Singavaram – Sri Ranganathaswami Cave Temple

Singavaram is located in Viluppuram district of Tamilnadu, not very far from Gingee town, the latter is famous for its fort. The first mythological account of Singavaram is found in a manuscript, Karnataka Rajakkal Savistara Charittiram (“The Detailed History of the Kings of the Carnatic”)1, which is a part of the manuscripts in the collection of Colin Mackenzie, composed in 1802-3 by Narayanan Pillai, a resident of Gingee and belonging to Konar herder caste that traditionally supply priests to the Draupadi temple of Gingee. It tells that Nantacola built a flower garden at Kanchipuram in the honor of Varadarajasvami. That garden is devastated by boars. The king attacked them and dispersed but one large boar took up onto his tusks a lime tree bush and a flowering nantiyavattam shrub together with some earth, and led the king towards Gingee. The boar opened a spring on a mountain, to the west of Gingee, to slake king’s thirst. He further led the king to Cinkapuram, the village of Singavaram. There the boar entered a cave, dropping the two plants with the earth. The plant flourished on the spot. Meanwhile the king followed into the cave and saw the boar take on the form of Vishnu as a human avatara. Filled with emotion, the king built a temple there in honor of Varadarajaswami.

This legend is further extended and modified when appeared in the South Arcot district manual in 18782. The hero and the owner of the flower garden in this refined legend is Tupakala Kistnappa Naik, a resident of Conjeveram (modern Kanchipuram). To test his devotion, the lord took form of a boar and began to uproot the garden. Naik took his bow and went in pursuit of the boar but not with success. In the pursuit, he reached a rock where this temple is stood now. Satisfied with his devotion, the lord made a cavern in the rock and assumed his real shape. Naik prostrated himself to the lord. The lord asked him to construct a temple at the place. Naik asked where to get the funds for the same, the lord told him to wait for an ascetic. The ascetic was in possession of a wonderful plant which had all the properties of a philosopher’s stone. It only required to boil a quantity of leaves in a large cauldron, and to throw in a holy person, when his body would turn into gold. When Naik met the ascetic, the latter made a plan to sacrifice his body. Naik got the hint and in turn threw the ascetic into the cauldron, watching the body turning into gold. He cut off a limb from the body, only to notice that it grew next day. With this inexhaustible treasure at hand, Naik built a temple and Gingee fort. After it, he flung the golden corpse into a corner of the Chettikulam (a tank inside the fort of Gingee) where it is still said to be.

The original cave temple, which has been extended at later periods, is usually credited to the Pallavas. It is therefore surprising that the earliest legend associated with the construction of the temple credits this feat to a Chola king, Nantachola. This Chola king cannot be identified with any of the known kings of that line. Later legends started crediting this achievement to Tupakala Naik who can be identified with Tubaki Krishnappa Nayaka (1490-1520 CE), the founder of the Nayak’s line of ruler of Gingee. It is very probably that his achievements were immortalized by incorporating him in the legend replacing the Chola king.

First modern reference of this cave temple appears in the South Arcot district gazetteer3 in 1906. It mentions that this rock-cut temple is said to have a 24 feet long image and the god was the tutelary deity of Desing Raja of Gingee. Europeans were not allowed to enter inside the shrine. It mentions a legend explaining why the head of the image was turned away. The story goes that Desing Raja consulted the god whether he should fight Sadat Ulla Khan on a day mentioned, was told not to, persisted in declaring his intention of doing so, and was answered by the deity sorrowfully averting its head. The cave temple was included in the Pallava antiquities compiled by Dubreuil4 and published in 1918. Dubreuil was able to enter into the temple and see the image with his eyes. He says that as soon as he sees it, he recognizes it as the work of the Pallavas. He sees no issues in assigning this rock-cut shrine to the Pallava king Mahendravarman I (600-630 CE). To further support his claim, he proposed that Singavaram could be Simha-puram, the capital of Singapuranadu, and it was founded by Simhavishnu (575-600 CE), the father of Mahendravarman I. Therefore, it may be surmised that this cave temple was excavated during the time of Simhavishnu. Dubreuil was of opinion that there might be chances to obtain a Pallava inscription from this shrine, therefore he placed his request to the government epigraphists to pay a visit in that pursuit.

