Mamandur, situated on the Kanchipuram-Vandavasi (Wandiwash) road, and about 15 km from Kanchipuram, is the location of a natural cave housing a Tamil Brahmi inscription. Brahmi is the earliest Indian alphabetical script with regional variations, one of which is Tamil Brahmi. Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions are dated between 300 BCE and 300 CE.

It has been suggested that the Tamil Brahmi inscription found at Mamandur belongs to about 300 CE. But it has also been dated to 300 BCE. Was it the southern end of Ashoka’s empire? Hiuen Tsang, the Chinese traveller, who visited the city in the seventh century when it was ruled by the Pallavas, says it was an important centre of Buddhism and that he saw stupas built by Ashoka at Kanchipuram.

Mamandur, situated near the Palar River, must have been an important Pallava town, for there is evidence of occupation from 300 BCE to 800 CE and later. Why? This is the secret. While the world knows about Mamallapuram or Mahabalipuram, a World Heritage Site, the other Pallava rock-cut caves are barely known, for they are in remote places and are not beautiful works of art.

The road to Mamandur is exquisitely beautiful, although bumpy and muddy. The end surely justifies the ride.


The cave temples are about 2 km off the main road, in the village of Narasapalaiyam.

Throughout history, kings have decorated themselves with titles proclaiming their bravery and greatness, whether they deserve the titles or not. Not so Mahendravarman I Pallava (CE 580-630), a ruler who delighted in the titles of Vichitra chitta (“curious-minded”) and Chitrakara puli (“tiger among artists”). He was a great patron of the arts and Mamallapuram (or Mahabalipuram) stands as a testimony to his patronage of art and architecture. He pioneered rock-cut temples in Mamallapuram, Pallavaram (near Madras), Siyamangalam and Singavaram (North Arcot district), Tiruchi and Mamandur (in Kanchipuram district).

He was a writer, the author of Mattavilaasa Prahaasana and Bhagavadajjuka and patronized the Shaiva saints Appar and Sambandhar who wrote the Tamil classic Tevaaram. In fact, it was Appar – a Jaina who converted to Shaivism – who persuaded Mahendravarman to give up Jainism and become a Shaivite.

Driving from Kanchipuram to Thiruvannamalai, one arrives at Mamandur and Narasapalayam, twin villages famous for the 6th–7th century rock-cut caves of Mahendravarman I’s period. Four cave temples have been cut into the hill in Mamandur-Narasapalaiyam: two caves lie in Mamandur and other two in Narasapalaiyam, but they are known as the Mamandur cave temples. Behind the hill there is an irrigation tank named Chitramegha-tataka, probably excavated by Mahendravarman I Pallava, the Chitrakaara Puli. Just as Mamallapuram was named after Narasimhavarman I, son of Mahendravarman I who was also known as Mamalla, Narasapalayam was named after Narasimhavarman I.

Mamandur pales into artistic insignificance when compared to Mamallapuram. Yet one cannot dismiss these four cave temples for certain specific reasons.


Staircase to Cave Temple 1, Mamandur    

Cave Temple 1 is approached by a staircase cut into the hill. The façade is made up of two pillars and two pilasters. Two pillars made up of cubes above and below with an octagonal shaft in the middle make up the façade of this cave. There are lotus medallions on the lower and top cubes. Behind these pillars there is a second row of pillars. A central shrine protrudes from the back wall. The pillars are in typical Mahendravarman style.

The two rows of pillars with the garba griha behind them are common to the cave temples of Mahendravarman I, creating a mukha mandapa, ardha mandapa and garba griha. The importance of the Mamandur cave temples is that this arrangement became a standard for subsequent structural temples of the Dravida style: it is in the simple cave temples of Mamandur that the style of Dravida temple architecture emerges. While the garba griha is empty today, there is a platform with a square cavity which obviously supported an image earlier.

On the northern wall of the mukha-mandapa there is an inscription in Pallava Grantha about Mahendravarman’s literary composition Mattavilasaprahasana, along with some titles of the king. The word magavadajjuka… in the same line probably refers to Bhagavadajjukam, probably authored by the same king. Lines 12 and 13 suggest that the king ‘wanted to achieve what was not achieved before in the realm of music’.

To whom was the cave dedicated? The inscription gives a clue. Words like megha-shyama (“colour of the cloud”), and garjita (“roaring”) suggest that it was Vishnu, whose incarnations Krishna and Narasimha respectively have these qualities.

The northern wall of the mukha-mandapa has a Pallava Grantha inscription of Mahendravarman I. Although much of the inscription is damaged, what is left describes Mahendravarman’s composition Mattavilasaprahasana and tells us what were the titles of the king.


