‘Architecture should speak of its time and place, but yearn for timelessness’ – Frank Gehry.
Architecture is a study of forms: about plans, designs, motifs and how they have evolved over time. But built spaces are a medium to study societies as well. Architectural spaces, both sacred and secular have a functional aspect, in the sense that they fulfill the need for what they were created. A temple or a mosque is a house of worship and a king’s tomb or a palace has royal connotations, a commemorative edifice proclaims what it is meant to, and houses are built to protect people and communities. Through these physical types, we get to know the technical knowhow of the times, the processes of their creation, patterns of patronage, and a given society’s metaphysical system as the architectural forms draw upon contemporary cultural and philosophical discourses. Power and authority are as much reflected in these built spaces as are notions of aestheticism that are otherwise embodied in contemporary literature.
In this Journey, we are experiencing some of the most celebrated examples of Dravidian architecture which include ‘Group of monuments in Mahabalipuram’ (Pallava dynasty) and some of the ‘Great living Chola temples’ (Chola dynasty). A 5 day exploration was needed for this mesmerizing journey, through the celebrated landmarks of north Tamilnadu. The trip happened during the Onam vacations of Kerala (from 26th sept – 31st sept), a perfect time for enjoying the marvelous works of dravidian culture. And my trusted companions were Sreejith PV(my brother) and his wife Lakshmy SJ (my sister).
By profession,they are college lectures (Politics and History), passionate ones and true lovers of ancient Indian architecture. Perfect pair for accompanying my expeditions. Because of the vastness of the monuments that we visited and numerous amount of views, I was forced to divide this journey in to 3 parts;
- Part 1 – “Mahabalipuram: Wonders of Pallava dynasty”
- Part 2 – “Great living Chola temples: Chidambaram and Gangai konda Cholapuram”
- Part 3 – “Great living Chola temples: Brihadeeswara temple, Thanjavur”
As a part of cost reduction, depended mainly on public transport systems like Indian railways, State transport buses, local private buses and even in auto rickshaws (share autos). And that was a huge success, because the overall cost of this 5 day trip, got reduced to under Rs 4000. Just, keep that in your mind. Now, moving on to the main subject…
Part 1 – “Mahabalipuram: Wonders of Pallava dynasty”
The first shrines in the Tamil country in South India were cave shrines, derived from the Buddhist tradition. These came up during the rule of the Pallavas (600 – 900), under whom the foundations of the Dravidian style were laid. The Pallavas belonged to Andhradesh but their centre of activity was the lower reach of the Palar river and their chief architectural remains are mainly found in the country around Kanchipuram, their seat of power and in the seaport of Mamallapuram, built by them in the present day state of Tamil Nadu. The port had been a centre of trade from Roman times and Kanchipuram, 40 miles away, a major cultural centre. The Pallava rulers sent expeditions to Sri Lanka and traded with China and South East Asia. They were great patrons of art and architecture, which was driven by a systematic ideology. They used architecture to legitimize their rule by richly endowing the shrines and by naming the edifices after their kings. As a result, a complex relationship began to grow between the temple, community and the king.
Mahabalipuram is a virtual poetry in stone, a temple of art. Not a mere picnic spot near Chennai, because its greatness can be realized only by those who go there in person and enjoy its splendor. As a shining example of the Dravidian culture and of the ancient civilization of Tamils, the greatness and exceptional universal value of the monuments of Mahabalipuram is recognized and confirmed by the ‘Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage’ and has included them in the UNESCO’s “World Heritage List”.
The history of Mahabalipuram dates back to 2000 years. It was a flourishing seaport even at the beginning of Christian era. There were references to it in the Greek work of the 1st century AD, Periplus of the Erythraean Sea and by Ptolemy, the Greek geographer of the 2nd century. Many Indian colonists had traveled to South East Asia from this port town and this was a centre of pilgrimage for centuries.
History of Mahabalipuram
Starting from the 6th century AD, the Pallava dynasty ruled over parts of Northern Tamil Nadu for about 400 years. Their capital city was Kanchi or Kanchipuram. Mamallapuram was their seaport. In ancient times even before the Pallavas came on the scene, this place was known by the name Mallai or Kadalmallai. Vaishnava saint Bhoodhaththazhvar, the second of 12 azhvars of Vaishnavism, was born here. This has also remained a centre of pilgrimage and saint Thirumangai Azhvar has rendered hymns in praise of this place. Mahabalipuram was a trading centre even in the 1st and 2nd century AD, visited among others by the Greeks. Hiuen Tsang, the Chinese traveller of the 7th century mentions that this place was the seaport of the Pallavas. It has also been referred in European literature of the 14th century as the ‘Place of Seven Pagodas’ or the place of seven temples.
Monuments and the temples of Mamallapuram were designed by the Pallava rulers during the 7th and 8th century AD. In the development of architecture and sculpture, their contributions are noteworthy. Mention should be made in this regard about Mahendra Varman (AD 580-630), his illustrious son Mamallan Narasimha Varman (AD 630-668), Mahendra Varman II (AD 668-672), Parameswara Varman (AD 672-700) and Narasimha Varman alias Rajasimha (AD 700-728). Mahabalipuram was essentially a victory memorial city. Mamallan Narasimha Pallavan defeated Chalukya King Pulikesi II in 642 AD and sacked his capital Vatapi. With the enormous fortune that he brought from his conquest, he embellished the city of Mahabalipuram with several beautiful buildings and monuments. Majority of the monuments belong to the times of Narasimha Varman. The name Mamallapuram itself is derived only from the title ‘Mamallan’ , ‘The Great Wrestler’ of Narasimha Varman. The rest of the monuments belong to the period of this successors Parameswara Varman and Rajasimha Pallavan. While the credit for designing the temples by scooping them out of living rocks, discarding perishable materials like brick, timber, metal or mortar, goes to King Mahendra Varman, it is the kings Narasimha Varman, Parameswara Varman and Rajasimha who were responsible for Mamallapuram attaining international fame for its sculptural splendor.
