Narthamalai – An Enigma of Art

IntroductionNarthamalai region consists of nine small hillocks, Mela-malai, Kottai-malai, Alurutti-malai, Kadambar-malai, Paraiyan-malai, Uvachchan-malai, Man-malai, Bommadi-malai and Pon-malai. There is a thin forest surrounding south-east part of the region and hence it comes under the forest reserve area. As per a mythological legend when Hanuman was carrying Sanjeevani hill, few shrubs fell over this part of region making it famous for a variety of magic shrubs. An another legend stated in Perungalur Sthala-puranam states that the name Narthamalai is derived from the sage Narada, and calls it Naradar-malai.

Narthamalai Region


Narthamalai, which at present is a very small village, was a sprawling trading center in olden days. The name Narthamalai is probably derived from Nagarattar-malai where Nagarattar refer to a mercantile community, also known as Nattukkottai Chettiyars. As per a Chola inscription, a Nagarattar sold a land for conducting daily worship in the larger cave temple. Narthamalai is referred as Annavayil-kurram, a sub-division in Keralantaka-valanadu alias Konadu during the regime of the Chola king Rajaraja I. Later this region is referred as Irattappadi-kondachola-valanadu during the regime of the Chola king Kulottunga I. The region is referred as Telingakulakalapuram alias Kulottungacholapattinam during the Pandya rule.

Before the advent of the Pallava-s, Narthamalai would have been under the early Chola-s or early Pandya-s. From the time of the Pallava-s, from 7th to 9th century CE, it was under the sway of the Muttaraiyar-s who were the vassals of the Pallava kings. Once Pandya-s were on rise, Muttaraiyar-s changed their loyalty from the Pallava-s to Pandya-s. In the last decade of the ninth century CE, the Chola-s washed out the Pallava-s completely and took over the control over the vast area of Tamilnadu. Within the span of hundred years, they also wiped out the Pandya-s and became the sole sovereignty of the southern part of India, mostly Tamilnadu.

Monuments – There are many monuments of interest at Narthamalai. This article will talk about three monuments situated on Mela-malai hillock.

Smaller Shiva Cave


Small Shiva Cave –  This cave shine originally consisted of a small cell carved out of a rock. However an inscription on its base suggests that it was excavated by Chattan Paliyili, a Muttaraiya king. His daughter later expanded this cave shrine with a mukha-mandapa, a Nandi-mandapa and a balipitha. Inside the cell is a Shiva-lingam which seems to be a later addition. Shiva lingam carved out of mother rock is a characteristic feature of Muttaraiya/Pandya caves however this cave does not confirm to that custom.

Entrance of the cave has been modeled in simple lintel and pilaster style. Two dvarpala images are placed at the entrance however these images are not carved on mother rock but on loose stones. There is enough space on either side of the entrance on the rock however no dvarpala image was tried during the original construction. It is most probable that these images were placed during the expansion of the shrine. An image of Nandi is placed on mukha-mandapa platform at present. The base of the platform is simple except a gana (dwarf) row above kumudam. These ganas are shown in various actions mostly of dancing.


1. No 365 of the Annual Report on Epigraphy 1914/No 63 of the South Indian Inscriptions vol XII/No 19 of the Inscriptions of the Pudukkottai State/No 395 of the South Indian Inscriptions vol XVII – On the north base of the ruined mandapa in front of the cave – Written in Tamil in 19 lines – dated to seventh regnal year of the Pallava king  Nripatungavarman, approximately to 875 CE  – Records the excavation of the rock-cut temple by Chattan Paliyili, son of Videlvidugu Muttaraiya. Former’s daughter Paliyili Siriyanangai, the wife of Minavan Tamiladiyaraiyan alias Palan Anantan, expanded it by constructing a mukha-mandapa rishabhakkottil with a rishabha, balipitha. The lady also made an endowment of tax free land entrusted to Chavainjattan of Peruvilattur in Annavayilkurram for worship and offerings to the god of the temple the Pattudaiyan Uruttiran Teyapikki was asked to take care of charity.

Larger Shiva Cave


Large Shiva Cave (Vishnu Cave) – This larger cave is excavated opposite to structural temple and is probably one of the largest cave of the Pudukkottai region. It is referred as Thirumerkoil in a Chola inscription and Patinen-bumi-vinnagar in a Pandya inscription. Its east facing front façade is supported on two pillars and two pilasters forming three entrances. The pillars are almost square from top to bottom however the architects tried to style these pillars in typical Mahendra-order with square base and top and middle octagonal section. Such demarcation between square and octagonal section can be seen on southern pillar. A  cubical cell is excavated in middle of the back wall. There is a mutilated square Shiva-linga base inside this cell.

