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Guardians of Pallava cave temples
The Sunday Standard, February 14, 1971
M. Lockwood and Gift Siromoney 

This curious horns on some of the dvarapalakas (door guardians) in early Pallava  caves gave us the clue to the surprising conclusion that in the Mahishasuramardini cave at Mahabalipuram, the main sanctum was originally planned for Vishnu, not, for the Somaskanda panel which we see today.

In regard to the horns on the dvarapalakas, there are several conflicting views among scholars as to their significance. One view would have it that they are a kind of mutation of the early Buddhist motif of Nagaraja as dvarapalaka; that is, the multi-headed snake-hood of Nagaraja develops into two horns. A second theory is that the horns of the dvarapalakas can be explained with reference to the practice of wearing horns by such  primitive tribes as the Nagas and the Gonds. Still a third explanation is that the horned dvarapalaka represents a humanized form of Nandi.

While photographing a dvarapalaka in the upper cave at Vallam, two miles east of Chingleput, we were struck by the similarity between the horns of this dvarapalaka and the outer prongs of the trisula as represented in Pallava sculpture elsewhere. These horns and the outer prongs of the trisula, have the same peculiar compound curve at their base. Further, the so-called horns in the Vallam temple are not shown attached to the head or head-dress in a very realistic manner. We concluded, therefore, that the horn of the dvarapalaka along with his elongated makuta (as the central prong) did, in fact, represent the trisula, a Saivite emblem.

At Vallam, only the dvarapalaka to the proper right of the entrance has horns. However, we soon discovered that, although the dvarapalaka to the left did not have horns, he did have an axe-blade projecting edge-forward from the front of his head-dress. The axe is another Saivite emblem. The trisula "horns" and the axe blade, then, can be clearly recognised as Saivite symbols which. along with certain other characteristics such as the snake-entwined club, go to indicate quite unambiguously that these dvarapalakas are guarding a Saivite shrine.

Other examples of dvarapalakas with horns and axe blades on their head-dress are to be found in the Kailasanatha temple at Kanchipuram, at the Atiranachanda cave temple at Saluvankuppam and at various shrines at Mahabalipuram. In most of these cases, a knowledge of the significance of the trisula horns or the presence of the axe blade is not necessary for the identification of the shrines as Saivite because within the shrines there is a linga. However, consider the shrine on the western side of the second level of the Dharmaraja ratha at Mahabalipuram. This sanctum is empty and unfinished and there is nothing inside it now that would indicate which god it was fashioned for. Therefore, it is the horned guardian to the proper right of this shrine which reveals it was intended as Saivite.

The practice of showing the emblems of the deity on his guardians' head-dress is applied by the Pallavas to Vaishnavite shrines as well as Saivite. A clear example of this is found in the Varaha cave at Mahabalipuram. The dvarapalaka immediately to the right (proper) of the sanctum's entrance has a discus represented edge-forward at the very top of his head-dress. The dvarapalaka to the left has a conch placed at the top of his head-dress. The discus and conch are Vishnu's emblems. That  this Varaha cave is a Vaishnavite temple is undisputed, and we find here the Varaha, Trivikrarna, and Gajalakshmi panels which are all Vaishnavite themes. But the discus and the conch emblems on the head-dress of the dvarapalakas give additional confirmation that the (now empty) sanctum was for Vishnu.

Another important example of Vaishnavite emblems on the head-dress of dvarapalakas is to be found in the Adivaraha cave temple at Mahabalipuram. Here the Varaha figure in the central shine is under worship. The modern walls which enclose the front of this shrine hide parts of the dvarapalakas. However, one is still able to see the discus at the top of the head-dress of the right dvarapalaka and the conch similarly placed on the left dvarapalaka.

