Mamallapuram – Atiranachanda Cave temple

Mamallapuram – The Workshop of the Pallavas

Atiranachanda Cave Temple

This cave temple is not located in Mamallapuram town but in a small hamlet, called Saluvankuppam, located about 4 km from the main town. However, as the excavations in this hamlet belong to the Pallava kings therefore these should be taken up along with the discussion on the monuments of Mamallapuram.

Atiranachanda Cave Temple

This cave temple is very simple in its facade and resembles to the earlier such excavations during the Pallava king Mahendravarman I. The cave has a hall with a central shrine at its back wall. The hall is supported on two pillars and two pilasters. The pillars are characteristic Mahendra order, having square top and bottom and an intervening octagonal section. The pilasters are tetragonal throughout.

Facade of the Cave Temple

The cornice of the front facade has been left without usual decorations of dormer windows (kudu arches) and interconnected oblong shrines. At some later point of time, holes were made at the cornice to support a wooden mandapa in front.

Central Shrine (image courtesy –

The central shrine is projected forward into the hall and provided with an entrance. On either side of the entrance, niches have been provided with help of pilasters. In these niches are found dvarpalas depicting characteristic Shiva attributes. Both rest one hand on a club while other hand is in suchi mudra.

Somaskanda (image courtesy –

Inside the central cell, on its back wall, is found a bas-relief of Somaskanda. Shiva and Parvati are seated, while Skanda is in the lap of Parvati. There is a parasol above Paravti. Vishnu and Brahma are shown in upper corners. On either sides of this central shrine, on the back wall, similar Somaskanda panels have been carved out, however these panels were left incomplete.

A granite multi-faceted linga is placed in front of the Somaskanda panel in the central shrine. This type of black polsihed linga is usually found during the reign of the Pallava king Rajasimha. However, it seems to be later addition in this cave, as the water outlet is provided after cutting off the lower part of the club of the right side dvarpala. If it would have been an original design then the water outlet would have been designed accordingly.

There is another granite linga installed in front of the temple. Longhurst1 took it to be the original linga, however Srinivasan2 disagrees stating that the height of this linga does not allow it be originally inside the cave shrine. He suggests that this linga might be belonging to a structural temple, ruins of which are found lying around this cave temple.

Mahishasura Panel (image courtesy –

In front of the cave temple, on a separate boulder, a magnificent panel depicting Durga as Mahishasuramardini is carved out. Durga is shown with six arms, carrying bow, shankha (conch), chakra (discus), khadga (sword). She is shown alighting her mount, lion.

Durga as Mahishasuramardini (image courtesy –

Her army is already in process of annihilating the demon army, the chief of which, Mahishasura, is shown in anthropomorphic form with the head of a buffalo. Mahishasura is already in process of retreat where he and his army is being chased by the gana army of the goddess. This panel would certainly be among the best specimens of Mamallapuram for its aesthetic, dynamic and vivid portrayal of the fight scene.

Inscriptions – There are four inscriptions found in this cave temple. The two large inscriptions, on its lateral walls are copies of each other, only the script is different. Two small label inscriptions are found at the entrance of the cave.