A H Longhurst5 includes this temple in his work on the Pallava architecture. However, he does not improve upon from the description provided by Dubreuil. The first detailed study on the temple come from K R Srinivasan6 in his compendium on the Pallava cave temples. On the suggestion of Dubreuil, that the excavation might have started during the time of Simhavishnu, Srinivasan is of opinion that knowing Mahendravarman I started the rock-cut style in Tamilnadu, it would be unwise to assign this excavation to Simhavishnu. Srinivasan suggests that it would be possible that the village derived its name from the Pallava king Narasimhavarman I who was also refererd as Simhavishnu. In this case, the credit to this temple may go to Narasimhavarman I as it appears appropriate as the icons found here have striking resemblances to the ones in Mamallapuram, also credited to Narasimavarman I.

Entrance to the temple

Ranganatha Temple – The temple in its present form is a result of various extensions and modification carried out at different periods. The original temple is a rock-cut shrine excavated on the eastern face of the hill. Its front facade is supported on two pillars and two pilasters. The pillars have cubical top and bottom section (saduram) with intervening octagonal section (kattu). Sadurams are decorated with lotus medallions. Pilasters follow the pillars in design. Two niches are carved beyond these pilasters to accommodate dvarapalas. The pillars support a corbel of angular profile. Behind this row of pillars, an another row of pillars and pilasters separates the mukha-mandapa from ardha-mandapa.  Pillars of this second row follow the design as of the front row. However, the pilasters of this row are modeled differently as these are not differentiated in saduram and kattu. They carry a niche on the top housing female devotees.

Vishnu Sheshasayi | Arvind Venkataraman

The wall in the rear is almost fully covered with a large figure of Vishnu-Anantasayi, shown lying over Shesha (Ananta). Shesha is shown with five heads in his hood spread over the head of Vishnu in the south. Right arm of Vishnu his shown hanging down, while another is bent in kataka-mudra. From his navel emerges a lotus stem carrying Brahma over it. Brahma is shown with his three heads and four arms, carrying akshamala (rosary) and kalasa (water-vessel). Three large figures are present near the feet of Vishnu. One represents Garuda who is shown with wings with his one hand kept on his waist and another in suchi-mudra. The other two figures represents demon Madhu and Kaitabha, both shown with two arms carrying heavy clubs. Four figures are carved under the coil of Shesha in the south. The last among these is Bhu-devi. A fifth figure is present behind Bhu-devi. Srinivasan tells that locals identify this fifth figure with Narada. Both, Dubreuil as well as Srinivasan, assert that this images has been redone at later times.

Vishnu-Anantashayi in Mahishasuramardini Cave, Mamallapuram |

We may compare this image with the Vishnu-Anantashayana icons of Mahishasuramardini Cave and the Shore Temple, both in Mamallapuram. The image at Shore Temple might be the earliest Anantashayana icon in south of India. Vishnu is depicted with four arms and lying over the rock bed. As the image is much weathered, the objects held by Vishnu are not very clear. Absence of Shesha is of importance and curious as the established iconography of Anantashayana shows Vishnu lying over coils of Shesha as evident from the Gupta period images at Udayagiri, Sindursi and Devgarh. The Anantashayana image in Mahishasuramardini cave is very similar to the icon at Singavaram except the former does not show Brahma emerging from Vishnu’s navel. With presence of Brahma, it appears that the image at Singavaram represents a matured phase of iconography when compared to the images of Mamallapuram. Provided if this rock-cut excavation is credited to Mahendravarman I, then it predates to both the Mamallapuram images. There are two possibilities, first, the presence of Brahma should not be looked as maturity of iconography but should be considered as a fitment into overall theme. Second, as scholars believe that this image is been redone at later periods, it may be possible that Brahma and others were part of the later modifications.

