Indra’s Ratha in Melakkadambur, a Chola Masterpiece
by Raja Deekshithar
text and photos © asianart.com and the author except as where otherwise noted
September 22, 2009
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It is one of the least known treasures of South Indian art. Hidden in the isolated village of Melakkadambur, the Amritagateshvara temple is unique for its sculpture, its architecture and its astronomical significance. The shrine has been constructed as a ratha or chariot. In the tradition of the temple it is called Indra’s Vimana . It gives the impression it has just landed a moment ago carrying gods and sages. These are depicted on the walls that are covered with some of the most spectacular sculpture created by Chola artists (Figure1)
Melakkadambur is situated some 32 km. S.W. from Chidambaram and 4 km. from Kattumannargudi, in Cuddalore district, Tamil Nadu, near the southern tip of the Veeranam Eri, a large irrigation reservoir constructed by Chola kings . Two inscriptions engraved on the walls of the temple belonging to the 41st and the 43rd year of the reign of the Chola king Kulottunga I (1070-1120) indicate the temple existed in this form by the early 12th century . But three hymns dedicated to the deity of this temple from the Tevaram  indicate it was already a renowned sacred place in the 7th century CE .
This temple is the earliest one known to have been built in the form of a chariot. The chariot form shrine or hall is distinctive for South Indian architecture. This architectural concept was applied in many temples constructed during the later phases of the Chola empire, and also by other South Indian dynasties. They were built during the time of the later Cholas, between 1100 and 1280. Horses (Figure 2), and sometimes also elephants, are depicted “drawing” the building which is given one or two pairs of wheels. Several of the chariot shrines and mandapas are famous for their great wealth in sculpture, such as the Nritta Sabha in the Shiva Nataraja temple in Chidambaram (Figure 3), the Mukha Mandapa of the Airavateshvara temple in Darasuram (Figure 4), and the Nataraja shrine of the Nageshvara temple in Kumbakonam (Figure 5). But the sculpture of the Amritagateshvara temple is truly magnificent and its architecture and iconography make it stand out even among these.
This shrine is hidden in more then one way. Driving to Melakkadambur takes about an hour from Chidambaram, crisscrossing small roads through villages and between paddy fields. Upon entering the courtyard the main shrine remains concealed behind a simple open pillared mandapa (Figure 5). This has possibly contributed to its pristine shape. Not one nose has been cut, damage often seen in temples in South India. Walking around the mandapa we happen upon the main shrine and its wealth of sculpture. There is so much to see and the first impression is so overwhelming, one cannot move one’s eyes. Within the context of this article we can only touch upon a few aspects (Figure 1).
The shrine is a dvitala or two-storied vimana, with an ardhamandapa or vestibule slightly narrower and directly attached to the garbhagriha or sanctum. The sanctum has four wheels, two on each side. The horses are positioned at the side and front of the ardhamandapa. In the center of the walls of the grabhagriha we find an elaborate niche or sub shrine which houses a murti or sculpture of a deity. Flanking these, figures of deities and sages are positioned directly on the wall, in between pilasters that form a kind of blind niche (Figure 7).
The base consists of a plain and straight upana (base). The adhisthana (sockle) consists of several mouldings which are (from the bottom upward) (Figure 8):
The kal or pilasters are composed of a square base with octagonal malasthana, kalasha, kumbha and kamala. The whole is capped with the usual square palagai (Figure 9). The podigai or corbel shows the typology of the transitional phase between the T-podigai of the Rajaraja period  and the corbel of Later Chola architecture. Just under the roof and the kapota (cornice) where we typically would have found a bhutagana frieze showing frolicking dwarf-like followers of Shiva in an Early Chola temple (Figure 14), we find a frieze of sculptural panels. Its subject matter cannot be discerned as it is partly hidden behind the larger bracket figures of dancers and yalis or horned lions (Figure 10).
