Mandagapattu Tirumurti Temple, Villupuram
Mandagapattu Tirumurti Temple is a Hindu temple situated in the village of Mandagapattu in the Villupuram district of Tamil Nadu, India. Hewn from rock by the Pallava ruler Mahendravarman I in honour of the Hindu Trinity, the cave temple is the considered to be the oldest stone shrine to a Hindu god to be discovered in Tamil Nadu. In one of his inscriptions, Mahendravarman I boasts that he caused a stone temple to be built in honour of the Hindu Trinity without the use of brick, mortar, timber or metal.
The Pallava temples along with a similar group by the Chalukyas of Badami represent the earliest Hindu stone temples in southern India. The temples were a significant architectural innovation as they marked the transition from wooden structures to stone. An inscription on the temple calls it the Laksitayatna and dedicates it to Brahma, Ishvara, and Vishnu.
“Mahendravarman showed leanings towards Jainism before he gravitated towards Hinduism — which is probably why one finds Jain settlements near his cave temples.
The first rock-cut temple built by King Mahendra Varma Pallava - I in the 7th century CE, Mandagapattu Cave Temple is an Archaeological Survey Of India (ASI) protected monument. It is also called Lakshita Yathanam and predates the sculpted wonders of Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram).
The serene and small village of Mandagapattu is about 162 kms from Chennai, 60 kms from Puducherry and 17 kms from Gingee (Gingi), which is otherwise famous for its fort.
The Mandagapattu landscape is old and dramatic with rocks seemingly piled any which way one on top of the other precariously. A small stream runs by this rock pile and there is a temple that is dotted with flowers. Strategically placed benches offer panoramic views. Mandagapattu is home to one of the earliest stone temples in the state. The rock-cut Pallava shrine can be reached through paths between towering mounds of rocks.
Sadly, a book-like information plaque at the entrance of the ASI-protected monument in Mandagapattu is broken with the letters fading and unreadable. Entry is not restricted and as soon as you enter, the details about the temple can be read in an inscription in Sanskrit on the front pillar. It says that this temple, called Lakshita Yathanam, was built by King Mahendravarman I in the early 7th Century CE. It also says that this was a ’brick-less, timber-less, metal-less and mortar-less’ temple. The stones have been connected with accurate joinery
The caves are at the top of a 100 ft hillock in Mandagapattu with steps at the left leading up to them. There are three cave-cut shrines with two pillars in the front that have carvings of Dwarapalakas (doorkeepers) with head gear and in the tribhanga pose.
Mandagapattu is a very important shrine and holds a considerable position in the history of architecture of South India and of the Pallavas. An inscription found in the shrine tells us that this is the first cave temple created by Pallava king Mahendravarman I, in Tamilnadu region. This north facing cave shrine has two pillars and two pilasters in its front façade, thus forming three bays. It is 22 feet in length, 24 feet in width and 9 feet in height. The front façade is very simple, having no kudus and mini shrines above the cornice. Beyond the pilasters, on either end, are carved two dvarpalas.
The cave extends beyond these pilasters, and forms a niche kind of structure around the dvarpalas and ending with tetragonal pilasters on each end. Hence the two pilasters, before the dvarpalas, are almost like pillars. The base and top section of the pillar is in form of a cube. In Shilpa-Sastra, this part is called saduram. In between these sections, there is an octagonal section. This in-between section is called as Kattu as per shilpa-Sastra.
Behind the first front row of pillars, there is another row of two pillars and pilasters. Thus the first part, in between the two rows of the pillars forms mukha-mandapa and the part behind the second row of pillars forms ardha-mandapa. The pilasters of the second row are tetragonal in design. The back wall also has four pilasters, corresponding to the arrangement as in first and second row.
Out of these four pilasters, middle two are same as the pillars of the first and second row, and the corner pilasters are similar to the pilasters of the second row. These four pilasters on back wall forms three cells, each 3 feet deep, one for each in Hindu Trinity, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. There are few traces of painting seen on the back walls of the cells suggesting worship of painted deities. There are sockets in the floor inside the cells, which suggests that the statutes of the deities would have been fitted into these.
There are two dvarpalas carved into the front façade. The dvarpala on eastern end is shown intribhanga posture. His right hand is going all across the waist and under his left arm armpits over the handle of the club. The club handle is almost into his left arm armpits. He is shown wearing long kirita-makuta (jewel crown) and huge jata-bhara (hairdo) behind his head.
He is also seen wearing large patra-kundala (earrings), a necklace in his neck and a yajnopavita across his body. His left leg is bent and not fully carved. The space between the bent leg and the ground is quite large if artists were thinking to cave his foot here. It might be that they would have planned some raised platform on which his foot would have been rested. His left hand is dangling around the club. The club is not carved out fully. If you carefully see then you will find that there is not much space left to carve out a club, which suggests that the niche was carved before and dvarpalas were taken afterwards.
The dvarpala on western end is shown standing in proper tribhanga over the support of his club. He is also shown wearing long kirita-makuta and jata-bhara behind his head. There is a snake behind his head and another snake is twirling around the club. Though the eastern dvarpala does not shown any protruding trisula prongs behind his head, however the western one shows a protruding axe end on his makuta. This suggests it to be dvarpala of Shiva; however the cave was dedicated to the Trinity.
For this reason perhaps, the other dvarpala does not show the trisula prongs. His one arm is resting over the handle of the club and another arm is on his waist (katyavalambita). Both the dvarpalas are facing towards the viewer in front, with slight inclination towards the cave.
There is only one inscription found on front pillar of this cave. This Sanskrit language inscription is written in Pallava Grantha script, in Giti metre. The Translation of four line inscription as written in Sanskrit is shown below:
Translation – This brick-less, timber-less, metal-less and mortar-less temple, Lakshita-yatna, which is mansion for the Brahma, Ishvara and Vishnu was caused to be made by the king Vicitra-cita.
Though the inscription does not states clearly whether this is first of its kind, however the enthusiasm of the king and mention of brick, timber, metal and mortal specifically in the inscription suggests that this is probably the first attempt in this direction hence the creator was overwhelmed at the success and inscribed such words over the pillar.
Mandagapattu is located about 20 km from Villupuram and 17 km from Gingee and comes under Villupuram district. From Chennai it would be around 162 km. This is a small village hence you might not get proper and regular transport, so arrange a taxi from whichever town you plan to visit here. The nearest railway head is Villupuram and nearest airport is Chennai.