June 14, 2017

Gaja prshtha Vishnu Temple of Vandalur

This is a road less traveled; or on a lighter note, perhaps it's a road never traveled. I took around one hour to locate this rare and unique Gaja prshtha (apsidal) vimana temple of Vishnu. It is not rare to find Gaja prshtha Shiva temple in and around Chennai. However, to my little knowledge, this is the only Vishnu temple having apsidal vimana.

This Vishnu temple is located in a small lane called Perumal Koil Street in Vandalur area of Tambaram, near Chennai. This lane is located near Bhajanai Koil Street.  There is no specific name for Vishnu in this temple. As there are many small and old Vishnu (Perumal) temples in and around this area, it is very difficult to locate this particular temple.

The small temple has the east facing sanctum with a beautiful Gaja prshtha vimana. It enshrines Vishnu and his two consorts Sri Devi and Bhoo Devi. In addition to that, the stone idols of Maha Lakshmi and Hanuman are also found in the sanctum. Lakshmi and Hanuman idols should have been kept in the sanctum only in the recent time.

A tall deepa stambha and a sub-shrine of Garud are found facing towards the sanctum. There is no flag staff. The niches on the outer wall of the sanctum are empty and there is no niche image found.

It should be noted that this is the only Vishnu temple with Gaja prshtha vimana not only in Chennai but all over the globe.

According to few scholars, the temple was originally a Shiva temple, but was converted into Vishnu temple. Although I agree that the idol of Vishnu appears not to be very old, I doubt if it would have been a Shiva temple earlier. The lamp post (deepa stambha) has the carvings of Hanuman, Garud, Shankha and Chakra related to Vaishnavism.

As per the scholar Dr. Gift Siromoney, the stone inscriptions that are found on the outer walls of the sanctum belong to the 17th or the 18th century CE. The inscriptions have reference about the Vijayanagara Chieftain Mahamandaleswaran Saluva Narasimha of  the 15th century CE and Nagama Naik of the 16th century CE.  The inscription refers the village as Vendalur.

It is generally said that the Cholas have constructed Gaja prshtha temples only for Lord Shiva in Tondai Mandalam area alone (Chennai, Kanchi and around). How far this statement is true? Let me analyze with whatever little knowledge I have.

  • Constructing Gaja prshtha vimana does not appear to be the original idea of the Cholas. Sahadeva Ratha in Mamallapuram and Tirupaaleeswarar temple in Vaayalur are Gaja prshtha temples built by the Pallavas. Hence, I believe that either the Cholas might have reconstructed the originally built brick Gaja prshtha temples of the Pallavas or they would have merely followed the architectural style of the Pallavas.
  • It is not true that the Gaja prshtha temples are found only in Tondai Mandalam region. Rather, I would say that most of the Gaja prshtha temples are found in this region but there are few Gaja prshtha temples found elsewhere. Tirumeeyachur temple near Mayiladuturai and Ezhuttarinatheswarar temple in Innambar are Gaja prshtha temples that are outside Tondai region. 
  • Aihole Dura temple built by the Chalukyas is an apsidal temple. Did the Pallavas get inspiration from this temple? Or else, both the Pallavas and the Chalukyas got inspired by the Buddhist Chaityas? Whatever it is, the idea of apsidal temple is much older than the period of the Cholas.
  • Even in Kerala, there are few Gaja prshtha temples. Triprangode Shiva temple in Malappuram region was constructed by the Chera King in the 10th century CE. It is an apsidal temple. So, it is not only the Cholas or the Pallavas, who had constructed such temples.
  • Is it true that only Shiva temples were built with Gaja prshtha vimanas? I don't think so. Chathakudam Sri Dharma Shasta temple near Thrissur and Madhur Ganesh temple near Kasaragod are not Shiva temples but have Gaja prshtha vimanas. Even Tiruparutikundram Jain temple in Kanchipuram has Gaja prshtha vimana.

Now, let us get back to the million dollar question. Who built the Vandalur Vishnu temple? As the inscriptions are hardly 300-400 years old, should we assume that it was built during the Vijayanagara period? It might be a difficult task to engrave inscription on the existing temple, but that is not an impossible task. The temple could have been built by the Cholas and only the inscriptions were engraved later, right?.

I am not supporting or denying any possibility. It is beyond my ability to conclude if it is a Chola period or later period temple and if it was originally a Shiva temple. Let the historians and researchers analyze the facts and conclude on the same.

Happy travelling.

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