The origin of monument building in Mahabalipuram is attributed to the mighty Pallava dynasty that ruled south India from around 3rd century CE with their capital at Kanchipuram, after the decline of their overlords, the Satavahanas. The early Pallavas were seafaring in nature, and they spread their culture in many parts of what is now known as the South East Asia. Many ancient inscriptions from these parts written in the Pallava-Grantha script clearly establish the early connections, while the early sculptures from these places also show a remarkable influence of the Pallavan style.
The greatest influence of the Pallavas was undoubtedly their script, the Pallava script. It came into use sometime in the 6th century, and belonged to the group of more popular form of Brahmi scripts. Along with their spicy curry (another popular Pallavan gift to the SE Asian nations), their granth or script came along with their boats and gave rise to different writing formats, which are now used in many parts of Southeast Asia. The four older scripts, which are directly derived from the Pallava granth are Mon, Khmer, Kawi, and Chams, and the Khmer Empire was the first to take up the Pallavan script. The Angkor kings also started using the tittle Varman , like their Pallava counterparts in India. It is believed that the the modern Lao, Thai, and Khmer scripts are all derived from the script and writing system was first adopted by the Khmer dynasty.
In the 7th century CE, the mighty Pallavas were defeated by the Chalukyans under Pulakesin II (609-642 CE), and they lost the Telugu districts. Mahendravarman I (600-30 CE) now controlled a much reduced kingdom that extended over Thanjavur, Chingleput, Arcot, Tiruchchirappalli, Ghittoor, and Salem. Despite his humiliating defeat, Mahendravarman I is well remembered in history as a great poet and musician, and more often as a pioneer of the South Indian style of temple painting and architecture. The Mandagapattu inscription of early 7th century (written in Laksitayana inscription) describes Mahendravarman I as a curious learner, who created a temple “dedicated to Brahma, Visnu, and Siva, to be made without the use of brick, wood, metal, or mortar.”
The monuments in Mahabalipuram (placed between 6-8th c. CE), show a beautiful amalgamation of religion and culture, through depiction of various stories from the Hindu epics. These are expressed as reliefs and sculptures on rock, often on a gargantuan scale that effortlessly integrates sculptural works with nature. The place has forty monuments that can be divided into five groups, based on their construction types:
1. Monoliths or Rathas: these are free-standing structures (mostly temples) cut out of
solid rock, designed to look like the local ceremonial rathas or chariots;
2. Rock cut caves or Mandapas: these include pillared mandapas or halls excavated in rocks on hill-sides
3. Structural temples: the term refers to built masonry temples, such as the Shore temple
4. Rock reliefs: reliefs on side walls of cave temples, sculpted on massive granite rocksor boulders on hill-edges; the majority of these are from the time of Narasirmhavarman I.
5. Various ASI excavated sites
According to M.S. Ramaswamy (1989), Mahabalipuram has ten major monoliths or rathas, ten rock cut caves, two rock reliefs, and three structural temples. It is interesting to note that the sculptures, reliefs, and architecture of the Pallavas incorporate aspects of Shaivism, Vaishnavism, and Shaktism all in one frame. This is significant, as it helps in understanding that the monuments were built prior to 9th c. CE (before the sectarian split between Vaishnavites and Shaivites occurred), when Hindus still followed the Upanishads, where they could worship god in all forms and aspects, without giving exclusive importance to any particular one (Boner, 1990). The five main deities that we find repeatedly in Pallavan era monuments are Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesha, Durga (Shakti), and Surya, and those that still worship these five without following the sectarian divide are known as Smarttas (Boner, 1990).
The Pancha Rathas or the Five Monoliths
This group of five monolithic structures are cut out from solid rock to create
five free-standing temples (the term rathas commonly used for the monoliths is a misnomer, as none of the structures look like ceremonial rathas or temple chariots). The naming of the temples after the Pandavas and Draupadi is also purely symbolic, and has no historical basis or connections with the Mahabharata. It is believed that these monuments were created during the rule of Narasimhavarman I (630-668 CE), and are among the earliest structures of their type in India. It is interesting to note that the different forms of super-structures created here show artistic experimentation with various types of future temple roofing. The stones used for these monolithic temples are naturally available blocks of granite and diorite, and are dedicated to the forms and ideas of Shaivism, Vaishnavism, and Shakti. All the five monoliths are built on moulded plinths, they completely lack any ganas, sculptures are seen within tall niches, there are overhanging eaves with sometimes human faces seen on them, while the important sculptures are seen with makaras on brackets.
