Classic example of Chola architecture
Narthamalai on the Tiruchi-Pudukottai route, which houses nine small hillocks, speaks volumes about the sculptural excellence during the period of the Cholas and the Pandyas. V. GANAPATHY elaborates ...
A grand stone temple at Vijaya Choleeswaram in Narthamalai. Pics. by S. R. Raghunathan
NARTHAMALAI A cluster of small hillocks, 25 kms from Tiruchi on the Tiruchi-Pudukottai road hosts some of the finest and oldest architectural models and rock cut cave temples, and the longest of rock-cut edicts, similar to Asokan edicts the likes of which are extremely rare in the south. Blessed with many rocky hillocks, Pudukottai district now has about a dozen rock cave temples of which the most famous are Narthamalai, Kudumiyanmalai, Thirumayam, Sitthannavaasal, Malayadipatti etc.
Besides 200 brilliant inscriptions dating back to the 8th century, the world famous Pandya Musical inscriptions in Kudumiyanmalai date back to the 4th century. Some Megalithic Burial sites and Jain Rock-cut beds too have been found in this district, which throw a great deal of light on the ancient history of the region.
Narthamalai, a heritage complex, consists of nine small hillocks - Melamalai, Kottaimalai, Aluruttimalai, Kadambarmalai, Perayarmalai, Uvakkanmalai, Manmalai, Bommattimalai and Ponmalai and the shrub forests surrounding the same is a habitat for peacock, deers etc. This is so because a large part of the region comes under the forest reserve area. According to mythology they were parts of the Sanjeevimalai carried by Lord Hanuman during the war between Rama and Ravana.
Narthamalai came under the sway of the Mutharayars from 7th to 9th century who were the vassals of the Pallava kings of Kanchi and Pandya kings of Madurai and was later conquered by the Cholas of Thanjavur.
The two rock-cut temples atop Melamalai besides the Vijayaleeswara Choleeswaram temples tucked under idyllic settings are extremely informative and also a classic example of the fusion of different styles of temple architecture prevailing in different parts of the country. One cannot but marvel how in that distant past the Mutharayar s, whose contribution to the temple architecture and local government were not given due recognition and importance, had become master builders.
The Mutharayars according to the available information had their headquarters at Nemam near Tirukattupalli and held their sway over Tiruchi, Thanjavur and Pudukottai regions until the emergence of the mighty Cholas of Thanjavur.
Narthamalai was originally named as Nagarathar Malai, known for a group of merchants who were engaged in this trade route between Tiruchi-Pudukottai, Madurai etc and played a key role in the maintenance of the temples, canals, irrigation tanks besides collection of taxes and other civic matters.
The vimanam of Kadambar koil.
After the fall of the Cholas of Thanjavur in the 14th century the area came under the rule of the Madurai kings, Pallavarayars and Thondaimans of Pudukottai according to J. Raja Mohammed, Curator of the Pudukottai Government Museum.
The Vijayalaya Choleeswaram in Narthamalai, though so called under the name of the founder of the Chola dynasty of Thanjavur, is a fine example of Mutharayar style of construction and indeed a forerunner of the magnificent temple at Gangaikondacholapuram built by Rajendra Chola. The first and second thala (base) of the temple vimanam is square in shape while the third is circular (vasara) and the griva and Sikhira also are circular.
This is the first time when Nagara and Vasara styles have been incorporated in the construction of the vimanam. The inner wall enclosing the sanctum sanctorum is circular (omkhara shape), leaving an intervening passage all around. The Adithala hara extended over the top of the mandapam shows a series of dance sculptures. The dwarapalakas at the entrance of the temple are beautifully decorated. The temple as well as the six shrines and one upto the foundation level around the temple are all built with granite stones. About 15 years ago, the Archaeological survey of India had restored and re-built the dilapidated parts of the temple complex in a brilliant manner keeping to the original style which exhibits the pioneering efforts of the Mutharayars.
There is an inscription at the base of the dwarapalaka statue which clearly states that the original temple was built by Ilangovathi Mutharayar (alias) Chathambuthi which was damaged by rain and the same was rebuilt with granite stones by Mallan Vithuman Mutharaya king in 886 A.D. This is a clear evidence that the temple was in existence prior to Vijayalaya chola, though at present the temple is called Vijayalaya Choleeswaram.
Opposite to this temple is the famous rock-cut temple. In the sanctum sanctorum of the temple, one can see a brown Siva Lingam and in the Ardha Mandapam - in front of the sanctum sanctorum there are 12 brilliant rock-cut images of Lord Vishnu which are almost identical.
According to Dr. R. Kalaikovan, Director, Dr. Rajamanickanar centre for historical research, though the rock-cut temple houses the broken Siva Linga and Vaishnavite statues, it is surprising that the structure is termed as Samanar Kudagu, since so far there is no structural or epigraphical evidence of Jain rock-cut temples in this place. There might have been a Mukha Mandapam in front of the Ardha Mandapam, housing the Vishnu statues. Though there are no walls or roof, the base of the Ardha Mandapam is full of brilliant sculptures of Yalis, Elephants, a combination of elephant and makara etc. And interestingly there is an Egyptian Sphinx like statue which is an indication of the cultural heritage reflecting the high-level trade and commerce between Egyptian and Indian merchants.
Pazhiyileeswaram is another rock-cut cave temple with a Siva linga inside a small sanctum sanctorum with two beautiful dwarapalakas. The inscription at the base of the temple is an extremely interesting piece that belongs to the period of the Pallava king (Nirupatunga Varman 855-896 A.D).
Learning a lineage
Sri Dakshinamurthi on the outside wall of Kadambar Koil
The inscription says that the cave temple was built by the Mutharaya king. Mutharayar and his son Sathan had built the Mukha Mandapam, Nandimandapam and Balipeetam at the temple. This inscription helps to read the lineage of the Mutharayar kings, who were the vassals of the Pallava kings. On the slopes of Melamalai is a Dargah of a muslim saint Muhammed Masthan. On the 10th day of the annual festival at the Muthumariamman temple at Narthamalai, thousands of Hindus and Muslims visit the Dargah and exchange greetings.
The deep trenches leading to Vijayacholeeswaram are filled with water for the best part of the year adding to the grandeur of the whole setting. Kadambar temple Rock Edicts: At the foot of the Kadambar hills is situated the Thiru Kadamba Udaya Nayanar temple which is very similar to the Chola Balasubramania temple at Kannanur, 22 km from Pudukottai near Rangiam. There are inscriptions belonging to the time of Rajaraja Chola, Rajendra Chola II, Kulothunga Chola and Maravarman Sundara Pandya.
According to Dr. Kalaikovan, the two sets of inscriptions of Rajaraja and Rajendra II are unique since they have been inscribed beautifully on specially prepared rock surfaces and written distinctly. They can be compared to the finest specimen of the rock edict inscriptions, comparable to the Edicts of Ashoka. There are remnants of a dilapidated fort on Kadambar hills. The Parayar Malai is stated to have been habitated by the drummers and other musicians of the temples residing in the area. The steep Aluruttimalai was used for punishing traitors and other law offenders by pushing them down the steep slope.
The Muthumariamman temple at Narthamalai is perhaps one of the most important and popular temples drawing tens of thousands of devotees during the annual festivals in the temple. Narthamalai is one of the finest examples of the cultural and sculptural heritage of the ancient days, and one should acknowledge with gratitude the excellence of the Archaeological Survey of India in maintaining these structures after restoration.
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