My first discovery !cracking the puzzle of 3 Somaskanda panels

Friends, it gives me immense pleasure in presenting one of very first discoveries which sees the light of day today. Though this occurred more by chance and had found this about two years ago, at that time i had nurtured hopes of publishing it as a research paper in some academic journal. Its only later that i realised how complicated such pursuits are and also the fact that but for the emotional high such a recognition would garner, its reach would be very much limited to a select few. However,today thanks to you all, my dearest extended family and the internet, poetryinstone shall deliver this baby after a gestation of over two years.

I had wanted to write about the Pallava’s contribution to evolution of iconography as a series – and started with the Mahendra trail. We did see some interesting developments in cave architecture, like the nataraja icon. But as we study later Pallava structures, we cant but miss some of their signature contributions, namely the Somaskanda, Gangadhara and Mahishasura Mardhini. The Pallava Somaskanda is such a signature piece occupying almost every rear wall of their main shrines, that its hard to miss them.

But this article is not about the normal Somaskanda panel in the rear of the Garba Graham ( sanctum sanctorum ) but a very unique puzzle of not one but three panels in the Atiranachanda Mandabam cave of the Saluvankuppam complex. The cave itself is a puzzle of gigantic proportions and many scholars have discussed it.

Just to run through it would mean to point out to viewers that the basic cave and pillar designs are very early Pallava period, while inscriptionally ( on both the sides there are running verses which you can touch and feel the passing of time in front of you) Rajasimha Pallava claims to have constructed this temple for Siva. He calls it Atiranacanda Pallavesvaragram, after one of his many fancy titles Atiranacanda ( Ati – great, rana – battlefield, chanda – expert – thanks to swaminathan sir))

Would suggest below article of Dr. Nagaswamy for readers who want to see the sheer labour of such geniuses.

It would be worthwhile for readers to compare the facade of the Atiranachanda with earlier structures we saw on the Mahendra trail. But that is the subject for another post and study.

We come back to what is to me a very great discovery, the subject of this post. To bring you upto date with the basics, what exactly is this Somaskanda. Literally it means ` with Uma and Skanda’ meaning ( Sou – with, Uma – Parvathi and skanda – Muruga) Shiva with his consort and son. ( why only one son!!, well that is another controversy which we briefly touched upon in the post ` There are no Ganesha images in mallai’.

Since Pallava’s ` claim’ to have been the first to start building temples of stone ( or atleast without using lime, mortar, metal , brick or wood – mandagapttu [post! )…the early structures had predominantly an empty central shrine with the diety crafted in wood in a panel at the back. But slowly they realised that the wooden deities perished in no time, they tried crafting them in lime and mortar. But then as their confidence in working in stone grew, they graduated slowly to reliefs and then to sculpture. They replicated the wooden panels in stone sculpting them directly onto the rear wall. Thus was born one of the cutest forms of the divine family, with shiva seated ( sometimes on Nandhi) on the right and Parvathi on the left with baby skanda initially on her lap (There are many variants to this form and Dr Gift Siromomony paper below postulates a new theory !!)

The cholas later went on with the theme to craft some beautiful bronze somaskandas.

Back to Atiranacanda Pallavesvaragram, not many realise that the structures we see today in Mallai, were submerged if not totally in sand before they were escavated in the late 18th C. ( by this I mean even the popular five rathas complex), but to understand this better take a look at this print ( thanks to the British Library Archives)

Compare to how it looks today.

Now, look closer, am highlighting the main areas for us to view.

We take quick peek into its corridor – on closer inspection you see two beautiful somaskanda panels on the walls. This is a great anomally since the somaskanda panel is almost always found inside the main scanctum sanctorum.

To understand this better, lets peep into the central shrine of the same cave. Do you notice the Shiva Linga and then the rear wall adorned with the Somaskanda panel.

Why then would the sculptors sculpt two additional panels in the outer corridor?

A chance photograph of the freshly escavated mandabam in the late 18th C, thanks again to the British Library Archives, provides us the vital clues.

There were two additional Shiva Lingas on the corridor and hence the sculptors had sculpted the panels on the walls behind them. This my friends is my first discovery!! call me an armchair or desktop archaeologist for that.

What happened to these lingas now?, even their bases don’t exist now. There are two free standing statues in the foreground, one a headless trunk of a seated deity and another a beautiful sculpture. They are not to be found now, just this small rubble on the outside!!

So now you know the answer to the puzzle of the 3 somaskandas, but throws lot more questions. If the structure was intact in the late 18th C, when and why the susequent vandalism.

A little known bas relief from Saluvankuppam

When we talked of the tiger caves in saluvankuppam, had mentioned that there are two more beauties in that cluster. They are the amazing bas relief sculpture of mahishasuramardhini and the Atiranachanda mandabam ( rock cut cave of Rajasimha having his lovely inscription) – we will visit the bas relief first.
Even seasoned visitors to Mahabalipuram would mostly miss the attractions of saluvankuppam. Even those that do venture, would miss this seemingly innocuous looking stone. Just in front of the rock cut madabam is this piece of living rock.
You got to go around to see the handiwork of the pallava sculpture, who has transformed this insignificant piece of rock outcrop into a work of art. These pictures would give you an idea to its location and ensure you don’t miss this pint size masterpiece on future visits.
The large mahisha panel in mallai serves as a nice comparison for us to view this piece. Lets look at the main characters side by side in order to infer more. In the mallai panel the devi is in all her glory on her lion vehicle engaged in battle with her 8 hands.


The demon too is standing up and giving fight with his massive mace. Whereas in the saluvankuppam panel – he is down on his knees, the devi too is in the process of dismounting from her vehicle, with one leg gracefully off the saddle. The demon looks wasted, with nostrils flayed and hands raised in a kind of let me go pose.

Thus this is the sequel to the mallai panel.

Tiger Caves

Lot of locals miss an important site just off mahabalipuram…so spare the tourist…..its another great treat left behind by the illustrious Rajasimha Pallava…its just about a km before you enter mallai town to your left….you can see the ASI board…yes there are still excavations going on……..


seemingly simple…but deceptive..calmly nestled between gently swaying palm fronds and the beach sand….lulled by the sound of the waves….you are at saluvankuppam. There are 3 important sites for us to see here…We will visit all three in separate posts…


The tiger caves is an impressive structure….from the back its a simple rock…but that was not how the pallava sculptor visualised it…..walk around and you are stuck for words…a lovely grandstand…capped by 11 massive yaazhi’s ( yes the tiger or more closely lion is also a misnomer..if you watch carefully you will see the delightfully carved horns of these magnificent beasts)….


To truely appreciate this you got to get an idea of the gross dimensions…ok, time for me to peep in…now the ugly looking person is me…all 100 kgs….now does that give you an indication of the massiveness of this entire composition…


The stage is slightly offcentre as you see two mounted elephants to one side…in straight profile. the stage iself is capped by a set of prancing lions … a rajasimha trade mark



the identity of the riders is a not known as nature has taken its toll…you can vaguely make out just the outlines….yes we did manage to climb upto to the elephants and take a couple of shots of the rider housed inside the howdah…quite dangerous as there are no proper footholds….


ok, you are hiking up a 1300 year old pallava sculpture….where else in the world can you touch and feel such a artifact..the danger is multiplied by the fact that the audience section of the stage is set into the floor like a pond and collects rain water….so you are risking a bath in a muddled pool as well.


what a magnificent spectacle…such massive work on hard granite…and 1300 years of wind, sea …man…yet these have retained their beauty…magnificent proportions..a living tribute to the mastery of the sculptor..