History & Culture

Portrait of a sculptor

A trained sculptor and painter, S A V Elanchezian’s penchant for temple architecture has led him to identify the fourth praharam of Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple

An exquisitely carved pillar made of fibre with a crouched lion at the bottom and a bronze statue of Pallava King Narasimmhavarman II greet you as at the entrance of S A V Elanchezian’s room. “It is a replica of the pillar found in Mahabalipuram Shore Temple. There are two such pillars on the porch of the Mahishasuramardhini cave inside the temple, where for the first time a crouched lion was installed to mark the valour of King Narasimmhavarman II, who was also called Rajasimmhan,” he says.

Elanchezhian’s desk is laden with age-old artefacts. A big self-portrait speaks volumes about his painting abilities. “I come from a lineage of sculptors who have worked under Pallava Kings and it is no big surprise that I have developed a special liking for temple architecture. Even King RajaRaja Chola was so impressed by the Pallavas work that he constructed the Tanjore Big Temple as an answer to the temples in Kanchi,” says Elanchezian, who has done a detailed study on Temple Architecture in and around Kanchipuram.

A trained sculptor and painter, Elanchezian graduated from Government College of Fine Arts, Chennai. His love for Pallava and Chola architecture made him complete his doctoral research on the same topic. After organising numerous exhibitions, he felt he could communicate better not only through art but also by giving lectures to students. He believed students would take his art to the next level and that brought him to the Department of Architecture, Thiagarajar College of Engineering in Madurai.

Though he was not new to the Pandian territory as he had visited Malayadikurichi near Sankarankoil to study the cave temple built by one Senthan Chezian during the period of Mahendra Varman Pandian, the imposing towers of Meenakshi Amman Temple remained a major attraction for him.

“During free time I frequented the temple. Earlier also I had been to the temple as a pilgrim but after joining here I started going as a researcher looking for unique sculptures. Many see the temple as a complete composite structure but the huge Pudhu mandapam in front of the East Tower is not a stand alone building,” he says.

A huge unfinished artistic stone structure beyond the iconic Pudu Mandapam caught his attention. “A beautiful piece of monument with intricate carvings of images of Gods and Goddesses and ornate pillars bearing floral motifs, it is called the Rayar Gopuram. There are several stories but little evidence to substantiate the reason for it being left incomplete,” he says.

Portrait of a sculptor

Elanchezian wonders if Meenakshi Amman Temple was a finished structure, then why would the king build a mandapam in front of a complete temple structure and make it asymmetrical. “According to the ground plan in architectural discipline, if the king plans to construct a new tower, he has to build a maha mandapam bigger in size compared to the existing one, in this case in the third prahara (corridor) and that is where the pudhu mandapam exactly fits in. The finished mandapam only announces that a tower bigger in size is on the anvil. But for reasons unknown the construction of the tower was stopped midway. Given the size of the kalkaram (basement structure) which is 181.10 feet long and 116.6 feet wide and stands at a height of 65 feet, the tower, if finished, would have been one of the largest and tallest in the world,” he declares.

According to him, the tower would be double the size of the East Tower with 18 or 19 tiers with huge inner space and measure 273 feet. Also the tower would have two more openings on the sides in addition to the front and back.

“King Thirumalai Naick had the liberty to experiment as the tower on the third prahara did not conform to the basics, as the ‘Prasada’ class of tower has to be in only fifth prahara,” he says.

The existence of a Maha Mandapam and a huge tower confirms the presence of a fourth praharam, which was a revelation of sorts for Elanchezian. “The unfinished Gopuram, Pudhu Mandapam, East Tower and the Sanctum Santorum all stand in one axis. The axial rendering gave me the confidence to say that the king might have planned a fourth one. Had this praharam come into existence, it would have been really huge, the present Avani Moola Street would have been inside the temple campus,” he says.

Also King Thirumalai Naick had good idea of temple art and aesthetics as he had studied the evolution of the Egapadhamoorthy (composite idol of Lord Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu with one foot). The same idol in Thiruvanaikoil and Thiruvotriyoor temples has either left or right foot, but here Thirumalai Naick had cleverly brought the big toe to the centre and made it look composite and futuristic.

There is much more to the Meenakshi temple than what meets the eye, says Elanchezian who draws inspiration each time he visits the temple.


Elanchezian has published his findings in the book Art and Architectural Glory of Chola and Pandiya Region. He has also written Parinama Ucham Kaatum Maduraiyin Pudumandapa Sirpam and Azhagiyal Agazhayvu.

Elanchezian is now planning to organise an exhibition ‘Koodal Gopuram Nangu’. It will be an interpretation from the perspective of art and literature.


Elanchezian’s work is commendable and in detail. He has identified the side buttress of the Rayar Gopuram which many have failed to notice. But his findings and logical conclusions are hypothetical and have to be deliberated with experts in the field – Prof. R. Venkataraman, Art Historian.

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Printable version | Apr 6, 2020 7:30:13 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/a-trained-sculptor-and-painter-s-a-v-elanchezians-penchant-for-temple-architecture-has-led-him-to-identify-the-fourth-praharam-of-meenakshi-sundareswarar-temple/article19415596.ece

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