple is not clear and we will discuss that more once we see Mukteshwara as well, however, stylistically it placed between CE 700 – 800 – in the reign of Nandhivaraman II Pallavamalla. A king with a very interesting ascension, rule n exile – who inspired the Nandhikalambagam to be sung in his praise.

Without diverting from our focus, lets step inside.

The lion pillars are obstructing our view of the door guardians.

how do they compare with the early Pallava door guardians – Mahendra style? They do look a lot more terrifying – the earlier ones had a mocking look on them. See for yourself.




We need to study Mathangeshwara more closely.

Left door guardian

The Horns seem a bit more horn and less prongs of a trident ( can’t spot the centre spoke !)

Right door guardian

Is this a variation of the Axe blade – earlier it was vertical and here it seems a horizontal blade !

The most important variation however is the additional two hands – both the door guardians are four armed.

So now comes the trichy question – Vikramaditya II invaded Kanchi around 745 AD, got inspired by Kailasantha Temple, took back the chief sculptors and went about building temples in Pattadakkal. The horns / trident were certainly Pallava features, but what about the additional set of hands of the door guardians ? Was it a Pallava variant or a Chalukyan Variant that reverse flowed into Pallava styling. For that we need to study the Mathangeshwara Icons ( including its twin Mukteshwara ) for stylistic dating comparing with say the Vaikunta Perumal temple – where we have clear timelines established.

A Chalukyan “Horned” door guardian – Pattadakkal

Door guardians are the least noticed even today and no exceptions for these mighty but neglected gentlemen and ladies in sculpture – infact it pains me to see men made to stand like statues in popular resorts mocking them !. They are a eclectic mix of emotion and styles and they are dear to me ( as to a few friends who helped this post come up). So was surprised when i came across a book reference in another book – what struck me was the title of the book – THE CULT OF WEAPONS. THE ICONOGRAPHY OF AYUDHA PURUSHAS, by Sri. V. R Mani.

We had been discussing door guardians and horned door guardians and its been my wish to bring out a dedicated series on them, so we rushed to grab a copy (me, satheesh and Arvind) – It was not a large book ( was a bit disappointed) – for if you leave out the plates, bibliography – it was just 45 pages. But the book more than made up for its lack of volume with quality of content. One particular focus on a Chalukyan door guardian, from Pattadakkal, caught my eye. We had earlier carried a series on the Pallava horned door guardians based on an article by Dr. Gift Siromoney, which was more like a theory or a postulate – saying the door guardians could be the personifications of the weapons – ayudha purushas. But this sculpture, a beauty at that, leaves us in no doubt. ( Thanks Kathie – cant imagine what i would do without your help for the image!!)

A very very splendid relaxed stance, leaning slightly to his right, bending his right leg and balancing his weight on his club / mace. The snake on the mace is lively as well.

lets take a closer look at the head dress – our point of interest.

He is four armed ( early Pallava door guardians were two armed – reminds me to do a post on Arvind’s visit to Kanchi for later Pallava door guardians !) , what he holds in his upper right arm is not clear , but his upper left arm is holding his own attribute – a differently shaped trident or trishool. His lower hand postures are relaxed and go with the overall composition ( again, reminds me to do a series on the hand mudras !!). But the major find for us is the trident sculpted behind his crown!

However, this particular line in the book is a topic for further discussion.

” This depiction in addition to the trident held in his upper left hand, reveal his identity as trisulapurusha. The endowment of this new character to to the door guardian is a distinctly Chalukyan contribution to Hindu Iconography. In later examples from both Chalukyan areas and regions south of it , one can find the development of this tradition “

Now, no early pallava examples are studied in this work and the fact that Pattadakkal was constructed to honor the victory of Vikramadtya II over the Pallavas ( between CE 732 – 742 ), cast doubts on the above claim – and in most probability it was Mahendra, Mamalla and Rajasimha’s Pallava traditions that were worked on by the Chaluyan stylists – given the close stylistic resemblances to the Kanchi Kailansatha temple to the monuments in Pattadakkal, it must have been the same artist guild that was used ( taken ?) to construct them.

What do you say?

The moat around the Tanjore Big temple

The recent headlines for renovation of the moat around the Big temple in tanjore,
ASI submits Rs.1-crore proposal to renovate moat around Big Temple , took me back some years ago – when i had chanced on a very interesting antique photograph from the archives of the British Library.

The archives are a real treasure trove for enthusiasts. Since we are talking of the Moat around the temple complex, take a look at these rare captures in the late 1800’s and the early 1900’s ( photo courtesy – British Library Archives). Shows the moat still filled with water but the whole structure is in a bit of a mess.

But are we just going to see some antique photos today. No, of course there has to be some twist. the twist is this capture.

Dated to the year 1921, to be precise this is the description of the plate

Sawyer, Wilbur A. [Wall, moat, and outer gate tower of the Hindu temple at Thanjavur]. Photographic Print. 1 Image. [2 April 1921].

Look carefully, do you notice something.

There is a very very unusual object on the wall.

What is it, and where is it now !

Thanks to Rhoda for spotting one more ( adding now)

Part 2 of – An interesting Sculpture chat on some confusing sculptures

What an interesting exchange on the previous post ! forced me to put this part 2 of that debate.

