The Mandagapattu cave temple is a treasure-trove of early Pallava art

A small rusty board brings our car to a sudden halt. Surrounding us are lush paddy fields with massive boulders in the backdrop. A lone woman works on her crop, as we cut through the thorny bushes and walk across the fields. We meet a huge hill with boulders stacked precariously.

The hill seems to open out to us, as we walk through the narrow opening to reach our destination — the cave temple at Mandagapattu carved out of a 100-foot hillock.

“Welcome to Pallava cave hunting” says Vijay Kumar, who had initiated me into the world of Pallava and Chola temples through his website www.poetryinstone.in. At Mandagapattu, I realise I'm already lost in the world of stone.

A flight of steps leads us to the cave temple, carved for the trinity, and flanked by the door guardians or dwarapalakas. The shrines are empty. “This is the first prototype of the Pallava rock-cut cave temple, built by Mahendravarman I in the 7th Century,” says Vijay.

To me, Pallava architecture has always been synonymous with Mamallapuram or Kadal Mallai, as it was originally called.

Built by Narasimhavarman I or Mamalla, the rock-cut cave temples here, I am told, owe their inspiration to Mahendravarman's cave shrines strewn around Ginjee, Tindivanam, Kancheepuram, Arakonam and Chengalpet, among others.

“The early Pallava style has bulky pillars, not too many embellishments even in the form of relief sculptures, and the depiction of the door guardians is not too bold. Later, the architecture became more evolved as they moved towards building structural temples,” explains Vijay.

Our companion Arvind shows us a Sanskrit inscription where Mahendravarman declares that he is not building the temple from any perishable material — brick, wood, metal and limestone or stucco. “That is why he is called Vichitrachitha, an innovator in many ways,” he explains. The temple, in the inscription, is referred to as Lakshita Yathaanam.

“Mahendravarman showed leanings towards Jainism before he gravitated towards Hinduism — which is probably why one finds Jain settlements near his cave temples,” adds Vijay.

We are at Thalavanur, close to Mandagapattu, where the temple, Shatrumalleswaram, is carved at the edge of another hillock, overlooking boulders. The temple houses door guardians flanking a linga. “Note the advancement in art here,” mentions Vijay, “as we take in the makartoranas in the front façade.” A small flight of rock-cut steps carved on the hill takes us to the shelters of Jain monks who probably meditated and rested there.

An old man walks up to us from across the fields and proclaims he is the caretaker. A stray dog follows him, his howls echoing through the hills, as we retrace our steps.

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