Subrahmanya Temple, Saluvankuppam
Sangam period Murugan temple unearthed at Saluvankuppam
The Subrahmanya Temple at Saluvankuppam, Tamil Nadu, is a shrine dedicated to the Hindu deity Murugan. Archaeologists believe that the shrine, unearthed in 2005, consists of two layers: a brick temple constructed during the Sangam period (the 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD) and a granite Pallava temple dating from the 8th century AD and constructed on top of the brick shrine. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) team which conducted the excavation believes that brick temple could be the oldest of its kind to be discovered in Tamil Nadu. However, noted Indian archaeologist R. Nagaswamy is critical of this claim owing to lack of references to the shrine in the popular literature of the period.
The temple was discovered by a team of archaeologists from the ASI based on clues found in a rock inscription left exposed by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Initially, excavations revealed an 8th-century Pallava-era shrine. Further excavations revealed that the 8th-century shrine had been built on the brick foundation of an earlier shrine. The brick shrine has been dated to the Sangam period.
The temple faces north, unlike most Hindu temples. Artifacts from two phases, the Sangam phase as well as the Pallava phase, have been found. The temple is Tamil Nadu's oldest shrine to Murugan. It is also believed to be one of only two pre-Pallava temples to be discovered in the state, the other being the Veetrirundha Perumal Temple at Veppathur.
After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami had subsided, archaeologists discovered rock inscriptions which had been exposed by the tsunami waves close to the hamlet of Saluvankuppam, near the UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site of Mahabalipuram. The inscriptions by the Rashtrakuta king Krishna III and the Chola kings Parantaka I and Kulothunga Chola I spoke of a Subrahmanya Temple at Thiruvizhchil (the present day Saluvankuppam). S. Rajavelu, epigraphist with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), identified a nearby mound as the site of the temple. In 2005, archaeologists unearthed an 8th-century Pallava temple under the mound. G. Thirumoorthy, ASI Assistant Archaeologist, believed that the shrine could be the oldest Subrahmanya temple to be excavated in Tamil Nadu. There were speculations on whether the temple could be one of the "Seven Pagodas".
However, further excavations revealed that the 8th-century temple was constructed over the remains of an older brick temple. According to Thirumoorthy, the garbhagriha or sanctum Sanctorum of the brick temple was filled with sand and covered with granite slabs upon which the newer temple was constructed. Sathyamurthy, Superintendent, ASI Chennai Circle, said that the brick temple could be dated to the Sangam period as the shrine faced north unlike modern temples which face either east or west. This proved conclusively that the temple was constructed before the 6th or 7th century AD when the shilpa shastras, the canonical texts of temple architecture, were written. It has been estimated that the age of the brick shrine range from 1700 to 2200 years.
Archaeologists believe that the brick shrine was destroyed either by a cyclone or a tsunami which took place 2,200 years ago. The Pallavas built a granite temple on the brick foundation in the 8th century AD, which also was likely to have been destroyed by a tsunami. Archaeologists believe that the second tsunami must have occurred in the 13th century AD as the latest inscriptions which speak of the shrine have been dated to 1215.
The remains of a brick temple, dating back to the late Tamil Sangam period [circa 1st century B.C. to 2nd century A.D.], have been discovered on the seafront near the Tiger Cave at Saluvankuppam, a few km ahead of the world-famous Mamallapuram monuments.
"The brick temple is the most ancient temple discovered so far in Tamil Nadu. There is no doubt that it is about 2,000 years old," said T. Sathyamurthy, Superintending Archaeologist, ASI, Chennai Circle. Twenty-seven courses of bricks with a square garbha griha (sanctum sanctorum) that made the Sangam age temple form the center piece of the discovery. The temple is dedicated to Muruga, the presiding deity of "Kurinji" [hill] tracts. The sanctum measures 2 metres by 2.2 metres. The bricks measure 40 cm x 20 cm x 7 cm. They are still sturdy.
The big-sized bricks are typical of the period and are similar to those found at Kaveripoompattinam near Thanjavur; Uraiyur in Tiruchi district — Uraiyur was the capital of the Cholas of the Sangam age; Mangudi near Tirunelveli; and Arikkamedu near Pondicherry.
Dr. Sathyamurthy was sure the brick temple was built before the canonical period because it faced north. "Agama" texts, which came into existence in the sixth or seventh century A.D., and "shilpa shastras”, had prescribed rules for construction of temples including the directions they should face. Normally, temples faced east or west. But this one did not follow "agama" texts and hence looked north. Tsunami or tidal waves that occurred twice had pulled down the entire temple complex. There is telltale evidence of wave action from the excavation. Deposits of shells and debris of the temple have been found on the eastern side of the complex, towards the shoreline. "What is interesting is not the discovery of the brick temple but that we can record stratigraphically the remains of palaeo-tsunami deposits. The impact of the tidal wave is seen on the eastern side of the temple, close to the sea. Such a feature is absent on the western side," Dr. Sathyamurthy said.
G. Thirumoorthy, Assistant Archaeologist, ASI, said the temple belonged to two periods: the late Sangam age and the Pallava period. After the brick temple collapsed, the Pallava kings of the 8th and 9th century A.D., built another temple over it, using granite slabs. This temple too collapsed.