The second tala or storey is octagonal and has pañjaras with deities on the cardinal directions. Shiva Dakshinamurti is facing south, Vishnu facing west, and Brahma facing north (Figure 12). Miniature shrines positioned on the corners are replicas of ekatala (one-storey) temples and are much more elaborate than the karnakutis usually found on the corners of the roof of dvitala temples. They are square shrines with figures inside miniature pañjaras, flanked by pilasters and dancers on the corners. There are no shalas or barrel-roof rectangular miniature shrines at the center, which would have been the usual structural decoration in this place. The shalas have been replaced by the large kudus housing in their turn a pañjara with the sculpture of a deity. The griva or neck is round and has niches with seated figures capped with enlarged open kudus on the four directions. The round shikhara has large kudus and is capped with a metal stupa. The kapotas of this temple are ribbed. Each of the three walls of the vimana has uncommonly four levels of projecting bays with depictions of the deities conventional for the cardinal directions. All these aspects of the structure are highly unusual (Figure 11).
In front of the original shrine is a closed mukha mandapa, probably of a later date. And in front of this is a pillared mandapa that possibly dates to the 13th or 14th century. It is partially open to the East and the South, but is closed on the North. Projecting from the northern wall and facing south a subsidiary shrine for the consort of the presiding deity of the temple has been constructed, also probably at a later date (Figure 5).
The walls of the ardhamandapa have been used to house three deities on each side, while the sanctum has one main deity for each wall accompanied by two flanking figures. This creates a sculptural plan which is very elaborate and unusual. Altogether fifteen major figures are positioned on the walls of this relatively small shrine (Figure 13).
The way in which they have been accommodated is also unusual. The structures within which the six deities on the ardhamandapa and the central deities of the garbhagriha are housed are all pañjaras . The pañjara was already a feature of Pallava temple architecture, where it had the role of accommodating a murti on a temple wall or as abstract decoration on a roof . A pañjara is in a way a miniature shrine in two dimensions. Chola architects adopted the structure of the pañjara during the earlier phases of the Chola period (910 to 970) as a structure to fill the space of a vimana wall without using it to house sculptures of deities .
The structure preferred by Chola architects to accommodate sculptures of deities was the devakoshtha or niche . The most obvious differences between a devakoshtha and a pañjara are that the first is capped by a lintel and crowned with a makaratorana (Figure 14) , whereas the second is capped by a kapota or cornice crowned with a miniature ekatala or one-storied shrine (Figure 15) . After 970 pañjaras disappear from the walls of Chola temples . But by the end of the 11th century they have returned and have replaced the niche as the preferred structure in which to house the central murti on the walls of temples. Especially on larger structures we find combinations of pañjaras and niches applied to house murtis, as can be seen on the Airavateshvara temple in Darasuram and on the walls of the gopuras of the Shiva Nataraja temple in Chidambaram (Figure 16). The pañjaras of the later Chola period, especially the ones in a central position on a wall, distinguish themselves often by being capped with a shala or barrel shaped roof element, instead of a miniature ekatala  (Figure 17).
But the pañjaras that accommodate murtis on the Amritagateshvara temple in Melakkadambur are unusual in several ways (Figure 18). They do not have a base of their own that would have made them project out from the temple wall, but are all situated on the base of the temple. At the same time each has a kind of ‘base’ structure positioned in front, creating the appearance of a projection. Each of the walls of the ardhamandapa and the grabhagriha has a central figure that is housed in an exceptional pañjara. These pañjaras are unusual in that they each have a pair of independent octagonal pillars with lions as caryatids supporting a roof that juts out from the wall and is sculpted with a ribbed kapota (cornice). The pañjaras of the sanctum are lower and jut out further than the central pañjaras of the ardhamandapa wall which are higher, but do not have the usual crowning feature above the kapota. The only other structure with similar pañjaras, as far as I know, is the Nritta Sabha, the ratha mandapa, in the Shiva Nataraja temple in Chidambaram, where Indian sphinxes or purushamriga occupy the place of caryatids  (Figure 19).
The inside of the projecting roofs of the pañjaras have been sculpted giving the impression of a wooden roof with beams and connecting wooden structures. The sculptors have fashioned a replica in stone of a wooden structure, with all the detailed carving common for wood, a great achievement in a substance like granite (Figure 20 and 21).
The pañjaras that house the main deities of the sanctum wall are crowned with a very unusual, huge horse-shoe shaped feature, which is actually a larger version of the kudu that crowns many regular pañjaras. Inside this kudu is another pañjara in which we find also a sculptured figure. The miniature ekatala crowning this in its turn accommodates another, miniature, murti (Figure 22).
