The co-existence of the past and the present is what infuses the seaside town of Mamallapuram, with an enduring spirit. Among the ornately sculpted rock temples and delicately carved stone surfaces, the interplay of aesthetics and human experience provide an exciting maze of sensations and feelings. If you open yourself to them you move from one time zone to another. What facilitates the transition is the physical landscape itself – dotted as it is, by clusters of natural rock formations. Nature here plays sculptor, working with wind and water on stone surfaces to create a baffling variety of forms and textures. Perhaps it was Nature that inspired the Pallava kings to choose this place from the beginning of the 7th to the middle of the 8th century for their magnificent rock and stonework.
Lying approximately fifty-five km south of Chennai on the shores of the Bay of Bengal, the temple town of Mamallapuram has weathered the vagaries of changing times and the onslaught of tourism and retained its intrinsic spirit.
The art and architecture of Mamallapuram was established and evolved in the 7th and 8th century CE during the reign of the Pallava kings. Mahendravarman I, who was perhaps the earliest in the royal line interested in art, architecture and literature, commissioned work on the very first rock-cut cave temple situated in Mandagapattu in the district of South Arcot. This sacred home for the holy trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva was created without using building materials such as metal, timber, brick and mortar. His successor Narasimhavarman I followed his example and commissioned work in Mamallapuram. Apart from excavating cave temples, his artisans sculpted and chiselled entire temples out of enormous boulders. Known as monolithic temples – the first of their kind in the country – these holy spaces were soon brought alive by exquisite carvings of divine beings on walls, endowing them with a specialness that was stimulating for devotees.
This enlightened king consistently supported creative work in stone during his reign – introducing in the process, the depiction of puranic stories in bas-relief on the faces of rocks, blending human and natural life into an organic whole and enhancing the vibrant spirit of the region. It is believed that Mamallapuram got its name from one of his titles – Mamalla, the great wrestler.
To explore the lost magnificence of Mamallapuram, your journey should appropriately begin with the five rathas which stand on the edge of the now bustling town. These five monoliths stand in a large single enclosure sunk to a lower level. Associated with the five Pandavas of the Mahabharat, these were crafted during the reign of Narasimhavarman I.
At the south-end stands the Dharmaraja-ratha that is the tallest structure of them all. Square at the base, it rises up, somewhat like a pyramid. As your eye travels upwards, you notice that there are a number of storeys – each with pavilions above a row of kudus or chaitya-windows. You move on to the Bhima-ratha with its roof like the hood of a country wagon, set on a rectangular base and supported by four pillars and two pilasters with ornamentation similar to the Dharmaraja-ratha. Your eye begins to get used to familiar lines, forms and structures and so you move on to explore Arjuna-ratha, searching for something new to trigger a spark of amazement. Though similar to the extravagant spirit of the Dharmaraja-ratha, here you find another dimension of artistic vision revealing itself. The divine and mortal mingle with unusual exuberance resulting in the interplay of deities and natural life – representing the cosmos as an organic whole. In contrast, you will perhaps find that Draupadi-ratha is far sleeker and more elegant than those that you have just experienced. This is perhaps because here there is a striving for simplicity and purity of line, form and composition. Compared to the four that you have just seen, you find Nakula-Sahadeva-ratha very basic. There are no figures carved on this structure. However, what elevates its aesthetic appearance is the similarity in its form to that of the back of an elephant.
A short walk away from the site of the rathas is a path that leads up into the thicket clad hillside that overlooks this temple town. Set into this thicket is the Mahishasurmardini cave which consists of a long hall and three cells. The pillars are supported by squatting lions. At one end of the hall, the wall is alive with a carved representation of Vishnu reclining on his serpent couch whilst in contrast at the other end, the image of Mahishasurmardini is seen riding her lion and wielding a massive club in battle with a demon. Crowds of ganas and amazon yoginis cheer her on.
Not far away, another drama in stone lies, waiting to be experienced. This is the Varaha cave which consists of a large hall. In a cell, cut into the back wall Varaha appears lifting earth out from the waters of the deep. The walls of the veranda are adorned by Vishnu, Gangadhara and Brahma, physically expressing the immortal struggle between good and evil, creation and destruction. However dynamic these forms may appear, the pristine beauty of Gaja-Lakshmi seated on a lotus whilst she is bathed by elephants, stands out as a remarkably powerful expression in stone.
You now find yourself moving past the bus stand towards the hillside where rock faces are alive with bas-relief work. Standing before Arjuna’s Penance, an enormous carving, you are unable to comprehend how such a work could have been conceived and executed. The scale and the detail, challenge the imagination. Two large boulders, divided by a fissure are the surfaces on which dramatic scenes are carved. Row upon row of gods and goddesses appear to move towards a central point near the fissure where a sage stands meditating on one leg. The scene is enlivened by hunters, sages, disciples and supernatural beings. Nature’s spirit permeates the spectacle as birds and animals take their place beside divine beings.
This work has been called Arjuna’s Penance because according to some authorities the scenes are connected with the epic-hero Arjuna’s penance before Shiva in order to be granted the Pashupata weapon. However, others refute this claim. You, of course, do not find the need to indulge in the debate, but instead savour the sheer exuberance of this spectacle.
You move on from here – out to where the land touches the sea. There stands the Shore temple which is a good example of the masonry style of Rajasimha’s reign. The main shrine is east-facing and can be reached after following the ritualistic circular path between the temple and the outer wall. Made up of a small sanctum, a two-tiered vimana and a front mandapa, this shrine is dedicated to Lord Shiva. A partially damaged linga is still visible along with a stone panel which depicts Shiva, Parvati and baby Skanda. According to the inscription, the shrine is called Kshatriyasimheswaram. The west facing shrine is also dedicated to Lord Shiva. Known as Rajasimheswaram, this structure is similar to the main shrine, though somewhat smaller. Close to this shrine Durga sits on the right hind leg of a lion. On the chest of the beast is a square niche which in turn contains a representation of the goddess. Below, at the foot of the animal lies the body of an executed deer. There is robustness in form and line.
Exposed to the elemental force of the sea, sun, wind and sand – stone has a way of yielding, gradually mutating with time…who knows a century or two later what will be here? As the shoreline continues to shift, perhaps a time will come when the sea will finally claim the heritage of the Pallavas and Nature will oversee the completion of the cycle of creativity.
Author: Randhir Khare Photographs: Susan Bullough Khare, Kshitija Pande Web Editor: Kshitija Pande