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)