Tiruchirappalli – Lalitankura-Pallavesvara-griham

Tiruchirappalli (also Trichy) is a large city in Tamilnadu state and does not require any introduction. As per a legend1, the name of the city is supposedly derived from Trishira, the three-headed brother of Ravana. Trishira was a devout follower of Shiva. Once, when invoked, the god did not appear, he started cutting off his heads in offering. Just before he was about the cut his last head, the god appeared and gave him the boon that the city and its main deity would be known after him. C P Brown suggests that the name is a corruption for Chiruta-palli or “little town”. Yule and Burnell suggest that the name was Tiru-ssila-palli or “holy-rock-town”. K R Srinivasan2 mentions an inscription near the Jain beds on the hill, reading chira, denoting that the old name of the place was Chirapalli, the suffix palli emphasizing the Jain association. In the Thevaram, the place is referred as Chira or Sirapalli.

View in the Fort of Trichinopoly – plate 21 from the second set of Thomas and William Daniell’s ‘Oriental Scenery’, 1798 | British Library

The famous rock of the city, locally known as Rock Fort or just the Rock, is situated in the north-eastern part and rises about 273 feet above the ground. In an inscription of eleventh century CE, the hill is referred as Siramalai (“the hill of Sira”). There is a famous Ganesha temple, Ucchi Pillyar Temple, at the top of the hill. Thus, the hill is also known as Ucchi-pilliyar-malai or Tayunmanasvami (Matribhutesvara) hill. A legend associates it with the residence of Trisira, the brother of Ravana. He set up a Shivalinga here which was worshiped by Rama on his way to Lanka. However, as per Ramayana, Trishira was a son of Ravana and not his brother. Another legend3 mentions that the rock was later taken as a residence by Sarama Muni who grew sivandhi plants in his garden to offer to the god. Some of these flowers were stolen by a gardener, and he was pardoned by the Chola king Parantaka of Uraiyur. The god, in his anger, destroyed the city of Uraiyur. The queen alone escaped and later delivered a male child, Karikal, who was later installed as a king with the grace of lord Shiva.

This hill was used by the Jain recluses as few beds in a natural cavern are found on this hill, just above the upper rock-cut Shiva temple. Brahmi inscriptions and later fifth-sixth century CE inscriptions are found in these caves. The fort above this hill was constructed during the Nayaka period, under Viswanatha Nayak (1529-1564 CE). This impregnable fort had survived several sieges, only to fell at the last to the Marathas in 1741. It is generally believed that the fort was voluntarily surrendered owing to famine. In 1743, the Marathas quietly left the fort allowing the Nizam to took over.

The Tank and Rock Fort at Trichinopoly, from an Album of Miscellaneous views in India, 1860s | British Library

There are two rock-cut shrines (cave-temples) in the town, known as lower and upper cave temples. This article is about the upper cave temple which is excavated on the famous hill and is attributed to the Pallava king Mahendravarman I (600-630 CE). A very brief reference of this temple is made in the district gazetteer of 18784 mentioning that a cave-like room next to the temple of Shiva. This cave-like room was used as an arsenal during the British occupation. The gazetteer mentions of a tragic accident, occured during a festival in 1849, when a large number of people gathered at the top of the rock. Due to some unknown reason, a panic started resulting in a big crowd rushing down the rock. resulting in the death of over 250 people, being knocked down and trampled. The next edition of the gazetteer5, published in 1907, does not improve upon much from the last edition, except mentioning that the shrine was excavated by the Pallava king Mahendravarman I at the beginning of seventh century CE.

