Vallam – Vasanteshvaram Cave Temple

Vallam is a small village situated near Chengalpattu, located 2 km from the latter on the Chengalpattu-Mamallapuram road. This otherwise insignificant settlement is famous for its cave-temples. The earliest antiquity of the village goes back to the Pallava period when three cave-temples were excavated on the eastern face of a low hill. In a thirteenth century inscription, belonging to the later Pallavas, the village is referred as Vallam situated in Vallam-nadu, the latter was part of Kalattur-kottam.

Vasantesvaram Cave Temple
Shrine in the rear wall of the cave | Swaminathan Natarajan
Southern Dvarpala | Swaminathan Natarajan
Trishula prongs behind the dvarapala | Swaminathan Natarajan
Northern dvarpala | Swaminathan Natarajan

Cave-temple No 1 (Vasantesvaram Cave-temple) – This is the uppermost and the largest excavation on this hill. The plan consists of an ardha-mandapa and a central shrine in the rear. The front facade is supported on two pillars and two pilasters. Pillars have cubical base and top (saduram) and an intervening octagonal section (kattu). Pilasters follow the pillars in design. Corbel above the pillars is with curved profile. The shrine in the rear has two niches flanking its entrance. Inside the niches are provided dvarapalas. Both dvarapalas are very similar in design and execution with few difference, like southern dvarapala wears his yajnopavita in upavita style while the northern dvarapala is wearing in nivita style. This difference, in wearing the yajnopavita, is observed at several places, however its objective is still not very clear. An interesting feature of the southern dvarapala is its protruding horns on either side of the headdress. This topic has been discussed in detail in Kuranganailmuttam cave temple article. While in Kuranganilmuttam, we observed an extra protrusion above the headdress, the dvarapala at Vallam clearly shows that the side prongs were not attached to his headdress. This further substantiate the theory that these horns are the representation of Shiva’s trishula, making dvarapala an ayudha-purusha. Similarly, the northern dvarpala has a protrusion in front of his headdress. Few scholars have suggested this as a chakra however the suggestion from Gift Shiromoney & Michael Lockwood seems most appropriate. They suggest that this protrusion represents the blade of an axe (parashu), a weapon usually associated with Shiva. Therefore, this dvarpala should be taken as another ayudha-purusha. An excellent and very detailed article on Poetry in Stone explains these features of the dvarapalas in minute details.

Jyeshtha in northern niche

There are two niches flanking the front-facade. The niche in the south has an image of valampuri Ganesha, with his trunk turned to his right. He is shown with four hands, seated in maharajalilasana-mudra, carrying a lotus-bud in his upper left hand.  The niche in the north contains a very worn out image of Jyestha. Dating of these images has created a divide among scholars. Sivaramamurti1 suggests that the two armed Ganesha carved on a rock close to the main Undavalli cave is the inspiration behind the early Pallava Ganesha in the Vallam cave. K R Srinivasan2 is of opinion that these images were added later however both were added during the Pallava period. His argument is that we do not find Ganesha in any shrine of Mahendravarman I (600-630 CE) or his successor, Narasimhavarman I (630-668 CE). Ganesha and Jyeshtha started appearing with the shrines of Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha (700-729 CE). Therefore, these images here might be carved out during the Rajasimha period or later.

The first point to note is that this cave-temple was not excavated on the command of the Pallava king, Mahendravarman I, but by his vassal. Therefore, the religious theme and plan of the cave would be very much dependent on the inclination of this vassal chief. Though we do not see Ganesha or Jyestha in the excavations directly linked to Mahendravarman I, however these gods were not strange to the natives. It would be very possible, that the sthapatis (architects) of Skandsena, the vassal of Mahendravarman I who excavated this shrine, designed the theme based upon the requirements of their patron, allowing inclusion of Ganesha and Jyestha within overall theme.

The cave-temple is referred as devakula in its foundation inscription. It was excavated by Skandasena, son of a vassal of the Pallava king Mahendravarman I (600-630 CE).  In a later inscription, it is referred as Tiruvayandisvaramudaiya-Nayanar, apparently on Vayantappiri-Araseru, the father of Skandasena.

