Mamallapuram: A Grand Living Museum Of Architecture And Sculpture 

by R Gopu - Oct 11, 2019 11:44 AM +05:30 IST
Mamallapuram: A Grand Living Museum Of Architecture And Sculpture Panoramic view of the Descent of the Ganges relief. 
  • As Modi meets Xi in Mamallapuram, here is what this place, which hosts the oldest monuments of Tamil Nadu, has to offer for the tourist, historian and the rasika.

Mahabalipuram is a corruption of the word MahaMalla Puram, the city of the great wrestler — MahaMalla — an epithet for the seventh century Rajah, Narasimha Varma Pallava, and also his descendant Rajasimha Pallava.

The town is today popular as a tourist spot and a seaside resort.

Hiuen Tsang, a Chinese traveler who came to study Buddhism in India, visited Kanchipuram during Narasimha Pallava’s reign, and perhaps Mamallapuram too, as he mentions a city by the sea. Dandin, a famous Sanskrit poet in Rajasimha Pallava’s court, also mentions the town in his work Avanti Sundari Katha.

Mamallapuram is the birthplace of a Vaishnavite poet, Bhuthathu Alwar. It was called Kadal Mallai in the Tamil poems of Tirumangai Alwar, and was perhaps a thriving commercial port then.

The poet describes ships, bearing cargoes of grains and riches, anchored along its shores. Some historians believe the town Neerpeyatru, mentioned in the Sangam works several centuries earlier, may also refer to Mamallapuram.

Mahendra Pallava — the innovative thinker often called Vichitra Chitta — launched the era of building cave temples in his kingdom, and his successors continued it. Besides architecture of unparalleled variety, the Pallava sculptures of Mamallapuram exhibit grace and balance rarely surpassed elsewhere in India.

It is the only place in the world where four types of temple monuments — cave temples, monoliths (rathas), structural temples and open-air bas-relief sculptures — co-exist. And one can not only see the greatest diversity of architecture but also see its evolution in these monument types.

The Pallava Grantham script that was used to write Sanskrit in South India, traveled to Southeast Asian countries like Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Burma, Java, Sumatra, Sri Vijaya, etc., and formed the basis of the scripts of those languages.

A Sanskrit inscription of Atyantakaama Pallava in the <i>Grantham </i>script
A Sanskrit inscription of Atyantakaama Pallava in the Grantham script

In Mamallapuram one finds the oldest monuments of Tamil Nadu, and some of the finest examples of Dravidian temple architecture. These temples and sculptures inspired the later sculptures of the Cholas, the Vijayanagar Empire and their successors, the Nayakas; including the ‘Big Temples’ of Thanjavur and Gangaikonda Cholapuram.

Cave Temples

There are twelve cave temples in Mamallapuram, with great variety in layout, size, pillars, sculptures, and number of shrines. Rarely do we consider cave and architecture in the same sentence. But then these are not natural caves; they are artificial caves hewn in granite hillocks, from which rocks were extracted using hammers and chisels to sculpt out shrines, pillars, platforms and sculptures.

The art often drowns out the engineering, labour and logistics. How the sthapathis (sculptors/architects), who had in earlier generations worked on wood and brick and metal, mastered incredibly the art of working on the hardest rock, granite, to leave behind masterpieces for us to marvel, is a tale shrouded in mystery.

How quickly would their iron tools wither, how often would they have to be sharpened, what platforms did they erect to sculpt in unreachable places, what techniques, what blueprints they drew, if at all they did, and what contorted positions they sculpted from, are questions that should challenge the connoisseurs of engineering and not just art.

The most remarkable of these cave temples are perhaps the Trimurti mandapam, Varaha mandapam, and the Mahishasura Mardhini mandapam.

But even the simple single shrine of Kotikal mandapam, and the Koneri mandapam, with five shrines delight us, the former with slender shapely dvarapalikas (female doorkeepers), the latter with dvarapalakas (male doorkeepers) in a variety of poses.

The Mahishasura Mardhini mandapam.
The Mahishasura Mardhini mandapam.

The Varaha panel in the Varaha mandapam is a study in power, elegance, balance and delicacy. Note that each character is facing in a different direction, with different profiles — front, side, half-turned or turned fully inwards.

The shy demeanor of Bhudevi contrasts with the awesome power of the Celestial Boar — the Varaha — holding her and the quivering supplication of the Naga under his foot.

The Ananta Sayana sculpture.
The Ananta Sayana sculpture.

The Ananta Sayana sculpture features the serenity of Vishnu in Yoga Nidra while action rages all around him. His serpent, Adisesha, rears his thousand heads spitting fiery venom at the asuras, Madhu and Kaitabha, who are at Vishnu’s feet grimacing in fear and pain, as the Ayudha Purushas, Shanku and Gadha, get ready to join the fight.

The Devi panel across this is the opposite, featuring a fiery battle scene of great dynamism. The asura Mahisha is stunned that a lady half his size is so ferocious in battle, and as the seed of doubt sprouts in his mind, his soldiers look for a way out, certain of defeat.

This panel has been called the most animated art in all of India. Justly so.

Arjuna’s Penance And Govardhana Mandapam

The vast sweeping canvas of Arjuna’s penance is in the form of a massive open-air bas-relief panel. It is a testimony to the breathtaking ambition of the patron Pallava rajahs, and the ability and imagination of their brilliant sculptors.

Ninety feet long, thirty feet tall, it is a snapshot in time — of Devas and Rishis, Gandharvas and Kinnaras, flocking as couples, husband and wife, flying effortlessly, to see the miraculous descent of Ganga, from the heavens to the earth.

