Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Mahabalipuram - The Pride of the Pallavas

    The 6th to 9th century AD was supposedly the dark ages in South India, the Pallavas from Kanchipuram were constantly at war for their survival; against the Chalukyas of Badami in the West and the Pandyas of Madurai in the South. In between their wars, they built magnificent temples, expanded the horizons of art and architecture and experimented with monolithic and rock cut temples before mastering the Dravidian style of temple building.

    In Badami, the Chalukyas were excavating temples from red sandstone that is easier to sculpt. Down South in Mahabalipuram, the Pallavas had only granite hills. Granite is a difficult stone to sculpt and consequently the temples here do not possess the level of intricacy or detail that you will find in a sculpture of any sandstone based temple. The objective of the kings of South India turned to building grander and loftier temples. After three centuries of war, the Chalukyas finally overran the Pallavas’ capital in the beginning of the 9th century; but the granite stones of Mahabalipuram still tell us tales of a lost era of flourishing art and architecture and their terminal decline.
Shore Temple
    In a land like India where civilization stretches to at least a few thousand years, it’s difficult to unravel fact from fable and history from mythology. For instance, there are many explanations as to why the city is named Mahabalipuram (place of great sacrifice). The town was supposedly named after asura (demon) king Mahabali who ruled these shores before being vanquished by the Vamana avatar of Lord Vishnu. It was also called Mamallapuram after the Pallava King Narasimhavarman took the epithet Maha-malla (great wrestler).

The Structural Erections – Shore Temple:
    The Shore Temple was built by Narasimha Varman II in early 8th century; the last substantial work of the Pallavas and one of the oldest structural (versus rock-cut) stone temples of South India. The temple was designed to look like a monolith but a major portion of the temple has actually been reconstructed after the tsunamis and cyclones. A paste made of shells, honeys, eggs, lemons and sand was used in place of cement as the binding agent giving the walls a distinct look.
Durga on a lion with small carved shrine
    The temple is built right on the shore such that the first rays of the rising Sun falls on the Shiva lingam located on the eastern side of the temple. Around a hundred grand Nandis (sacred bull who is the gatekeeper of Shiva's realm) surround the sanctum of the temple from all sides. There is a lion statue with a small carved shrine of Durga in the middle and a water tank beside that which could have been used for ritualistic sacrifice of animals. The statue bears a striking resemblance to the national symbol of Singapore!

    The Shore Temple, though dedicated to Lord Shiva, has a reclining Vishnu on the Western side of the temple. You will find a lot of coins and the odd ten rupee note on this statue; a shameful desecration of a monument of great historical value. There are also sculptures of Parvathi (Shiva’s consort), Murugan and Ganesha (Shiva’s children).

  The effects of erosion due to years of being submerged in water and centuries of facing the rough seas and the salty winds are clearly visible in this temple. Once in awhile, the ASI covers the temple with paper pulp and casuarinas to protect the sculptures by adding an additional coating to the surface.

    The Shore temple, as per folklore, is the last of the seven pagodas (temples) of Mahabalipuram. When the 2004 tsunami lashed across the eastern coast of India, the water initially receded around half a kilometre before rushing back landward. If you had been standing at the shore temple at Mahabalipuram at that point in time, apart from staring at your own death, you would have been one of the fortunate few to see remnants of the lost temple city. After the tsunami, the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) undertook underwater excavations to confirm the carvings and sculptures. In the aftermath of the tsunami, an auditorium like structure was discovered just beside the temple and a huge Shiva lingam was found washed ashore that is now safely ensconced in a New Delhi museum.

The Govardhana Dhari – Krishna’s Mantap:
    Many rock hewn caves and structural temples can be found in a black hillock at the centre of village. The Govardhana Giri mantapa is a rock cut monolith that was built by Krishnadevaraja and the elegantly sculpted scene shows Krishna lifting the Govardhana Mountain to protect the villagers from heavy rains that lashed Mathura. Various scenes from the daily life of villagers can also be found in the tableau.
Govardhana Dhari - Krishna's Mantap
Mahishasuramardini cave temple:
    The sculptures depict the story of goddess Durga killing the dreaded asura Mahishasura.
Mahishasura Mardhini
Varaha Cave temple:
    The rock-cut temple of Varaha, one of the avatars of Lord Vishnu, dates back to the 7th century. There scene shows Varaha holding a Devi after rescuing her from an asura. Another scene shows Goddess Durga and her devotees reverently sacrificing their eyes and hands at her feet. Durga is a hard God to please and gory ritualistic self-sacrifice was necessary to gain her divine blessings. The dark ages indeed; unfortunately such masochistic sacrificial practices are still followed in the present age.
Goddess Durga and her devotees. Notice the devotee on the left sacrificing his eyes.
    The Ganesha ratha beside the Varaha temple boasts of an interesting architecture – a stupa like structure on top, the traditional Dravidian style in the middle and also arches with Roman architecture. The pillars for many of the structural temples come in many shapes - simple square, octagonal shaft type pillars and ornate fluted lion based forms. This temple is a definitive indicator that the Pallavas were experimenting with design and architecture of temples.
Ganesha Ratha - dravidian temple with stupa like top
Arjuna’s Penance:
    The monolithic Arjuna’s penance is one of the largest open air-rock sculptures in the world. The tableau is called Arjuna's Penance and depicts Arjuna, one of the five Pandavas of the epic Mahabharata, praying to Lord Shiva in the jungle for the powerful pashupathi astra (weapon) to defeat the evil Kauravas. Arjuna is shown as a gaunt bearded man standing on one leg with his arms upraised, in a yoga posture. Lord Shiva stands to the left with the pashupathi astra. Various demigods are showing watching over the warrior prince with interest. Many animals like deer, lions and two huge elephants indicate that the penance is happening in a forest.
Arjuna's penance. - Arjuna is the bearded man in yoga posture. Lord Shiva is to his left
    The entire scene is carved on Granite, a hard rock that’s not very malleable, so using the soft iron tools of the 8th century to create this masterpiece must have required a lot of skill and patience.