Cave Temple 2, situated south of the first cave, also has an ardha mandapa and mukha mandapa separated by two pillars behind the first row. There are three sanctum sanctorum in this cave temple, dedicated Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu. Two steps in front, with a low stone rail shaped like the back of an elephant lead into each garba griha.

According to an inscription inside the central sanctum, it is called Uruttiravalisvaram (Rudravalisvaram). Thus Shiva or Rudra would have been the deity of the central sanctum. The dvaarapalas of the central sanctum stand in tribhanga, one hand on the waist and another resting on their heavy clubs which are intertwined with serpents, wearing huge jatabhaaras on their heads, yajnopavita (sacred thread) and ornaments. The Linga in the sanctum indicates that this garba griha was dedicated to Shiva.

The dvaarapalas of the southern sanctum stand in tribhanga, with a hand on the waist and a lotus in the other. Wearing a yajnopavita and jatabhaara on their heads, they were obviously intended to be sages or braahmanas, and the deity within must have been Brahma.

The dvaarapalas in the northern garba griha wear a makuta and yajnopavita, suggesting that this sanctum was dedicated to Vishnu, although there is no figure inside.

Traces of painting are visible inside the sanctum, suggesting that the cave temples were once painted.

There are two inscriptions of Parantaka I Chola inside this cave temple, saying that the caves were called Vruttiravaliswaram and Valiswaram The irrigation tank, Chitramegha tataka, is assumed to have been excavated on the orders of Mahendravarman I Pallava.

Cave Temple 3 – Situated south of the previous cave, this is the largest of the four caves. There are several cracks on the pillars, which may be the reason for not finishing this cave. There are five pillars and two pilasters on the façade, in typical Mahendravarman style. The corbel above the pillars is in curved profile. The southern façade has two pillars and two pilasters. Corbels are finished above the pillars, however these are not fully cut in to make the space for circumambulation. This cave has an ardha-mandapa and mukha-mandapa, the two differentiated by two rows of pillars and pilasters.

The five shrines at the back of the cave share a common platform, with staircases in front of each, consisting of three steps. The cells are all cubical and empty, with no dvarpalas or inscriptions. This shrine would have had seven cells, five on the back and two on the side.

Cave Temple 4 – This is the smallest cave on the hill, unfinished, with a façade of two pillars and two pilasters. The façade suggests a three shrine cave, but the work was stopped due to cracks in the rock and load above the roof.

So what makes Mamandur unique?

  •  Firstly, the casual Tamil Brahmi inscription inside a natural cavern suggests that it was not only occupied, but was also a place of scholarship, where people could read and write.
  •  The inscription in Cave Temple 1 suggests that it was a place of importance, which is why an important epigraph detailing Mahendravarman Pallava’s achievements and titles was inscribed here.
  • The caves are in the style of the now defunct Pallavaram cave near Chennai (now functioning as a mosque). They established the style of a mukha mandapa and ardha mandapa preceding the garba griha or sanctum sanctorum. This architectural design was to become the norm in later structural temples of South India.

Was Mamandur

  • An experimental workshop?
  •  The Pallava capital? In which case, the remains of palaces should be excavated under the many mounds?
  •  A retreat for Shaiva sanyasis who are depicted in Mahendravarman’s Mattavilasaprahasana?
    Will we ever know?

Nanditha Krishna

Photographs by G. Balaji

Both comments and pings are currently closed.


  1. Dr S Balaji IFS says:

    Good story.I think it is worth visiting.

  2. Kausalya Santhanam says:

    The write up about Mamandur was fascinating. So near and yet most of us do not know of the existence of these caves and their significance. The past calls to us in so many ways and it is enriching to know how the Pallava rulers left their impress in these caves, the forerunner of the great temples that tempt us to visit Mahabalipuram again and again. The write up gave a great deal of information. It impels one to visit Mamandur and see these creations . Loved the names and titles of Mahendravarman I- shows a very creative mind at work.

  3. I’ve been there — it’s such a lovely and peaceful place. It’s wonderful to read all this information about the cave temples.

  4. geetha says:

    the write up on mamandur was very informative did not know so many caves existed there,and there was so much history.Must visit this place sometime

  5. Padhma priya says:

    Informative article and photographs, wishing you most and more. Your Initiative is most appreciated . Best wishes,
    Padhma priya.

  6. Abdul Aziz Rajput says:

    Always Pallavas were having splendid history and they were patrons of art and architecture. Very nice explanation with photography. It is a very Informative site for the Scholars and students, best wishes, Abdul Aziz Rajput