The Story of Sthambheshwara: May the Feet of the Temple's Protector be on my Head

An essay narrating the brief history of the obscure Sthambeshwara Temple, a pioneering marvel of Pallava architecture predating Mahabalipuram.
The Story of Sthambheshwara: May the Feet of the Temple's Protector be on my Head

Preface

Even as Europe is desperately struggling to keep its civilisation and history alive and failing miserably, the once-celebrated Seven Years’ War is largely consigned to oblivion. The Seven Years’ War is correctly characterized by some historians as World War Zero because of the sheer expanse of geographies that it encompassed, much like the two world wars that followed it a hundred and fifty years. Led primarily by the two powerful kingdoms of Great Britain and France, this war rapidly polarised all of Europe, forcing individual nations to take sides. So foundational was this war that both

Britain and France reinforced their colonial troops in North America, and started attacking each other’s colonies in the West Indies and trading stations in Africa and India. In India, some of the princely states which had recently emerged from the dying Mughal empire also got involved, and Britain ended up taking over one of them, Bengal. The war came to South America when, near its end, Spain joined the French side and attacked one of the American colonies of Britain’s ally, Portugal…this global conflict reshaped the globe. Indeed, it is the reason why the modern world is an English-speaking one… the foundations of British rule in India were laid as well.

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Why is the Seven Years' War important to us?

Because its closure was the decisive event that terminated French colonial ambitions in India. That event was the Battle of Wandiwash in 1760. With that, the French dreams of colonising India effectively sputtered to death. It also showed exactly how supreme the importance of India was in the colonial scheme of things, putting it mildly.

Wandiwash is the colonial corruption of the Tamil town, Vandavasi, which is where our story begins.

An Ancient Cradle of Hindu Temples

Today, when you travel on NH-48 from Bangalore, it roughly takes six hours Vandavasi. Or about three hours if you travel from Chennai. Vandavasi now falls under the jurisdiction of the Tiruvannamalai district. Throughout the centuries, this region was renowned as a great trading, socio-cultural and religious hub owing to its brilliantly strategic location. If you take Thiruvannamalai as the starting point and draw a slightly curved line, it first lands on Vandavasi, then continues slightly upwards to Kanchipuram further arching up to Sriperumbudur before finally coming to rest at Chennai. Needless, this entire region is liberally sprinkled with great ancient civilisational sites: incredible Kshetras, caves, magnificent temples and other remnants of timeless Sanatana heritage. In fact, Vandavasi still is one of the important Jain centres in Tamil Nadu. From the early medieval up to the advent of the British, this entire region also formed a vital organ in the vast and prosperous marine economic powerhouse called Madraspatnam.

Seeyamangalam

About twenty-five kilometres southwest of Vandavasi, you find a typical South Indian village almost always approached by twirling paths flanked by large, lush green fields, the path dotted by shadowy foliage: Seeyamangalam.

Remote and obscured by space and time, and even worse, forgotten due to Sanatana civilisational amnesia.

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Seeyamangalam village, according to the 2011 census, is home to about 1700 people. When you visit it today, it is extremely hard and it evokes melancholy when we realise that it used to be one of the great cultural kernels of the glorious Pallava Empire teeming with activity and throbbing with culture and refinement. It was also one of the original cradles of the glorious and uninterrupted Pallava Temple building tradition.

The original name of Seeyamangalam hides a profound story in its breast: it was Simhavishnu Chathurvedhi Mangalam (சிம்ம விஷ்ணு சதுர்வேதிமங்கலம்) or Simhamangalam. The former name is in honour of the Pallava king Simhavishnu while the latter name is derived from Pallava Narasimhavarman I. This historical hairsplitting is only secondary to this essay but it only establishes the fact that Seeyamangalam was one of the jewels in crown of the Pallava Empire.

A view of the Sthambeshwara Temple
A view of the Sthambeshwara Temple

Today, the only remnant of that past glory is the Avanibhajana Pallaveshwara Temple, and to an extent, the Mahavira rock-cut cave Temple. The former is also known as the Sthambheswara or the Tundandar (in Tamil) Temple, a gorgeous rock-cut shrine of Maheshwara. The Mahima (glory, grandeur, majesty, prestige) of this temple was such that even after the demise of the Pallava dynasty, it was vastly improved and further developed by the Cholas and much later, by the rulers of the Vijayanagara Empire, who endowed it with the three-tiered, grand Rajagopuram (towering royal dome) that we see today.

