When chronicling the great dynasties that ruled India, the Pallavas fall in the period CE275-897. Starting as feudatory lords, they took off when the grip of the Satavahanas was weakening. Kanchipuram near Chennai, one of the world’s ancient cities which is being lived in continuously, was their capital.
Like in every dynasty, some Pallava kings and their achievements stand out far more than others. When they flourished, there was no stopping them. They amassed land and wealth, patronised art and architecture and left fantastic works that are awe-inspiring even today. One of the great Pallava kings Narasimhavarma I was called Mahamalla (or Mamalla), which means ‘great wrestler’.
A small fishing hamlet on a small strip of an island on the Bay of Bengal used to be a bustling port town of the Pallava kings who ruled parts of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka for about 300 years. Until recently known as Mahabalipuram it has been renamed Mamallapuram (Mamalla’s Town) after Narasimhavarma I.
Mamallapuram is notable for the group of monuments – work of the Pallava kings that have stood the test of time. They belong to different time periods, so one can see how sculpting progressed – from bas reliefs and cave temples to monolithic temples and finally temples made using dressed stones. When driving along the ECR (East Coast Road) from Chennai, it isn’t easy to imagine that this coast is granite rich till you see the monuments and all the rocky boulders in the vicinity!
The Pallavas are credited with introducing building caves and temples in granite stones. The construction of the monuments in Mamallapuram is estimated to have taken place between 600-725AD from the time of Mahendravarma I through the times of Narasimhavarma I, and Narasimhavarma II.
Arjuna’s Penance or Descent of the Ganges:
At 96×43 feet, this is one of the world’s largest bas-relief works with impressive life-size carvings on two adjacent monoliths. The left rock face looks like incomplete work, while the one on the right is carved from top to bottom. According to one interpretation, the bas-relief tells the story of Arjuna’s penance seeking the boon of pashupatha, a weapon belonging to Lord Shiva. Another interpretation is that the bas-relief depicts Bhagiratha’s penance to Lord Shiva to allow the river Ganges to flow down to the earth.
The sculptures, in my opinion, are fascinating and open to interpretation. The top half comprises of human figures – male and female, maybe gods and demi-gods, some appear to be holding wooden staves, some seem to be carrying a pot, one figure on each monolith appears to have a halo around the head ( supposed to represent the sun and the moon), some appear to the flying, some are standing while others are seated. There is a tall standing Shiva with dwarves at his feet. Keeping them company are animals – ducks and peacocks, deer and lions, elephants and calves, monkeys, even a lizard! There is a very emaciated man standing on one leg and appears to be doing penance. There is even a tiny shrine and another equally skinny sage seated at the entrance of the shrine. There is a cat on the right monolith mimicking the men doing penance! Between the two rocks are the naga gods. There are some mythical creatures too – half-human, half-animal!
To the right of this large bas-relief is a tiny sculpture of a monkey-mommy cleaning the lice off her baby’s head!
Pancha Pandava Mandapam:
To the right of the bas-relief is what appears to be an incomplete cave temple with five hollows carved into the rock, giving it the name ‘Pancha Pandava Mandapam’ – the hall of the five Pandavas. The caves are fronted by a six pair-collonaded structure with lions making up the face of the columns.
The Krishna Mandapam is to the right of the Pancha Pandava Mandapam. Bas-relief showcasing Lord Krishna lifting the Govardhana Hill and scenes from a village – villagers, cows, oxen, calves, musicians, Krishna with a flute wooing Radha, a cowherd is milking a cow, women, kids, and a Nandi all together make up the two-sided panel. The collonaded front Mandapam comprises three rows of 4 columns and is believed to have come up later. These columns are much more ornamental, with more elaborate capitals than those in the Pancha Pandava Mandapam.
This is a triple celled rock-cut shrine dedicated to the triumvirate Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Short steps lead straight into the sanctum of the three shrines. The doors have dwarapalakas – guards on either side. In front of this cave temple, a large rock has been levelled and carved into a large cistern, called ‘Gopi’s Churn’. The cistern may have held water for temple rituals. On the back of the Trimurthi Cave – one can see elephants, monkeys and peacocks sculptures, not sure of their purpose (if any), though.
Krishna’s Butter Ball:
A 250-ton, 5x6m rock that balances itself on a rocky slope on a base that is approximately 1.2m. A natural marvel that has nothing to do with the Pallavas or Lord Krishna but has stood there precariously for eons.