Photograph of the Rock at Tiruchirapalli in Tamil Nadu, taken by Samuel Bourne in the 1869 | British Library

Lalitankura-Pallavesvara-grihan – This shrine is excavated on the southern face of the rock. The shrine is approached with a flight of three steps flanked by parapet formed of makaras. The base (adhisthana) was probably designed with conventional mouldings however only the jagati and pattika mouldings were finished. The cornice (kapota) above is left plain, without any conventional kudu decoration. The facade has four pillars and two pilasters. The pillars have cubical top and bottom sections (saduram) with intervening octagonal part (kattu). Lower sadurams are decorated with lotus medallions. Upper sadurams have different designs within circular medallions. The pilasters are left plain, quadrangular throughout. The corbel above is of curved -profile, carved with taranga (waves) moulding with a median patta (band). The band is decorated with creeper design. Another row of pillars and pilasters is provided inside the oblong mandapa. The pillars and pilasters of this row follow the pattern of their counterparts in the front row. Pillar sadurams are decorated in the same manner as those in the front row. However, this second row of the pillars does not divide the mandapa in two equal parts, as the distance between this second row and the rear wall is very less compared to its distance from the front pillar row.

Inner shrine | Arvind Venkataraman

On the eastern wall of this mandapa is cut a shrine, projecting forward with its opening flanked by dvarapala niches. The adhisthana of this shrine has conventional mouldings; jagati, tripatta-kukuda, kantha sandwiched with two kampa courses and a pattika. The entry into the shrine is through a rock-cut staircase of three steps. In the front of the shrine are four pilasters, two central allowing for an opening and the two at terminals forming niches flaking the opening. The central pilasters are carved with all conventional pillar sections. Above the pilasters run conventional mouldings of corbels, beam, vajana, valabhi and kapota. The kapota is decorated with kudu-arches.

Northern Dvarapala | Arvind Venkataraman
Southern Dvarapala | Arvind Venkataraman

The dvarapalas are shown standing with their clubs. They miss the ayudha-purusha attributes as seen in other shrines of Mahendravarman I. Inside the cell, two sockets are cut in the floor. K R Srinivasan (p 85) suggests that the larger socket may had an image of Shiva while the small one may had an image of Parvati. Longhurst is of opinion that the small socket was probably for an image of Mahendravarman I.

Shiva Gangadhara | Arvind Venkataraman

On the western wall is a large base-relief of Shiva as Gangadhara. This bas-relief can be safely termed as the masterpiece of the Mahendravarman I period. The base (adhisthana) of this panel is different from conventional pattern, instead it has the railing pattern mostly seen in the Buddhist stupas. This railing is decorated with circular lotus designs. In the panel, Shiva as Gangadhara is shown standing in tribhanga-mudra, with his one leg firmly set upon the ground and the other leg resting above the head of a gana. The left hand of the gana supports the ankle of Shiva’s leg while his right hand is carrying a snake. Shiva is shown with four hands, upper right hand is holding a tress of his hair, upper left hand is holding an akshamala, lower right hand is carrying a snake and lower left hand is on his waist. On his right is shown Ganga, depicted in a female form, descending  over to his tresses. On his jata-makuta, left side is shown Chandra (moon) and right side is a skull.  Ganga, on left of Shiva, is an animal. A H Longhurst identifies this with a deer, however it is much ruined now.

On the top corners are present two flying vidyadharas with their one hand raised in adoration while other hand is on their waists. At the bottom corners are shown two devotes kneeling on their feet. Their one hand is raised in adoration while the other hand is on waist. Behind these two kneeling devotes are shown two rishis. Their one hand is raised in adoration.

Inscriptions: There are three inscriptions and many labels (birudas) engraved all around the shrine, mainly over its pillars and pilasters. Many of these labels are primarily the biruda bore by the Pallava king Mahendravarman I (600-630 CE), attested by the same birudas found at his other shrines.

