Narthamalai – An Enigma of Art

Narthamalai lies in the Pudukkottai district of Tamil Nadu, situated about 17 km from the district headquarters. Malai (மலை) means hill or mountain in Tamil and the region around Narthamalai is consisted to nine hills, Melamalai, Kottaimalai, Kadambarmalai, Paraiyanmalai, Uvaccanmalai, Aluruttimalai, Bommamalai, Manmalai and Ponmalai. As per a legend, these hills are fragments of the Dronagiri or Gandhamardana peak, where grew sanjeevani herb. Hanuman lifted the mountain and took it to Sri Lanka in order to restore life of Lakshmana. When Hanuman threw it back from Lanka, fragments of the same landed here1. The Perungalur sthalapurana derives the name, Narthamalai, from sage Narada and calls it Naradamalai which of course is fabricated mythology. Raju2 tells that the image playing on vina found in many parts of the village was taken as the image of sage Narada and thus the tradition behind naming the town as Naradamalai.

Varahi, now in Pudukkottai Museum | Leiden University Digital Collections

It is suggested that the present name is derived from Nagarattamalai, the older name of the town, owing to .the residence of nagarattars, a mercantile community3. It was a sprawling and flourshing town in olden days. It was also an ancient and important Jain center as evident from the presence of rock-cut beds at its various hills, i.e. Melamalai and Aluruttimalai. In its inscriptions Narthamalai is referred as Annavayil-kurram, a sub-division in Keralantaka-valanadu alias Konadu during the regime of the Chola king Rajaraja I (985-1014 CE). Later the region is referred as Irattappadi-kondachola-valanadu during the regime of the Chola king Kulothunga I (1070-1120 CE). The region is referred as Telingakulakalapuram alias Kulottungacholapattinam during the Pandya rule.

Vaishnavi, now in Pudukkottai Museum | Leiden University Digital Collections

Narthamalai and its surrounding regions were under the rule of the Mutharaiyars during the Pallava period. Vijayalaya Chola would have wrestled this area from the Mutharaiyars during mid-ninth century CE, and the latter served as vassals under the Cholas. After the Chola Kulothunga III (1178-1218 CE), the territory went to the Pandyas as also evident from their inscriptions found here.

Monuments – There are many monuments of interest at Narthamalai. This article is for the three monuments, two rock-cut caves and one structural temple, located on Melamalai hill.

Paliyili-Ishvaram Rock-cut Shrine

Paliyili-Ishvaram Rock-cut shrine –  This cave temple is excavated on a huge hill situated in the south west of the village. The hill runs north-south and four excavations were tried on its eastern facade. Paliyili-Ishvaram cave originally consisted of a small cell, later added with a structural mandapa in the front. Inside the cell is a black stone linga with a circular and moulded avudaiyar.

Northern dvarapala | Arvind Venkataraman
Southern dvarapala | Arvind Venkataraman

The structural mandapa is only left with its adhishthana, the latter is composed of upa-pitha, upana, jagati, vrtta-kumuda and kantha. A Bhuta-vali runs across the kantha. At the corners of the kantha are shown vyalas with riders. This mandapa would have been a closed mandapa as evident from the debris and remains. A Nandi is placed over this mandapa, the original place of the Nandi might be the rishabha-mandapa constructed along with this mandapa. Two dvarpalas are placed over the mandapa, on either side of the rock-cut cell entrance. Both are two-armed, one arm resting over a club. The other hand of the southern dvarapala is in vismaya-mudra while that of the northern dvarapala is in suchi-mudra.

Bhuta-vali | Arvind Venkataraman

An inscription on its base suggests that it was excavated by Chattan (Sattan) Paliyili, son of Videlvidugu Mutharaiyar. His daughter later expanded this cave shrine with a mukha-mandapa, a Nandi-mandapa and a balipitha in 875-76 CE. Videlvidugu Mutharaiyar, father of Cattan Paliyili, may be the same Videlvidugu Mutharaiyar alias Kuvavan Cattan (Sattan), contemporary of the Pallava king Dantivarman (795-846 CE) of Maliyadipatti Shiva cave inscription. Therefore, this excavation can be dated in about 850 CE.