Temple Architecture under Pallavas
Temple architecture under the Pallavas resolves into two phases: The first phase (610 – 690), the Mahendra and Mamalla Group, is wholly rock-cut while the second (690 – 900), the Rajasimha and Nandivarman Group is entirely structural. In the first phase, the rock-cut structures took two forms: the mandapas (610 – 640), and the rathas and mandapas (640 – 690). A mandapa is an excavation, an open pavilion excavated in the rock. It takes the shape of a simple pillared hall with one or more cellas in the back wall. A ratha is a monolith, in the shape of a chariot or a car that is used to take the deity out but here it means a series of monolithic shrines in granite resembling certain wooden prototypes. A mandapa in all probability had other structurally attached buildings, but these have perished because of their impermanent material.
The Mahendra group (roughly 14 in number, 610 – 640), named after the chief patron, scattered all over Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, three being at Mamallapuram, represents the early beginnings. However, recent scholarship attributes most of these mandapas and the later rathas to the later patronage of Rajasimha. Each pillar of the rock-cut mandapa is about 7 feet in height with a diameter of 2 feet. Shafts are square in section except for the middle third which is chamfered into an octagon. Heavy brackets provide the capitals with no cornices above the pillars. Later examples become more ornate, when the pillars start becoming 4 storied, rising to a height of 50 feet. These changes can be seen at Bhairavkonda (Nellore district), where a distinctive Pallava order makes its appearance. This is seen in the sophisticated fusion of two forms of the capital and the shaft of the pillar. Another element, a typical Pallava feature of a lion, combined with the lower portion of the shaft and another introduced into the capital as well makes its appearance. This is the beginning of a pillar design that transformed into an elegant Pallava type with the heraldic lion beast standing for dynastic connotations as a symbol of the dynasty’s lion ancestory (simhavishnu).
The Mamalla group of temples (640 – 690), contrary to the group above, are found in one place, Mamallapuram. They were mainly executed during the reign of Narasimhavarman I (630 – 668), who took the title of ‘Mahamalla’. The site lies towards the mouth of the river Palar, 32 miles south of Chennai. The place served as the harbour for the capital Kanchipuram. The coastline is well suited for these rock-cut structures to come up. There is a large rocky hill of granite rising out of sand near the seashore, aligned north to south, measuring half a mile long and a quarter of a mile wide with a height of over a hundred feet. Detached from this, towards the south is another smaller outcrop consisting originally of a whale-backed mound of granite, about 250 feet long and 50 feet high. It was out of these rock formations that Mamallapuram was excavated and sculpted. The site also exhibits foundations of structural secular buildings like citadels, palaces and residences.
After Narasimha Mamalla, the rock method seems to have lost its eminence, and a more permanent inflexible carving of the granite, the art of structural building, was taken up. This would have provided a greater freedom to the workman and the patron, who would be now freer to introduce any form, while not being constrained by the limitation of the rock sites. Henceforth in the reign of Rajasimha (Narasimha Varman II), patronage extended to structural temples when the first free-standing temple, the Shore temple was partly erected under him (first quarter of 8th century CE).
Pallavas and Chalukyas
Pulikesin II, the great Chalukya ruler, a follower of Vaishnavism, learnt about the riches of Kanchi or Kanchipuram, which was the flourishing capital of Pallavas and wanted to capture it. He came with a huge army and defeated Mahendravarman I at Pullalur in 620 AD. It was a great insult to the Pallavas and to Mahendravarman in particular. Later, he died as a broken man, in 630 AD. Narasimhavarman I ascended the throne in 630 AD and vowed to avenge the insult done to his father by the Chalukyas. With immense strength and tact, he defeated Pulikesin II in the battle of Manimangalam and Pariyalam in 642 AD and completely burnt his capital city of Vatapi. Pulikesin was killed in this battle.
It was as if history repeated itself. Pulikesin’s son Vikramaditya I avenged his father’s defeat at the hands of the Pallavas by invading and conquering the Pallava capital city in 674 AD.
After the Pallavas
After the Pallavas, Mahabalipuram had prospered under the Cholas and the Vijayanagara empire. Europe knew of it as early as the 13th century when, following Marco polo’s visit, it appeared in the Catalan Map of 1275. The first European to mention it directly did so in 1582. The first English visitor was William Chambers in 1788. When the first British visitors went to Mahabalipuram in the 18th century, they found the monuments under the sand, a few completely so. It must have fallen into neglect after the fall of the Vijayanagar empire in late 16th century. One of the earnest antiquarians Colin Mackenzie dug out some of the monuments from the sand and deputed assistants to collect its traditions and coins. In this way, Mahabalipuram became one of the classical sites of Indian historical archaeology. By 1960, Archaeological Survey of India took over the complete administration of Mahabalipuram site and in 1984, the site was declared as UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Map of Mahabalipuram
Group of monuments in Mahabalipuram can be classified in to 4 major sections:
- Structural temples (3 in total, Shore temple is the main one.)
- Rathas (10 in total, Pancha rathas and Ganesha ratha are the main ones)
- Cave temples or Mandapa Viharas (10 in total, most of them are largely unfinished)
- Open air rock bas relief (Arjuna’s Penance or Bhagiratha’s Penance.)