    A Tapasya or penance, in the context of Hinduism, is where a devotee prays seeking a boon or a powerful weapon from his favourite God, forsaking food and water until he grows a long beard which is later covered by forest creepers. Once in awhile the Lord of heavens, Indra, jealous and fearful that the devotee seeks to supplant him, sends one of his beautiful apsaras (heavenly damsel) to entice the devotee and disrupt the penance. Hindi movies add a customary raunchy song at this point! Arjuna, however, manages to please Lord Shiva and obtain the dreaded weapon to use in the coming war.

    The sculptors also throw in a warning about charlatans and false prophets. A cat is shown meditating with the same pose as Arjuna while a few mice are praying to the cat. The cat obviously finishes his prayer and devours the devout mice. How much ever the devoutness, the laws of nature always takes precedence.
Full panel view of Arjuna's Penance
    The deers shown in the panel have found their way into the Indian ten rupee note. Though the tableau is called Arjuna’s penance, the Hindu epics have plenty of penances and the scene is also interpreted as the story of Bhagiratha, a king from the epic Ramayana, who brought the sacred river Ganges to earth through his devoted tapasya. Whoever it portrays, the work is a great display of vivacity and joyousness coupled with austerity and devotion.
Lord Krishna's butter cup.
Rest of the hillock:
    There are plenty of other monuments on this hillock that are worth visiting.
- Lord Shiva’s Cave temple (contains the sculpture of Andhakasur Vadh) and the Trimurti Cave temple. 
- Rayar Gopuram – A gateway built by Krishna Deva Raja.
- Tiger caves and Ramanuja Caves – Popular tourist destinations.
- A large spherical rock that has been christened “Lord Krishna’s butter ball”
Rayar Mantap
     There are also clues to how an ingenuous solution was adopted to quarry stones in those times. Blocks of wood were placed into in a row of pocket sized holes created on the rock. During the course of the day, the wood expands due to the Sun’s heat and the fissures in the rock open up a bit more. The Pallavas repeated the process until the rock split into required dimensions.
Stone quarrying - Wooden blocks were placed in these holes and which expanded due to the Sun's heat.
The Gateway of Mahabalipuram:
    This is a series of monolithic temples or rathas (chariots) built in honours of the Pandavas from Mahabharata. You will find rathas for Draupadi, Arjuna, Bhima, Dharmaraja and one for Nakula and Sahadeva. The five temples show many varieties both in ground plan, elevation and architecture. There are square (Dharmaraja, Arjuna and Draupadi) as well as rectangular (Bhima ratha) structures that range from single to triple storeys. These rathas represent the oldest and most well preserved Vimana models of Tamil Nadu.
The Gateway of Mahabalipuram - Rathas for the Pandavas
Each ratha has been built in a different style:
Durga/Draupadi                           North Eastern
Shiva/Arjuna                                 Dravidian
Vishnu/Bheema                          Stupa/Buddhist
Brahma/Dharmaraja                  Temple Arch
Airavatha/Nakula-Sahadeva   Gajapasta

    An interesting fact about such monolithic temples is that the top portion is built first instead of being fitted in last. There are also sculptures of Hariharan (Shiva-Vishnu) and Ardhanarishwara(Shiva-Parvathi) on the Dharmaraja ratha. You will also find the sculpture of a huge elephant and lion both of which are a hit with tourists. It's interesting that the Draupadi’s ratha is placed beside Arjuna’s ratha. Of her five husbands, Draupadi liked Arjuna best; so the Pallavas definitely had a good grasp of the Mahabharata.
The streets of Mahabalipuram
    In India, even after thousands of years, some things never truly die. Tradition lives on for generations; art is passed on from father to son for countless ages. The sculptors of Mahabalipuram still possess the skills and the passion of their forefathers along with sophisticated power tools and lathes. They can do in months what their forefathers took years. Even today the town is an open museum for a student of art and the roads are dotted with amazing sculptures. The rest of the world looks up to this historical temple town for granite sculptures, so don’t be surprised to see masterpieces when walking around the town. Historians might call the time of the Pallavas the dark ages due to the multitude of wars, but for Indian art and architecture the period was just the beginning of a golden era.


Anonymous said...

Nice post with beautiful pics.
Sushil Kumar

Unknown said...

Very informational blog post. The ancient and historically important city sees a host of tourists every year. Click here to know about famous hotels in Mahabalipuram.

LegalRaasta said...


ITR Filing said...

nice post