Inscriptions

  1. On the north face of the ruined mandapa in front of the rock-cut shrine4 – refers to the seventh regnal year of the Pallava king Nrpatungavarman (869-882 CE), corresponding 875-76 CE – mentions the great temple was excavated by Sattan Paliyili, son of Videlvidugu Muttaraiyan. A mukha-mandapa, a rishabha, a rishabhakkottil (rishabha-mandapa) were made by the daughter of Sattan Paliyili, Paliyili Siriyanangai, the wife of Minavan Tamiladiyaraiyan alias Mallan Anandan. She also made an endowment for worship and offerings to the Sattan (chief) of the Sabha (local assembly) of Peruvilattur in the Annalvayil Kurram. Uludadiran Teyadakki, the priest of the temple Palyili Ishvaram, took this gift on behalf of the lord Rudra.
Vishnu Cave Temple | Arvind Venkataraman

Vishnu Cave Temple – This east facing cave is excavated on the same facade as that of the above Shiva cave temple. It is probably the largest cave temple in the Pudukkottai region. The temple is referred as Thirumerkoil and Patinenpumi-vinnagar and the lord as Karumanikkattalvar in its inscriptions. The front façade of the cave is supported on two pillars and two pilasters forming three aisles, central aisle having more width than the side aisles. Above this facade is a cornice, devoid of any ornamentation such as kudu-arches. The pillars and pilasters are cubical throughout, however an attempt of carving saduram and kattu sections is observed in the northern pillar.

Vishnu | Arvind Venkataraman
Vishnu | Arvind Venkataraman

Behind the facade is a large rectangular mandapa with a rectangular cell excavated in middle of its back wall. In the center of the cell floor is a rock-cut pedestal in form of a padmapitha. In its center is a circular groove cut for inserting an image. On the lateral and rear walls of the mandapa are carved twelve identical images of standing Vishnu. One image each on the lateral walls and ten images, five on either side of the central cell, on the rear wall. They all are shown standing over a lotus pedestal. They carry a sankha (conch) and a chakra (discus) in their rear hands and one front hand is in abhaya-mudra while resting on waist. These twelve images may represent dvadash (twelve) adityas who are said to be associated with Vishnu, sometimes the latter is also taken as part of them. Dayalan5 suggests that these represent twelve forms of Vishnu, Kesava, Narayana, Madhava, Govinda, Vishnu, Madhusudana, Trivikrama, Vamana, Sridhara, Risikesha, Padmanabha and Damodara. K V Soundara Rajan6 believes that the shrine was dedicated to Surya and gained prominence during the rule of the Chola king Kulothunga I (1070-1120 CE).

Adhishthana of mandapa | Arvind Venkataraman

In front of the cave is a structural mandapa, an extension of  later period. The adhishthana is composed of upana, jagati, vrtta-kumuda, vyala-vari, kantha sandwiched with a kampa above and below, padma-pattika and a  prati. Vyala-vari has vyalas with different animal heads including that of humans and makara heads at the corners. There are few loose sculptures lying in front of the mukha-mandapa of the cave. Two dvarpalas. now placed at the central cave entrance, were probably the dvarapalas of the main entrance of the mandapa. 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.

Vyala-vari | Arvind Venkataraman
Purusha-mrga or sphinx

A most interesting feature of this mandapa is its vyala-vari which can be simply termed as 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. Different varieties of vayals are found, with head of a lion, of an elephant, a ram and of humans as well. Vyalas with human heads are sometimes compared with the sphinx of Egypt. Raja Deekshithar has done an extensive study on these sphinx figures in the Indian art. Gary Schwindler7 compares the sphinx figure of this mandapa with the one found in the  Koranganatha temple at Srinivasanallur, suggesting contemporaneity of these two monuments. He suggests that though there is an inscription of Kulothunga I at the base of this mandapa however this has nothing to do with the foundation of the same. He concludes that the construction of this mandapa followed the sanctum however this happened before the construction of the Koranganatha Temple at Srinivasanallur, the latter is dated in  last decades of the ninth century CE.

S R Balasubrahmanyam8 mentions that the cave temple was known as Samana-Kugadu and the hill as Samana-Malai suggesting its Jain association and the cave was originally meant for the Jains and excavated around seventh century CE. However he does not explain why he places the excavation to seventh century CE. K R Venkatarama Ayyar9 suggests that the placement of the inscription at the base of the adhishthana suggests that it could not been placed after construction. And this confirms that this cave temple was converted from a Jain shrine to a Vishnu shrine. Aschwin Lippe10, while reviewing Barrett’s work, suggests that the Vishnu cave can be dated in the first half of the 9th century CE, or perhaps 850 CE.

