An attempt to study the evolution of different Ardhanari forms and unravel the mystery related to the period they belong to.

Not all mysteries in archaeology need an Indiana Jones or a Lara Croft to unravel the secrets, however, if ever there was one that would even baffle them, it is the wonder that stands forgotten in the glory of the famed Murugan temple in Tirupparankundram. That the famed shrine itself is a cave temple is not common knowledge, however there exists another cave at the foot of the same hill but a little further away to the left as you circumambulate it.

The first and foremost is the date assignable to the original excavation. The plain and bulky set of two pillars and pilasters (half pillars) combined with lack of any artistic fluting on their corbels help us to assign an early eighth C CE date to the cave.

It is very rare to see reliefs on the outer wall of excavated caves. However, in this cave there are many niches into which deep relief sculptures have been carved. They combine with some intricate sculptures on the inside, whose superior iconography seem to suggest a 12th C CE to 13th C CE date. The popular reasoning is that this was an extant Jaina cave, which was later converted.

Let us look at the shrine that has been cut into the left wall as we enter the cave. Inside this beautifully framed shrine is an exquisite relief of the androgynous form of Siva as ‘Ardhanari,’ gracefully leaning on his bull mount. The four-armed sculpture has clear demarcation of the Siva and Sakti portions, with him wearing a thigh length garment while hers is a sari to the knee.

For all its grace and form, it is quite plain that its size is too small for this sanctum’s proportions. Things seem to further go wrong as we explore the rather crude attempt to shape the pedestal below, the unconnected curly patterns on the top and the very low relief carving of the bull. The most crucial aspect is the placement of the bull. A study of the evolution of the ardhanari form clearly shows the difficulty the sculptor has in balancing the male and female body proportions. Such early examples are the forms in the Dharmaraja ratha and the Agasteshwara temple in Perungudi. While the Sama banga profile of the Dharamaraja sculpture lacks aesthetic appeal, the problems of the larger male proportions are evident in the Agasteshwara sculpture.

The sculptors hence bring the Rishaba Vahana and let the form lean on its head to provide the counter balance. This is seen in the later day Chola sculptures from Vriddachalam and also seems to be the accepted norm as far as the Elephanta.

The problem now with the Parankundram sculpture is that the bull is positioned on the opposite side ie., on the female side, and hence doesn’t lend the necessary balance to the composition. These are not consistent with the amount of planning that is needed to complete a rock cut cave shrine.

Vijay is a sculpture enthusiast and blogs about temple art at www.poetryinstone.in

A monthly column that brings to the fore many unknown facts about art and architecture from across the State, this one is about the cave temple at Tirupparankundram.