Inscriptions: There are two inscriptions in this cave.

  1. On the upper portion of both the door-pillars3 refers to the reign of the Pallava king Mahendravarman I (600-630 CE) – Tamil language – Records that Kundasenan (Skandasena), the son of Vayantappiri-Araseru (Vasantapriyaraja), caused the devakula (temple) to be made. Vayantappiri-Araseru, is the servant of Mayendirap-pottarasaru. who bore the birudas Pakappidugu, Lalitari-kuran (Lalitankura), Chatturumallan (Satrumalla) and Kunaparan (Gunabhara).
  2. Lower face of the southern pillar4 – Tamil language – dated to the fourteenth regmal year of the Pallava king Sri Kopperunjingadeva, corresponding to 1257 CE – The inscription records a gift of three cows for a twilight lamp by Sundara-Nandipanmar, one of the mudalis of Nilaganga-rayar to the deity of Tiruvayandisvaramudaiya Nayanar at Vallam in Valla-nadu in Kalattur-kottam.
Cave Temple no 2

Cave Temple No 2 – This cave-temple is excavated just below the previous shrine. It has a narrow mandapa followed by a cell in the rear wall. The facade is devoid of pillars, curved profile corbel is supported on its side pilasters. The cell entrance is flanked by niches housing dvarapalas. Both the dvarapalas are shown standing cross-legged taking support of their heavy clubs. On the southern lateral wall of the mandapa is carved an image of Ganesha. He is shown with four hands, his trunk turned to right and seated on a lotus.

Presence of this Ganesha image led K R Srinivasan5 to suggest that this cave is not of the period of Mahendravarman I (600-630 CE) but may belong to the period of the Pallava king Nandivarman II Pallavamalla (731-796 CE). Dubreuil (p 53), however, is of opinion that this cave should be coeval with the previous cave. However, as this temple is excavated just below the Cave Temple No 1, were the architects not concerned about the safety of the upper temple as causing an excavation just below put the upper temple to a considerable risk. If accepted, then it may be said that the lower temple was excavated first followed by the upper temple.

Cave Temple No 3
Durga | Swaminathan Natarajan

Cave Temple No 3 – This cave-temple is the northmost among the group. Its front facade has no pillars. Heavy and curved profile corbel is supported on two side pilasters, both tetragonal throughout. Mortise-holes above the cornice suggest that there was once a structural mandapa in front of the cave. A cell is cut into the rear wall, it entrance flanked with niches housing dvarpalas. Both the dvarpalas are shown in similar posture, wearing their yajnopavita in nivita style. Inside the cell is a statue of Vishnu with two devis on his side, of course a later installation.  The northern laterwall of the mandapa has a relief image of standing Durga, shown with four hands carrying shankha (conch) and chakra (discus) in her upper hands. K R Srinivasan6 assigns this cave after Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha (700-729 CE) arguing that it has slender pillars and pilasters. He suggests that its slender pillars were broken and removed. In all the cave-temples of the period of Mahendravarman I (600-630 CE), the pillars are usually huge and heavy. However, this cave did not allow the space for the provision of huge pillars. 

1 Ramesan, N (ed.) (1979). Early Andhra Art and Iconography. Government of Andhra Pradesh. Hyderabad. p 11
2 Srinivasan, K R (1964). Cave Temples of the Pallavas. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 64
3 Mahalingam, T V (1985). Topographical List of Inscriptions of Tamil Nadu and Kerala States vol III. Indian Council of Historical Research. New Delhi. p 104
4 Mahalingam, T V (1985). Topographical List of Inscriptions of Tamil Nadu and Kerala States vol III. Indian Council of Historical Research. New Delhi. p 104
5 Srinivasan, K R (1964). Cave Temples of the Pallavas. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 134
6 Srinivasan, K R (1964). Cave Temples of the Pallavas. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 134