Inscriptions

  1. On the moulded basement in front of the rock-cut Vishnu shrine11 – refers to the 45th regnal year of the Chola king Kulothunga I (1070-1120 CE), corresponding 1114-15 CE – mentions a deed for daily food offerings to the god Karumanikkalvar of the Tirumerkoyil temple of the city by the members of the nagaram of Telungakulakalapuram in Annavayil-kurram of Irattappadi-kondachola-valanadu.
  2. On the rock to the north of the Vishnu cave temple12 – refers to the 12th regnal year of the Pandya king Sundara Pandya I (1216-1238 CE), corresponding 1227-78 CE – records setting up of images of Patinenbhumi-vinnagar-emberuman and his consort in the Tirumerkoyil temple at Telingakulakalapuram alias Kulottunga-cholapattinam and gift of land for daily food offerings and other daily requirements.
  3. On the same rock as above13 – refers to the 12th regnal year of the Pandya king Sundara Pandya I (1216-1238 CE), corresponding 1227-78 CE – records provision for conducting festivals in the temple of Vijayalaya-Cholisvaramudaiyar at the town by the nagaram of Kulottungachola-pattinam.
Vijayalaya-Cholishvaram Temple Complex | Arvind Venkataraman

Vijayala Choleeshvaram Temple – Among the early temples of the northern Tamil Nadu region, Vijayalaya-Cholishvaram holds a very important place being the largest and the most impressive structure beloging to that period. The temple is built as a parivara-complex, consisting a central shrine surrounded by eight sub-shrines. Six sub-shrines have survived while remains of the seventh have been traced. The central shrine faces west. It is composed of a garbha-grha (sanctum) fronted by a ardha-mandapa. The garbha-grha is circular inside but square outside. To support the roof above the sanctum, four pillars have been placed at the cardinal directions. A narrow circumambulation path is provided around the garbha-grha.

Central Shrine | Arvind Venkataraman

The vimana is tri-tala (three tier) in elevation and pancha-ratha in divisions. The adhisthana (platform) is of padabandha type, composed of upana, jagati, tripatta-kumuda, kantha sandwiched between two kampa, pattika and prati. Unlike the adhishthanas of the oppsoite cave temples, here we do not find a vayala-vari course. Bhitti (wall) is interspersed with pilasters in pancha-ratha fashion, forming bhadra, karna and prati-karna sections consisting of shallow niches. All these niches are bereft of any images. A heavy cornice decorated with kudu-arches runs above the pilasters. Under the cornice runs a bhuta-gana-vari.

Shikhara | Arvind Venkataraman
Shiva-Parvati | Arvind Venkataraman

The first tala (tier) is decorated with a series of miniature shrines, a shala in the center, kutas on the corners and panjara in between the shala and kuta. Nasis (niches under a horse-shoe arch) in these miniature shrines hold images. Apsaras or dancing female images are found over the nasis on the kuta and panjara shrines, while a cult-image is placed in the nasis of the shala shrine.  The second tala is recessed behind the first tala and has an arrangement of kuta-shala-shala-kuta over its parapet. Third tala is of circular design matching with the garbha-grha below. A circular griva rises above this tala. It has griva-nasis at the cardinal directions and bulls at the corners. In these are found an image of Shiva with Parvati in the east, Vinadhara-Dakshinamurti in the south and Brahma in the north. Four Nandi statues are placed at four corners facing either east or west. A circular dome is placed over this griva, now bereft of its stupi finial. Most of South Indian agama texts puts circular shikhara under Vesara style of temple architecture, square shikhara under Nagara and Octagonal shikara under Dravida.

Entrance to the central shrine | Arvind Venkataraman
Northern dvarapala | Arvind Venkataraman

The ardha-mandapa is supported on two rows of three pillars each, forming three aisles. The exterior wall is left plain and interspersed with pilasters. Traces of paintings can be seen inside the ardha-mandapa. Paintings of Vishnu and Bhairava are clearer than others. Two life-size dvarapalas are placed at the entrance of the ardha-mandapa. They are shown two handed, one resting over a club and other hand is in vismaya-mudra. Dvarpala on proper right is much better preserved in comparison with the left one. It has protruding trisula (trident) from his head suggesting it representing ayudha-purusha of trisula of Shiva. There is an important inscription on its base which gives information about the construction of this temple by a Mutharaiya chief.

Subsidiary shrines | Arvind Venkataraman

There were eight subsidiary shrines around the central temple, six have survived and traces of the seventh have been found. This arrangement is referred as astha-parivara pattern, where are placed Chandra in the east, Surya in the south-east, Sapta-matrika in the south, Ganesha in the south-west, Subramanya in the west, Jyestha in the north-west, Chandesha in the north and Bhairava in the north-east.

