April 27, 2018

Mukteswara Temple - Kanchipuram

How many beautiful and ancient temples lay neglected in Kanchipuram? May be, that is the curse of being located in a city of thousand temples. Mukteswara Temple is one such best kept secrets of this holy city. It is believed to have been built during the period of Nandivarma Pallava II in the 8th century CE.  This is one of the very few Pallava period temples in Kanchi which is left in their original forms.

I have already written about another lesser known Pallava period temple called Matangeswar. Both the temples look alike to a great extent. It is generally said that Mukteswara is exact replica of Matangeswar, but that is not true. Although the structure of both these temples look similar, there are so many differences such as the number of sculptures, the style of sculptures, the location of Dwarapalas and few other architectural features. Both are equally beautiful and admirable, I agree.

It is not easy to locate the temple. It is located in East Raja Street and the nearest landmark is Pookadai market. Please refer the Google map given at the end of this article. As of today, this is the only source on the net, which covers this temple and sculptures in detail along with the location coordinates.

The west facing temple has sanctum and Mukha Mandap. The vimana is three tiered Vesara Vimana. As part of the vimana  is of Nagara style and the upper portion is of Vesara style, some Agama texts call this style as Nagara Vesara Vimana. (Thanks to Sri. Sankara Narayanan, the Sanskrit professor and scholar to provide this information).

The temple is situated on a raised platform. The sanctum enshrines the Shiv Linga called as Mukteswara and the Somaskanda panel on the wall behind the Linga. Behind Somaskanda (Shiva, Uma and Skanda), Brahma and Vishnu are found in the standing posture. The panel is surrounded by Dwarapalas on either sides. The north and south walls inside the sanctum have the images of  the Devas. (There are few other temples in this city where such figures are found on either sides of Somaskanda. I personally think that the Devas are present at one side and the group on the other side must be Asuras. There are differences in the facial features between both the groups.)

Two new idols of Ganesh and Kartikeya are also found in the sanctum.

There is no flag staff in this temple. Also, there is no gopura (tower) at the entrance. Nandi is found on the corner facing towards the sanctum. It's a later period idol. It has a small but beautiful mandap made of bricks. The bali peetha is found behind Nandi.

The Mukha Mandap is supported by four pillars and two pilasters. Out of four pillars, the first two pillars are lion pillars. Both the exterior corners of the Mukha Mandap have two Dwarapalas. They appear in their typical posture of standing with the support of their maces. On top of all the panels throughout the Mandap, we could find Bhuta Mala (series of Ganas in different postures) and Chakravaka birds.

There are totally six panels inside the Mukha Mandap.

Gangadhara Murti

The sculpture on the true right side of the sanctum that faces the west direction is Gangadhara Murti.  Shiva is found with six arms. He embraces Uma with his lower left arm, whereas with his upper right arm, he accepts the descending Ganga, which is depicted in the female form. His lower right arm rests on his waist. Uma rests her right arm on the lap of Shiva and her right leg is stylishly folded. There is a small lion found on the upper left side of Shiva.

Kala Samhara Murti

The sculpture on the true left side of the sanctum that faces the west direction is Kala Samhara Murti.  Shiva is found with six arms and looks ferocious holding many weapons. Kala is found below his feet. One small Gana is also found in the lower portion of this panel.

Ravana Anugraha Murti

The first panel on the south facing interior wall of the Mukha Mandap has the sculptures of Ravan and Ravana Anugraha Murti. Ravan has ten heads and twenty arms. He is trying to lift Kailash. Few Ganas are found to his rear side. Above the mount, Shiva is found along with his consort Uma.

Gaja Samhara Murti

The second panel on the south facing interior wall of this Mandap has Gaja Samhara Murti. Shiva is found with ten arms and is dancing on the flayed elephant hide. Uma in a stylish posture is found watching this, though her face turned on the opposite direction. Few Ganas are also found. The original sculpture must have been very beautiful. Thanks to the modern era's restoration attempts on the eroded icons, these do not look very attractive now.