Day 1 – Stories of Mahabalipuram:
The moment one mentions the name Mahabalipuram, it is the Shore temple or Kadalkkarai Kovil which comes readily to one’s mind. That was our first location. And it is one of the best place in Mamallapuram to witness the rising glorious Sun and the magnificent dawn surrounding it. Unfortunately, i couldn’t freeze that moment in my camera (Better luck next time!… the sky was cloudy and foggy, because of the late night’s thunderstorm and lightning). Now lets go inside the complex. One has to show the ticket (RS 50) for entry. The same ticket can be used during the visit to Pancha Rathas, also.
A masonry temple of 8th century, constructed by Narasimha Varman II (Rajasimha), a true forerunner of the great temple architecture of Tamilnadu. This is one of the great examples of an art that has already attained maturity. The Vimanas or gopurams represent the uniqueness of the South Indian temples.
And what a fertile imagination and architectural expertise the people must have possessed then, to create such a wonder on the seashore…
Actually, the shore temple complex is contained with 3 temples – Kshatriya simha Pallavesvara griham (larger Siva shrine), Rajasimha Pallavesvara griham (smaller Siva shrine) and Pallikondaruliya devar or Narapathisimha Pallaveswara griham (Vishnu shrine). The Vishnu shrine was constructed here as a part of balancing the religious tensions between Shaivism and Vaishnavism, during that times. But it has no superstructure and one has to peep in to see the figure of “Seshasayi Vishnu”. The lord is just lying on the ground. Having given up everything including the serpent couch, the conch and the discus, he seems to be at great peace with himself. ‘Peace and Joy seem to be only for those who give up all desire’…
In earlier times, stone images were not kept in the caves or temples in the earlier times. The object of worship kept in the sanctum then, was made of perishable material like wood or it was a painting. Only from the 8th century, a stone lingam or image was introduced. Further, it can be noticed that the channel meant to take out water and other fluids from the sanctum during the various rituals has not been provided here, indicating that such rituals were not performed on the presiding object of worship at that time.
Here on the south side of Shore temple, one can see a large sculpture of Durga’s Lion – ‘The Lion Monolith’ (A representation of Shakthism)…
lets move to the north of Shore temple, where you can see a Boar monolith – ‘The Bhuvaraha Image‘ …
The depiction of Bhuvaraha, an incarnation of Vishnu (in an unusual form), is in the form of Varaha performing a diving act in to the ocean for rescuing Bhumi devi. There is no Bhumi nor ocean, shown. The symbolism of this act denotes myth, only when the temple is submerged in water, as it is below the ground level.
It also seems to have been systematically butchered…isn’t it? In 674 AD, 32 years later Mamallan Narasimha Varman sacked the Chalukya capital of Vatapi In 642 AD, the Chalukya King Vikramaditya I (AD 655-681), son of Pulikesi II, exacted the revenge by invading and conquering the Pallavas. Then, the Chalukyas must have taken offence to see their dynastic emblem and their family God, Varaha (the boar), bowing so abjectly in the memorial city of their conqueror. They must have perceived it as a reference to their subjugation by Mamallan Narasimha Pallavan. Hence the Chalukyas must have hacked it to pieces. It must have been reassembled and restored subsequently during the reign of Rajasimha. Below shown image is an evidence for this fact…
Now you can come come out and have a look at the outer walls……
Have the other temples gone under the sea? Archaeologists are still doing research on this. They have found what is believed to be the remains of a few temples very near the sea.
Now, its worth moving back and having a good look at the temple from a distance. The narrow pointed towers, the corridor or prakaram all around, the boundary walls like the ramparts of a fort, the beautiful lion and Nandi sculptures all along – don’t they represent a temple structure complete in all aspects? That is why this ‘Kadalkkarai Kovil’ (Shore temple) is regarded as a forerunner to the great temple architecture of Tamilnadu.
Its time to say goodbye to this astonishing monument and moving on to our next location… The Pancha Rathas…
Some of the present day views from the surrounding streets of Shore temple complex…
Zoom in, have a look at the small mandapa in its centre… Whats that???
Here comes the most celebrated rock-cut architecture of ancient South India…The extraordinary art works found in entire Mamallapuram…(A 15 minutes walk is all you need to reach this point)
The Infamous Pancha Rathas (5 Chariots)
The most extraordinary of all rock architecture at Mamallapuram are the Rathas, the monolithic shrines carved out of whale-backed mound of granite, standing near the beach. Sometimes called the Seven Pagodas, they are unique replicas of earlier wooden structures. It is not clear if these monoliths preceded the first stone structural buildings but both evolved from the earlier wooden prototypes. Their purpose remains still unknown as these ‘riddle of the sands’ are mostly unfinished from the inside. They are of no great size, the largest being only 42 feet long, the widest is only 35 feet and the tallest too is only 40 feet high. The typical Pallava pillar is used here in these rathas, with all its parts and elements, as described above. The rathas are eight in all, and with one exception, all are derived from the two Buddhist structures of the vihara (monastery) and the chaitya (prayer hall or chapel). The exception, Draupadi’s Ratha (dedicated to Durga) is also the only one, not characteristically in the pure Dravidian style. This ratha, the smallest and the simplest in the series, however, is the most complete. It is mainly a one roomed cell or a pansala with a large boulder cut lion besides it. It has female door-guardians and inside is a relief of Korravai (the Goddess of victory with a deer). The structure has four sided steep pitched curvilinear roof, found later in South India but resemblances are more to the Bengal region. Its base is supported by figures of lion and elephant alternating, suggesting a portable character to its wooden prototype.
If you were to be told that all these monolithic temples (In those days, kings made chariots for gods and for the sake of arts. Subsequently, the vehicles that were made for transportation were called as chariots) have been carved out of a hillock, a huge single rock, will you be able to believe it?
