Visit Thirumalapuram that offers a delightful insight into cave excavations

(This monthly column attempts to bring to the forth many unknown facts about the art and architecture across the country. This week’s article focuses on the twin caves of Thirumalapuram)

It was late evening when we reached the twin caves of Thirumalapuram (Thirunelveli district about five kilometres from Kallidaikurichi) in pursuit of our tryst to cover the caves of the Pandyas. The cave on the north face of the hillock is finished with reliefs on its inside as well, while the one on the south has been left unfinished.

As we waited for the ASI person to arrive, the ever present goat herders kept our company with an absorbing tale on the two caves. The master sculptor who was excavating the north cave had a talented son who would bring his ‘coffee’ from home every day. He would then observe his father work the stone and would go around the hill and replicate the same moves on the stone there. He took care to match the strokes with those of his father’s, so that his father’s hammer strikes would mask his own. He continued in this fashion when one day, the father suddenly stopped mid stroke and heard the sound of the hammer on chisel. He immediately set off to find the source and came across a boy stooped over a stone. But since he was turned away from him, he couldn’t recognise him but seeing the work he realised that someone was copying his design.

Enraged he stuck the lad on his head with his hammer and slew him on the spot. Only then he realised that it was his own son but it was too late!

We have seen many variations of this tale now, like urban legends, we need to coin a term for these sculpture legends, how they first came to be and how they managed to reach even the real off beat locations is a mystery by itself.

The remnants

The piece de resistance of the finished cave must have been its monolithic nandhi but sadly only its base and one of its hooves remains. To fully appreciate the task envisioned by the sculptor, one must understand how he must have felt as he shaped the bull, knowing fully well that even one wrong move would endanger the entire work. The unfinished second cave helps us in this task, as we can see how the stone at the center has been reduced leaving enough rock to carve the Nandhi. However, the cave has been left incomplete.

The date for this cave is assigned to the second half of the seventh C CE and of Pandya style. This is ascertained by the monolithic Siva linga - carved out of the base rock, a feature which is not present in the Pallava caves of the same period and the presence of Ganesha relief.

Further there are high relief carvings of the door guardians, Brahma and Vishnu, plus a very unique dancing form of Siva. The posture of His is not the classic Natraja Thandava but His Chatur Thandava and He is dancing to the merriment of His Gana. The throw of the upper left hand accentuates the feel while his lower left hand holds the book of dance – a feature unique and met in Pandya sculptures of this period.

The unfinished cave is on the other side of the hill but at first look there was nothing. But on closer examination we realised that it held a delightful insight into a cave excavation that had been abandoned – the work in progress giving us vital clues as to how they attempted the insitu Nandi etc.

(The writer is a sculpture enthusiast and blogs about temple art at