If ever there was super pillar contest

Its the season for contest and ….Got talent shows. These shows are filled with lots of talent and lots more glitz where the participants are pitched against one another and in a sequence of exponentially increasing odds they perform mind blowing feats to arrive at the prized price. Today we are going to see a similar contest but among sculptors – in stone. The stage is the famed Nellaiappar Temple of Tirunelveli. For the record, Me and Arvind went in without much expectations hoping to be outside in time for the famed Iruttukadai shop to open !

The raised platform with a distinctly post 15th C doorguardians ( I know I know – the nucleus of the temple is dated to 7th C CE..but) didn’t evoke much of a response, initially at least.

For as we went around to the steps, the sight blew us away.

The entire block is carved out of a monolithic stone, with the doorguardian in front and an extremely complex array of pillars of differing thickness in the back, and that was not all. Row after row of astounding pillars lined up as if for inspection in a guard of honor.

To top it, these were the famed musical pillars !! each producing a distinct note ( that they have survived so long with every visitor trying to show their musical prowess on them itself is worth an applause ) , but the sheer labour that went into these stumped us.

When we say massive, we mean it. Not convinced, take a look.

and by massive, it doesn’t just mean gargantuan size alone. Take a look at the art on display !

This is not some trick sculpting, if you do not believe that its all carved out of a single block of stone. Take another look. The grain of the stone runs right through the different pillars.

There were a few more pillar clusters which seemed a bit easier on the chest and breathing ( with all the wows and ooh and aahs)


But, as in an expert rendition of carnatic music, we did not realise that the sculptor had lulled us into a false sense of mediocrity, to think that this was ordinary compared to the rest – but then, he had one or two more tricks to show us.

Watch closely towards the base. do you spot it?

Yes, when he was busy reducing the rock, he had left enough material to carve a ball inside the pillar, so designed that it cannot roll out ( also means it was not introduced later !!)

Well, i said a trick or two !! test your spotting skills

Did you spot it?

Yes, hewing a composite multiple fluted pillar that would emanate different musical notes while shaping a solid stone ball was not challenging enough for him – he sculpted a stone squirrel as well on the inside of one of the pillars.

22 thoughts on “If ever there was super pillar contest

  1. that really is amazing. Do they let you test the musical pillars? Play a tune?
    It’s a little like building a ship in a bottle, I think. Love the squirrel!

  2. அற்புதம், பிரமிப்புத்தான் உண்மையில். அந்த சிற்பிக்கு எத்தனை கொடுத்தாலும் தகும். எப்படிப் பட்ட கலைஞர்கள் இருந்திருக்கிறார்கள் இந்தத் தமிழகத்தில்? நெல்லைக்குச் சென்றும் இதைக் காணாமல் வந்தது பற்றி இப்போது வருத்தம்தான்.

  3. As usual, very nice article Vijay, thanks for all your blogs with so much information. Is there any name for the stones that make these different metalic sound? We used to have an old Chola temple in a neighbouring village(Kandirathirtham, near Thiru Mazhapaadi)) with statues that make different sound on different parts of it’s body.


  4. அன்பு நண்புர் விஐய்,
    நாம் பார்க்கும் தூண்களின் காலம் சுமார் பதினைந்தாம் நூற்றாண்டு / அதற்கு மேல் என்று குறிப்பிட்டு விட்டு, அதை கட்டிய அரசுர்கள் பெயர் குறிபிடாதது சற்று ஏமாற்றமாகவுள்ளது. தயை செய்து பெயர் குறிபிடுங்கள்-Ayyampet Balachandran.

  5. அன்பு நண்புர் விஐய்,
    நாம் பார்க்கும் தூண்களின் காலம் சுமார் பதினைந்தாம் நூற்றாண்டு / அதற்கு மேல் என்று குறிப்பிட்டு விட்டு, அதை கட்டிய அரசர்கள் பெயர் குறிபிடாதது சற்று ஏமாற்றமாகவுள்ளது. தயை செய்து பெயர் குறிபிடுங்கள்-Ayyampet Balachandran.

  6. அரு​மை அரு​மை! தூண்களும் அரு​மை, அ​தை நீங்கள் எடுத்துக் காட்டிய விதமும் மிக அரு​மை!!!

  7. நானும் போனேன் ஆனால் அனில் பார்க்கலையே !!! Awesome post…yep the pillars are astounding there 🙂

  8. Dear Chris,

    Quote from” Indian sculpture n iconography – by Sri Ganapthy stapathi” – Stones of good quality, without blemish, may be quarried from mountains, picked up near the sea, near river beds, in sacred spots, in forests, near temples, or near teans. Stones with white or golden streaks are auspicious. It is essential that the stone has resonance: non- resonant stones should be totally discarded. Stones which emit a long, deep sound like that of a bell are known as male stones or aan silai, and this kind is used for making the linga nala. Stones which have a long vibration like that of a brass vessel are called female stones or penn silai, and these may be used for making the shakti part or the pedestal ( avaudaiyar) below the lingam. Stones that are crude and uneven, with little resonance, are called neutral stones or ali silai. These may be used only to make the lowest part of the lingam known as adara silai or Brahma silai. This Brahma silai encloses the Brahma bhagam of the Lingam which is set under the level of avudaiyar, at the floor level of the sanctum. In case neutral stones are not available, the entire lingam, including the Brahma silai can be made of male and female stones”.

    So the resonance of stones was an essential part of selection process not only of the material but also the subject to be carved. The musical pillars are an extension of this tradition where the inherent quality of the stone are enhanced by their metrics.


  9. dear Balachandran,

    The core sanctum has been sung – so the popular version is to date the whole complex to the 7th C CE. There are inscriptions ( chola?) between the 10th and 12th C CE around the sanctum. But the pillar styling and design was a trend that did not exist in that period. The earliest date would be around 1560 which would give it Nayak patronage.


  10. Wonderful! I didn’t notice the balls or the squirrel (weren’t pointed out by our guide), when I saw these five years ago. Interestingly each set of pillars has a different instrument carved on it, and the each set of pillars sound out the sa ri ga ma pa da ni of that instrument. I could hear the variation in the dhvani, but the rest may be a factor of imagination. These musical pillars are common in Vijayanagar temples, including the Vithala temple in Hampi (which you’re not allowed to tap).

  11. அன்பு நண்புர் விஐய்,
    மிக்க நன்றி.உடனடியாக தூண்களின் காலம் பற்றிய விவரமளிதற்கு-Ayyampet Balachandran.

  12. The design on these pillars are very similar to the ones I have seen in Hampi (vittala temple) and in Tirupathi (inner most prakara).
    Am I right in concluding that these pillars must be attributed to vijayanagar sculptors (or Nayak Patrons) ? Also did you check to see if there is a hollow tunnel running all the way to the top to the pillar, maybe the ball was dropped into. 🙂

  13. hi Prasad,

    True, defn not assignable to 7th C CE and to Neduseer Pandian as commonly quoted on the net. Btw, on the ball – this is also a favorite trick – we see it in Perur ( was there not there now) and even in one of the Yaali’s in Krishanpuram – called Uruli. To answer urs – the pillars are monolith and top and bottom are single piece – no way to introduce a stone ball from anywhere


  14. எசமான் ஒரு வளியா எங்கூரு பக்கம் பாக்க ஆரமிச்சிருக்காக; நெம்ப சந்தோசம்


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *