There is no tiger in the Tiger’s Cave. But then, it is all about sea, sand and sculptures here. Boulders emerge out of the sandy shores to look up at the sky. Children run around playing hide and seek. A couple mumbles sweet nothings in the shade of the trees while two men with laptops sit inside a rock-cut cave, seeking respite from the heat.
I am in Saluvanakuppam, 5 km before Mahabalipuram on the East Coast Road from Chennai. Picnickers popularly call it Tiger’s Cave, which is actually a misnomer. Built by the Pallava kings, rock-cut caves stand here amidst a canopy of casuarina trees on the sandy shores overlooking the sea.
Tiger’s Cave is actually a rock-cut cave temple dedicated to goddess Durga and is crowned with several heads of the mythical creature, Yali, which looks like a lion or a tiger. While one side of the cave is crowded with heads, the other is carved into a single ferocious head of a Yali. A puddle of water below reflects the many heads as several eyes of the animal gape at you, giving the village a new name.
Built by Narasimhavarman I in the 7th century, Tiger’s Cave is actually a porch or a mantapa from where the king perhaps gave audience. The mandapam is like an open-air theatre and, even today, it is one of the venues of the Mahabalipuram Festival.
I walk up to the other cave where the men are still hiding beneath their laptops. But my attention is claimed by the massive pillars, columns and carvings inside the cave that houses a Shivalinga. This is clearly my favourite cave temple. Called the Athiranachanda cave, it is dedicated to Shiva. Athirachanda was probably one of the names of the Pallava king Rajasimha and inscriptions say that the king dedicated the temple to Shiva but decided to name it after himself as Athirachandaesvara. There are inscriptions in Pallava-Grantha on the walls.
We pause a moment to look around. Shrill laughter echoes and we see the children still at play, carefree and happy. I wonder if they understand the historic significance of the place, the rich legacy they are standing on as they jump from one boulder to another. The sun is setting and we plan to head to the seashore. But the watchman points us to a site a few metres away.
It is the excavation site of an ancient brick temple that probably dates back 2,000 years. It was a temple dedicated to Muruga, from the Tamil Sangam age, built between the first century BC and 2nd century AD - probably one of the oldest temples discovered so far in Tamil Nadu.
The tsunami in 2004 had exposed a rock with inscriptions in Tamil from the Pallava period of 8th century that spoke about a Muruga temple here maintained by some people. It raised the curiosity of ASI archaeologists and eventually led to the excavation.
In Mahabalipuram, more excavations were carried out and the sea returned a bit of its treasures. We wonder if there are many more temples hidden beneath the ocean floor. Lost in our imagination, we delve into the depths of the past as we walk towards the sea shore. History may be written by kings, but the waves have probably rewritten it and over again with every tsunami taking away a portion of it.