The neighboring pañjaras on the ardhamandapa wall are more standard. Two pilasters flank the niche space, which is capped with a kapota and crowned with an ekatala miniature shrine (Figure 18). Here it can be mentioned that the flanking pañjaras on the Southern ardhamandapa wall are much lower then the pañjaras on the northern wall (Figure 30). To adjust the wall space the ekatala shrines capping the pañjaras on the Southern wall are much taller. This kind of a-symmetry is again very unusual.
Attending figures flanking niches are quite common on Chola temples, but the major figures adorning the sanctum walls are remarkable. They have been given a pedestal and, although attendant on the deities in the main pañjaras, they are of the same size as the directional murtis, and are obviously not intended as diminutive secondary figures.
Altogether 15 major murtis decorate the walls of this shrine. The major sculptures are labeled in 12th century Tamil and Grantha (Sanskrit) script (Figure 24) and relate to the sthalapurana or foundation myth of this temple. Besides these main figures there are countless subsidiary niches, sculptures and decorations. The temple surface is decorated with exceptionally detailed miniatures, scrollwork, lions, dancers and musicians.
Going clockwise round the temple we find the following deities and sages placed in the pañjaras and on the temple wall in the following order (Figure 13).
On the south wall of the ardhamandapam:
On the south wall of the sanctum:
On the west wall of the sanctum:
On the north wall:
On the north wall of the ardhamandapa:
All these figures display interesting characteristics. In this article some of the more noteworthy aspects will be featured, although this temple has so much to offer the student of architecture, art and iconography, it could easily fill a book.
The sculptural plan as a whole is elaborate, and just as the use of pañjaras, could be interpreted as, in a way, archaic. Using the typology developed by Dr.Hoekveld-Meijer  the ground plan and lay-out can be described as II-2-b , which means it is a building with two-stories, with one protruding section and six pilasters in each wall of the garbhagriha or sanctum. The lay-out of the ardhamandapa is type 1-A-3 , which indicates a slightly narrower ardhamandapa or vestibule directly connected to the garbhagriha, with one ‘niche’ in each garbhagriha wall, and three in each ardhamandapa wall.
The most common iconographical plan for a Chola temple is one niche on each of the ardhamandapa walls, and one in each of the sanctum walls. In the clock-wise order of the circumambulation the original arrangement was Ganesha (South ardhamandapa wall), Dakshinamurti (Shiva, South sanctum wall)), Vishnu (West sanctum wall), Brahma (North sanctum wall), and Durga (North ardhamandapa wall). This order for the directions reflects the earliest phase of a Chola lay-out. Vishnu was replaced early on by Ardhanari. Soon after Lingodbhavamurti became the standard West-facing deity. Three murtis on an ardhamandapa wall became quite common during the later part of the 10th century, especially under the influence of the Chola queen Sembyan Mahadevi. But with a different iconographical program, as Shiva Nataraja was the central deity on the southern ardhamandapa wall in most of the temples build in this period.
The three central deities on the sanctum wall in Melakkadambur are Dakshinamurti (seated facing South) (Figure 18), Vishnu (seated facing West) and Brahma (seated facing North) (Figure 11, 23). Dakshinamurti is flanked by Indra on the right and Romasa Maharishi on the left. Vishnu is flanked by Surya, the Sun, on the left, and Chandra, the Moon, on the right. Brahma is flanked by Parvataraja on the right and Patanjali Maharishi on the left. Each flanking figure is depicted as worshipping a small Linga sculpted as part of the pilaster in front of him. The pilasters form a kind of ‘blank niche’ around the figures.
Each of these attending figures is characterized by its own costume, jewelry and attributes. Unique is that each figure is also ‘crowned’ as it were, by a small sculpture on a block above its head which depicts a symbol characteristic for it.
Indra is beardless, wears a crown, is dressed with a draped full length dhoti and a jeweled belt, and wears elaborate necklaces and bracelets on his arms. He is depicted holding a rudraksha mala between his hands which are folded in Anjali mudra, the gesture of worship. The symbol above his head consist of six open spirals containing miniature depictions of his attributes (Figure 24).