Or is it to see Shiva grant a boon to a devotee, an emaciated tapasvin, who has done severe penance, his flesh barely covering his skeletal frame? Or is this Arjuna? Or is it Bhagiratha? The debate has raged for a century.

Some believe that this sculpture itself is a slesha (union) in stone, depicting the penances of both Arjuna and Bhagiratha.

Stupendous carving of charging elephants and the calm Rishi with the central split depicting the river Ganga descending.
Stupendous carving of charging elephants and the calm Rishi with the central split depicting the river Ganga descending.

A charging herd of elephants on one side, a calm rishi and his students at an ashrama on the other side of a central split depicting the river Ganga. There is even a hypocritical cat, sitting in penance with adoring mice!

Nagas, river serpents in human form, symbolise the river in this living sculpture. Monkeys, lions, deer, an iguana, and other animals enliven this scene.

Equally remarkable is the other grand bas-relief, of Krishna lifting the Govardhana hill, protecting the Yadavas, along with Balarama and Subhadra.

Villagers walk about, a man milking a cow, a lady selling buttermilk, another putting a baby to sleep, urging her husband to play the flute, an amorous couple steal away to a tryst, all contributing to a sense of idyllic peace, with the calm certainty of Krishna’s protection, while a terrible storm rages outside.

Krishna lifting Govardhana, flanked by Balarama calming a Yadava, and Subadhra with an attendant – calm cattle adoring Krishna all around.
Krishna lifting Govardhana, flanked by Balarama calming a Yadava, and Subadhra with an attendant – calm cattle adoring Krishna all around.

Isnt it remarkable that both these grand pieces of art incorpate natural rain water into their theme? Subtlety twinkles under grandeur, a hallmark of the Pallavas.

Five Rathas

The five rathas are popularly called Pancha Pandava rathams. Neither are they rathams (chariots) nor were the Pandavas involved in any way, except for also being five in number.

The rathams are actually temples, dedicated to Siva, Vishnu, Skanda (as Brahma Shasta), Durga, and perhaps Ganesha.

Pancha Pandava rathams.
Pancha Pandava rathams.

They feature four different types of vimanas: Dravida, kutaakaara, shaalakaara, and Gajaprashta — like a magnificent periodic table of Dravidian architecture. Only a King who called himself ‘Athyantakaama’ — a person of Endless Desires — could have had the pride and passion to undertake such an amazing enterprise.

The most amazing thing about them is that they are carved not from bottom to top, as is almost any building, but from top to bottom. In fact, the bottom portions are unfinished in most of them.

What audacity, what supreme confidence must have possessed and driven the sthapathi — the master architect — who conceptualized and executed this temple!

There are three freestanding sculptures of animals — a lion, an elephant and a bull — symbolizing the vehicles or vaahanas of Durga, Skanda and Siva, respectively.

The tallest of these rathams, called Dharmaraja Ratham, has a three-storied structure, with a gallery of the most amazing sculptures, on its upper floors.

The name of this temple, Atyantakaama Pallava Ishvara Griham, the house (Griham) of Ishvara worshipped by Atyantakaama Pallava, an epithet for Rajasimha, has been inscribed in Sanskrit in the Pallava Grantha script.

The central sanctum features Somaskanda — Siva flanked by Uma and Skanda — with Vishnu and Brahma looking on in adoration.

The Arjuna Ratham has Siva, Vishnu, and Skanda (or Indra), along with royal couples and dvarapalakas on its three walls. Siva leaning on his bull, and Vishnu leaning on Garuda, are two of the most charming sights in Mamallapuram.

Siva, as Rishabantika, on the wall of Arjuna Ratham, leaning on a bull, flanked by royal couples, and dvarapalakas.
Siva, as Rishabantika, on the wall of Arjuna Ratham, leaning on a bull, flanked by royal couples, and dvarapalakas.

The Draupadi Ratham has an image of Durga on its back wall, and three Devis on its exterior walls.

Shore Temples

The most iconic images of Mamallapuram are the twin shore temples — the oldest structural temples of Tamil Nadu — magnificently located by the sea, surrounded by sand.

The taller east-facing temple, Kshatriya Simha Pallaveshvara Griham, has a five-storey vimanam; the west-facing smaller Rajasimha Pallaveshvara Griham, has a three-storey vimanam.

There was a large mandapam in the front, with a variety of fascinating sculptures, most of which have got worn out due to the passage of time, and most of them have fallen too, with only the lower portions of the walls remaining.

A magnificent series of seated Nandis decorate the outer edges of the surrounding wall. Both the temples have images of Somaskanda on the back walls of their inner sanctums.

Between them is a smaller shrine for Vishnu, who is curiously reclining on the floor and not on Adisesha.

Later Chola kings, Rajaraja Chola and Rajendra Chola have recorded their grants to this temple, in a Tamil inscription.

The twin shore temples with the majestic Nandis on the outer wall.
The twin shore temples with the majestic Nandis on the outer wall.

Rumours of six other temples that are now under the sea are very popular. One legend says that the gods themselves were jealous of the beauty of these temples and caused them to be submerged, sparing only the twin temples we see now.

Mamallapuram is not only a grand living museum of architecture and sculpture but also a perennial puzzle, delighting the tourist, historian and the rasika alike.

R Gopu delivers lectures on astronomy, history, sculpture, Sanskrit, and Tamil, and is part of the Tamil Heritage Trust. He blogs here.

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