But it is a fact. Look… at the southern end of this complex is the big temple and as one proceeds northwards, the temples are becoming progressively smaller. The southern portion of the original rock must have been quite large and it must have sloped northwards and the temples must have been carved accordingly. Actually, such temples were built even during the Sangam period, that is very ancient times. But they were made of perishable materials like brick, mortar, timber and metal. But here, stone is used for that purpose.
Of the typical Dravidian Rathas, 5 follow the old rule of vihara construction in which a central square is surrounded by cells initially to be covered by a pillar supported flat roof in later examples. More stories were added to this basic vihara model, as the number of monks increased and the structure came to be eventually finished off by a domical roof. In these compositions at Mamallapuram, however, some modifications in this original pattern can be seen. In the Dharamraja Ratha, one of the best examples, the cells from the old pattern have lost their original character and intention and instead have become modified into ornamental turrets. In this Ratha of lion pillared portico, the elevation is in two parts: a square portion with pillared verandahs below, and the pyramidal shikhara formed of converted cells above.
In a sense, everyone is an ardhanari, that is a combination of man and woman. But how?… ‘ If courage and valour represent manliness, beauty and gentleness stand for womanhood. These traits are complementary and there is completeness in the character of a person, only if all of these qualities are present. That’s the philosophy, conveyed by Ardhanareeswara ‘
On the rear side of this Ratha, we find that the crown or stupi (pot-final) that has to remain on the top of the temple tower has instead been placed on the ground. You can see such crowns on the ground next to the Draupathi and Arjuna rathas also. Why ?
Remaining three examples, Bhima, Nakula-Sahdev and Ganesh rathas are based on the chaitya type. They are all oblong and rise to two or more stories, while each has a keel or barrel roof, with a chaitya gable end (triangular part of the roof). The later gateways (gopuras) in Dravidian architecture are based on this keel roof with pinnacles and gable ends. These shrines are of Shaivite attribution, evidenced from the images of a lion, elephant and a bull that are carved on rock in the close proximity, symbolizing Durga, Indra and Shiva. It is interesting that while being derived from traditional Buddhist architecture, they are Hindu shrines – implying that monolithic religious categories should not be associated with architectural forms.
Overall this Durga shrine may give the impression that the Pallavas have given importance only to women. If you continue to look only at this Ratha, perhaps you may feel so.
Before leaving this complex, once again, have a look at the monuments from this distance – the Rathas, the elephant, the lion and the the Nandi; don’t ou feel excited, thrilled at the sheer grandeur of these masterpieces ? Can anyone go without appreciating the elegant flow of naturalness of these stone sculptures? ….
Moving on to our next item from the list, Cave temples or Mandapa Viharas, a different scenario, showcasing the rock cut-in architectural technique of Mahabalipuram. One of the unique technology existed in ancient South India. On the other side, the Ratha temples are pure examples of rock cut-out technique…..
Just look at these modern day stone sculptures…. How beautifully they are sculpted!…. The elegance and perfection of these sculptors clearly show us the pure transition of hereditary knowledge from their great predecessors. And their ability to mix that knowledge with modern era technologies is truely awesome.
Mandapa Viharas or Cave temples of Mahabalipuram
The mandapas on the main hill are ten in number. None of these are large as they have shallow halls or porticos. In most instances, they are of the same general character and proportions as the earlier group, but there are differences. These cave shrines are more ‘elaborated’ in design and execution. Their columns, except for the corbels, are relatively more slender, but with so many facets that they appear fluted and even round. These pillars forecast the elements of true Dravidian pillars and pilasters with their balanced proportions and further decoration. The shaft carries the malasthana, a low relief band of pearl festoons, and then flares out gently to where a deep throat or indentation separates it from a cushion like element called the kumbha (pot or a jar) or the ‘melon’ capital. Above the kumbha, a lotus element, the padma or idaie, flares out to the broad thin abacus (palagai). Sometimes, as in the Varaha Mandapa, the notched flaring idaie, surmounted by the thinnest of palagais is indistinguishable from the later fine early Chola examples. The only element still missing, and which will come up later, is the Chola notch in the shaft before it flares, with a slight swelling above it, to become the most delicate of vases (kalash). The bases of these pillars have the sedant yalis or lions, a feature, which, as noted, has already made its appearance.
More elaborate decoration can also be seen in the treatment of the facades of these halls, where a roll cornice decorated with Buddhist chaitya arch motif (kudu) runs with a parapet above. The parapet is formed of alternating long and short miniature shrines in most of these examples. But ground plans differ for various pavilions. The Varah Mandapa has a basement with a provision for a receptacle for water. This feature corroborates with the particularly well designed water system of the site, evidenced by the canals and tanks that are strewn all over the port. However, this elaborate water system was not solely for public use. It was also needed for ritualistic purposes or for water worship, as many temples stand testimony to this, in which cisterns, in addition to conduits appear. As regard the other mandapas, the Trimurti has no hall and the three cells open directly to the exterior. The three part Mahisamardini Mandapa has a two pillar portico in front of the central hall.
The first Cave temple that welcomes you, in the southern part of main hill area is …. Mahishasuramardhini Cave ….
You have to climb a few steps to enter the cave. Once inside, have to put up with the strong stench of bats, the present occupants. What to do…. this has been their home for hundreds of years… they can neither be made to vacate nor will they be paying any rent!
What you are seeing on the northern side of this cave is the Goddes Durga, in the midst of her battle with Mahisha, the demon. Just enjoy for a moment the unique artistic beauty of this sculpture.