There is an extended mandapa constructed in front of this cave however only base of this mandapa has survived. There are few loose sculptures lying in front of the mukha-mandapa of the cave. Two dvarpalas, one on either side of the middle entrance, are also sculpted on loose stones. Dvarapalas are very much mutilated and it seems that these were later additions probably during the Chola rule. A sapta-matrika panel, broken in two parts, also lies at the entrance. Sapta-matrikas are without Veerbhadra and Ganesha. An image of Shiva as Veenadhara and an image of Chandesha is also seen placed at the entrance.

Vishnu Images inside cave


Inside the rectangular mukha-mandapa of the cave, there are twelve nearly identical images of Vishnu carved on lateral and back walls. There is one image on both lateral walls and ten images, five on either side of the entrance to the central cell, on the back wall. They all are shown standing over a lotus pedestal. They carry a sankha (conch) and a chakra (discus) in their rear hands while one front hand is in abhaya mudra while another front hand is rested on waist (katyavalambita). As there are twelve such image hence these could be a representation of dvadash (twelve) aditya-s of Hindu mythology.

Man-lion Sphinx


A most interesting feature of the cave is seen in the platform of its extended mandapa. A vyala/yali row above kumudam is one of the most exquisite representation of these mythological animals. Makara heads protrude out from each corner while elephants and vyalas occupy the whole side. There are many kinds of vyalas seen, some with the head of a lion and some with the head of an elephant. Most amazingly there are few vyalas who have shown with a human head having striking resemblances with the Sphinx of Egypt. One such early representation was seen in Krishna Mandapa at Mahabalipuram where I suggested whether it might be a representation of the Pallava king Narasimhavarman I. Raja Deekshithar has done a very nice study of these Sphinx like figures in the Indian art.

A mutilated Shiva-linga base in the central cell and so many Vishnu images in mandapa, quite interesting indeed. V Latha suggests that it could be that during Vaishnava insurgence the Shaiva feature, Shiva linga, of the cave was mutilated to convert it into a Vaishnava shrine. She suggests that this change would have been done before the commencement of Vijayala-Choleeshvaram temple. As a Shiva cave was changed into a Vaishnava shrine hence construction of a Shiva temple was necessary. However there is one issue with this theory, why to create a new temple instead of restoring the lingam in the cave if the sole purpose of the temple was to get the Shiva worship reinstated?

She further suggests that all the inscriptions found here refer only to Shiva but none to Vishnu hence it is clear that no ruler patronized the Vishnu cave. However we have a Pandya inscription where the cave has been referred as Vaishnava cave only. I feel that it could be a case that the cave was indeed dedicated to Shiva and the twelve images in mandapa represent twelve aditya-s. Clashes between Shaiva and Vaishnava sects were not very prominent during the rule of Vijayala-Chola or better we say during the tenth century CE. In such a case how to explain mutilation of Shiva-linga?  It can not be a work of Muslims as they would have destroyed the Vishnu images as well.


1. No 125-A of the Inscriptions of the Pudukkottai State – On the molded base in front of the cave – Written in Tamil in 54 lines – damaged and incomplete – dated to forty-fifth regnal year of the Chola king  Rajakesarivarman alias Kulottunga-Choladeva (Kulottunga I), approximately to 1115 CE  – States that the members of the nagaram of Telungakulakalapuram in Annavayil-kurram of Irattappadi-kondachola-valanadu made a deed for provision of daily food offerings to god Karumanikkalvar of the Tirumerkoyil temple of the city. According to this agreement, Mudikondachola-Telungaiyarayan, a merchant of this city was directed to pay 75 kalams of paddy annually to the above temple by cultivating the lands which he himself reclaimed. The merchant was invested with the right of kudinina-devadana over the lands.