Owing to the Indra panel and the elephant in front, the general belief among historians is that the temple was dedicated to Indra. However, according to Susan Huntington, the temple was more likely to have been dedicated to Aiyappan or Aiyyanar-Sasta, the son of Shiva and Mohini. The two women in the left side panel of Aiyyanar-Sasta riding his elephant are his two wives, Puranai and Putkalai. On the right panel we see an older man leading a child, which according to Huntington, are Aiyyanar-Sasta’s son Satyaka and his chief attendant Damanaka.
The panels on two sides side of Vishnu and Shiva show a pair of mithuna couples, and two free standing males (whether they are dwarapalas is debatable) in the corner panels. Mithuna couples are also seen in the upper storey kudu panels. There are alternating simhas (lions) and gajas (elephants) carved at the base of this ratha. The decorative patterns used here are kudus and pavilions, similar to that of the Dharmaraja-ratha.
The highest temple situated at the southern end of this group is the Dharmaraja ratha. It is pyramidal in shape with a square platform. There are number of diminishing storeys on the upper part, with each storey showing pavilion rows above kudu/chaitya rows. The four corner blocks, have panels that have sculpted figures in them, and between the corner blocks are shallow mandapas with two pillars and two pilasters with simha bases. The eight sculptures on the corner blocks, show Brahma, Harihara, Skanda, one is the royal portraiture of king Narsimhavarma I (identified by the grantha inscribed epithets of the king), three others hold four-armed Shiva, and the last one is a beautiful image of Ardhanarisvara, combining Shiva (purusha) and Parvati (prakriti). The figures in the niches of the central tier are those that would eventually become popular in later temple iconography, such as the four-armed Natesa dancing on Apasmara, Gangadhara Shiva, Vishnu on Garuda, Vinadhara Dakshinamurti, Andhakaasuravadha, Shiva with Arjuna (it could also be Chandesvara or Bharata/nandi), Kankalamurti, Surya wearing karanda mukuta, Krishna on kaliya, Natya Dakshinamurti, along with women figures, devotees, and dwarapalas. There is also a depiction of Somaskanda Shiva on the west facing tier. The pranalas on roof are seen all around the ratha, with human and monkey faces as outlets.
This rock cut cave depicts a scene of Krishna lifting the Govardhana hill, known as Goverdhana Uddhara. Here we see Krishna lifting Govardhana with his left palm, in order to protect the cowherds and and their families from the storm created by Indra, while his right hand shows the varada mudra. Near him are the gopis, looking at him in wonder. To his right is his brother Balarama, who is standing with his left hand on the shoulder of a gopa, and right hand on hip. Farther right we see a very natural representation of a cowherd milking his cow, while the cow licks its calf. Another gopi stands near holding milk-pots kept on a rope-sling, while carrying a bundle on her head; and a wood-cutter stands by her with his axe on his shoulder. We also see figures of a mother holding her child, and a cowherd playing his flute, while all around there are cows. The Goverdhana mountain is shown as full of lions, sphinxes, and griffins, at the left side, while an alert bull sits at the other end. While the rock relief on the cave wall is of the Pallavan era, the pillared mandapa in front is likely to be a later addition, possibly during the Vijayanagara, or alternatively the Nayaka era.
Few other Rock Cut Caves and the Butter Ball
A beautiful rock cut panel depicting elephants, monkey, and peacock. (Photo courtesy : Zehra)
Besides the ones mentioned here, and in my previous article, there are many more rock cut caves that are a must visit in Mahabalipuram, which include the Mahisasurmardini caves, AdiVaraha cave, Tiger cave, among others. The main Mahabalipuram hill holds many more caves and unfinished rathas, which are definitely worth seeing. There is also a temple near Mahabalipuram, which came up during the 2004 tsunami and is now an ASI site. Mahabalipuram needs around 2-3 days if one wants to take a detailed look at all the beautiful heritage structures that this ancient city holds.
Huntington Susan, Iconographic reflections on the Arjuna Ratha inKalādarśana: American Studies in the Art of India, Volume 9 of Studies in South Asian Culture, edited by Joanna Gottfried Williams. BRILL, 1981.
Ayyar, P. V. Jagadisa. South Indian Shrines: Illustrated. Asian Educational Services, Madras, 1982.
Ramaswami, N. S. Indian Monuments. Abhinav Publications, New Delhi, 1971.
Alice Boner. Principles of Composition in Hindu Sculpture: Cave Temple Period. Motilal Banarsidass Publ., Delhi, 1990.
Ramaswami, N. S. (ed.). 2000 Years of Mamallapuram: Text, Vol I. Navrang, Delhi, 1989.