    1. Birudas engraved over pillars and pilasters (No 8 of South Indian Inscriptions vol XII, pp 4-6) – वञ्जवलव (Vanjavalav), सर्व्वभ[त] (Sarvvabha[t]), तरदण्ड् (taradand), नित्यविनीत (nityavineetha), निबम्बु (nibambu), तनुम्पुनोमि (tanumpunomi), निरपेक्ष: (nirpeksha), नयम्बु (nayambu), तुकानु (Tukanu), निल्वुलेनेयम्बु (nilvuleneyambu), न….कु (na…ku), तो…का (to…ka), णैहिकमुत्रिक: (naihikamutrika), नरापश (narapash), द…कु (da…ku), संकीर्णजातिः (sankeernajaatih), विरसः (virasah), अनित्यरागः (anityaragah), वम्बु (vambu), व्यवास्थतः (vyavaasthath), अनुमानः (anumanah), वुका (vuka), व्यवसायः (vyavasaayah), अवनिभाजनः (avanibhajanah), [व्ला]पु ([vla]pu), सत्यसन्दः (satyasandha), कतुन्क्तायु (katunktayu), अभिमुरव: (abhimuravh), वेसाथ (vesaatha), क[तु]न्तरम्बु (ka[tu]ntarambu), अकरुणः (akarunh) | वन्कि….. (vanki….), कं…..पु (kam…pu), अलबल (alval), वन्कः (vankah), पिणःपिनःअक्कु (pinhpinhakku), ललितान्कुर: (lalitankurah), मैकु (maiku), [च]लम्बु ([cha]lambu), ऐमुकु (aimuku), कष्ट (kashta), किलम्बु (kilambu), ऐथि (aithi), कु….म्बु (ku….mbu), म्लायु (mlaayu), कुहकः (kuhakah), वम्बर (vambar), वावे…ति (vaave…ti), [वु]नाथ: ([vu]nathah), कुचग्राणः (kuchagranah), लक्षितः (lakshitah), गुणभरः (gunabharah), अन्क्कपासु (ankkapasu), तो…. (to…..), आसेट्ति: आय[न्ति] (aasetti aayan[ti]), ते…. (te….), आलुप्तकामः (aaluptakamah), ते[थ] (te[tha]), [आहार्य्यबुद्धि] ([aahaaryyabuddhi]h), क…… (ka….)
    2. On inner face of this left pilaster (No 8 of South Indian Inscriptions vol XII, p 6) – स्वस्ति श्री [||] महेन्द्रविक्रमः मत्तविलासः मयमयक्कु म…मा…. महामेघ मन्प्रावु मिदेल्चु… मुर्खविज्ज मोग्गर [महिचे]थ्थकारि ..[पन्द] च…[चे]…मु… चु…….सा[र्थ्थ]…..…….[सम्ब]रुतु [विडे]……न्वु …………………….णाल   ………………
    3. on the beam of the inner row of the pillars (No 9 of South Indian Inscriptions vol XII, p 6) – “It should be known that this Lalitankura-pallavesvara-griham is constructed by the king Lalitankura.”
    4. On the side of the bas-relief of Gangadhara (No 34 of South Indian Inscriptions Vol I, p 30)
      1. Verse 1 – When king Gunabhara placed a stone-figure in the wonderful stone-temple on the top of the best of mountains, he made in this way Sthanu (Siva) stationary and became himself stationary (i.e.immortal) in the worlds together with him.
      2. Verse 2 – King Satrumalla built on this mountain a temple of Girisa (Siva), the husband of the daughter of the king of mountains, in order to make he name Girisa (i.e. the mountain dweller) true to its meaning.
      3. Verse 3 – After Hara (Siva) had graciously asked him : “How could I, standing in a temple on earth, view the great power of the Cholas or the river Kaviri ?” – king Gunabhara, who resembled  Manu in his manner of ruling, assigned to him this mountain-temple, which touches the clouds.
      4. Verse 4 – Thus having joyfully placed on the top (of the mountain named Sira) a matchless stone-figure of Hara (Siva), which he caused to be executed, that Purushottama, who bore Siva fixed in his mind, made the loftiness of the mountain fruitful.
    5. On the side of the bas-relief of Gangadhara (No 33 of South Indian Inscriptions vol I, pp 29-30)  –
      1. Verse 1 – Being afraid, that the god who is fond of rivers (Siva), having perceived the Kaviri, whose waters please the eye, who wears a garland of gardens, and who possesses lovely qualities, might fall in love (with her), the daughter of the mountain (Parvati) has, I think, left her father’s family and resides permanently on this mountain, calling this river the beloved of the Pallava (king).
      2. Verse 2 – While the king called Gunabhara is a worshipper of the linga, let the knowledge, which has turned back from hostile (vipaksha) conduct, be spread for a long time in the world by this linga !
      3. Verse 3 – This mountain resembles the diadem of the Chola province, this temple of Hara (Siva) its chief jewel, and the splendour of Samkara (Siva)  its splendour.
      4. Verse 4 – By the stone-chisel a material body of Satyasamdha was executed, and by the same an eternal body of his fame was produced.