In the case of the goddess Durga, the dvarapalikas (female guards) who guard her shrines at Mahabalipuram are shown with a sword in hand (right guard) and with a bow (left guard). There are two Durga shrines at Mahabalipuram: the Draupadi ratha and the Kotikal Mandapa. The two young fighting women accompanying the goddess in the Durga panel of the Adivaraha cave are similarly armed and provide an analogous example, though, strictly speaking, not guarding doors here.

Our main conclusion so far, then, Is that dvarapalakas are often shown with emblems or weapons which are characteristic of the deity they guard. In the cases of many Saivite shrines, one dvarapalaka has horns and the other an axe-head shown on the head-dress, and both may have clubs with snakes encircling. In the case of Vaishnavite shrines, we find the following arrangement: one dvarapalaka has a discus represented on his head-dress, and the other, a conch.

With these facts In mind, let us turn to the famous Mahishasuramardini cave at Mahabalipuram. There are three sanctums in this cave-temple, and one naturally thinks of the many Pallava cave temples created for the Hindu Trinity. The central sanctum of this cave is given special prominence by having before it a raised porch with two lion pillars in front. But considering first the right southern sanctum, one finds that the dvarapalaka to its proper right has horns. The dvarapalaka to the left has a single axe-blade projecting edge-forward above his forehead.The right dvarapalaka has a club with snake around it. We conclude from these facts that the right sanctum is clearly Saivite.

Considering next the left (northern) sanctum, one does not find any of the above Saivite emblems. Further, both the dvarapalakas wear the long dress and the uttariya which are uncharacteristic of Saivite dvarapalakas. We conclude that the left sanctum at the Mahishasuramardini cave is distinctively non-Saivite.

With a clearly Saivite sanctum to the right, with a distinctly non-Saivite sanctum (undoubtedly for Brahma) to the left, and, further with a large panel on the right wall of Vishnu reclining, one would naturally  expect the main central sanctum to be for Vishnu. But surprisingly, one finds instead a large Somaskanda panel on the back of this main sanctum.

This led us to examine with care the dvarapalakas of the central sanctum. At first glance, both dvarapalakas seem to be Saivite: they both have clubs the club of the proper right  dvarapalaka being encircled by a three-headed snake. The dvarapalaka to the right has horns (in light relief), and the dvarapalaka to the left has what looks to be a triple-bladed axe-head represented on the head-dress above his forehead.


But there are several puzzling aspects about the way in which these two dvarapalakas have been sculpted, In fact, it looks as though these niches may have been originally intended for dvarapalakas without clubs the kind of dvarapalakas one would expect to be guarding  a shrine for Vishnu. The reason we say this is that the clubs seem like an afterthought. The clubs are carved where the pilasters should be and completely break the orderly boundary of the rectangular niches. It would be interesting to know whether there is a single other example in Pallava sculpture of such an extreme disregard of the rectangular boundaries of the niche.

It is possible that work had begun on these niches at a time when the main sanctum was intended for Vishnu. At that time, the boundaries of the niches and the general pose of the dvarapalakas were established. For one reason or another, the work was not completed. At a later date, when Saivism was in ascendancy, the details of the dvarapalakas were finished as Saivite including the horns in very shallow relief on one guard and an axe-head on the other's head-dress. The clubs had to be added in  a most unusual place where the pilasters normally would come. To accomplish this addition of the clubs, the rock area for the pilasters and all the rest of the architectural ornamentation of the main sanctum facade had to be removed. This refacing of the rock had left only a plain wall around the niches for us to see today.

This evidence of re-working led us to note, first, the obvious fact that the Somaskanda panel of the  central sanctum is different stylistically from the other two panels (of Vishnu and Durga) in this temple; and, secondly, that there is a striking similarity between this Somaskanda panel and like panels found in the eighth century  Kailasanatha temple at Kanchipuram.

Is, therefore, the Somaskanda  panel in this cave temple a later addition, transforming what may have been originally planned as a Vaishnavite main shrine into a Saivite shrine?

An answer to this question will be attempted in the second part of this article.

(*To be concluded)

*Changing fashions in Pallava art

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