Chamunda, now in Pudukkottai Museum | Leiden University Digital Collections

An inscription found below the dvarapala image, it is told that the original temple was constructed by Sembudi (or Sattan Pudi or Cattan Pudi) alias Ilangodi-Araiyar and after it being damaged following rains, renovated by Mallan Viduman alias Tennavan Tamiladiariayan. An another record of Mallan Viduman is found near the sluice of the tank nearby. From the Sendalai pillar inscriptions13 we come across a certain Ilangodi-Araiyar alias Maran Paramesvaram, a Mutharaiyar chief, son of Perumvidugu Mutharaiyar alias Kuvavan Maran and father of Perumvidugu Mutharaiyar alias Suvaran Maran. As Perumvidugu Mutharaiyar alias Suvaran Maran was a general of Pallava Nandivarman II (731-796 CE), therefore Ilangodi-Araiyar alias Maran Paramesvaram was either a contemporary of Pallava Nandivarman II or his predecessor.

Indrani, now in Pudukkottai Museum | Leiden University Digital Collections

A suggestion is made that Ilangodi Araiyar of the Sendalai pillar inscriptions is same as the Ilangodi Araiyar of the Narthamalai record15. However, Their aliases do not match as Ilangodi Araiyar of Narthamalai had alias Sembudi (Sattam Pudi) but Ilangodi Araiyar of Sendalai had alias Maran Paramesvaram. Soundara Rajan suggests that Ilangodi Araiyar of our record is the same Videlvidugu Mutharaiyan alias Kuvavan Chattan, the founder of the Shiva cave at Malayadipatti, the latter was a contemporary of the Pallava king Dantivarman (795-846 CE).

Jyestha, now in Pudukkottai Museum | Leiden University Digital Collections

S R Balasubrahmanyam16 holds that Sembudi Ilangovadi Araiyar belonged to the age of Vijayalaya, that he was the builder of the temple in the days of Vijayalaya, that (lighting and) rains destroyed the temple within a few years of its consecration and that it was reconstructed very probably with all its old materials and in the same form and style by Mallan Viduman alias Tennavan Tamiladi Ariayan – perhaps this too before the close of the reign of Vijayalaya.

Kaumari, now in Pudukkottai Museum | Leiden University Digital Collections

Barrett17 writes, “Were it not for the Pandya inscriptions, which is well over three hundred years later than the latest date which can be put to the construction of the temple, no one, I think, would see this remarkable monument as representative of the Early Cola style of architecture, to which it bears no resemblance in plan and elevation and very little in detail.” In the context of placing Ilangovadi Ariayar as a contemporary of Pallava Nandivarman II or his predecessor, Barrett thinks it is not possible to to put back the foundation of the temple to the middle of the eight century CE unless the present fabric is thought to represent a total or substantial remodeling. In the light of its architecture and style, Barrett dates the temple to wards the middle of the ninth century CE and considers it as a Mutharaiyar monument.

Maheshvari, now in Pudukkottai Museum | Leiden University Digital Collections

K G Krishnan18 has worked extensively in settling the questions around the chronology of the Mutharaiyars. He takes Cattan (Sattan) Pudi and Chattan (Sattan) Paliyili as the two sons of Videlvidugu Mutharaiyar alias Kuvavan Cattan (Sattan), the latter is mentioned in the Malayadipatti Shiva cave temple inscription. If this is accepted, which appears reasonable, then this structural temple becomes coeval with the Shiva cave temple of the same site, both datable to around 850 CE and conceived by two brothers.

Mutharaiyars, being a small dynasty, a question of influence arises naturally. It is suggested that this specific temple has influences from the Pallavas or the Pandyas as these were the only two major dynasties during that time. Plain exterior, devoid of devakosthas (niches), of vimana is a characteristic feature of the Pandyas while placement of miniature shrine over the shikhara is a characteristic feature of the Pallavas (also Chalukyas).   With both these features visible in this temple, it would be hard to say whether the artists were influenced via the Pallavas or Pandyas or both. K V Soundara Rajan19 tells that this temple is the earliest ashta-parivara temple showing early Pandya influence and it is definitely pre-Vijayalaya structure datable to mid-ninth century CE. Venkataraga Raju20 opines that the early Chola architecture was highly influenced by their predecessor, the Pallavas. And the temple at Narthamalai is a good example where its outward appearance resemble much with those of the Pallavas.

