G. Balaji

Namakkal is famous for the ‘Namakkal Anjaneyar’, and 18 foot tall idol of Hanuman that stands beneath the open sky. The city lies at the foot of a huge rock, upon which there is a fort built by Ramachandra Nayakar, a Vijayanagar chieftan who ruled Namakkal during the 16th century. It is believed that Tippu Sultan hid in this fort for some time to escape the British. Later, the fort was captured by the British.

According to one legend, the name Namakkal is derived from Namagiri, which is the name of the single rock formation at the center of the town. Two cave temples were excavated on this mountain.  Although these cave temples resemble the architectural style of the Pallava dynasty and the somewhat lesser known Pandya rock cut temples, they belong to the period of the Adiyamaan rulers of this region, which was one of the ancient ruling families of South India. Together with the Cheras, Pandyas and Cholas, they are known to us from Tamil Sangam literature, dating to the early centuries of this era. Among the prominent rulers of that period was Adiyamaan Neduman Anji, patron of the renowned Tamil poetess, Auvaiyar. The Adiyamaans ruled from Tagadur, or contemporary Dharmapuri, and their domain was northern Kongu, which included the present Salem district.

These two cave temples are known as the Sri Ranganathaswami temple and Sri Lakshmi Narasimha temple.  But the inscriptions found on the walls describe the Ranganatha temple as Atiyanaatha Vishnu graham, a shrine to Vishnu built by the Atiya king Gunasila. Another inscription refers to the Atiyendra Vishnu graham and to the Atiya kula.  An inscription found on the main sanctum, which contains an image of Vishnu as Anantaśāyi, refers to the shrine as Sayya griham (Sayana griham).   Modern visitors to these temples today may not know that these were once cave temples because of the later additions of mandapas and subsidiary shrines.

The Narasimha cave is located at the foot of the hill on the west side of the rock, while the Anantaśāyi cave is located half-way up the east side of the hill and has a set of steps leading to it.

The Narasimha cave consists of a fairly large sanctum sanctorum with complicated relief sculptures rendered on either side of the cave walls. There are three different depictions of the Narasimha avatara of Vishnu in this cave temple: Bala Narasimha, who was first born out of Vishnu and explains to the other deities the purpose of His incarnation; Ugra Narasimha who tears open the chest of the demon Hiranyakasipu with his claws; and the seated or Kevala Narasimha. The Bala Narasimha image within the Vaikuntha Narayana panel is a rare one, where Vishnu Himself reveals to the gods the form he will take to destroy the demon.

Figure 1 – The Vaikuntha Narayana relief panel is beautifully carved, where Vishnu as Vaikuntha sits in maharajalilasana, one leg folded and hanging at ease and the other raised, the heel on the coils of the five-hooded Ananta or Adi Sesha, flanked on either side by Brahma and Shiva.  He has four hands; the upper two hands hold the chakra and sankha, held a little above his fingers standing in the air. The fire tong on the top of each weapon is unique.  This feature is to be seen in all the Namakkal reliefs and sets them apart from Pallava and Pandya sculpture.

Bala Narasimha is seated on the lower left side of the panel, with one leg folded and the other raised with the heel on his seat, beneath the left leg of Vishnu.  The leonine face is very beautifully carved by the sculptor: mane, ears, eyes, and wide open jaws are superimposed by a peaceful expression, indicative perhaps of the deliverance that he will bring about.  His upper left hand holds the sankha, but his upper right is in bhuddhasramana, the mudra of salutation. Bala Narasimha reveals to the gods the man-lion form in which he will destroy the Asura king Hiranyakasipu, to whom Brahma had already granted a boon that he would not be killed by either man nor beast. The sculptor places Bala Narasimha exactly below the figure of Brahma.