Natesa Murti

The first panel on the north facing interior wall of the Mukha Mandap has Natesa Murti. Shiva, who has ten arms, is found in a beautiful dancing posture. His consort is standing in a very stylish standing posture. There are many dwarf Ganas found all around Shiva.

Ravana Anugraha Murti

The second panel on the north facing interior wall represents Ravana Anugraha Murti again, though in an entirely different form. Shiva along with his consort is found seated. Ravan is depicted merely with two arms. He is probably praying or trying to please the Lord by playing Veena. That portion of sculpture is not very clear as it is eroded. Few Ganas are found near Shiva-Uma as well as near Ravan. (People could interpret the couple as some king and queen; but if one would carefully notice, the male icon has four arms and hence he cannot be a human; there is no reason to relate this figure with Vishnu or any other deity due to the presence of dwarf figures all over.)

Sculptures on the outer walls

There are many sculptures on the outer walls of the sanctum and Mukha Mandap. Let me give the details of each and every sculpture found here.

Sculptures on the north wall

If we circumambulate the temple, the first sculpture that is found on the north facing wall is a Dwarapla. He has loose hair; his left arm rests on mace and his right leg is slightly folded.Although he faces towards the north direction, his body faces towards the west direction. It indicates that he serves as the door guardian for the Mukha Mandap and not for any niche idols on the north facing wall. The corresponding Dwarapala with the same features is found on the south facing wall too. As I mentioned above, there are already a pair of Dwarapalas at the entrance of the Mandap facing the west direction. Hence, these two Dwarapalas should be considered as additional pair of Dwarapalas for the same Mandap. In between the west facing Dwarapala and north facing Dwarapla, the sculpture of a soldier riding the Vyala is located.

The next sculpture is Urdhava Tandava Murti. The dancing Shiva has six arms and has his right leg raised above. Along with him, a dwarf Gana is also dancing, whereas another Gana is playing mridangam.

The next sculpture represents Vishnu Durga. She is standing; she has four arms; her upper arms hold discus and conch. On her either sides, two female attendants with different weapons in her arms are found.

Then, we have Chandesa Anugraha Murti. Shiva has four arms; his upper right arm is placed on the head of Chandesa. Chandesa is found in Anjali Mudra.

The above mentioned sculptures are all located on the outer wall of the Mukha Mandap. Similarly, there are Murtis found on the outer wall of the sanctum too. Instead of explaining about each sculpture separately, let me explain the entire group.

Vishnu is found in the central. His sculpture is comparatively taller. He has four arms and holds Prayoga Chakra and conch in his upper arms.

To the right side of Vishnu, a deity is found within a niche. The niche has a torana on the top and has two Dwarapalas on either sides. The main icon has a flower (eroded; possibly flower) in his right arm and his left arm rests on his waist. This could be most probably Surya.

To the left side of Vishnu, a deity is found within a niche. Similar to the other one, this also has a torana on the top. The niche is decorated with designs on both the sides and even some dwarf figures are sculpted. The deity is found in the standing posture and has four arms. What he holds in one of his upper arms appear to be Aksha Mala. Hence, I presume that this deity could be Yoga Murti (Shiva).

To the right side of Surya and to the left side of Yoga Murti, two identical icons almost of similar height of Vishnu are found. Both the icons have two arms; their left arms rest on their waists and they hold something on their right arm. (What they hold is not very clear due to erosion). They could be easily mistaken for Surya and Chandra. However, I believe they are Dwarapalas.

On the extreme ends of both the sides, there are two Dwarapalas. Both of them appear in similar posture; they rest their left arms on their maces; their right arms are raised above their left arms; their right legs are slightly folded and they appear to be relaxing.

Both the corners of this group of sculptures have the Pallava style standing lions (Vyalas).