Romasa Maharishi is bearded with a moustache and has his hair knotted on top of his head in the manner of a sage. He wears a sacred thread over his left shoulder. His hands are depicted as in the meditation, and his right hand holds a rudraksha mala. He wears a full-length dhoti. The symbol above his head is the cosmic tree. Romasa Maharishi is a mythological figure who is known as the author of an ancient astronomical work, the Romasa Siddhanta. He also plays a role in mythology as a figure with a life-span of astronomical proportions (Figure 25).
Chandra, the Moon is beardless, wears a short dhoti with drapes falling down the side of his legs and a jeweled belt. He wears jewelry on his arms and around his neck, and a crown. His hands are folded in anjali mudra and hold a rudraksha mala. The disk of the moon is depicted behind his head like a halo. The symbol above his head is a whitewater lily (Figure 26).
Surya, the Sun, is similar to Chandra, with a short dhoti and crown, hands folded in worship and holding a mala. The sun disk is shown around and behind his head. The symbol above his head is the lotus (Figure 23).
Parvataraja is the personification of the Himalaya Mountains and the father of the goddess Parvati. He wears a short dhoti and holds his hands folded in anjali mudra with a mala between them. His crown represents the Himalaya Mountains. The symbol above his head is the purushamriga or human-beast, the sphinx of the Indian tradition. Here the sphinx is depicted with a lion body and a human head surrounded by extended mane  (Figure 27).
Patanjali is the composer of the Yoga Sutras and one of the founding sages of the Shiva Nataraja temple in nearby Chidambaram. He is depicted with the lower body of a snake and with a five-headed cobra crowning him, as he is the incarnation of the cosmic snake Shesha. His palms are folded together and hold the mala. The symbol above his head is appropriately Shiva Nataraja dancing under a miniature of the golden roof of the Chit Sabha of Chidambaram (Figure 28).
The central murti of the southern ardhamandapa wall is Ardhanari, flanked by Ganesha on the right and the sage Agastya on the left. Ardhanari is Shiva and Parvati together in one form, with Shiva as the male principle on the right side, and Parvati as the female on the left (Figure 29). This form of Shiva occupied the Western niche of Early Chola temples for a while, and was later found among the murtis depicted on the northern ardhamandapa wall during the Sembiyan Mahadevi phase in the later 10th century.
The northern ardhamandapa wall features Alinganamurti as the central figure, flanked by Gangadhara on the right and Durga on the left. Alinganamurti is a representation of Shiva and Parvati seated together. Durga used to be the deity of choice for the northern niche whenever an ardhamandapa had only one deity depicted, but here she holds the subordinate place.
The Gangavataranamurti shows Shiva with four arms attending on a slightly smaller Parvati, while he almost ‘catches’ the descending Ganga in the upper-left corner with his raised arm. A peculiar feature of this murti is the Apasmara, the dwarf figure under Shiva’s right foot. He is sitting in an upright position facing the viewer. This is characteristic for the Apasmara of the Pallava period (Figure 30). In the ekatala shrine crowning this pañjara we see a small figure of Shiva as mendicant or Bhikshatana.
The mythology of this temple explains that Indra worshipped Shiva here to obtain the amrita or ambrosia, the heavenly drink of immortality. The temple is also described as Karakkoil, which means ‘hidden temple’ or ‘temple with a hidden treasure’. The depiction of Parvataraja, Romasa Maharishi, Surya and Chandra indicate an astronomical significance. This is a subject for future research. As it has not been possible to trace a more complete version of the temple’s mythology which could throw a light on the meaning of this elaborate iconographical lay-out, it is not possible to draw any conclusions at this point.
Here ends our discussion of the iconographical plan and the characteristics of the main figures depicted around the temple wall. But these are only the most obvious sculptural features. There are miniatures on the kanthas of the base, on the pilasters, inside the kudus on the kapotas. There are dancers and prancing yalis or horned lions between the palagai and the roof. All the kapotas or cornices are ribbed. The base of the pilasters features scroll-work, within which again we find miniature figures. Many, especially on the kanthas, are narrative in nature.