You can see how realistic this scene is, which celebrates the ultimate victory of the good, represented by the Goddess over the evil, represented by the demon. Here, some of you at least would have got reminded of the battles that the two-armed ‘Goddesses’ fight in the confines of their homes, wielding only household goods as weapons and without the support of even a kitten and win hands down !
look at the other panel, on the southern side of the cave. A beautiful image of ‘Seshasayi Vishnu (Ananthashayanam)’… How calm, he is !
We too are blessed with his great calmness just by looking at him, aren’t we ? How, both these contrasting sculptures – that of the aggressive Mahishamardhini and the absolutely peaceful Seshasayi Vishnu, have been designed in the same cave ? Is it that when a lady starts aggressively, there is no option for the men folk but to go to a peaceful sleep ? Oh! No.
There is something to be observed in this. It is normally said that strength and courage belongs to men, while gentleness and humility are those of women. But the strange thing is that here, the lady is displaying gallantry, while the man, meekness. That is, punishing the wicked and saving the virtuous, is the responsibility of the Goddess. That’s why, she is in a war mood. At the same time, Lord Vishnu is in a meditative sleep, called Yoganidhra. That’s why, he is in a lying posture with absolute calmness.
It is only the state one is in and the responsibility one has to discharge, that decide one’s characteristics. This is what has been conveyed so effectively by this pair of sculptures.
Now have a look at the upper storey of Mahishamardhini cave. A partially ruined structural temple can be seen. Once upon a time this functioned as a lighthouse, because this was the highest point of the town, then. They lit fire here and showed light to the ships in the sea in order to guide them. It is not just a lighthouse.
From the top of Olakkanatha temple, one gets the splendid view of the 20th century, Old British Lighthouse, situated in the northeast corner of Mahishasuramardhini cave…
Come on, lets climb up to the top of that lighthouse…
And the exciting views from the top of that lighthouse…
Descending from the lighthouse and we have reached once again on the southern side of hill area. Let us walk along the road around the hill to the west, to see the Adi Varaha Mandapam…
Adi Varaha Mandapa is a consecrated cave temple which is under worship. Research shows that excavation of this cave temple was begun by Narasimha Varman and was completed in all respects by his grandson Parameswara Varman. So the temple was named ‘Parameswara Maha Varaha Vishnugriham’. This temple is opened daily only for a very short while for performing the temple rituals. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside of Adi Varaha temple. What a terrible news, it is !
The main idol of this temple is Varaha, the boar, raising the mother earth from the ocean and it is a brightly painted idol, made of mortar. Perhaps, this being the only surviving figure here, made of a material other than stone. Along with worshipping the lord, one can also enjoy the beauty of this idol. The Varaha has four arms, in two of which he is holding the conch and the discus. He is very gently raising Bhudevi, the mother earth from the ocean, supporting her waist and holding her feet in his other pair of arms. How passionate and romantic, the scene is !
One can also see beautiful panels all around the sanctum; Panels of Gajalekshmi seated on lotus and bathed by elephants, eight armed Mahishasuramardhini standing on the cut head of demon Mahisha, Lord Vishnu adored by kneeling devotees, Gangadhara, the Siva receiving Ganges on his locks, the strands of which he is supporting with his right upper arm. And there are two rare and interesting royal portraits of Mahendra Varman (father of Narasimha Varman) and his father Simhavishnu. Simhavishnu is shown seated on a throne flanked by his consorts, while Mahendra Varman is leading his senior queen followed by the second, pointing his right forefinger towards the image in central shrine. Thus, the temple is believed to be the royal family shrine to contain these rare dynasty portraits.
There are two other cave temple near the Koneri pallam water tank, west of the main hill area, just 200 mts from the Adi Varaha temple.
Sometimes exploring the surrounding nature can also fascinates you… here is an example…
A little beyond to the north, about 100 mts, lies the Trimurthy Cave temple…
It looks like the rocks outside have been so designed as if they are standing in a queue for worshipping the Gods, isn’t it ? Actually, this is just a beautiful natural formation. lets have a close look at each sanctum cell…
And what you are seeing in the front is not a mini swimming pool…
If God is one, then why is He in different names and in different forms in this cave temple ? …. God is one, no doubt. But as per the function He performs, he assumes different forms and takes on different names. When he does creation, He is Brahma. When he does sustenance, He is Vishnu and for destruction, He is Siva. Their extensive worship signifies the recognition and importance that this land has accorded to these core functions of existence – creation, sustenance and destruction.
Moving from there, an interesting scene has come to our notice… inside a naturally formed cave…
Another cave temple, near to the Trimurthy cave is the west facing Kotikal Cave Temple…
Oh, that looks to be a strange rock…… what’s that ??? Seems like it may roll down any moment…… Yeah! Its the most famous and beautiful monument designed by nature itself – “Krishna’s Butterball” …. Looks as if a big boulder has been placed on a huge rock….
But one can very well go near and have a good look. This will not roll down. Hasn’t moved for centuries and will definitely not move now. This can be termed as an ‘Optical illusion’ … Difficult to believe, isn’t it ?
Ascending this hill (the one holding Krishna’s butterball) towards south, you can see a stone platform with the beautiful sculpture of a lion on one side…..
There must have been a Pallava palace in this town. Archaeologists believe that this very place, of this lion sculpture and the platform, must have been the site of the palace. Nothing remains of the palace now, barring perhaps the brick debris lying around. Prior to the raising of the temples out of rocks and stones, they were built out of bricks, here. Like this palace, those too got destroyed over a period of time. Thats why, scholars claim that King Mahendra Varman began scooping the temples out of hard rocks, so that they remained unaffected by the passage of time.
Also, one can see a trench filled with rain water (greenish in colour because of stagnant nature), cut into solid bed rock, partitioned by brick walls…
Is it a good time to have a royal bath ? Then, there is one, near to this rock cut treasury crypt – ‘ Draupathi’s Bath ‘…
Proceeding further toward south, on the topmost point of the hill, one can see an unfinished tower … ” The Rayar Gopuram” … ‘What a beautiful tower’ …..if someone were to make a claim like this regarding this monument, you may think that he is talking nonsense. Actually, there is no tower here. All that is there is a very broad base on top of a big rock that has been laid for erecting an entrance cum tower.
A point to be noted that Rayar gopuram is not a Pallava monument because it has been built by the Vijayanagara empire, who came several centuries later (probably in 15th century).
The entrance has been designed with steps and tall pillars. Both in the Rathas and in the Shore temple, we can find towers only on the top of sanctums. With the growth in temple architecture, the style of erecting gopurams or towers at the temple entrances came in vogue.
These days we come across many incomplete projects in which public money is wasted due to poor planning. It is quite possible that a similar thing might have happened in those days too in respect of this tower.
The next one in our itinerary is the ‘ Varaha Mandapam ‘… A genuine masterpiece, belonging to the period of King Narasimha Varman I. One of the finished cave temples in Mahabalipuram. Before entering the cave, let us have a good look at the squatting lions supporting the pillars. How beautiful and majestic they look! With the growth in architecture, the pillars too began to get decorated this way…
Once inside the cave, you find beautiful panels all around. The panel to the left represents Varahamurthy, the third incarnation of Lord Vishnu. This Varaha is not to be taken as an ordinary pig. It is the very powerful wild boar that is bringing the earth out of the ocean, in which it got drowned.
Let us not take it only as a legend. There is science in it. After the formation of earth, initially there was only sea everywhere. After several thousands of years only, the sea withdrew and land began surfacing. Living things began to appear on land and human race made its appearance. Not only this Varaha, one can take all the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu. They only represent the gradual development of living things from the lower forms of life to the higher. Starting with that of an ordinary fish, regarded as the first incarnation, gradually evolves the highly intelligent human race. In all this, there is more science than religion. Like the Adi Varaha Mandapa, this cave temple also contains a Gajalakshmi panel and Durga panel … two beautiful panels on the either side of centre shrine cell.
Going to the right side of the Varaha cave (opposite to Varahamurthy panel), one can see the ‘ Trivikrama Panel ‘ …. The giant form of Lord Vishnu. He took this form in order to subdue the demon King Mahabali. The story goes like this….
“Lord Vishnu came to king Mahabali in form of a young boy, a virtual dwarf (Vamana) and asked for a piece of earth that is measurable by his three small steps. The egoistic Mahabali very arrogantly promised him the land. Immediately, Lord Vishnu began grow in size and assumed gigantic form of Trivikrama. With his first step, he measured the whole of the earth and with his second, the sky. Now, where to place the third step ? He placed his third step on Mahabali’s head, offered by him and pushed him to the underworld. So, not for nothing it is said that one should never underestimate anyone. Mahabali learnt it the hard way”
Please, have a close look at the image of Trivikrama….
Actually, this legend proves a psychological aspect that, if one has traits like courage, self belief and self confidence, these powers manifest themselves at times they are most needed. Then one becomes a virtual giant in one’s chosen field, at the most oppotune moment.
Coming out of the Varaha cave temple, this was the first thing we noticed…
The next monument on our list is this ‘Ganesha Ratha’…. a beautiful monolithic temple. This structure, carved out of a single rock, during the reign of Parameswara Varman in the later half of the 7th century AD, resembles a chariot and hence has got the name ‘Ratha’.
According to a legend popular among the locals, King Narasimha Varman, after his conquest of Vatapi, brought this famous idol from that city and installed it in this temple. However this isn’t true as the temple itself was raised only during the reign of his grandson Parameswara Varman. This idol is said to have been installed in the temple by the villagers sometime only in the 20th century.
Next one is something special… something brilliant… something so unique… to every eyes.
Arjuna’s Penance or Bhagiratha’s Penance (Descent of Ganges)
The journey through Mahabalipuram starts generally from this monument, Arjuna’s Penance or Descent of Ganges. This brilliant work of the 7th century AD is situated just on the road side itself (eastern part of Mamallapuram hill area). A Vishnu temple, locally known as ‘Sthalashayana Perumal Kovil’ is situated in front of it. Arjuna’s Penance is a massive piece of art, a real masterpiece in stone, which sculptors have designed with all creative instincts at their command. One is not likely to see anything like the beauty and complexity of this vast rock relief, anywhere in the world.
This Great Penance Bas relief is believed to be an inscription of the sanskrit literary masterpiece ‘Kiratarjuniyam’ by the great poet Bharavi. This vast relief is regarded as a visual Kiratarjuniyam. Kiratarjuniyam narrates the story of Arjuna and Lord Siva, who came in the guise of a Kirata, the hunter. The intense penance that Arjuna did and how lord Siva blessed him the mighty Pasupatha weapon form the story.
Can you see up there to the left, a figure doing penance…. he is regarded as Arjuna, the hero of the famous epic Mahabharatha….
Here Arjuna is seen as doing this penance for obtaining the powerful Pasupatha Astra (It is supposed to generate a continuous stream of arrows once fired), the weapon from the Lord for the ensuring war with his cousins, the Kauravas. That’s why this monument itself is known as Arjuna’s Penance.
The countries that go to war in the present days are also doing ‘ penance ‘ towards superpower nations for weapons. Looks like in the olden days the same was being done towards the Gods. That’s all the difference!