2. No 364 of the Annual Report on Epigraphy 1904/No 364 of the South Indian Inscriptions vol XVII/No 281 of the Inscriptions of the Pudukkottai State – On the rock of the north of this cave – Written in Tamil in 31 lines – dated to twelfth regnal year of the Pandya king  Maravarman alias Sundara Pandyadeva (Sundara I), approximately to 1228 CE  – Records the setting up of images of Patinenbhumi-vinnagar-emberuman and his consort in the Tirumerkoyil temple at Telingakulakalapuram alias Kulottungacholapattinam, and the gift of 5 ma and 3 kanis of land, freed from all dues by the nagaram of the town for food offerings and other daily requirements for services. The latter portion of the record mentions the dues to be paid at the time of marriages for the temple repairs to be collected by a Vilakkattaraiyan at the following rates: 200 kasu for the bride’s house and 180 kasu from the bridegroom’s house. In addition to this 120 kasu were to be paid when the bride went to set up her new family.

3. No 282 of the Inscriptions of the Pudukkottai State – On the same rock – Written in Tamil in 46 lines – very much damaged – dated to twelfth regnal year of the Pandya king Maravarman alias Sundara Pandya I, approximately to 1228 CE  – Appears to record provisions made for conducting festivals in the temple of Vijayalaya-Cholisvaramudaiyar at the town by the nagaram of Kulottungacholapattinam. It seems a numbers of persons undertook to conduct the festivals in turn, each for one day.

Vijayala Choleesvaram Complex


Vijayala Choleeshvaram Temple – This west facing structural temple is the main attraction of this site. The temple is constructed in parivara-shrine style with eight subsidiary shrines around the central structure. The central shrine holds an important position for temple architecture studies. The temple is consisted of a mandapa (hall), antarala(vestibule) and garbha-griha (sanctum). The adhisthana (platform) is simple in nature. It has upapitham, upanam, kumudam, kandam and agrapattiyal, from bottom to top. There is no vyala row on the agrapattiyal block as seen on platforms of the cave mandapas. Pilasters rise above agrapattiyal forming deep niches on vimana and shallow niches on mandapa. However all niches are empty. Corbels are placed on square protruding abacus. Bhuta/gana row is seen under cornice which is mounted above the corbels. Kudus in single and pair are carved on the cornice.

Vimana of Central Shrine


Its tri-tala (three storeys) vimana is square at base and rises to three storeys, diminishing in size, which are squares as well. Storey above the mandapa and vimana has similar architecture as of the base but there is a vyala/yali row on agrapattiyal of this storey. The roof is formed with regular arrangement of karna-kuta (square shrine placed on corners) and sala (oblong shrine placed on sides). Kudus are carved on these shrines with an image placed below the kudu. The image is big enough to cover the niche formed by pilasters of this storey. There is no bhuta/gana row under its cornice. Second storey is reduced in size but constructed in same fashion as of the basement. So here is seen a bhuta/gana row under cornice and no images are placed under kudus. Third storey is similar to the first storey having images under kudus.

Circular Shikhara


Above the third storey is mounted a circular griva (neck). There is a bhuta-gana row under the cornice of the griva. The griva is topped with a circular shikhara (cupola). There are four maha-nasikas (big kudu) on four sides of this shikara. An image of Shiva with Parvati on east, Shiva as Veenadhara on south  are placed under these maha-nasikas. Four Nandi statues are placed at four corners facing either east or west. Most of South Indian agama texts puts circular shikhara under Vesara style of temple architecture, square shikhara under Nagara and Octagonal shikara under Dravida. Another interesting feature is its circular garbha-griha inside its square vimana. This circular shape leaves space around the garbha-griha to accommodate a circumambulatory path thus putting it under sandhara temple category. A sandhara temple is a temple which is equipped with circumambulatory around its sanctum. These all properties put Vijayala Choleesvaram into Vesara sandhara temple style.

Entrance to the temple
Right Dvarpala


Two life size dvarpalas greet you at the entrance. They are shown with two hands with one hand resting on a club and another one raised in air. Both are depicted with protruding tusks however their calmness on face cover up their ferocious nature. Dvarpala on proper right is much better preserved in comparison with the left one. It has protruding trisula (trident) from his head suggesting that it represents trisula of Shiva. There is an important inscription on its base which gives information about the construction of this temple by a Muttaraiya chief. Present dvarpala statues are well mortared in niches however I am not sure whether these are the original statues.

Main entrance is provided at west which takes a visitor into a pillared mandapa. Pillars are in characteristics Mahendra-order with cubical top and base and octagonal shaft in between. Taranga band is used for corbels. there is a Shiva linga inside circular sanctum.  Traces of paintings can be seen on mandapa walls. Paintings of Vishnu and Bhairava are little clear however other paintings are not. It is suggested that these paintings were not put during the construction of the temple but of very late origin. Except for these paintings temple from inside is very simple.

