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 derived from Trishira, the three-headed brother of Ravana. Trishira was a devout follower of Shiva. Once, when the God did not appear after invoking, 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. The rock or hill, the most prominent sight in the town, is referred as Sira or Sira-malai in the Pallava inscription. Therefore, it is also probable that the town started being referred as tiru-sira-palli (or holy sira-palli) later corrupting to the present form.

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 hill in the city, locally known as Rock Fort or just the Rock, is situated in the north-eastern and rises about 273 feet above the ground. In a Pallava inscription, the hill is referred as Sira while in an inscription of eleventh century CE, it 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 Trishira, the brother of Ravana. It is told that 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.

During the early centuries of the current era, the hill was used by the Jain recluses as few beds in a natural cavern are found in 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 the lower and the 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. It is told that this cave-like room was used as an arsenal during the foreign 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. In 1890, the famous inscription of Mahendravarman I was edited by Hultzsch with a very brief description of the cave temple. 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. In 1918, this cave temple was featured among the Pallava antiquities by Dubreuil6 however it was not discussed in detail. First detailed description of the cave-temple appeared when A H Longhurst7 took up the Pallava architecture in detail. A better description and interpretation was made available by K R Srinivasan8 in 1958. He was successfully able to differentiate the Mahendra style with the rest of the Pallava creations by utilizing the form and shape of the pillars. His landmark study, which is in use till date, paved the path for all the future scholars.

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 are two sockets cut in the floor. One socket would be for Shiva, either as an image or a linga. We have divergent opinions about the other socket. A H Longhurst9 suggests that this socket was for an image of Mahendravarman while K R Srinivasan10 is of opinion that it was for an image of Parvati. We will discuss this topic in detail during the course of this article while taking the inscriptions in context.

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 the left side of his jata-makuta is shown Chandra (moon) and on the right side is a shown a skull. In his upper left hand is shown an animal however its proper identification is not possible due to the present state of preservation. However, A H Longhurst identifies it with a deer.

On the top corners are shown two flying vidyadharas with their one hand raised in adoration and the other hand 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 with their one hand 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) as attested by the same birudas found at his other shrines.

    1. Birudas engraved over pillars and pilasters11वञ्जवलव (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 pilaster12 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 pillars13“It should be known that this Lalitankura-pallavesvara-griham is constructed by the king Lalitankura.”
    4. On the side of the bas-relief of Gangadhara14
      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 the 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 Gangadhara15
      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.

Riddles of the Tiruchirappalli Inscriptions – There are many puzzles woven within the two inscriptions, no 4 and 5 of the above, which are yet to be settled for wider acceptance. Details on these various aspects are provided below:

