The mystery behind the horns of Pallava Door Guardians

Friends, i am writing about a man who changed the course my life’s pursuits. Its a tale of selfless service, the reach of the net, information sharing,knowledge assimilation, leaving a lasting impression on the generations to come. I read that Einstein once said ” If I have seen farther than others, it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants”, thereby acknowledging the contributions of the scholars before him.

To start with, i have never met this person. For, he passed away in 1988, long before i even knew where i was headed in life.

when i first started my pursuit to learn sculpture, the stones of mahabalipuram were becoming not just time pass but posing some intellectual questions. spurring me to learn and read more about them. Being in Singapore didn’t help and the only way to quench my thirst was by reading books. Quality books on sculpture were heard to get, of the few good ones, some were ( are) at a higher plane than my current grade, and the rest were priced higher than what i could convince myself to spend on a hobby. The pursuit was still at the hobby stage at that time. But the thirst was still driving me and i turned to the net for help, coming across just two sites. One was Dr Nagaswamy’s tamil arts academy and the other, Dr.Gift Siromoney (30.7.1932 – 21.3.1988), M.A., M.Sc., Ph.D., F.S.S.
http://www.cmi.ac.in/gift/Archaeology.htm

The posts he had graciously left behind on the net, quality content, absolutely free, easily accessible, spurred me, 20 years after his death, inspiring me to use the advances in technology, the power of the net and its networking capabilities to tap on the potential of friends, to create a site, with powerful content with an unique visual appeal, absolutely free – that even a chance encounter of a casual visitor, will make him sit up and take notice, of the treasures that our great land bore out of its intellect, help protect and preserve them for future generations. Like the legendary Ekalavya, i try to follow his effort. This effort, hopefully will outlast my human existence, and pray will inspire atleast a few like me, long after i am gone.

I take one such thread, which the great man had left behind in his site and develop – One of the first puzzles i had taken to study. Please take time to read his extensive note below:

http://www.cmi.ac.in/gift/Archeaology/arch_dvarapalaka.htm

He has supported his theory with some rough sketches, which i have developed with photographs.

The hypothesis is very simple, Are the Pallava door guardians personifications of the divine attributes ( weapons) of the Lord whom they are guarding?

To understand this better, lets take the Shiva shrines for study first. Most early Pallava shrines had door guardians who wear a curious headpiece. Various postulates have been proposed, right from horns worn by a primitive tribe, later evolution of Jaina Naga icons and even as personifications of the Nandhi.

Unfortunately the main door guardian at Vallam, which Dr. Gift analysed is not clear enough ( thanks to Prof Swaminathan and Chandru sir for the photos), but i am thankful for Mr. Shriram for giving me an excellent photograph from Tirumayam cave ( though later than Mahendra ) that helps us to study the concept. We also see examples from other Mahendra caves including Mandagapattu and Seeyamangalam.

First of all, lets visit the Mahendra cave in Vallam. The cave has been pathetically managed with an ugly grill marring the entire beauty of the place. Anyway, for purpose of this study ( am thankful to Prof. Swaminthan sir and Chandru sir for sharing their photos of Vallam).I am just going to present to you a series of photos and then work on the hypothesis.


so just watch the dissimilar door guardians ( wonderfully sculpted in side profile) as compared to later temples where they are sculpted a mirror images, no two Pallava doorkeepers were done to look similar.

Notice the right side door guardian ( invariably) is carrying a set of curved horns. But are these horns. They seem to be positioned slightly below the head, where you would normally sculpt horns. Also the way the horns are attached or start – there is a very conspicuous convex curve.

Now, lets look at the left side doorguardian, he is bereft of any horns, but watch closely – he seems to have some sort of a projection in the centre of his head dress – like he has taken a serious whack and is all swollen up! Is it just a fashioning of his crown or does it signify something else?

Lets move on to Mandagapattu Mahendra cave.

Here, the right side door guardian doesn’t sport any horns. why? But not to be disappointed, we see the same protrusion in the head of the left side door guardian!!


Can you make it out now. Seems to be very much in fashion among the left door guardian. We will come back to this towards the end of the post.

Lets swing across to Seeyamangalam.

We have our horned door guardian at the right but the left side door guardian doesn’t sport the protruding crown.

But lets take a closer look at the horns. Even though they seem to occupy a more normal horn position, the curve at the base is very distinct and doesn’t look like a normal horn.

Now, thanks to Shriram we are going to see a really spectacular sculpture and example that is going to prove this postulate. These door guardians are from Tirumaayam. The right door guardian is possibly one of the best executed forms – such grace, such pristine beauty. His majestic poise is sheer poetry.

