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Vettuvankoil – the stunning 8th-century monolith in Tamil Nadu

What is a Monolith?

One would have seen many types of temples in India. The big ones are the structural temples made from blocks of stones. One may also remember seeing cave temples, also known as ‘Kudaivarai Koilgal’ in Tamil. These temples were sculpted from rocks in the form of caves and inside we find bas-reliefs . But what is a monolith? As the name suggests, these are temples sculpted from a single block of stone. The following photos will help one understand the difference between cave temples, monoliths, and structural temples.

cave temple
Cave temple at Thirumalpuram, TN, built by Pandyas

Monolith, Dharmaraja Ratha at Mamallapuram built by Pallavas
Airavateshwara Temple complete view
Chola era structural temple, Airavateshwara Temple

Tracing the History of Monoliths in India

Cave temples were found in India since the age of emperor Asoka, circa 3rd century BCE. Some examples are the ones found in Ajanta and Ellora in Maharashtra, then the cave temples of Badami in Karnataka built in the 6th and 7th centuries by the Chalukyas. Later the Pallava kings and also the Pandya kings-built cave temples in the Tamil Nadu region.

The transition from cave temples to monoliths happened during the time of Pallavas in Mamallapuram. The Pancha Pandava Rathas found in Mamallapuram built in the 7th century CE were monoliths. The transition from plain caves to monoliths with vimanas happened during this period.

Some Famous Monoliths of India

Kailasanatha Temple

Kailasanatha Temple, Ellora
Kailasanatha Temple, Ellora

This temple is marked as cave no:16 in the Ellora caves built during the period of Rashtrakuta king Krishna around the 8thcentury CE. This is a full-fledged monolithic temple much bigger than the rathas of Mamallapuram.

Masrur temples

Masrur temple complex, Himachal Pradesh
Masrur temple complex, Himachal Pradesh

These are 8th century temple complex of monolithic structures for Hindu gods in the Kangra Valley of Beas River in Himachal Pradesh. The complex was built in the North Indian Nagara architecture style. It is unfortunate that much of the Masrur temple’s sculptures and reliefs have been lost and damaged from earthquakes.

Dharmarajeshwar temple

Dharmarajeshwar Temple, Madhya Pradesh
Dharmarajeshwar Temple, Madhya Pradesh

The Dhamnar caves are a cluster of ancient Buddhist and Hindu cave temples existing from the 4th century CE in the Mandasur district of Madhya Pradesh. The Dharmarajeshwar temple is a monolithic Shiva temple found in the Dhamnar caves built in the 9th century CE.


Sculpted out of the Kazhugumalai hillock in Thoothukudi district, Tamil Nadu, Vettuvankoil is the only monolith built by Pandyas in 8th century CE. It was built by the Pandya king Nedunjadayan Paranthakan also known as Varagunan I, who ruled from 765 CE-815 CE. Regrettably, this exquisite monolith couldn’t be completed by the king for reasons unknown.

Historians feel that this temple would have been as famous as the renowned Kailasanatha monolith of Ellora, or any other monolith in India had it been complete. Because the rock formation found in this hill is very hard and sturdy compared to the Ellora, or Dhamnar caves. Since the rocks are hard, it would have been more challenging to sculpt a monolith in this type of stone.

Architecture and Iconography of the temple

Complete view with trenches on the sides
Complete view with trenches on the sides

As one can see in the picture, a huge cavity is chiselled out from the granite hill, leaving a large boulder in the centre. Trenches are dug on three sides, giving ample space to work on the boulder. Though temples and buildings are usually built from bottom to top, monoliths are usually sculpted from top to bottom.


Shikhara, the bulbous top of the vimana
Notice the octagonal shape and Nandhis on the Shikhara

The vimana of the temple was sculpted fully, however the bottom part of the temple and the front mandapa were left unfinished. The vimana has a Dravidian-style octagonal shikhara on the top. As there are nandhis or bulls on the neck of the vimana, one can conclude that it was a Shiva temple. If the temple had been a Vishnu temple, sculptures of Garuda would be seen on the vimana. However, one might find a Ganesha statue now in the Sanctum-Sanctorum of the temple instead of a Shiva Linga.

The vimana has four storeys and each storey is embellished with chubby, smiling sculptures of various gods, goddesses, and demi-gods.

The beauty of the sculptures

The floral designs found in the vimana, the jewels worn by the deities, their relaxed poses and their smiling countenance is unlikely to be found in other Dravidian temples.

Dakshinamurthy playing mridangam

The sculpture of Lord Dakshinamurthi playing a mridangam (a percussion music instrument) is unique to this temple.

ganas playing musical instruments
Ganas and their antics

The sculptures of the various Shiva Ganas found here would melt one’s heart away with their happy poses and gimmicks.

Unfinished bottom and front portion of the monolithic temple

Unfinished bottom and front portion of the monolithic temple Vettuvankoil. Notice people walking around the temple and also inside the unfinished front mandapa

graceful sculptures
Look at the ease in which the lady is sitting
graceful sculptures
smiling -chubby faced lady.

Since this temple is a monolith and the construction had stopped at the vimana level and due to the availability of a path around the vimana, one can see the whole vimana at eye level, which is impossible to see in the structural temples. If you are interested in visiting monuments, this monolith, though unfinished is a must-visit place. And if you happen to visit vettuvankoil, do not miss out on the 8th century Jain establishment and sculptures on the nearby hill.

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