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Remains of history 
By Chitra Viji


Located a little off Chennai, the ancient port town of Mamallapuram reclines unnoticed on its legendary past. Perhaps underwater archaeology may provide answers about some of the sunken structures and our maritime heritage, writes CHITRA VIJI.

THE PALLAVA king, Narasimhavarman I, had the title "Mamalla" and ruled in the early part of the Seventh Century A.D. and is credited with creating Mamallapuram. This historic site is referred to in early literature in the hymns of the Alvars as Mallai. In the 17th and 18th Centuries, European travellers and seafarers, who viewed the pagodas or spires from the sea, mention seven of them which presumably include the five rathas, the old Vijayanagara towers and the Rajasimhesvara temple.

Marine archaeology might answer a few questions on the ancient port town and clear doubts on sunken structures, if any. We know that Mamalla, who had a successful reign, kept the Chalukyas of Vatapi under check and sent envoys abroad and maintained a successful naval presence in the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean. Mamallapuram would reveal its seafaring past, if underwater or ocean archaeology is initiated seriously.

When we approach Mamallapuram, wending our way by keeping the Buckingham canal to the West, we would notice the abandoned monolithic rathas with their unfinished carvings. On scrutiny, one understands that all the rock carvings start top down. The rathas have superbly finished crowns but with an unfinished rock base bearing rough chisel marks. One is tempted to view the abandonment as the result of a cataclysmic past but in truth the advancement of building technology freed our sthapathis from being confined to sites where rock was available and to move freely to create temples where required.

From here we arrive at the site of the five exquisite rathas or monoliths popularly known as the Pancha Pandava Rathas. The first rock structure is delicately executed in the shape of a thatched village home. Inside is portrayed an astonishing incident of a young man holding a machete to his head, ready to sacrifice himself. This cult of sacrifice is eulogised in a number of inscriptions on tablets called the hero-stones found in this part of the country and these glorify the warrior clans and their valor. However, in this instance, the event is scripted in an elegaic form on the wall of a shrine dedicated to the most powerful mother figure - Devi or Durga. A statue of the lion associated with her is carved independently and positioned in front of this shrine.

The Arjuna ratha has great similarity in style and form to the Dharmaraja ratha, which bears the king's inscription and portrait. There is similarity in the idiom of architecture as both are derived from the style of the Rastrakutas with whom this king had close family ties. Stone architecture of the Chalukyas and of Mamallapuram bear remarkable similarity and arise out of a common shared tradition. The artisans, profoundly influenced by the woodwork, create pillars with corbelling, showing tenon joints and exhibiting the style of wood carvers in their detailing.

On Arjuna's ratha, a portrait of Siva leaning nonchalantly on the Nandi is the iconic representation of the Vrshabadevar. This imagery is further developed by the Cholas, who cast this concept in exquisite bronze. Further on, there is Indra on the elephant Airavata and

Vishnu on Garuda.

The Bhima ratha would have been a temple for Vishnu in his form of Sayanamurthy, as is evident from the elongated rock bed, that is so hewn to create just such an image. Since the public has no access to view the vimana or tower where the rock work is better finished, it would be educative, if the site museum could have an audiovisual unit to explain the architecture and show the finer details. This need becomes critical at the Dharmaraja Ratha for it is the tower that carries the most exquisite carvings revealing a pantheon of gods. Working on a challenging stone such as the granite, the Pallava sculptor has hewn a wondrous ratha with its beauty partly concealed from us. The selection of a hard rock in the first place has preserved these monuments from the constant battering of salty winds and the Archaeological Survey continues to strive to maintain them for posterity, this being a Heritage Site.

Dharmaraja ratha that should perhaps be named Mamalla ratha, in honour of its creator, is a charming piece of architecture. Notice the waterspouts, shaped like monkeys with their mouth wide open, introduced to bring levity to the serious aspect of a royal temple. The calligraphically written Grantha inscription gives two titles of Narasimhavarman i.e. Sri Megha and Trailokyavardhanavidhi. The Ardhanaresvara image is a composite of Siva and Parvati and is an early representation of this form. There are also icons of Harihara, Brahma, Siva and Skanda and in the upper tiers, we have Siva as Gangadhara, that is when he unties his matlocks to receive the Ganga and ease her descent to the earth, a picturisation popular with the Pallavas. Then you have the image of Natesa, which is the dance form of Siva followed by Vrshabadevar. The Pallava kings were celebrated for their scholarship, their consummate understanding of the fine arts and the icons of Siva as Vinadhara and of Dakshinamurthy and Gangadhara are a reflection of that culture. The aesthetics of the Dharmaraja ratha is pleasing.

Moving to the Nakula-Sahadev ratha, which is fashioned in the apsidal idiom, the architect has carved a lovely free standing image of an elephant by its side. Here he teaches you to look at the evolution of the gajaprishta form that was particularly popular in the early phase of architectural evolution in India.