Artifacts found at the site include broken stucco figurines, obviously under worship; a painted hand portion with a bangle of a stucco figurine, simple-looking terracotta lamps, beads, roofing tiles made of terracotta, spinning whorls, a broken animal terracotta figurine and hop-scotches. A "prakara" (compound) wall of the same period has been excavated.
Archaeologists' conclusions are:
From the evidences like temple orientation, brick size and artifacts collected from this site, the ASI team concluded that this structure immediately antedates the Pallavas. They are also of the opinion that this one is the earliest brick temple in Tamil Nadu identified as of now. Further to this they also infer that no other temple of such nature is reported from south India.
Presence two evidences granite spear and the plaque depicting women dancing 'Kuravai Koothu' allow the ASI experts to conclude this one as Lord Subrahmanya temple.
The Reach foundation, Chennai conducted carbon - 14 dating on the paleo-tsunami evidences (sea shells and other debris) proved that they got deposited in different periods between 405 A.D. and 564 A.D. and between 1019 A.D. and 1161 A.D.
According to T.Sathyamurthy, Superintendent, ASI Chennai Circle, (now Reach foundation trustee) conclude that the shrine belongs to Sangam period since it faces northwards. The modern temples built according to Shilpa Shastras (written between 6th or 7th century A.D.) are facing either east or west. This fact encouraged him to conclude that the temple was constructed before the 6th or 7th century A.D. He also estimated the age of the brick shrine ranging between 1700 and 2200 years.
However, noted Indian archaeologist R. Nagaswamy is critical of this claim due to lack of references to the shrine in the popular literature of the period.
Although the city of Mahabalipuram was constructed by the Pallava king Narasimhavarman I in the 7th century AD, there is evidence that a small port might have functioned at the site even earlier. Megalithic burial urns dating to the very dawn of the Christian era have been discovered near Mahabalipuram. The Sangam age poem Perumpānattuppadai describes a port called Nirppeyyaru which some scholars identify with the present-day Mahabalipuram. Sadras near Mahabalipuram has been identified as the site of the port of Sopatma mentioned in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea.
Number of rock inscriptions is found near the shrine. The specific three granite pillars, which lead for the discovery of the shrine, bears inscriptions of grants offered to this shrine (Ref. 1-3). Later five more inscriptions discovered (Ref. 4-8). Now three more inscriptions identified Ref. (9-11).
Ø Kirarpiriyan of Mamallapuram made grants of ten 'kazhanjus' (small sized gold balls) First pillar inscription
Ø Vasanthanar, a Brahmin woman offered a grant of 16 kazhanjus Second pillar inscription which can be dated back to 813 A.D.
Ø Raja Raja Chola I (985–1014 A.D.) Third pillar inscription is about the grant
Ø Pallava king Dantivarman (795 to 846 A.D.) Fourth pillar inscriptions which can be dated back to 813 A.D.
Ø Pallava kings Nandivarman III (846 to 869 A.D.) Fifth pillar inscriptions which can be dated back to 858 A.D.
Ø Pallava kings Kambavarman (9th century A.D) sixth pillar inscriptions
7. Krishna III (939-68 A.D) Rashtrakuta king Seventh pillar inscriptions which can be dated back to 976 AD,
Ø Pallava king Kambavarman (9th century A.D) Eighth pillar inscriptions
Ø Krishna III (939-68 A.D) Rashtrakuta king Ninth pillar which can be dated back to 971 A.D. in his 21st regnal year
Ø Rajendra III Chola (1216–1256 A.D) Tenth pillar inscriptions
Ø Kulothunga Chola III (1178–1218 A.D.) which can be dated back to 1215 A.D.
All the inscriptions in ancient Tamil script record about the donations of land and gold for the maintenance of the Subrahmanya temple at Thiruvizhchil and it continuously received grants. All these inscriptions mention the village as Thiruvizhchil.
While the thin, tabular bricks at the top were laid by the Pallavas, the larger bricks underneath date from the Sangam period
The temple is dedicated to the Hindu deity Murugan and faces north. The garbhagriha or sanctum sanctorum is 2 metres long and 2.2 metres wide and is made of 27 courses of bricks. The bricks used are similar to the ones used in other Sangam age sites such as Puhar, Uraiyur, Mangudi and Arikkamedu.
A stone Vel is positioned at the entrance of the shrine. During the excavations, a terracotta plaque depicting a Kuravai Koothu, a dance which is mentioned in the 1st century AD Tamil epic Silappadikaram, was discovered. Sathyamurthy feels that there may not have been any idol in the square garbhagriha as it is too small to house one. The temple is surrounded by a prakara or a compound wall dating from the Sangam period. According to Thirumoorthy, the shrine is "the biggest brick temple complex dating to the pre-Pallava period".
The temple is built on a cushion of alluvium on which a layer of man-made bricks were laid. On top of this were another four layers of man-made bricks separated by four layers of laterite. There were two types of bricks used: large-sized laterite bricks of the Sangam period and thin, tabular bricks of a later age. The bricks were plastered together with lime.
A terracotta Nandi (the bull of the god Shiva – father of Murugan), head of a woman, terracotta lamps, potsherds and a shivalinga (aniconic symbol of Shiva) made of green stone are some of the important artifacts found at the site. The Nandi is the first one made of terracotta to be found. While most of the items unearthed belong to the Sangam period, artifacts of a later period including a Chola copper coin have also been found.