 Figure 2 – In the Ugra Narasimha panel, Narasimha uses his nails to tear apart Hiranyakasipu, lying on his lap. The wide open mouth, bulging eyes and the flowing mane around the god’s face give him a terrifying look.  Narasimha has eight arms, on the two of his upper most hands he has sanka (counch) and chakra (wheel).  Another pair of upper hands holds kadga (sword) and bow.  The third pair of hands keeps the demon king immovable on his thighs. The God lifted him above the earth  to kill the Hiranyakasipu because of the boon he attained from lord Brahma. That is he should not be kill by any man or animal, or by any weapon which is neither dry nor wet and not in the earth or  the sky.  So, the Narasimha that is the half man half lion deity killed the demon by using his nails.
 Figure 3 – The seated Narasimha in the central cell of the Lakshmi Narasimha cave is the principle deity of the temple who is under worship.  This is a peaceful form of the deity, accompanied by Rudra, the Sun (Surya) and Rishi Sanaka to the right and Rishi  Sanandana, the Moon (Candra) and Brahma to the left. Surya and Candra wave flywhisks. Though we do not find any Lakshmi image inside the cave, the name Lakshmi Narasimha might have arisen when the bronze icons of Narasimha with the Goddess were installed here. To the right of the main shrine, there is a panel containing the Varaha or Boar avatara of  Vishnu who, in the form of a boar, rescued Mother Earth the demon Hiranyaksha.  His body is human and his head that of a boar. This theme seems to be a favourite among the Gupta, Chalukya, Pallava and other early dynasties, because some of the most notable early depictions have been found at Udayagiri, Badami and Mahabalipuram.  This may have happened because of the popularity of the puranas which were compiled during the Gupta period (4th – 6th c. CE). To support this theory, in this Varaha sculpture we find four sages – Sanaka, Sanandana, Sanatana and Sanatkumara – who, according to the Vishnu Purana, sang hymns in praise of Vishnu’s deed.

Figure 4 – The Ranganatha cave temple consists of a raised rectangular shrine, with two pillars and two pilasters along the front.  The main shrine houses Vishnu reclining on his serpent bed in his Anantasayi (Ranganatha) form, which is cut into the rock.  A large number of celestials and attendants stand, dance and sit around him.  On the two side walls of the mandapa we can see the Trivikrama and Sankara-Narayana forms of Vishnu.  In the Ranganatha panel, Vishnu is shown as Anantasayi in yogasayana, lying on the serpent coil.  Unusually, this serpent is not Adisesha but the king of the nether world Karkotaka, the fiercest of the serpents and is hence represented with the face of a lion within each of his five hoods. On the top of the panel we see Surya, Markandeya, Narada, Tumburu and Brahma sitting in the lotus which comes out of Vishnu’s navel, while celestials come out of the clouds.  On the base of the serpent couch are represented the weapons of Vishnu personified as ayudha purushas and Sri-Lakshmi.  Madhu and Kaitabha two demons who came out of the ears of Vishnu while he was in yoganidra, dance at His feet.

On the left wall of this cave temple the Vamana relief has been repeated.  Facing him is Sankara-Narayana or Hari-Hara.  The casual standing figure of Narasimha on the adjoining wall has nothing to do with the theme of the panel: he may have been placed there by the architect either to fill a gap or to balance the gallery.

The Vamana (Tirvikrama) avatara panel is depicted on the right wall of the ardha mandapa, Both the Vamana (dwarf) and Trivikrama forms of this incarnation have been sculpted in the same panel in a narrative style.  On one side, the panel describes the event of King Bali gifting three feet of land to Vamana without listening to his guru Sukracharya; on the other side, Vishnu covers the earth with one stride and the heavens with the second in his Tirvikrama form.

The lesser known Adiyamaan rulers of the Kongu dynasty excavated these two caves for the worship of Vishnu on the basis of Puranic legends. Yet these cave reliefs are distinctly Pandyan style, datable to the eighth-ninth centuries. So, who created them? They are unique in their depiction and are never seen on the tourist circuit. Try and visit them if you ever visit Salem-Namakkal.

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