Sapta-matrika shrine


There are eight subsidiary shrines around the central temple which confirms to astha-parivara pattern. Only six have survived at present. The arrangement of these eight sub shrines is as follows: Chandra in east, Surya in south-east, Sapta-matrika in south, Ganesha in south-west, Subramanya in west, Jyestha in north-west, Chandesha in north and Bhairava in north-east. Shrine for Sapta-matrika is usually constructed in oblong shape to accommodate seven or nine images of this group. The arrangement of the shrines is little peculiar as Sapta-matrika shrine is placed on south-east corner instead of south side. Hence while assigning the shrines to respective deities, we need to accommodate this diversion from regular arrangement. Other early Chola period parivara shrines can be seen at Thirukkattalai and Kodumbalur.

As per the foundation inscription this temple was constructed by a Muttaraiya chief named Ilangodi-araiyar. However there are two opinions on his period. One opinion points that he was contemporary of the Pallava king Nandivarman II (731-796 CE) however second opinion suggests his period to the time of the Chola king Vijayala Chola thus to second half of ninth century CE. The current name Vijayala-Choleesvaram was first referred in a Pandya inscription of the king Maravarman Sundara Pandya of thirteenth century CE. Why this mistake? First possibility is that the people of that time were not aware of the foundation inscription and as the Pandya-s wrestled this part of land from Chola-s so they referred it to Vijayala Chola, the founder of second Chola empire. However as the inscription is written on eastern wall of the mandapa as well so it is hard to believe that the people of that time were not aware of this. If they were aware of it then were they not able to interpret it? Again hard to believe as the script does not change so much in such a little time gap. Another possibility is that though they were aware of the inscription however as no name was given to the temple in that inscription so they assigned to the first king of the Chola empire from whom they won over this land.


1. No 11-A of the Inscriptions of the Pudukkottai State – On the base of the north dvarapala at the entrance – Written in Tamil in 4 lines – dated to ninth century CE – Records that the stone temple erected by Chembudi alias Ilangodi-araiyar was damaged by rain and that it was renovated by Mallan Viduman alias Tennavan Tamiladiaraiyan.

2. No 216 of the Annual Report on Epigraphy 1940-41 – On the east wall of the mandapa in front of the central shrine – Written in Tamil – dated to ninth century CE  – Records that this temple which had been destroyed by heavy rains was renovated by Mallan Viduman alias Tennavan Tamiladiyaraiyan. It is said that the temple was originally built by Chattampudi alias Ilango-Adiyaraiyar.

Water Lilies in Pond


Small Pond – There is small pond near this temple on north side which is supposed to be a Jain cave probably.

1. No 366 of the Annual Report on Epigraphy 1914/No 11 of the Inscriptions of the Pudukkottai State/No 396 of the South Indian Inscriptions vol XVII – On the rock to the north of the pond called Arunmaikkulam – Written in Tamil in 10 lines – dated to ninth century CE  – Records that Tamiladiyaraiyan alias Mallan Vidaman got a sluice made to the tank called Animadayeri. He also gave some land to the mason named Chonanaraiyan who made the sluice.



How to ReachNarthamalai is situated on Trichy-Pudukkottai highway, about 2 km inside from highway. It is about 17 km from Pudukkottai. Narthamalai is well connected to Trichy and Pudukkottai through road and rail. There is a small railway station at Narthamalai. It is well connected by road also from these two major towns. Nearest airport is Trichy which is also a major rail-head.

1. Dubreuil, G Jouveau (1917). Dravidian Architecture. Madras. Asian Education Services. ISBN 8120602560
2. Latha, V (2005). Cave Temples of Pandya Country: Art and Ritual. New Delhi. Sharada Publishing House. ISBN 8188934224
3. Mahalingam, T V (1991). A Topographical List of Inscriptions in the Tamilnadu and Kerala States Vol VI. New Delhi. S Chand & Company Ltd.
4. Srinivasan, K R (1996). Temples of South India. New Delhi. National Book Trust of India. ISBN 8123718675

Web References: (all references retrieved on 29/04/2011)
1. History of Muttaraiyars
2. Muttaraiya Architecture
3. Katherine’s Guest Post on Narthamalai in
4. Unspoiled Narthamalai by Katherine Brobeck
5. Narthamalai by V Ganapathy in The Hindu
6. Narthamalai by S Sumitha on
7. Raja Deekshithar on Spinx in Indian Art