It can be observed that most of the living beings in the monument are facing the river and many even appear to be rushing towards it. Since, water is the lifeline of any existence, all the civilizations in the world have originated only on the banks of the rivers. This monument symbolizes the fact that there cannot be any life in this planet without water.
However, water has become a major contentious issue in this part of the world because of our wrong doings. In the context of the neighboring city of Chennai, having acute water shortage and the people virtually doing ‘penance’ day and night for a few buckets of water, this sculpture of Bhagiratha doing penance for bring water from heaven assumes great importance.
Perhaps, only in order to make our mother earth fertile, Bhagiratha, the prince of the Solar dynasty did penance for bringing the holly river Ganges to the earth, though for the salvation of his ancestors. (The 60000 sons of King Sagara of the Solar dynasty were burnt by an enraged saint, Kapila).
As there is so much stress on the river part, there are scholars who claim that this monument represents the penance of Bhagiratha. So, whose penance is depicted here then ? Arjuna’s or Bhagiratha’s ? So, there comes an interesting third story …..
” The word Pallava in sanskrit means ‘sprout’. As per mythology, Ashvatthama, son of Drona (master of Arjuna) and a character in the epic Mahabharatha, fathered a son through his liaison with a snake princess.The child was named Pallava after the lotus ‘sprouts’ upon which he was laid at birth. Finally, the dynasty this Pallava originated became the Pallava dynasty. The names of their Kings generally end with the word Varman. Varman literally means ‘ he that is protected by ‘.
The headless figure with a Yoga-patta, a band across his waist and legs is believed to be King Narasimha Varman himself, who was the patron of the relief. The two other headless figures facing him are believed also to represent his father Mahendra Varman and grand father Simha Vishnu. These figures are believed to be decapitated by the Chalukya forces, the sworn enemies of the Pallavas. Agasthya is mentioned here to show that Mamallan destroyed the city of Vatapi, just as Agasthya destroyed the demon by the same name Vatapi. Drona, the father of Ashvatthama, is given importance here as an illustrious ancestor of the Pallavas.
This implies that the entire succession of the Pallava kings were under the protection of none other than Lord Vishnu, the mythic ancestor. Also note the gentle humour in the placement of Nara, the ascetic and simha, the lion one below the other, while Narasimha, the Pallava, is positioned just in front of them ! ”
So the conclusion is that the Great Penance Bas Relief is a triple narrative. Its subject is none other than King Mamallan Narasimha Varman himself and the Arjuna or Bhagiratha like ascetic stands only as a paragon of the victorious King Mamallan. The real purpose is to glorify the succession of kings of Pallava dynasty. Here the descent to earth of the holy river Ganges is compared to the descent of the Pallavas, from their mythic ancestor, Lord Vishnu himself !
And there down below, in front of the majestic elephants… yes its a cat doing penance just like Arjuna, with hands raised, surrounded by rats. This is the representation of the Panchatantra, ancient Indian stories of tact and wisdom….
There are some other interesting scenes too. One of them is the image of two deer … Can you just see their sheer majesty ?
Our Late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, when she visited Mahabalipuram, was impressed so much by this sculpture, that she decided immediately that the figure of these deer should appear in the Indian currency notes, so that the entire nation could see and appreciate their great beauty. Hence the image of these beautiful deer found its place in the 10 rupee notes brought out by the Government at that time.
Now, look over there to the right side of Arjuna’s Penance…. See how natural is this sculpture depicting the monkey family, enjoying themselves, as if they are in privacy….
Love is something which is common among the monkeys. Monkey love has been spoken highly of even in the ancient literature. Whether it is the human being or the animal, it is immaterial; as long as there is love, life becomes nothing less than heaven.
As mentioned earlier, a Vishnu temple (Sthalashayana Perumal Kovil) is situated in front of the Arjuna’s Penance. But i wasn’t interested in visiting there, because its a functioning temple and photography is restricted there.Therefore, some outside shots of that temple are sharing here.
These shots of Sthalashayana Perumal temple show the transformation of south indian temple architecture in to the modern age architecture techniques.
The next monument which lies adjacent to Arjuna’s Penance, is the ‘Pancha Pandava Cave’ …..
It is not so. Quiet a few interesting things that one can observe in this cave. First lets see how these cave temples were scooped out of the rocks….
Don’t you find that this passage inside of the cave isn’t complete ?
Moving on to the next cave temple, lies adjacent to the Pancha Pandava Cave is the famous – ‘Krishna Mandapam’….
” Krishna mandapam tells you a story from Indian mythology…. Once there was a small village, inhabited by the cowherds. For some reason, God Indra, the King of the celestial beings, became angry with the villagers. He sent a severe storm in order to punish them. There was a young boy in the village by name Krishna. This Krishna is regarded as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu himself. He was not bothered by the storm. In order to save the people of that village, he lifted the mountain called Govardhana Giri and held it a loft like an umbrella. People and the animals took shelter under the mountain and the village was saved from destruction “
The story of God Indra sending rain and storm to punish the villagers reveal the fact that how an individual’s arrogance and ego can contribute to the destruction of nature. Even today the natural wealth are looted in the name of advancement, due to man’s self interest and greed. Remote villages, their resources and the tribals living here are all affected. Their wealth and livelihood are badly hit. It is also seen that not only the villagers, but even the flora and fauna are affected by man’s selfishness.
The scenes of Krishna mandapam showed us various dimensions of love; reverence towards the elders, affection for the young, compassion towards all living things and devotion to God. Actually it is the only love that the great Pallavas had for the rocks that has contributed in their making such beautiful sculptures out of them. And that’s why such masterpieces could be designed, which could be seen and admired even after so many centuries!