  1. On the lateral wall of the cave temple – Epigraphia Indica vol X – language Sanskrit, script Pallava-grantha – the inscription runs for seventeen lines and consists seven verses. The translated verses are provided below
    1. Verse 1 & 2 – Just as in a large lake, filled with water (which is fit) for bathing, (and) covered with various lotus-flowers, handsome Samkara (Siva) abides on the massive head – sprinkled with the water of coronation (and) covered with bright jewels of the glorious Atyantakama, who deprives (his) enemies of (their) pride, who is receptacle of wealth (Srinidhi), who possesses the charm of love (Kamaraga) (and) who assiduously worships Hara (Siva)
    2. Verse 3 – For the welfare of the earth, he who is standing at the head of the lords of the earth caused to be made this house of Sambhu (Siva), which resembles (the mountain) Kailasa and Mandara
    3. Verse 4 – Let the Sribhara be victorious for a long time, who bears Bhava (Siva) in (his) mind which is humbled with devotion, and (who bears) the earth on (his) arms like a coquettish ornament
    4. Verse 5 – Atiranachanda, the lord of the rulers of the earth, made this (temple called) Atiranachandesvara. Let Pasupati (Siva) attended by the mountain-daughter (Parvati), Guha (Skanda), and the demi-gods (Gana), always take delight (in residing) here!
    5. Verse 6 – let the eight-formed lord of beings (Siva) take up (his) abode for a long time in this temple (called) Atiranachandesvara, which was caused to be built by him who, together with the name Atiranachanda, owe deep devotion to Isana (Siva), abundant wealth, the heavy burden of the earth and unequaled liberality, (and) who is renowned by the name Ranajaya, (and) Anugrasila.
    6. Verse 7 – Who is able to master the name of Kalakala, unless the performer (were) Bharata, Hari, Narada, or Skanda. Samaradhanamjaya (Arjuna in battle), Samgramadhira (he who is firm in war)
  2. On another lateral wall of the cave temple – Epigraphia Indica vol X – language Sanskrit, script Nagari – this is a copy of the above inscription, it runs for sixteen lines and contains only first six verses as of the above inscription
  3. Above the entrance of the cave temple – Epigraphia Indica vol X – language Sanskrit, script Pallava-grantha – reads “[The Ishvara (Siva) temple of] Atiranachanda-Palla[va]”
  4. Below the above inscription – Epigraphia Indica vol X – language Sanskrit, script Pallava-grantha – reads “[The Ishvara (Siva) temple of] Atiranachanda-Palla[va]”

Riddle of inscriptions – Inscription number 1 of the above list is of very importance. If we compare it with the inscription of the Dharmaraja Mandapa, we will find that the first, second and the fourth verse of this inscription are same as that of verse eighth, ninth and fourth respectively of the inscription of Dharmaraja Mandapa. Some interesting comparison points are as below:

  1. Dharmaraja Mandapa inscription has been assigned to the Pallava king Parameshvaravarman I based upon a verse which mentions “Parameshcvara”. This verse is missing in the inscription of this cave.
  2. The imprecatory verse found at the end of the Dharmaraja Mandapa inscription and in many other inscriptions at Mamallapuram is the missing in this inscription.
  3. Though both the inscriptions share few titles like Atyantakama, Srinidhi, Sribhara, Ranajaya and Kamaraga however the inscription of this cave has some new titles like Atiranachanda, Kalakala, Samardhanamjaya and Samgramdhira. Atiranachanda is a well known title of the Pallava king Rajasimha. In fact, Rajasimha bore all the titles mentioned in this inscription.
  4. Tarunankura, a title found in the Dharmaraja Mandapa inscription is missing here.
  5. Contrary to Dharmaraja Mandapa and Ganesha Ratha, where the name of the temple was after the title Atyantakama, the name of this cave temple is after the title Atiranachanda. Also, as stated before, imprecatory verse is missing in this inscription.

Keeping the above points in mind, it would not be inappropriate to assign this cave temple to the Pallava king Rajasimha as this is done by most scholars. However, Lockwood3 takes this inscription to be of the Pallava king Parameshvaravarman I though he links the Mahishasuramardini panel to the Pallava king Rajasimha.

But this assignment poses a grave concern to the scholars who have used the architectural style as a dating device to date various monuments at Mamallapuram. Why Rajasimha used the old style when he had a much mature and ornate style prevalent during his time? This simply proves, that architectural style alone cannot be taken as leak-proof study for dating various monument. It cannot be said with certainty that old styles were simple forgotten in the event of new emerging styles. And this cave temple is a good proof of the same.

Back to Index

1 Longhurst, A H. Pallava Architecture
2 K R, Srinivasan. Cave-Temples of the Pallavas. p 130
3 Lockwood, Michael. Mamallapuram. p 179