In the rock outcropping, you notice grooves and wedge-shaped holes of varying sizes. These were meant to hold the chisels, which would have been arranged according to their blade size. The largest would be used to prise or split large chunks of rock while the finer and smaller chisels were worked to create finer shapes and moulding, the sculptor wielding them to shape the rock to yield the form he desired. Proceeding to the rock face depicting Arjuna's penance, you are a witness to a landmark in art in which the largest sculptural canvas has been created in Mamallapuram, that was never attempted by the artists once they abandoned the rock cut carvings in favour of developing friezes and relief that could be worked into structural temples. The contents of this magnificent panel have gone through endless debate - is it the legend of the descent of the Ganga in which case it is Bhagirata's penance? Or it could be Kirartajunya, an episode where Arjuna prays for some powerful weapons to help bring an end to the battle in Mahabharatha. The large expanse of relief carved with attention to detail and with the sense of the quotidian is a delight to observe. The central split, through which the rain waters course, and the spatial balance of the panels being centred around this channel leads us to believe that this relief is related to Bhagiratha's penance. The image of Siva as Gangadhara is reworked many times in the Pallava scheme of portrayal. The large sculptural frieze is an attempt to portray a stringent penance witnessed both by heavenly hosts and the denizens of the netherworld. The frieze is dynamic and draws you into observing the grouping and as each one is recognised, you tend to wonder "Ah, that's what this is all about." The light touch of the sculptors is found here more regularly than anywhere else. The ascetic with his hands in obeisance in the eka pada tapas is drawn with his ribs showing, indicative of an arduous penance. Making light of such practice, is the cat in a similar pose standing on its hind legs mimicking the ascetic.

In the upper panels, the devas, the kinnaras and other heavenly hosts witness the proceedings with bhakti and reverence. In the real world called earth, cats, monkeys and elephants go about their grooming, monkeys de-licing one another.

The mastery of the artist entices the spectator to watch the tableau unfold before him. In such a vast canvas the eye focuses on each cluster without fatigue or boredom. At the end you are mesmerised by the linear rhythm and the counterpoise of the relief. You are fascinated at the understated subtleties and come away admiring the excellence in workmanship.

Leaving this panel to wend your way behind the hill or rock, you go past a small temple for Ganesha. In the course of the walk you will see the spectacular work of the royal craftsmen, who have created cave temples for the enjoyment of the royal family perhaps in their privacy. You have steps carved out to make the climb easier. There is a Royal bed, even if it is a hard one being carved in granite, a water-tub to meet the demands of the Pallavas and their gods and a storeroom with steps, peg holes and markings which indicate that the imperial family took shelter and pitched camp in this area. Certainly the ground reveals the existence of brick structures and holes for tents poles.

The Varaha cave or mandapa with Gajalakshmi and Durga has Vishnu in his avatar of Trivikrama. You then walk past a dilapidated Vijayanagara Gopura to enter the Royal enclave, where the sculpture of the lion stands guard. There is a modern lighthouse and a structure of the Vijayanagara age, often referred to as the old lighthouse, that is, in fact, a temple sans its tower. It is at this point, that your mind traverses the horizon and dwells on the possibility of a royal Pallava naval force waiting in the harbour, quite capable of venturing forth to Sri Lanka, Khmer and such other countries. Mamalla, the port town, has not received our focus and it is time to rediscover our seafaring past and our maritime history.

Walking towards the stretch of sand, the striking silhouette of the Rajasimhesvara temple complex bathed in ocean spray beckons you to visit and sit awhile, soaking in the ambience of this unique site. King Narasimha II, also known as Rajasimha, had a passion for the arts and was a creative genius, who took the art of building to new heights. This is further revealed on visiting the Kailasanatha temple at Kancheepuram where the king's creative genius is evident.

The west facing shrine on the approach to the complex is the one dedicated to Somaskanda, that has a bas-relief, which is a group portrayal of Siva in the company of Uma and Skanda, their young son, seated between them. This theme has found particular favour with the Pallavas and we do not find the continuation of this practice spilling into other areas or dynasties. In all probability these friezes would have been coated with plaster covered with fine painting, to create charming images. Adjacent to this shrine is an icon of Durga vanquishing Mahisasura.

Behind this shrine, is another one for Vishnu reclining on the Sesha in the primordial ocean. An inscription of the Cholas identifies the shrine as Jalasayanamurthi. The larger shrine facing the rising sun is dedicated to Siva. Within this shrine is a fluted Linga that has high polish and may not be contemporaneous to the shrine.

In recent years, to create a pleasant ambience and to keep the shifting sands in check, the land around the complex was turfed. In the process of digging, new structures, a lot of artefacts and a well with a wonderfully designed well-ring has been unearthed. The restoration work on the main temple complex, undertaken years before this discovery, needs to be reassessed in the light of the new finds, as the stones unearthed obviously belong to the structure, that we see at the shore temple today.

The effect of erosion on the shore temple has been debilitating and the problem has been compounded by the soft laterite rock, which has been used in the construction. Central agencies use blotting paper and distilled water to remove the salt accretions and clear the micropores on the rock tablets, which is why visitors see a creamish mush plastered on the walls. The friable nature of the stone leads to rapid deterioration. The constant chemical clearing and stabilisation work done to strengthen the structure and slow down the process of erosion helps us enjoy this national heritage site. A large number of Nandi images scattered and parked like sentinels around the enclosure must have adorned the enclosure to the temple. Mamallapuram in its entirety has maintained the aesthetic beauty and refinement from the period of Mamalla and Rajasimha. The administrators of this heritage site need to understand the ethos of protecting the past for future generations, so that Mahabalipuram does not fall victim to modern intrusions.



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