Lets take a look at the sculpture under question again

Is the sculpture indeed that of Hanuman holding the Bana l

Arguments for:

The Bana lingam legend, the facial features.

Arguments against

No tail, presence of two ladies on both sides, presence of Vishnu’s attributes ( but this is not a clear case as Cheenu’s rightly pointed out there are instances !)

What other sculptures could it represent

Macha Avatar

But there is a matcha ( fish) avatar sculpture right next to this sculpture.

We had arguments for this image as well, but the depiction of the eyes and the typical mouth kind of settled the issue.

Lets see them in closeup again ( thanks Arvind once again)

Compare this macha avatar with the earlier sculpture, both can’t be the same for sure.

Varaha Avatar – Vishnu

A Definite possibility. Lets take a front depiction of Varaha from Ahobilam to compare.

The depiction of a spherical ( ok egg shaped) earth is not found in sculptures even upto 200 years after this representation. Take a look again, its too defined a sculpture for an artist to err in the shape ( for the finesse in carving the conch and the discus).


While, its definitely a case in point to the two ladies. We see all the avatars and even Brahma sporting such attendants or consorts.

Now, we come to this interesting sculpture. its Kurma ( Turtle) Avatar

Lets study its features more closely

There are some legends related with Vishnu seeking Shiva’s help ( Kachbeshwarar form). But is this and the original sculpture similar. Lets study the face features once more side by side.

Well definitely not the same – clear from the eyes especially. I tend to side the argument for Hanuman more based on these.

An interesting sculpture and how a little bit of vandalism can lead to confusions, yet some tell tale signs help assist in proper identification.

Hey,who is this. Except for the face, everything is Ganesha. But the face …Hmm, lets take a closer look

Stumped you. Well dont rake your brains yet, is this a composite Ganesha combined with Varaha / Hayagreevar ….

No my friends, take a closer look at the top left ( of the sculpture)

Its the broken trunk, with the tip holding his favorite modhakam. Just a case of part of the trunk being broken !! Its our darling Ganesha only.

An interesting Sculpture chat on some confusing sculptures

Friends, when we first introduced the chat widget in the site, it was more a tool to encourage more readers to participate ( since some were shy of leaving comments). Am sharing a interesting sculpture chat with a interesting follower of our site concerning some really confusing aka interesting sculptures and statues, and has the potential to raise a few eyebrows. So please feel free to share your comments and thoughts.

Name withheld to protect identity

voice 1: Hey, i came across your post on somnathpur in which you direct to another site for this photo

vj: sorry, which one please and may i know who i am chatting with ?

v1: Well i am ##### and am studying sculpture @…….. I am talking of the Hanuman holding the Bana Lingam sculpture from Somanthpur.

vj: Oh, Nice to hear. Yes, that one – was an interesting sculpture of Anand and he put this below note in his site.

A creative sculpture showing Hanuman with the baana lingam in his hand. He was asked to bring a shiva linga from the himalayas by Rama when they had to perform a pooja at Rameshwaram to clear the brahmahaththi dosham which had been caused due to killing of Ravana(a brahmin). Since it took a long time to get one and the auspicious time was nearing Rama and Sita devi made a lingam out of sand and started the pooja. When Anjaneya arrived he was sad to see that his efforts were fruitless. So lord Rama granted him a boon that thereafter, the lingam brought by Hanuman would be worshipped first and then only the bhaktas should worship his shivalingam. Thus there are 2 lingams in Rameshwaram till today and pooja is performed as directed by Lord Rama.”

v1: But as per my teacher, this sculpture is still a puzzle and cannot be clearly identified.

vj: Is it the Hanuman or the Lingam that he is holding. Take a look again at both ( Thanks Arvind for the closeups)

v1: Well, the confusion i think is due to the fact that he is holding the Conch and Discus.

vj: Why, its not uncommon to depict such.

v1: Is it so.

vj: Ok, let me ask you this way, have you been to the bronze exhibits at the chennai museum.

v1: Well not yet, we are going to study bronzes next.

vj: Ok, take a look at this bronze, Nandhi. ( thanks to flickr url given)

v1: Well, i understand what you are trying to say.

vj: But, let me confuse you more. Take a look at this stone sculpture from the Tanjore Big temple. ( thanks to arvind again !!)

v1: Oh, thats a stiff one.

vj: Yes, why is Hanuman shown as carrying the attributes of Shiva.

v1: You are not answering my question but posing more

vj: Ok, let me attempt to answer yours. Firstly, is the Somnathpur Sculpture Hanuman. Secondly, the legend of Hanuman bringing the Bana Lingam is popular and wouldn’t want to go into justifying legends.Thirdly, can vehicles or mounts carry attributes – Well you see Nandhi with the attributes of Shiva. Lastly, Hanuman is sung as a Avatar of Shiva and hence he is shown with his attributes !!

v1: Hmm, let me try explaining this to my teacher.

vj: Please note, we are novices with no formal training in art or sculpture. Just trying to explain and reason out with the information we have on hand. Dont get into trouble with your teacher arguing based on ours !!!