Mamallapuram – Trimurti Cave

Mamallapuram – The Workshop of the Pallavas

Trimurti Cave Temple

This cave temple differs from all other specimens at the site as it does not have a front mandapa or porch. Also it is one among the very few which can put under the category of the most complete excavations. This cave temple consists of three shrines which have been excavated on the western façade of the hill. These shrines have been hewn out sharing a common and contiguous platform, the middle shrine is project forward providing due importance.

Trimurti Cave (image courtesy –

As the platform is raised above the ground level, staircases are provided to each shrine. All the shrines are adorned with their own set of dvarpalas, carved in the niche created out of slim, slender pilasters. The upper part of the cave façade is decorated with dormer windows (kudu arches) topped with interconnected oblong shrines.

Leftmost Shrine (image courtesy –

The dvarpalas of the leftmost shrine are shown with beard, holding flower in their left hand and right hand resting on their waist. The northern dvarpala additionally has a ladle in his right hand. The character of the dvarpalas suggests their association with Brahma. The main image inside the cell has four hands and standing in sambhaga posture. He holds a rosary and a flower1 which Srinivasan and Nagaswamy2 identifies as lotus, however few scholars took it for water flask3. His lower right hand is in abhaya mudra while lower left hand is resting on his left thigh. There are two ganas on the upper corners, the gana on north holds a pen in his hand in his armpit a book. The other gana carries a bowl of offerings4.

Subramanya as Brahmasasta

Usually a set of triple shrine suggests dedication to the Hindu trinity, comprised of Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu. The case in this temple is also the same, with one exception that we do not find Brahma here. The main image of the leftmost cell does not have three heads as customary representation of Brahma. Also he is shown wearing channa-vira (cross-chain) across his waist which suggests his warrior like character. Vogel5 identifies him with Brahma. Dubreuil6 identifies the god with Subramanya as he mentions that god with single head cannot be taken as Brahma.  Gopinatha Rao7 identifies him with Brahmasasta.  He explains that the figure here in this cave confirms with the iconography of Bramasasta icon. Brahmasasta is a form of Subramanya in which he humiliated Brahma’s pride exposing the ignorance of the latter on the Vedas. Lockwood1 goes with Brahmasasta while Nagaswamy2 goes with Subramanya.

Shiva (image courtesy –

The central shrine has dvarpalas in the Shaiva character as one holds a club and another a lance and a shield. Inside the cell, Shiva is shown standing in sambhaga posture. He has four hands, holding an axe and rosary. His lower right hand is in abhaya mudra while lower left hand is resting on his left thigh. Two ganas are found in upper corners, and below are two devotees, near Shiva’s feet. In front of the image of Shiva, a linga is inserted however it is a later addition.

Vishnu (image courtesy –

The rightmost shrine is dedicated to Vishnu. The dvarpalas are shown standing sidewise in semi-profile. One has raised his hand in suchi mudra while the other in vismaya mudra. Inside the cell, Vishnu is shown standing in sambhaga posture. He is shown with four hands, holding chakra (discus) and shankha (conch) in his upper hands. His lower right hand is in abhaya mudra while lower left hand is resting on his left thigh. There are two ganas on the upper corners while two kneeling devotees are shown on either side of Vishnu, near his feet.


To the right of the Vishnu shrine, on the cave face, is a little shrine of Durga. This shrine is made of a niche between pilasters and topped with a makara torana. Durga is standing on a severed buffalo head, Mahishasura. She is shown with eight arms holding chakra (discus), shankha (conch), khadga (sword), ketaka (shield), bow. The last attribute is not very clear, Srinivasan identifies it with a bell while Lockwood8 takes it to be an arrow. Her lower right hand is in abhaya mudra while lower left hand is resting on left thigh.

This cave temple poses many questions as to the group of scholars who take the architectural style as the basis for the period and authorship of excavations. The reason is that we see many deviations from the generally accepted styles. First deviation is that this cave does not have any front mandapa or porch which is rarely absent in the Pallava cave temples. Second deviation is that the pillars of this cave temples do not fall under the accepted Mahendra or Mamalla order. Though the cave is one of the most complete structure but it is devoid of inscriptions except a solitary phrase which does not provide much information on the authorship.

Inscriptions – There is only one word inscribed near the leftmost shrine and it reads, “Malla”. Dubreuil takes it as the title of Narasimhavarman I.

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1 Lockwood, Michael. Mamallapuram. p 156
2 Nagaswamy, R. Mahabalipuram. p 39
3 Lockwood, Michael. Mamallapuram. p 156
4 Srinivasan, K R. Cave-temples of the Pallavas. p 159
5 Vogel, J Ph. Annual Report of the Archaeological Survey of India for the year 1910-11. p 58
6 Archeologie du Sud De I’ Inde II, p 49
7 Gopinatha Rao, T A. Elements of Hindu Iconography II part II, p 439
8 Lockwood, Michael. Mamallapuram. p 162