Some points of ponder in above inscription –
Verse 1 states that Mahendra made Shiva stationary here and in turn made himself stationary as well. E Hultzsch (SII, vol I, p 29) suggests that the king constructed a temple, in which he installed a linga and his statue. A H Longhurst interprets this as Mahendra placed his stone image next to Shiva’s stone lingam. Lockwood interpreted that the Shiva in Gangadhara panel in turn also depicts Mahendravarman, hence both stationary at same place. K R Srinivasan is also of the opinion that there was no image of Mahendra placed with Shiva here. The second socket inside the shrine, where earlier scholar suggested an image of Mahendra would have been placed, was actually made to house an image of Parvati, as clear from verse of inscription 33.
Another point is how to explain the term ‘great power of the Cholas‘ in verse 3 of this Pallava inscription. Simhavishnu won this part of country from the Cholas, and Mahendra got this from him in inheritance. From this information, I deduce that the relation between these two dynasties were not very good, or better I say not that good that you will praise about them in your inscription. Does this suggest that the relations during Mahendra’s time were somehow maintained in good terms? No proof as such to support this. Another thing, this place was under Pallavas when this temple was excavated, in that case why would they inscribed that Shiva wants to view the great power of the Cholas but not of Pallavas?

Some points to ponder on above inscription –
In verse 1, Kaveri is said to be the beloved of the Pallava king. However in inscription 34 verse 3, Kaveri is mentioned with the Cholas, though no specific relation is specified there. Another thing of interest is term nadi-priya (lover of rivers). The representation of this nadi-priya is reflected in the Gangadhara panel, signifying Shiva’s love with Ganga, which is adorning the same wall on which this inscription is engraved.
In next verse, verse 2, we see a term linga. K R Srinivasan suggests that this term, linga, does nor mean Shivalingam here but image of the god. He says that we do not see any mention of Shivalingam in contemporary hymns of saints and also do not find any such symbol in Pallava temples of Mahendra’s time. Hence it should be taken that Mahendra installed a stone image of Shiva but not Shivalingam.
In the same verse, as above, we also find mention of Mahendra’s turn towards Shiva from some other hostile faith. This hostile faith could be Jainism, as accepted by many scholars. Saint Appar is seen contemporary with Mahendra and also was responsible to turn the king into Shaivism. In our previous article, we came to know that Mandagapattu is accepted as the first cave temple excavated by Mahendravarman I and he dedicated that shrine to Hindu Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. When Mahendra was turned to Shaivism from Jainism then it is expected from him to excavated temples for Shiva. However he did not do this, instead he excavated many temples dedicated to Trinity and Vishnu, along with Shiva. K R Srinivasan says that it seem Mahendra was a tolerant follower of Vedic (Brahmana) path and later he became ardent Shaiva. Hence his first temples were for trinity, later one for Vishnu and many of his last temples were dedicated to Shiva only. He further states that theory of Mahendra’s conversion by Appar to Shaivism is based upon a much later work, Periyapuranam, and also on the identification of Gunadhara as to same as Gunabhara.

1 Hemingway, F R (1907). Madras District Gazetteer: Trichinopoly. Government Press. Madras (now Chennai). p 2
2   Srinivasan, K R (1964). Cave Temples of the Pallavas. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 79
3 Hemingway, F R (1907). Madras District Gazetteer: Trichinopoly. Government Press. Madras (now Chennai). pp 339-340
4 Moore, Lewis (1878). A Manual of the Trichinopoly District in the Presidency of Madras. Government of Tamilnadu. Chennai. p 342.
5 Hemingway, F R (1907). Madras District Gazetteer: Trichinopoly. Government Press. Madras (now Chennai). pp 339-340