The Sacred Jewel of Lalitankura

The story of the building of the Sthambeshwara Temple was engraved in the inscription on the right pillar at the entrance gate of the temple complex. The main, rock-cut shrine has two Mandapas in front of it and is flanked by a stone enclosure. The inscription reads as follows:

ललितांकुरेण राजन् अवनिभाजन पल्लवेश्वरन्नाम ।

कारितं एतत् स्वेधेच्छाकरंडं इव पुण्यरत्नानाम् ॥

By king Lalitankura was caused to be made this (temple) named Avanibhajana-Pallaveshwara;

His Will was the casket, and its enclosing jewels, [his] virtuous deeds.

According to scholars, Lalitankura was another name of or was the surname of Mahendrapotaraja or the Pallava king Mahendravarman I who ruled significant parts of South India, but was overwhelmed by his more powerful foe, the Chalukya Emperor, Pulikeshin II.

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There is a nice pun in the words, Lalitankura and Pallaveswara: Lalita=soft, tender; ankura=sprout, shoot, bud; Pallava=tender leaf, sprout, bud. Avanibhajana means “enjoyer or possessor of the earth.” Variations of this title were typically bestowed upon kings of that period: Pulikeshin carried the title, Avanijashraya (refuge of the earth).

Nataraja Sculpture on a Pillar
Nataraja Sculpture on a Pillar

This is the same Mahendravarman who first commissioned the magnificent rock-cut cave temples on the shores of Mahabalipuram renowned across the globe. The Sthambeshwara temple too, is in the same league. Only, it was built much before the Mahabalipuram shore temples. It is not farfetched to claim that Mahendravarman I inaugurated a whole new era of rock-cut architecture building upon, extending, and beautifying the sculptural and architectural traditions of the Gupta era. The Gupta and the Pallava dynasties had first encountered each other during the time of Samudragupta and had matrimonial, commercial and cultural exchanges.

As was the custom, Mahendravarman I named the temple after his father, Simhavishnu who revived the Pallava dynasty after a near-eclipse of two hundred years.

The Bhakta’s Feet on My Head

By the close of the ninth century, the Pallava Empire had all but vanished but the prestige and sanctity of the Sthambheshwara Temple not only remained intact but increased with time.

And now, we turn to the inscription on the left pillar at the gate. Written in archaic Tamil, with the exception of the Grantha words, “Svasti Sri” and “Sri,” it simultaneously makes for interesting, inspiring, and moving reading. The inscription describes the building of the second Mandapa facing the temple by a local headman named Adavi, a subordinate of a ruler named Nergutti. In turn, Nergutti was himself a vassal of the Ganga-Pallava king named Vijaya-Nandivikramavarman. The Ganga-Pallava dynasty was one of those numerous branches that emerged after the main Pallava dynasty became extinct, or at any rate, ceased to be of any political consequence.

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According to epigraphic records, Adavi was the headman of a village close to Perumbalaiyur in the (old) Urrukkattu-Kottam district. These records derive the name of Urrukkattu-kottam from the Urrukkaadu village near Kanchipuram. As much as I tried, I was unable to ascertain the exact names of their modern-day equivalents. The translation of the inscription, which has a total of sixteen lines, is as follows:

Hail ! Prosperity !
In the third year (of the reign) of king Vijaya-Nandivikramavarman,
Adavi, the headman of Tiruppalaiyur (near) Perumbalaiyur in Urrukkattu-kottam,
Having made a request to (i.e. having obtained the permission of) the glorious Ganga king Nergutti Peruman,
This Adavi made the Mandapam in front of the shrine for the spiritual merit of his mother, Nangani Nangai.

It is when we read the fourteenth line of the inscription that we are deeply moved:

May the feet of him [i.e. any person] who protects this divine gift of Mandapam
Without destroying it,

Be placed upon my head.

Oh! And you must visit Sthambheshwara.

Notes:

  1. A Short History of South India: K.A. Nilakanta Sastri

  2. Epigraphia Indica Vol VI

  3. South Indian Inscriptions Vol III

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