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    Art historian daddy takes his son on a heritage discovery trip to the caves of Kanchipuram

    Vijay Kumar Vijay Kumar 6 Mins Read

    Vijay Kumar Vijay Kumar


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    Vijay Kumar and his son continue with their exploration of Kanchipuram only to discover the long-lost stories behind the stone-cut sculptures. Here's part 2 of their travelogue series: Caves of Kanchipuram

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    Art historian daddy takes his son on a heritage discovery trip to the caves of Kanchipuram

    Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it. — Michelangelo

    This is the second part of the 3-part series of articles. It aims at making parents and children understand the wealth of our sculptural heritage, and through it, our rich historical past.

    In the first part, the author Vijay Kumar along with his then 9-year-old son visited Kailasanatha temple in Kanchipuram and drew his son's attention to its monuments, paintings and legends.

    The second part unravels another journey of the father-son duo exploring some historical places. Let's read on...

    "Is this the correct route to Mamandur?" my son asked, rolling down the car window. The heat and dust hit us instantly.

    "Thoosi Mamandur. Do not just say Mamandur —  there are many Mamandurs around here," I corrected him.

    We were still in Kanchipuram and it was past noon, when, finally a traffic cop gave us the right directions. We turned left towards Thoosi en route to Narasamangalam.

    "Just seven and a half miles from here," he repeated as I gunned the accelerator to get a good blast of cool air from the air-conditioner. Whoever named the town Thoosi was left with no choice. We reached a sweeping expanse of white sand before we realized that this was once the mighty Palar river.

    A Shiva linga in one of the caves

    Son: “How many kilometers are seven and a half miles?”

    Me: “About 12 km.”

    Son: “Where are we going? I am hungry!”

    The boy was feeling bored (he had already finished two Asterix comics and was halfway into his Hardy Boys Digest!)

    Me: "1,300 years ago, this was the heart of the Pallava kingdom and this river-fed their lands." I tried to get back his attention.

    We had almost passed Thoosi village and the next bend would get us into the village of Narasamangalam.

    Me: "Keep looking for a road on your right that will take us to those hillocks you see."

    We decided to stop for a break. We polished off a sumptuous feast of tamarind rice and lemon rice with fried vadams and healthy helpings of curd rice and mango pickle. We ate while sitting on the low parapet of a culvert, with our legs dangling in the cool waters flowing into the nearby fields. We hurried on the correct path now and came across the familiar blue boards of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which had fenced off the entire hillock.

    Entrance to one of the caves

    Our conversation went in this vein.

    Son: "Appa, what is up there?"

    Me: "We are going to see four sets of caves in this place. This is the first one."

    Son: "Caves? You mean prehistoric limestone caves. Will there be bats inside?"

    Me: "No, boy. Not prehistoric. These caves were cut by the hands of men. To give them a date will be tough as only two of the four have inscriptions in them. And, yes, there will be bats!"

    Son: "Wow, they have cut into the rock to create a room with pillars!"

    Me: "Yes, this is an unfinished cave. Most likely, they spotted a fault in the rock and left it unfinished. But you can get an idea of their ways from the marks. There, in the next hillock, you'll see a much larger excavation."

    Son: "Dad, this is fantastic! There are two rows of pillars in this cave and they've even gone around the mountain carving the side."

    Me: "Yes, there are a total of nine shrines cut into the mother rock five on the back wall and two each on the sides."

    Son: "Which Gods were inside? They are all empty now!"

    Me: "Sadly, we don't know that, as there are neither inscriptions nor door guardians. No other cave in South India has as many shrines for us to attempt a guess."

    Son: "But you said Raja Raja Chola visited this place?"

    Me: "Yes, there are two more caves, and you have to walk some more to see them."

    We finished off two more bottles of water by the time we rounded the curve.

    Me: "There they are — the most finished ones. The first cave has inscriptions of not only Raja Raja Chola but also his great grandfather Parantaka Chola I."

    Son: "Do you mean that this cave was cut by the Cholas?"

    Me: "No, they were there before the Cholas. They were most likely excavated by the Pallavas about three centuries before the Cholas regained power over South India."

    Son: "This is a temple for Shiva."

    Me: "The cave temple is actually for the Trinity. The right was for Vishnu and the left for Brahma or a form of Muruga known as Brahmasasta."

    Son: "I can see only the Shiva Linga in the cave. How can you vouch for the rest? They are all empty!"

    Me: "Even the Linga, that you see now, is a later addition. During the early Pallava period, we are talking of Mahendra Pallava who was the great-great-grandfather of Rajasimha Pallava — the main shrine may have housed a wooden panel or stucco which probably crumbled with age. But you can still make out who is inside, from the attendants outside. In the left-side shrine, you can see the sages holding lotus buds in their hands."

    Son: "Yes, and there are old men as well."

    Me: "Yes, they are similar to the ones we see in the Trimurthi Mandabam in Mahabalipuram — assistants of Brahma or a form of Muruga as Brahmasasta.

    Shiva's attendants always hold heavy maces in this period, while Vishnus young attendants are at the right entrance. Imagine how they were carved from the rock around 630 CE!

    Don't miss the inscriptions on both the side walls. They are the Chola inscriptions and interestingly, they talk of a large irrigation tank called Chitramegathataka that was here from the Pallava times. The shrine's name was Vaaleswaram. Rajaraja's year is mentioned as his 16th regnal year  — meaning 98516, which is 1001 CE!"

    Son: "The last cave looks interesting, Dad. It is different from the previous one. It is complete, but it has no door guardians."

    Me: "You are beginning to observe things. Good! This morning, you saw the 244 titles of Rajasimha in the Kailasanatha temple. Now, you can see the Birudas (titles) of Mahendra Pallava as Shatrumallan, Nithyavineethan and Sathyasanthan. See how the cave mentions his musical talents and the names of Valmiki and Vyasa. It also mentions a couple of famous satirical plays  — Mattavilasam and Bhagavadajjuka."

    Son: "Dad, this is an information overload. How did they cut into this hard stone?"

    Me: "We will see that shortly, son."

    Here's part 3 of the three-part series.

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