Cave temples have been so much identified with the Pallavas (600-850 A.D.), that many people do not know that other rulers also excavated similar rock-cut cave temples and monoliths. The Pandya rulers especially could be credited with a large number of these cave temples but for want of a more definite nomenclature, historians club all these together under the common term, Pallava style even though these temples are in the heart of the Pandya country where no Pallava ever set foot.
Many of the big and small temples around Madurai in Tamilnadu and the Muruga temple at Tirupparankundram are popular. Situated almost on the outskirts, only 7 kms away from Madurai, Tirupparankundram, Parankundram, as it was known in the olden days, has been a place of pilgrims throng to the shrine of Muruga (Subramanya) in their multitude, but hardly one of these devout souls pays attention to the beauty of the temple or the construction of the sanctum.
From the beautiful Asthana Mandapam on the main front facing the street, which figures in every tourist's photograph collection, one climbs, through two higher mandapams to the Sanctum of Subramanya, where one is lost in the sanctity of it and hardly notices anything else. Actually, the shrine is a large rectangular chamber excavated into the huge main rock. There can be no doubt about its age and there are many inscriptions, which speak of repairs and renovations refer to this shrine in the ancient days. Other insciptions refer to the founding of a few more shrines at the place.
From these evidences, we could see that the shrine of Murugha should have existed prior to the eighth century A.D. It is probably very much earlier as it is mentioned in the Agananuru and other Sangam works and in the Thevaram. All these works refer to the place as Parankundram. The Paripadal (about the 6th century A.D.) gives a very graphic description of the route from Madurai to Tirupparankundram when the Pandya king visited the place in state. The Poem describes in minute details, the many shrines, mandapams and painted chambers not omitting even the monkeys which were as plentiful then as they are even to this day.
This rock-cut Pandya sanctum follows the usual plan of many such edifices with two chambers on either side and reliefs on the facing wall. In the chamber on the west is a Linga with the characteristic Somaskanda panel on the back wall as in many early Pallava shrines. The Chamber on the eastern side has a relief of Vishnu and on the wall facing the entrance is a figure of Durga inside a shrine chamber. On either side of this are the figures of Subramanya and Ganesha respectively.
The entrance has early type cubical pillars with lotus medallions and angular bevel corbels with roll ornament, so characteristic of the Pandya caves. There are two Dwarapalas at the main entrance and two more each on either side of the Linga and Vishnu shrine chambers. The sculpturing of these Dwarapalas is in the style of the period.
Coming out of the main shrine, we find a number of reliefs sculptured on the rock surface on either side. On the face of the rock east of the entrance, we find carvings of Narasimha, Vishnu and Varaha. On the rock face on the western side of the entrance, are Shiva with Nandi, Nataraja and Devi. There are probably others but are hidden within the modern structures. Many of these reliefs seem to have undergone repairs and restoration in later times.
Many pilgrims and tourists who visit Tirupparankundram do not seem to know of the existence of subsidiary cave shrines excavated in the rock, which are as interesting and one may even appear most valuable to the student of archaeology. All these cave shrines are small and approached through narrow dark passages, which are at different levels below the main sanctum. It is very much doubtful whether similar group of cave shrines exist elsewhere. The idols have been arranged in such orderly manner that one wonders that even the top-ranking studio photographer could not have arranged them better than the ancient Sthapathis have done here.
The Devi who is seated on a throne in the centre is described as Annapoorna. Two attendant chauri bearers and Surya and Chandra on either side are at the back. Two groups of three stately figures each are carved on the two side walls. Two figures who are probably Sage Parasara and Sage Veda Vyasa are seated on the ground in front of the Devi while figures of other minor sages and musicians playing on the flute and the veena comprise the rest of the group. Two interesting figures, one with the head of a goat or horse, flank the chamber. Though some of the figures are restored, the early age of this group is clear and it needs careful study by the interested student of Hindu art and iconography.
Adjoining this group is another chamber on the east side, known as the Tulasi Arai, a room used for storing the pooja flowers. Here is a group of carvings, which were quite new to our understanding, It is such a narrow chamber that no proper photographs could be taken of the entire group of carvings. No authentic information was available about these sculptures from the temple authorities or the department of Archaeology. The figures probably refer to the incident of Sura Samhara. The sculpture is quite archaic and the figures are in the state in which the sculptor left then probably without complete finish.
Kartikeya in his chariot with his mount, the peacock, numerous Ganadevathas, all in a fury, a large four-headed figure with four hands, make up this group and are symbolic of the great fight. It is a pity that the large four-headed figure should have his face disfigured as an ugly hole is bored through it to serve as an outlet for water. This vandalism is unthinkable and surely pains the visitors. The walls of the chamber contain a large number of inscriptions which may perhaps belong to the early medieval period. Quite likely from their obscure location they might have escaped the attention of the epigraphists. On the eastern side of this chamber is another one which has a carving of Gaja Lakshmi.
Proceeding further through a long low narrow and dark passage, is another old rock-cut chamber, which has an idol said to be Jyeshta Devi with her son and daughter on either side. Jyeshta Devi is sculptured in old works as a handsome and mild Devi. This group which is in very early style is in its pristine gory and is well preserved. Outside the chamber are two Dwarapalas who are named as Anandabharana and Ugramurthy. These idols are usually missed by the visitors. They are very interesting early specimens. Curiously, Anandabharana is said to have the reputation of being more powerful deity than Ugramurthy, quite contrary to the names given to them.
Circumventing the rock, one can come across on its southern side another rock-cut with more sculptures in relief. This is locally called the Umiyanda Kovil. The rock-cut with its cubical but worn out pillars is a very early one through the sculptures within it and on the rock surface outside appear to later executions. There is no doubt that some kind of altering and changing has been done to some earlier works which must have existed there.
Our temples are vast treasure houses of our history, tradition, art and culture. Owing to various factors, there is a growing popular interest in the art and architecture of our shrines. The temple authorities would be doing a real service to the community if in addition to the excellent arrangements they have made, they also concentrate on the cultural side by throwing open the iconography and sculptural treasures in the shrines. They should also provide authoritative information about cultural and aesthetic aspects of these treasures.
Tirupparankundram is only 7kms from Madurai connected by an excellent road. Frequent buses and vans operate to the place. Taxi or auto may be hired from Madurai. It is best to stay at Madurai where very good lodges are available.