A Chola inscription of Kulothunga I mentions that Kasyapan Sri Raman of Vaikhanasa-sutra, was the priest of the temple and performing worship. It is interesting to note that Vaikhanasagama7 mentions four different types of sayana murtis. Among those, Yogasayana is of interest for the iconography at Singavaram. The text defines that Vishnu to be depicted with two arms, one leg slightly flexed and one fully stretched out. The right arm is stretched backward, the left hand either rests on the thigh or raised in kataka-mudra. He is accompanied with sage Bhrgu and Markandeya, worshiping the god. Demon Madhu and Kaitabha shown threatening the god standing near his feet. Brahma is shown seated on lotus emerging from Vishnu’s navel. Garuda, Visvakesena (Vishnu’s gatekeeper), five ayudha-purushas, sapta-rishis are shown on the back well. Brahma and Shiva are depicted on his right and left. The most complete combination is said to be uttama imahe. The intermediate, madhyama class image omits rishis, Visvaksena etc. The lowest class, or adhama image, omits worshiping sages and demons. It appears that the Anantasayana image of this temple may fall under the madhyama class of sayana murti. In case there was any recut oe rework done, it is very probable that it was carried out to fit in the image within the prescribed iconography in Vaikhanasagama.

Durga | Arvind Venkataraman

In an extended niche on the north of the front facade houses an exquisite image of Durga as Korravai. She is shown standing in tri-bhanga (thrice bent) posture over a buffalo-head. She has four arms, carrying prayoga-chakra (discus) in her upper left hand and a sankha (conch) in upper right hand. Both her lower hands are placed on her waist. Two devotees are shown near her feet. The devotee on her left is shown kneeling down, with one hand over his waist and one hand in kataka-mudra. The figure on her right is also shown kneeling down, with a knife in his right hand shown in position to strike a cut on his left thigh. A scabbard is shown hanging over his waist. It appears that this devotee is trying to offer some kind of blood-sacrifice to the goddess.

Durga at Adi-Varaha-Perumal Temple at Mamallapuram

Similar sculptures of Durga (or Korravai) are also found elsewhere within the Pallava milieu, mainly in Mamallapuram. We have a Durga sculpture at the Draupadi Ratha where the devotee is shown in position to cut his head as offering. Durga is shown standing in sambhaga-posture over a lotus pedestal and attended by ganas. Another sculpture at the Varaha Mandapa shows similar scene, here Durga stands in sambhaga-posture over a lotus pedestal and attended by ganas and her mounts, a lion and a stag. A devotee is shown in act of cutting his head. Varaha Mandapa also has sculptures of Vishnu as Trivikrama and Varaha, suggesting the association of the goddess with Vishnu as also observed here at Singavaram. Another sculpture at Adi-Varaha Mandapa shows Durga standing in tri-bhanga posture, over a buffalo-head, attended by female attendants, ganas and her mounts, a lion and a stag. A trident is placed behind her. The devotee here is not shown cutting his head but inflicting a cut over his arm. An another sculpture of Durga, shown with eight arms and standing over a buffalo-head is found at Trimurti Cave. However, she is not accompanied with any devotee here. All these examples from the Pallava period suggest an existence of an iconographic idea where Durga as Mahishasuramardini is shown standing over a buffalo-head and with devotees offering some kind of blood-sacrifice.

Within the Tamil literary works, the earliest reference of blood-sacrifice is found in Silappatikaram. Twelfth canto of this work goes like this, “In its midst stood the meeting place where they gathered to eat. There the oracle stirred her feet, danced in a frenzy, and spoke aloud: “Herds to cattle thrive in the big villages of your foes. The meeting places of the Eyinans are in ruins. Born of the family of the Maravans, they no longer strip travelers of their possessions. They have become timid like righteous men. Unless you offer the sacrifice due to the goddess riding a stag, she won’t bless your bows with victory. O men who live by plunder! If you wish to spend your days drinking palm wine, offer your sacrifice.” The Eyinans offered their own heads as sacrifice so others may count them, rather than have them fired by torch when they died.”8 It is important to note that the goddess Aiyai is said to be riding a stag, standing over a buffalo-head, holding a trident and equated with Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati. Later in the text, we are informed, “Now accept this blood by cutting our necks, as the price of the victory you confer upon the brave and strong Eiynar”.9

Durga at Varaha Mandapa at Mamallapuram |

Does the devotee in the Pallava Durga sculptures represent the blood sacrifice practice prevalent in the Maravan community as informed by Silappatikaram? Maravan being a highway-robber community concentrated only in a small forest area, it would be surprising to see their practice getting an acceptance in the wider Pallava frame. A Pallava inscription at Mallam in Nellore district10, dated in the reign of king Kampavarman, mentions the practice of nava-khandam, where flesh is cut from nine parts of a body and the head as the final sacrifice to the goddess Bhatari (i.e. Durga). Harle11 brings in similar argument however he concludes that the incorporation of the rite of the Maravan into the official iconography appears less improbable.