  1. Was linga worship prevalent during the early Pallava period:
    1. The verses to take into account are the verse 1 of the inscription no 4 and verse 2 of the inscription no 5. Verse 1 of the inscription no 4 has a reference of a stone-image while verse 2 of the inscription no 5 has a reference of linga.
    2. Hultzsch16 interprets that the king built a temple of Shiva on the top of a mountain and placed in it a linga and a statue of himself.
    3. Following Hultzsch, Longhurst17 explains that the smaller socket inside the shrine was meant for the statue of the king and the larger socket for linga.
    4. Srinivasan18 puts forward a thesis that linga worship was not prevalent during the early Pallava period of Mahendravarman I and his immediate successors. He argues that  absence of lingas in Mahendra’s shrines and no provision for a water outlet attest that linga worship was not in practice. Water outlet is a necessary provision to carry out linga-abhishekha, a customary ritual associated with linga worship. Therefore, he suggests that it was a sakala (anthropomorphic) form of Shiva installed inside the shrine in the larger socket. For the smaller socket, taking cues from the next verse, he suggests that it was for  an image of Parvati. For the word linga, Srinivasan is of opinion that it refers to the shrine as a whole.
    5. Lockwood19 is of the view that the early Pallavas followed the age-old practice of linga worship and the object of worship inside this rock-cut shrine was indeed a linga.
    6. Nagaswamy20 is of opinion that as the word linga is present in the inscription therefore not taking it in its primary meaning would be unjust. Also, many references are found in Thevaram where Appar had sung referring to lingas. Thus, we can safely say that linga-worship was prevalent during the early Pallava period.
    7. It would be hard to dismiss that linga worship was not prevalent during the early Pallava period, knowing that the linga worship was prevalent in India from earliest time. It is also a fact that no linga was found in situ in any of the rock-cut shrines definitely assignable to Mahendravarman I. Under these circumstances, dismissing that linga in the inscription does not mean Shiva-linga would not be accurate and justified.
  2. Dual identity of the Shiva-Gangadhara image:
    1. Lockwood21 was the first scholar to suggest that the Shiva-Gangadhara image also a representation of a royal portrait of Mahendravarman I. A parallelism is drawn between Shiva as Gangadhara and Mahendravarman as Kaveri-dhara. Lockwood comes to this conclusion after interpreting this inscription in context of the Gangadhara panel stating that it should be done so as the inscription is engraved next to the panel. Therefore, the reference of the installed image in the verse is meant for the image of Gangadhara. And the next verse makes it clear that this Shiva image is also a representation of the king Mahendravarman. Girindra-kanya (daughter of the mountain) in verse 3 is taken as a reference of Ganga rather than Parvati as the latter is not present in the panel.
    2. Padma Kaimal22 extends this imagery putting forward her theory of playful ambiguity in the Pallava reliefs, here at Tiruchirappalli and at Mamallapuram. She supports the view that this Gangadhara panel also portrays the royal portrait of the king.
    3. It is interesting to note that many recent scholars who have worked on this problem are leaning towards the view supporting dual theme of this panel. The list includes Susan L Huntington23, Vincent Lefevre24, Crispin Branfoot25 and Preeti Sharma26. Lefevre however, does not fully agree with the identification of “daughter of mountains” with Ganga as he says that one can wonder whether this is not an allusion to the very common theme of Parvati’s jealousy. Preeti Sharma opines that the panel renders the architect’s intention to conjoin art and ritual to transmit the idea of divine-royal to the onlookers quite explicitly
    4. It is very clear from verse 1 that the king made Shiva sthanu (stationary) at this place. This is a clear reference that the inscription is talking about the Shiva-Gangadhara panel. It cannot refer to a movable image supposedly fixed in the opposite shrine as it does not justify sthanu. It is also very clear that there is an allegory portraying Mahendravarman as the lord of Kaveri, drawing comparison with Shiva, the lord of Ganga. However, we also need to understand who were the intended recipients of this message and what was the conveyed theme them. Attempting a comparison between kings and the gods is nothing surprising and it was always attempted to showcase the valorous  and protective nature of the former. The intended message to a viewer was, perhaps, to tell that like Shiva is the lord of Ganga, similarly Mahendravarman was the lord of Kaveri. However, the message was not to see Mahendravarman in the image of Shiva-Gangadhara. Shiva as Gangadhara keeps his identity as it is in the panel.
  3. Is there a historical reference of Mahendravarman’s religious conversion:
    1. The verse in question is the verse 2 of the inscription no 5, “Gunabhara namani raja nyayena lingena linigini jnanam prathatam ciraya loke vipaksavrtteh paravrttam”.
    2. Periya Puranam, written by Sekkizhar, narrates a story of conversion of a king named Gunadhara from Jain to Shaiva faith. V Venkayya was the first scholar to suggest that Gunadhara of Periya Puranam can be identified with Gunabhara or Mahendravarman I as the difference between names, Gunadhara and Gunabhara, is very slight27.
    3. Hultzsch, the first editor of the inscription, is silent on this religious conversion however, he mentions that the whole verse has employed slesha or double entendre. About this shlesha, he explains that lingin means the subject of a proposition, linga the predicate of a proposition and vipaksha an instance on the opposite side.
    4. Longhurst28, H Krishna Sastri29, C Minakshi30 agree that the verse provides a historical support to the theory of Mahendra’s conversion from Jainism to Shaivism.
    5. Srinivasan31 rises question that if Mahendravarman was a recent and ardent Shaiva convert, how to explain that he dedicated his earlier cave temples of the Hindu Trimurti and Vishnu. A king who has supposedly returned from the path of ‘hostile faith’ would not have dedicated his early temples to other than Shiva. Therefore, it is clear that he was a tolerant ruler who, probably, in his later career got converted to Shaiva as all his late temples were dedicated to Shiva. In these circumstances, it would be hard to accept the much later tradition of his conversion from Jainism to Shaiva. First, he appears to be a religiously tolerant ruler, second, this much later tradition of his conversion is based upon rather uncertain identification of Gunadhara with Gunabhara.
    6. Lockwood32 differs with Hultzsch on the double entendre formula, he states that lingin means the conclusion to be arrived in an argument or inference, and linga means a reason advanced in support of the conclusion. This inference is known in logic as anumana. Anumana is a title/biruda of Mahendravarman I, also found in this shrine. Taking this theory forward, Lockwood suggests that the verse expresses, “this artistic work (image, temple) should become the instrument by which others were to be brought back to the fold of Shaivism from rival (atheistic) faiths (such as Jainism and Buddhism)”. Thus, Lockwood is of opinion that there is reference here that Mahendravarman got converted from some rival faith to Shaivism.
    7. Nagaswamy33 appears more aligned to Hultzsch when he states that words linga, lingin, jnana and vipaksha have two meanings. He is of opinion that as shlesha is employed therefore both the meanings should be valid . Accepting one meaning alone by rejecting another would make the composition faulty. He translates the verse, “Through the Shivalinga (established) here, in the king named, Gunabhara, who bears the Linga (i.e. constantly adores Shiva), the knowledge that he has turned away from the hostile faith: let it become well known in the world for long.” He thus agrees that the inscription does have a historical reference for religious conversion.
    8. If we believe in the story of Periya Puranam, then the king Gunadhara became an ardent Shaiva persecuting Jains afterward. This depicts a picture of a religiously intolerant ruler. However, many early temples of Mahendravarman were not dedicated to Shiva but to the other Hindu gods. The earliest of his shrine at Mandagapattu was dedicated to the Hindu Trimurti. If Mahendravarman was converted into Shaiva late in his career then this suggests that he was not a Jain earlier as he dedicated his early temples to the Hindu gods. We cannot substantiate the story of Periya Puranam with available information except if we accept that though Mahendravarman got converted into Shaivism however he followed a religious tolerant attitude dedicating his shrines to other gods as well. But a big issue in accepting this is whether a king would dedicate his first shrine to the deity he adored the most or to others. But, this inscription gives a clear indication that the king came back to the folds from another hostile faith. Readings from Hultzsch and Lockwood point in the same direction. Can this hostile faith be other than Jain? Can Vaishnava or other Hindu prevalent faiths be considered hostile? What if Mahendravarman was a religiously tolerant ruler in the early stages of his rule and got converted into ardent Shaiva at a later stage of his rule?