Sculptures on the east wall

The east facing outer wall of the sanctum has the sculpture of Lingodbhava in the middle. His figure is badly damaged and his face is completely eroded. He has four arms and his right arm is in Abhaya Mudra. Brahma or swan is completely gone. However, the icon of Varaha is found in the lower portion. Varaha has four arms and his upper arms are in Anjali Mudra. Four small figures are found on either sides of the niche.

The right side of Lingodbhava has the sculpture of Vishnu and on the left side, the sculpture of Brahma is found. Brahma's image is badly damaged and only his single head is found and the other heads have gone off.

On the right side of Vishnu and on the left side of Brahma, two Dwarapalas are found. One has his right arm rested on his waist, whereas the other Dwarapala has his left arm rested on his waist. Both the figures hold the flower in their other arms.

On the either side of the above mentioned Dwarapalas, we have two Dwarapalas. The Dwarapala on the right side has his left leg rested on mace, whereas the Dwarapala on the other side has his right leg rested on mace.

The extreme corners have two standing lions (Vyalas).

Sculptures on the south wall

The south facing outer wall has two sections - the sanctum wall and the wall on the Mukha Mandap.

Let us first see the sculptures on the outer wall of the sanctum.

Dakshinamurti is found in the middle. Totally four sages, two in each side, are found around Dakshinamurti.

On further right side of Dakshinamurti, Jalandhara Samhara Murti is found. Shiva is found seated in yogic posture and the discus slaying Jalandhara is depicted in the lower portion of the panel.

On left side, Kala Samhara Murti is found.

All these sculptures are damaged to a great extent. All of them have torana with a miniature icon on the top.

The above mentioned sculptures are surrounded by two similar styled Dwarapalas on either sides. The Dwarapala on the right side has his left arm rested on mace, whereas the Dwarapala on the other side has his right arm rested on mace. Both have one of their respective legs folded inwardly. They are in turn surrounded by two standing lions on either sides.

The sculptures on the outer wall of the Mukha Mandap are heavily eroded. The middle niche has Ganesh in the sitting posture. Few Ganas are found around him; he has a torana above.

To the left side of Ganesh, the coronation of a King is depicted. The King is found along with his queen, seated on his throne. I don't think it could be any deity. Who is this King? It's a million dollar question.

To the right side, a royal couple or a divine couple are found. They are found in the standing posture. As the sculptures are heavily damaged, it is not easy to identify these icons.

The last icon is the sculpture of a Dwarapala. His corresponding icon of Dwarapala is found on the north facing wall, about which, it was already discussed. Unlike that sculpture, it is badly eroded. Beyond this, there is a sculpture of soldier riding the Yazhi.

Other Aspects

Although many niche images are found all over the walls, as seen above in detail, importantly Ganesh and Dakshinamurti on the south direction, Lingodbhava on the east direction, Vishnu and Durga on the north direction are found.

All the Karnakoodams on the vimana have miniature icons of various Murtis such as Sukhasana Murtis and others. Small sized lions are found on either sides of Karnakoodams.

Brahma, Vishnu and Sukhasana Murti are found as the Griva Koshta Murtis. (I could not identify the fourth Griva Murti).


As per the inscriptions found in this temple, it was called as Dharma Maha Deveeswaram or Manickeeswaram in those days.

There are three inscriptions found in this temple. One belongs to Nandivarma Pallava II's period (8th century CE). Dharmadevi was his queen and the temple was named after her as Dharma Maha Deveeswaram. Another inscription belongs to the 18th year of reign of Rajendra Chola (1030 CE). The third inscription belongs to Tirumala Raya of Vijayanagara (16th century CE). It seems that the temple was called as Kailasanathar in Vijayanagara's period.

One of the stone inscriptions interestingly provides the list of Thali Cheri Pendugal (Devadasi girls) and their Thavisu Pillais (cooks).

(The inscriptions related details are provided by Sri. Sankara Narayanan, the Sanskrit Professor from Kanchipuram, during a speech).

Happy travelling.

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