Durga in Draupadi Ratha at Mamallapuram |

Alf Hiltebeitel12 provides a reference from the chapter 13 of the Devi Mahatmya where mention is made of the dispossessed king Suratha and the impoverished Vaishya Samadhi offering sacrifice sprinkled with blood from their own limbs before an image of the goddess. He is of opinion that this puranic scene likely provides the prototype for the two figures flanking the goddess, a king as a kshatriya undergoing a sacrificial rite and the Vaishya simply as a pious devotee. Devi Mahatmya is part of Markandeya Purana and estimated to be composed between 400-600 CE. Though it was primarily composed in the north of India, its influence in the south of India should not be doubted provided Kanchipuram was an ancient seat of learning for Sanskrit and Tamil languages. In this particular sculpture at Singavaram, it appears that one devotee may be a royal personage and the other of non-royal. However, the other above quoted sculptures, such differentiation is not evident. Also, Devi Mahatmya mentions that both, king Suratha and vaishya Samadhi, offered blood sacrifice to the goddess. Therefore, why the sculptors decide only to convey the sacrifice of the king through the sculpture.

Whatever be the influence and inspirations behind this iconography, it is very clear that blood-sacrifices were not very uncommon during the Pallava period. As Korravai is said to be the Goddess of War/Victory, it was appropriate to have her imagery in temples, local as well as royal, allowing the king and warriors to get her blessings before starting on a war.


  1. On a rock in Tirunatharkunru near the village13 – dated to 4th century CE based upon paleography – records the fast unto death in 57 days by Chandiranandi Asirigar (Asiriyar) at this place.
  2. On the same rock as above14 – dated to 10th century CE based upon paleography – records the fast unto death in 30 days by Ilaiya-Bhatarar at this place.
  3. On two boulders at the foot of hill15 – dated to 10th century CE based upon paleography – records the foundation of village called Srikaranapperuncheri and endowment of the levies from village for food offerings and lamp to Alvar in the temple of Tirupanrikkunru by Nilagangaraiyan Annavan-Nattadigal, at the request of his officer Kesavanambi.
  4. On the east base of mandapa in front of the central shrine in the Ranganatha temple16 – refers to the seventh regnal year of the Chola king Rajendra II, corresponding 1058 CE – mentions various gifts by Perungurup-perumakkal of Rajaraja-chturvedimangalam of Panaiyurnadu in Rajendrachola-valanadu. The gifts were made after assembling in the courtyard of the temple of Rajaraja-Vinnagar-Alvar in the presence of Nambikotti Atiratra-yajiyar. The lord is referred as Pallikondarulugira Paramasvamigal in Tiruppanrikkunru. These gifts were made for expiation of sins for various killings done by different donors.
  5. On stray stones built into the walls of the same mandapa17 – refers to the eleventh regnal year of the Chola king Rajendra II, corresponding 1063-64 CE – seems to state that a certain brahmana who beat to death one Perukkalan at Tiruvenbedu, a hamlet of Rajaraja-chaturvedimandalama, an independent village in Panaiyur-nadu, a subdivision of Rajendrachola-valanadu, was required to burn a perpetual lamp in the temple in expiation of the crime.
  6. On the east base of the same mandapa18 – refers to the thirtieth regnal year of the Chola king Kulothunga I, corresponding 1100-01 CE – records gift of 30 cows for a perpetual lamp to god Tiruppanrikunuralvar by a certain individual. It mentions Kasyapan Sri Raman of Vaikhanasa-sutra, who was performing worship in the temple of the Alvar.
  7. On the left-wing stone at the entrance into central shrine in the same Ranganatha temple19 – to be copied
  8. On the south base of the central shrine in the ruined Adivaraha-Perumal temple20 – refers to the thirtieth regnal year of the Pandya king Maravarman Kulasekhara I, corresponding 1298 CE – records tax-free gift of the village Singavaram excluding devadana lands for worship, festivals and repairs to the temple, for merit of the king to god Panri Alvar in Tiruppanrikunru in Singavaram, in Singapura-nadu in Palkunrak-kottam in Jayangondachola-mandalam, by Nattavar of Senjimalai-pparru.
  9. On the east base of the mandapa in front of the center shrine in the Ranganatha Temple21 – date is lost, refers to the reign of the Pandya king Maravarman Vira Pandya, corresponding 1268 CE – records grant of wet-lands in the village Pallavanpattu in the Seruvalur-parru as tax-free by nattavar of the place, for the health of king for worship and various offerings to god Nayanar Devapperumal set up in the temple of Nayanar-Panri-Alvar in Tiruppanrikunru in Singapuram in Palkunrakkottam in Jayagondachola-mandalam by a certain individual.
  10. On the east wall of the same shrine22 – states that the ceiling of the tiru-mandapa was the gift of Alvan Tanda-kanattu-Brahmadarayan of Nerkunram alias Rajachudamaninallur in Vidalparru.
  11. On a boulder near a tank23 – seems to register a gift of land for a garden to the temple at Singapuram

