A Roaring Secret: Tiger Caves in Mahabalipuram

posted in: India, Heritage, Tamil Nadu | 67

Playing truant is always fun. I am sure most of us have played this game of disappearing from classes or office or functions whenever it suited us. It is a sense of adventure and free will that you feel when you do this and boy! Do they leave some memories for you to cherish later. Well, I played truant during my Golden Chariot trip where I used my lunch break in Mahabalipuram to rush over and see this magnificent rock-cut caves – The Tiger Caves.

Tiger Caves in Mahabalipuram

I had known of these caves earlier too and had missed out on them during my earlier trips. Having checked the google maps, I realized that they were just 5 kilometers from town’s center. Given that, I spoke to the tour manager about using my lunch break to rush over to the Tiger caves and exploring it. With a promise to be back on time (as you can see, I am responsible truant), I along with 2 of my fellow bloggers – Abhinav and Swati hopped into an autorickshaw to find this lesser-visited Tiger Caves in Mahabalipuram.

Discovering the Tiger Caves

The Tiger Caves are fairly well known to the local people and getting here was not tough at all. However, this is now used more as a picnic spot and that explains the lack of crowd here on a weekday. As we entered, we could see the back of the sandstone caves. As soon as we reached the front, the only word that escaped from all our mouths was “Wow”.

The side view of the Tiger Caves in Mahabalipuram
Close up of the tiger or Yeli carving on the caves
The sides of the Tiger Caves in Mahabalipuram

The entire mouth of the cave was carved with ornate tigers. Later as we queried our Golden Chariot guide, he explained that these were not just tigers but possibly mythological creatures called Yeli.  It is as if the whole cave was showcasing the different profiles of the tiger – right to left to front of his face.Each detail of these tigers is just stunning – the eyes, the canines that jut out, the ferocious look.


Close up of the Tiger Caves in Mahabalipuram

Carved within this entrance were steps that lead to a small pavilion of sorts. This pavilion as you can see, had 2 guardian lions on either side. Within this chamber is a weathered sculpture, none of the details clear for me to identify.

The steps themselves, had tigers along its sides. Besides the central grove, you can even spot two empty chambers – one on either side. There were no carvings or inscriptions within.

The left extension of the Tiger Caves with their chambers and carving within

Once I got attuned to the grandeur of this main section, my eyes traveled along to the left side of the cave. Quite unlike the main cave, here you had elephant faces carved. Just above each elephant head, note the small chamber and the deity carved within. I identified these as carvings of Shiva and Parvati but then, that is my interpretation of the same.

Significance of the Tiger Caves

Feeling like a queen at the Tiger Caves in Mahabalipuram

The tiger caves are dated back to the 7th or 8th century AD. The Pallava dynasty is the ones associated with it. As per my Golden Chariot guide, these caves were a place where the Pallava kings addressed their audience. According to him, the central chamber was where the kings might have sat while the rest of the courtiers and audience surrounded the place. He also, said that this was also, possibly a place where various festivals were held and different artists performed for the king.

To me, this definitely sound like that could be the case. I did march up the stairs to sit and take a photograph and I admit, I did feel very Queen-like 😉

The Subramanya Temple within the campus

The Subramanya Temple within the campus of Tiger Caves

Within the sprawling land of the Tiger caves are the ruins of a small temple dedicated to Lord Subramanya (Lord Shiva). The temple was undiscovered till 2005 when some inscriptions on the Tiger Cave led to it. The temple is in a dilapidated state but is quite mysterious.

The Nandi statue facing the Subramanya temple
The Bas-Relief at the Subramanya temple, Tiger Caves

A small Nandi lies in front of the temple. Close to it is a small bas-relief with a carving of a deity on a tiger attacking demons. I think this is Goddess Durga (an avatar of Parvati) attacking the demon Mahishasura. Again without a guide, this is my best guess and I am keen to know if you agree with the same.

The black Shiva Linga at the Subramanya Temple, Tiger Caves

The main temple has a black Shiva Linga. Around the sanctum are carved the guardians or the Dwarapalikas. If you look carefully along the walls, there are small sculptures of Lord Shiva – quite similar to the ones that I observed over the elephant heads of the main Tiger caves. This definitely gives me confidence about my interpretation that this entire structure was dedicated to Lord Shiva.

Sculpture of Lord Shiva along the walls of Subramanya temple, Tiger Caves

There isn’t much left other than these structures but the mere presence of it is what makes this whole monument quite mysterious. And then, there is this huge rock that towers between the Tiger Caves and temple that does seem to be there by design. I sure would love to know what went here and what other secrets these caves hold.

The tall rock at the Tiger Caves - by design or natural - not known.

Time was short as I had promised our tour guide to be back in time for our next adventure in Mahabalipuram. I would have loved to visit the sea that I could hear roaring behind the Tiger Caves but for now, this was where it had to end. We left with the beautiful images of the mighty Tiger Caves. The Golden Chariot team ensured that we had not missed our lunch but even if we had, I think, we would not have minded it for we had explored one of Mahabalipuram’s secret – the Tiger Caves. Let me know if you too, would have given up your lunch to visit this offbeat cave, which I believe is one of the key things to see in Mahabalipuram.

Getting here:

  • On how to get to Mahabalipuram, you can refer my earlier post here
  • The Tiger caves is just 5 kms from the city center on the Chennai- ECR road. You can visit this while you are coming into Mahabalipuram from Chennai.
  • Alternatively, you can take an autorickshaw from the city center to reach this place. The auto driver will charge you around INR 200-300 for a journey to and from these caves. This includes the waiting time at the Caves.

Travel Tips:

  • There are no entrance fees or photography fees for this monument
  • Please be respectful and remove your shoes at the Subramanya temple
  • There is no restriction at the Tiger caves but in order to protect the caves, I would request you all to not damage the sculptures by inscribing on it.
  • There are no restaurants or restrooms available near the Tiger Caves.
  • Please carry enough drinking water while you head here.
  • While the Tiger Caves are not a part of the Golden Chariot itinerary, you can always go on your own. This is of course, subject to the free time you might have during your lunch. Please check with your tour manager on the same.

P.S: I was invited by Karnataka State Tourism Development Corporation to experience the Golden Chariot tour.




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