The left door guardian is slightly more subdued in his stance.

Lets peek in closer to view them. The left one does has a queer projection on top of his head. But the right door gaurdian’s head dress is worth a second look.


Lets analyse the complex curve at the base of the so called horns. Just imagine the sculpture without the face of the doorguardian.

Do you notice that there is a spike at the top of the crown. Now when you look at the three spikes as a single structure you can notice that they are indeed the three frongs of a large trident that has been superimposed on the door guardian. This could only mean that the door guardian is the personification of the Trident of Shiva – Thirisoolanathar.

In the same vein, the argument is that the protrusion on left side door guardian is the face of an Axe blade, depciting the Axe aspect of shiva ( check out the axe blade when being held by shiva in the famous chandesa sculpture in Gangaikondacholapuram) – Mazhu being the old name of the axe and hence he is called Mazhuvudayar.

Thus we see that the two door guardians are infact the Trident and Axe of Shiva

Another example from Kaveripakkam ( thanks kathie for sharing) currently in the chennai museum with the Horns!!

Was this the inspiration behind Mahendra Pallava’s sculptural quest

Since the site is dedicated to sculpture and its easy to fall in love with Pallava sculpture, it was very difficult for me to do this post. Quite often we get so obsessed with our favorites to the point of becoming fanatics. I am one such proclaimed Pallava fanatic. Quite often Kathie would drag me back to ground zero with interesting questions and photos from the middle kingdom. One such fanatical quest was that of Mahendra Pallava and his sculptural quest. A King hitherto unparalleled in his pursuit for artistic excellence in my eyes. But a chance glance at a collection of photos of Dr. Mohammed Tajuddin KHAN of an impressive cave in Andra Pradesh – the Undavalli Caves (Guntur District about 6km south west of Vijayawada, 22km north west of Guntur City and about 280 km from Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh – thanks wiki) propped up some interesting questions.

I tried to check with Sri Dhivakar, who had done much research on the early life for Mahendra Pallava for his book – vichitracithan. Two interesting informations came out of the interaction – one – these caves were excavated between the 4th and 6th C.E (The caves are associated with the Vishnukundina kings of 420 to 620 A.D), definitely predating Mahendra Pallava’s famous excavation in Mandagapattu and two – Mahendra spent a good part of his early life in and around these parts. ( Simha Vishnu had a Vishnukundin Wife !!)

Before we start inferring anything from above, lets compare the sculpture styles under question. without burdening you with two many, am just throwing in one door guardian from both sites and a pillar each.


The pillar design, fluting, styling – the stance of the door guardian, the flexing of his hips down to his mace, the way he places his hands on his hips – the the lion banner on the pillar.

On the other extreme side, we can argue as to if Mahendra was responsible for carving the Undavalli caves – but then the time frame sets us back by atleast 50 to 100 years.

One more clue – is again the main argument proposed for Mahendra as the originator of cave or rock cut architecture is the famous Mandagapattu inscription. Let us see it once more now.

I quote Dr Nagaswamy’s words below

http://www.tamilartsacademy.com/books/mamallai/new-light.xml


Let us study the inscription itself. What does the inscription say? It says that this temple, dedicated to Brahma, Vishnu and Siva was caused to be made by Vicitracitta, without the use of brick, mortar, wood or metal. It does not mention that this was being excavated for the first time in South India. Nor in any of his subsequent inscriptions Mahendra assumed a title, commemorating this great achievement of his life. He was certainly fond of titles and could have assumed a title like “the first excavator of cave” Adyaguhayatanakari or some such thing. We do not come across any such titles in his inscription.
None of the epigraphical records, both lithic and copper plates, which were issued after him, refer to Mahendra’s achievement in excavating caves for the first time.”

But whatever we infer from the above, one thing is for sure – this was the first excavation of Pallavas.

The theory is not without speculation – as door guardians could have been carved later ( especially the ones in Mandagapattu door guardians seem to be slightly advanced in styling when compared to its own pillar designs !!)

Keeping these aside, what we infer is a logical progression. Both the styles are dramatically similar and one definitely predates the other. So, was Undavallai the inspiration behind Mahendra Pallava’s sculptural quest, heralding a golden age in south Indian cave / temple / sculpture / architecture.

For those who are still not convinced about the remarkable similarity in styles, presenting to you more parallels from other Mahendra caves and Undavalli. Believe me, this is not any trick photography – just placing them side by side for you to make your judgements.

Now, do you agree?

Another cave which offers some clues is Bhairavakonda, which we will see shortly.

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)