1 Hiltebeitel, Alf (1988). The Cult of Draupadi – Mythologies: From Gingee to Kuruksetra vol I. The University of Chicago Press. Chicago. ISBN 0226340457. p 54
2 Garstin, J H (1878). Manual of the South Arcot District. Lawrence Asylum Press. Madras (now Chennai). pp 411-412
3 Francis, W (1906). Madras District Gazetteer – South Arcot. Government Press. Madras. p 366
4 Jouveau-Dubreuil, G (1918). Pallava Antiquities vol II. Asian Educational Services. New Delhi. ISBN 8120605713. pp 49-51
5 Longhurst, A H (1924). Pallava Architecture part I. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. pp 18-19
6 Srinivasan, K R (1964). Cave Temples of the Pallavas. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. pp 112-115
7 Soundara Rajan, K V (1967). The Typology of the Anantaśayī Icon published in Artibus Asiae vol. 29, no. 1. pp 67-84
8 Parthasarathy, R (2004). The Cilappatikāram: The Tale of an Anklet. Penguin Books. Mumbai. ISBN 9780143031963. pp 119-120
9 Dikshitar, V R Ramachandra (1939). The Silappadikaram. Oxford University Press. Madras (now Chennai). p 187
10 No 106 of South Indian Inscriptions vol XII. p 50
11 Harle, J C (1963). Durgā, Goddess of Victory published in Artibus Asiae Vol. 26, No. 3/4. pp 237-246
12 Hiltebeitel, Alf (1988). The Cult of Draupadi – Mythologies: From Gingee to Kuruksetra vol I. The University of Chicago Press. Chicago. ISBN 0226340457. p 319
13 No 262 of South Indian Inscriptions, vol XVII. p 164
14 No 261 of South Indian Inscriptions, vol XVII. p 164
15 No 260 of South Indian Inscriptions, vol XVII. p 163
16 No 249 of South Indian Inscriptions, vol XVII. p 98
17 SA-783 of Mahalingam, T V (1985). Topographical List of Inscriptions of Tamil Nadu and Kerala States vol II. Indian Council of Historical Research. New Delhi. p 195
18 No 247 of South Indian Inscriptions, vol XVII. p 95
19 No 139 of South Indian Inscriptions, vol XII. p –
20 No 253 of South Indian Inscriptions, vol XVII. p 100
21 No 248 of South Indian Inscriptions, vol XVII. p 97
22 SA-788 of Mahalingam, T V (1985). Topographical List of Inscriptions of Tamil Nadu and Kerala States vol II. Indian Council of Historical Research. New Delhi. p 196
23 SA-789 of Mahalingam, T V (1985). Topographical List of Inscriptions of Tamil Nadu and Kerala States vol II. Indian Council of Historical Research. New Delhi. p 196