‘Ratha’ means chariot, more specifically, the temple chariot that is used to carry the temple deity around during the temple festival. But this is a temple and not a chariot. Historians say it looks like a chariot (it does not look that way to me, thank god I am not a historian, I would have been cast away from the community!!). Carved from a single rock, the temple architecture has evolved to include intricate designs and patterns. It used to be a Shiva temple, but the presiding deity now is Lord Ganesha. Daily pooja takes place here, the only temple in the group of monuments here at Mamallapuram where worship continues to this day. According to the guide, the temple was carved top-down. Lions form the base of the two columns found on either side of the temple entrance and also dwarapalakas (guards). The roof is curved and gabled on the sides.
Again, this rock-cut temple has elements typical of Pallava architecture – columns with lions, dwarapalakas and small steps leading to the (now empty) sanctum. What is beautiful here are the four rock-cut wall panels depicting Goddess Durga, Goddess Gajalakshmi, and two Vishnu Avatars (incarnations) – Varaha and Vamana. Remnants of colour used to paint over the stone can still be seen on the motifs that adorn the ceiling.
If you have been to Badami, you will see similarities in the sculptures (especially the Vamana avatar) here and there.
In fact, the human forms on the bas-reliefs also look similar to those in Badami and Ellora caves.
While all these structures are in one complex, a little away from the above group of temples are the Mahishamardhini and Ishwara Temples. If you look at the boulder from some distance, it seems like the Mahishamardhini rock-cut temple is in the mouth of a long serpent! Once again, we see small steps, dwarapalakas, and wall panels depicting a furious goddess Durga going after Mahishasura, Vishnu resting on the serpent (Anantashayana) and the Somaskanda panel with Shiva, Parvathi and their son Skanda (aka Kartikeya/Subramanya). On top of this rock is an Ishwara temple.
A short walk from the car park through a series of souvenir shops leads one to these 5 rathas, each one carrying the name of the Pandavas Dharmaraja (aka Yudhistira), Arjuna, Bhima, Nakula-Sahadeva and their wife Draupadi. The sandy area is at a lower elevation than the surroundings. They have nothing to do with the Pandavas, nor are they rathas (chariots). There are five of them, and they look like chariots and they were christened ‘Pancha Rathas’ or the five chariots. These are all single rock-cut monuments.
The simplest and smallest is the Draupadi ratha, the Bhima ratha is the largest (naturally, in keeping with Bhima’s size!), and the prettiest is the Dharmaraja ratha. Unfortunately, there is no information on when these were built or if they were built simultaneously. Given the varying degree of complexity of the five structures, in all likelihood, they were made at different points in time. All the rathas stand on a base and have short steps leading into a sanctum of sorts.
It is hard to miss the colossal lion and elephant and the nandi (bull) also on location.
The Shore Temple:
According to archaeologists, this shore temple is one of the ‘Seven Pagodas’ that Marco Polo mentions in his travelogue that must have lined the shore of the Bay of Bengal when Mamallapuram was a busy port city of the Pallavas. The tsunami of 2004 temporarily revealed a temple that is assumed to be one of seven lost to the sea. An underwater archaeological survey has revealed stone blocks and walls presumed to be remnants of the other pagodas.
While the sands of time (salt laden sea breeze, actually) have eroded the temple, it is still very beautiful. A double tower greets you as you walk toward the temple. The temple was undergoing renovation when I visited, so I could not circumambulate the inner circle of the temple and did not get to see the statues of the presiding deities of the temple. On the temple premises is a statue of a lion, very typical in style to the ones we see in the Far-East, and a sacrificial altar.
If you visit the temples in the order I have written above; you will realise that this temple is the most advanced in its architectural style, using dressed stones and incorporates all the style elements together that you would have seen individually in the other monuments (Columns with lions, nandi, ogee with gabled roof, dwarapalakas, steps with balustrade, etc.). This style is the precursor to the Dravidian temple architecture that you see in the temples of South India.
Indian citizens pay a meagre Rs. 35 to visit all these temples, which are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The importance and respect these temples deserve are diluted in those 35 rupees as tourists clamber and strike a pose wherever they can, and the security guards look the other way. Like most ASI sites, this one too opens very early in the morning, but when I visited in September 2021, the opening hour was as late as 10 am, and it was mandatory to purchase the entry tickets online. Once again, I felt my visit was too rushed, and I want to go again….some day….hopefully soon.