There are some lesser known cave temples in Mahabalipuram. Normally visitors tend to avoid them… But for me, everything is intriguing and every corner has to be explored. One of such cave temple is the ‘Ramanuja Cave temple’…
Ramanuja cave temple was excavated in the centre of main hill area, on its eastern scarp. It is the only cave temple, having a six-pillared mukha mandapa in its front. This Mandapa vihara is named after Vaishnava scholar – Ramanuja.
Moving along the road around the foot hill towards the east, you can see a cave temple, which is little up the ground level, known as ‘Dharmaraja Mandapam’…
Initially the pillars used to be very simple like this. With the passage of time they advanced into lean structures with beautiful carvings and then into lion pillars.
The next scene is something interesting for an explorer, who would notice things, which others don’t…. A large rock bas relief found on the road side and that road runs around the eastern part of main hill area. Actually this monument is situated on the southern end of Lighthouse museum, Mahabalipuram. And i personally felt that no one is paying attention to this monument. Why is that so ?
It is not known that what would have been the objective of this work. There is a possibility that artists would have started this as a model work before attempting the actual one.Or else, two sets of artists could have competed with each other and worked on different sites based on same theme. Anyway, it is definitely one of the marvels from Pallavas.
Its time to have some food. A little bit tired, not by the amount of scenes. But of continuous walk from the morning itself. A typical Tamilnadu style lunch, that what we needed …
A proper lunch boosted our energy levels. And now, moving on to our final sessions in Mahabalipuram. The next spot is all about having fun and excitement………..
The infamous Tiger Cave
Tiger cave is situated at a distance of about 5 km to the north from the town centre, on route the route to Chennai. Not a big distance at all, when we consider the great interest we all have in seeing such monuments, isn’t it? Shared autos are available, in and around Mahabalipuram town.
From the name, does it sound like a Zoo? …. Or with decorations all around, does it look like some sort of a drama stage ? …. One feels like asking whether the Pallava kings used to come to this place, which is outside the town and by the side of the sea, to watch the performances like dance and drama and enjoy themselves.
Lets have a good look at this cave…. slightly below the ground level and buried to some extent in the sand, this artistically designed cave has been scooped out of a big rock. There are steps to climb up to the cell at the centre; decorated pilasters supported by rampant lions on both sides; heads of roaring lions all around the cell.
Another cave, which lies at a short distance to the north of the Tiger cave, known as ‘Athiranachanda Cave Temple’…
Athiranachanda Cave temple is named after King Athiranachanda. Athiranachanda is one of the surnames of King Rajasimha (700-728 AD). Some maintenance works were going on. This cave temple shows us a simple construction (Mahendra style), which is identifiable in the pillars (massive ones without decorations and the dvarapalas) and parapet.
Closer to the sanctum, one can see two 16-line inscriptions on the walls of Athiranachanda cave; the one on the left side wall is in Pallava Grantha script and the one on the right side wall is in Devanagari script. The matter contained in both are the same, describing the details about this temple. The matter contained and the language used in these inscriptions are such that they refer to both Lord Siva and King Rajasimha Pallava at the same time. You can observe that some of the letters like Kha, Tha, Va in Pallava Grantha inscription are very similar to the letters of the present day Tamil script.
Back to Mamallapuram town and there, the sun is dipping slowly in the western sky. The evening rays are shimmering yellow through the hillocks. The roar of the sea at a distance is forming the backdrop. Cool breezes, flowing gently across me. Now, can you guess the best place to spend these final moments of such an exciting day ??? I can’t here you…. say it loud…. Yeah! Its the beach and always will be…. So, lets walk towards east to the well known Mahabalipuram beach….
Mahabalipuram beach, a mesmerizing place, which brings one a lot of peace and tranquility. A sense of great feeling developed in my mind. A moment of complete silence. At this time, the beach is always filled with so much tourists and seeing their happiness surely excites any traveler, like me. there are some exposures of rock jutting out of the beach to the south of Shore temple.
Here comes the final moment of this day…. With me, enjoying the eternal beauty of surrounding nature, unsettling waves, yellow tones of the evening sky and everlasting memories……….
Seeing all these monuments, sculptures and the temples, doesn’t one feel like asking whether it is God who created man or it is man who created God? Such is the positive impact, the richness of Mahabalipuram has on the sensibilities of the human beings. This marvelous world of art works invokes a certain kind of mystery with its sculptural extravaganza depicting the strong artistic temperament of the Pallavas, who were the pioneers in South Indian art.
So, can it now be said that you all have fallen inexorably in love with Mahabalipuram? I think definitely it can. Whatever you have now seen and enjoyed about this place, don’t you think you should also physically experience it?
Please do make a trip to this fabulous place, once in your life, along with the friends and relatives. A visit to Mahabalipuram will always be a memorable experience, which will remain in one’s memory for a very long time to come.
Brief details of my journey to Mahabalipuram :
- Date of Journey : 26th August 2018.
- Mode of Transport : By Train (Guruvayur – Chennay express), up to the nearest Chengalpet Railway Station, 28 kms from Mahabalipuram. By Bus (State transport), from Chengalpet to Mahabalipuram.
- Travel time : 15 hrs on train and 1 hr on bus.
- Place of Stay : Sunflower hotel near Moonraker’s restaurant, a budget hotel with decent facilities, secured.
- Room Rent : Rs 600 per night for a double room. Single ones aren’t available.
- Duration of my exploration : 12 hrs in total (6 am – 6 pm).
- Next location : Thillai Nataraja Temple, Chidambaram (156 kms from Mahabalipuram)
Thank You !
**********************************To be continued***********************************