Shiva-Vinadhara-Dakshinamurti, now in Pudukkottai Museum | Leiden University Digital Collections

Inscriptions

  1. On the basement underneath image of a door-keeper to the north of the entrance21 – mentions that the stone temple (karrali) built by Ilangodi Araiyar alias Sembudi (or Sattan Pudi) being damaged due to rains and lighting was renovated by Mallan Viduman alias Tamiladi Araiyan.
  2. On the east wall of the mandapa in front of the central shrine in Shiva temple22 – records that this temple was renovated by Mallan Viduman alias Tennavan Tamiladiyaraiyan after it being destroyed by heavy rains. The temple was originally built by Sattampudi alias Ilango-Adiyaraiyar.

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

Inscriptions

  1. On the rock to the north of the Arumaikkulam pond23 – mentions that the sluice to the tank Animadayeri was made by Venrimadatta Tamiladi araiyan alias Mallan Vidaman. The wet-land near the sluice was gifted to mason Sonnaraiyan who made that sluice.

References:
1 Ayyar, K R Venkatarama (1944). A Manual of the Pudukkottai State Vol. II, Part II. Sri Brihadamba Press. Pudukkottai. pp 1067-1080
2 Raju, Venkataranga (1937). Cola Temples in Pudukkottai published in the Journal of the Indian Society of Oriental Art vol. V (Jun-Dec 1937). pp 78-90
3 Raju, Venkataranga (1937). Cola Temples in Pudukkottai published in the Journal of the Indian Society of Oriental Art vol. V (Jun-Dec 1937). pp 78-90
4 No 19 of Ayyar, K R Srinivasa (2002). Inscriptions in the Pudukkottai State part I. Commissioner of Museums. Chennai. pp 20-21
5 Dayalan, D (2014). Cave-temples in the regions of the Pandya, Muttaraiya, Atiyaman and Ay Dynasties, in Tamil Nadu and Kerala part I. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 142
6 Soundara Rajan, K V (1971). A Surya Shrine at Narttamalai, Tamil Nadu, India published in Professor K A Nilakantha Sastri Felicitation Volume. Professor K A Nilakantha Sastri Felicitations Committee. Madras. p 305
7 Schwindler, Gary (1979). Cave I at Narttamalai: A Reappraisal published in Artibus Asiae Vol. 41, No. 2/3 (1979). pp. 235-252
8 Balasubrahmanyam, S R (1966). Early Chola Temples. Asia Publishing House. New Delhi. p 45
9 Venkatarama Ayyar, K R (1944). A Manual of the Pudukkottai State vol II. Pp 1067-1080
10 Lippe, Aschwin (1968). Review of Early Cola Bronzes by Douglas Barrett published in Artibus Asiae Vol. 30, No. 2/3. pp. 267-274
11 Pk: 368 of Mahalingam, T V (1991). A Topographical List of Inscriptions in the Tamil Nadu and Kerala States vol VI. Indian Council of Historical Research. New Delhi. p 91
12 No 394 of the South Indian Inscriptions vol. XVII
13 Pk: 378 of Mahalingam, T V (1991). A Topographical List of Inscriptions in the Tamil Nadu and Kerala States vol VI. Indian Council of Historical Research. New Delhi. p 94
14 Epigraphia Indica vol. XIII. p 138
15 Soundara Rajan, K V (1975). Early Pandya, Muttarayar and Irukkuvel Architecture published in Studies in Indian Temple Architecture, Pramod Chandra (ed.). American Institute of Indian Studies. New Delhi. pp 240-300
16 Balasubrahmanyam, S R (1966). Early Chola Temples. Asia Publishing House. New Delhi. p 51
17 Barrett, Douglas (1974). Early Cola Architecture and Sculpture 866-1014 AD. Faber and Faber Limited. London. ISBN 0571105076. p 44
18 Krishnan, K G (1972). The Muttaraiyar published in the Journal of Ancient Indian History. University of Calcutta. pp 78-103
19 Soundara Rajan, K V (1975). Early Pandya, Muttarayar and Irukkuvel Architecture published in Studies in Indian Temple Architecture, Pramod Chandra (ed.). American Institute of Indian Studies. New Delhi. pp 240-300
20 Raju, Venkataranga (1937). Cola Temples in Pudukkottai published in the Journal of the Indian Society of Oriental Art vol V Jun-Dec 1937. pp 78-90
21 No 11-A of Ayyar, K R Srinivasa (2002). Inscriptions in the Pudukkottai State part I. Commissioner of Museums. Chennai. pp 13-14
22 Pk: 360 of Mahalingam, T V (1991). A Topographical List of Inscriptions in the Tamil Nadu and Kerala States vol VI. Indian Council of Historical Research. New Delhi. pp 88-89
23 No 11 of Ayyar, K R Srinivasa (2002). Inscriptions in the Pudukkottai State part I. Commissioner of Museums. Chennai. p 13

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