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
6 Jouveau-Dubreuil, G (1918). Pallava Antiquities vol II. Asian Educational Services. New Delhi. ISBN 8120605713. p 36
7 Longhurst, A H (1924). Pallava Architecture part I. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. pp 13-15
8 Srinivasan, K R (1958). The Pallava Architecture of South India published in Ancient India Number 14. pp 114-138
9 Longhurst, A H (1924). Pallava Architecture part I. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 15
10 Srinivasan, K R (1964). Cave Temples of the Pallavas. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 85
11 No 8 of South Indian Inscriptions vol XII. pp 4-6
12 No 8 of South Indian Inscriptions vol XII. p 6
13 No 9 of South Indian Inscriptions vol XII. p 6
14 No 34 of South Indian Inscriptions Vol I. p 30
15 No 33 of South Indian Inscriptions vol I. pp 29-30
16 South Indian Inscriptions vol I. p 29
17 Longhurst, A H (1924). Pallava Architecture part I. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 14
18 Srinivasan, K R (1964). Cave Temples of the Pallavas. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 88
19 Lockwood, Michael (2001). Pallava Art. Tambaram Research Associates. Chennai. p 53
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21 Lockwood, Michael (2001). Pallava Art. Tambaram Research Associates. Chennai. p 48
22 Kaimal, Padma (1994). Playful Ambiguity and Political Authority in the Large Relief at Mamallapuram published in Art Orientalis vol 24. pp 1-27
23 Huntington, Susan L (1994). Kings as Gods, Gods as Kings: Temporality and Eternity in the Art of India published in Ars Orientalis Vol. 24. pp 30-38
24 Lefevre, Vincent (2011). Portraiture in Early India. Brill. Leiden. pp 41-42
25 Branfoot, Crispin (2018). Portraiture in South Asia since the Mughals: Art, Representation and History. ISBN 9781838608965
26 Sharma, Preeti (2014). Elephant Imagery in Mahabalipuram Relief: Deification of Royal Authority published in Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, Vol. 75, Platinum Jubilee. pp. 1101-1107
27 Epigraphia Indica vol III, p 278
28 Longhurst, A H (1924). Pallava Architecture part I. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 14
29 Epigraphia Indica vol XVIII. pp 149-150
30 Minakshi, C (1938). Administration and Social Life under the Pallavas. University of Madras. Chennai. pp 230-231
31 Srinivasan, K R (1964). Cave Temples of the Pallavas. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 89
32 Lockwood, Michael (2001). Pallava Art. Tambaram Research Associates. Chennai. p 134
33 Tamil Arts Academy, retrieved on 23-Sep-2020