Under the cornices we find in stone sculpture what would have been the elements of the roof structure had the temple been made of wood and brick. Also under the cornice of the roof and of the shikhara we see stone replicas of beams and connecting structures, as if the roof were made of wood (Figure 31, 20, 21).
The pilasters are octagonal with a square base. Ornamented with lions and opened lotus buds on the corners, scrollwork and dancers in the center. Miniatures are sculpted in great detail around the part called the malasthana (Figure 9).
Typically makara heads with warriors in their open mouths jut out from the corners of Chola temples (Figure 32). Here yalis with warriors on their back jump diagonally from the wall of the base (Figure 33, 34). The structure of the roof does have the makara heads on the corners (Figure 7, 11, 12).
Another feature of earlier Chola temples that is missing is the Bhutagana freeze. Instead we find a series of sculptural panels the details of which cannot be ascertained because it is hidden behind other sculpture (Figure 10).
Some of the most beautiful and interesting of the miniatures are the various forms of Dancing Shiva found on the pilasters. The most eye-catching miniature is of Shiva dancing the Ananda Tandava or Dance of Bliss depicted with his consort Parvati on the right and Brahma playing cymbals on the left (Figure 35). Around the corner, to the left of Brahma, goddess Kali is dancing, and in the next miniature the emaciated figure of Karaikal Ammayar, the female saint, is also playing cymbals. All are focused on Shiva’s Cosmic Dance (Figure 36). Other dancing forms of Shiva found among the sculpture are Gajantaka, Shiva dancing on the Elephant skull (on the pilaster to the right of Indra) (Figure 37) and Urddhva Tandava Murti (on the pilaster to the left of Surya) (Figure 38).
In striking contrast the lower most part of the base is completely bare and plain. And so are the stone wheels that make this shrine a chariot. Usually the wheels of ratha type structures are carved elaborately as for example in the Nageshvara temple in Kumbakonam (Figure 5). Also the positioning of the horses generates questions. The horses with their attendants are turned slightly diagonally away from the main wall (Figure 2). The stone beams that stick out from the wall of the ardhamandapa and seem to serve as yoke to the horse are also positioned in an unusual angle (Figure 18). Additionally this beam looks like it may have been intended originally as an axle to a stone chariot wheel . All this indicates the possibility that, at some time in the past, a renovation was carried out that changed this base.
Indra’s chariot in Melakkadambur is a true master piece in every way. Additionally several features indicate an even more exiting possibility. For example the iconographical lay-out (Vishnu facing West), the ground plan (II-2-b and 1-A-3), the use of pañjaras to house murtis, and some of the iconographical details (for example the upright Apasmara under the right foot of Gangadhara, and the rearing yali figures on the walls and as bracket figures), all point to the possibility we have here a temple that is a replica in stone of a much earlier temple. This may very well have been a temple of brick, wood and plaster, as would be suggested by the imitation of beams and other wooden features in the sculpted roofs and cornices. It could convince us to think it may even have been a temple originally constructed during the time when the Pallava dynasty ruled this part of Southern India. The three compositions found in the Tevaram illustrate this temple was renowned already in the 7th century. The composers of these three poems, the saint-poets Appar and Tirujñana Sambandhar, are known for their close relationship with Pallava kings .
Because it is generally assumed no architecture from the early periods made of brick and wood has survived, its existence is ignored by most studies of Indian architecture. But many early stone temples such as the Rathas in Mamallapuram and others show the sculptors initially often copied in stone what they were familiar with in wood and brick. These features could be studied to improve our understanding of the evolution of South Indian architecture.
The possibility that the Amritagatheshvara temple in Melakkadambur is a replica in stone of an earlier, possibly even a Pallava, temple is an exiting prospect. That this is not necessarily wishful thinking is confirmed by the fact that while speaking to an elderly person present at the time of my visit, I was told the oral tradition about this temple says it was first a chariot made of wood, later reconstructed in stone. We could imagine how difficult it must have been to build such a master piece of architecture and sculpture in brick and wood. How difficult it must have been for the architects and sculptors of the 11th century to execute a replica of such a master piece in a material like granite.
© 2009, Raja Deekshithar
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