Pallava Rock-Cut Temples of Mamallapuram

The first shrines in the Tamil country in South India were cave shrines, derived from the Buddhist tradition. These came up during the rule of the Pallavas (600 – 900), under whom the foundations of the Dravidian style were laid. The Pallavas belonged to Andhradesh but their centre of activity was the lower reach of the Palar river and their chief architectural remains are mainly found in the country around Kanchipuram, their seat of power and in the seaport of Mamallapuram, built by them in the present day state of Tamil Nadu. The port had been a centre of trade from Roman times and Kanchipuram, 40 miles away, a major cultural centre. The Pallava rulers sent expeditions to Sri Lanka and traded with China and South East Asia. They were great patrons of art and architecture, which was driven by a systematic ideology. They used architecture to legitimize their rule by richly endowing the shrines and by naming the edifices after their kings. As a result, a complex relationship began to grow between the temple, community and the king.

Temple architecture under the Pallavas resolves into two phases: The first phase (610 – 90), the Mahendra and Mamalla Group, is wholly rock-cut while the second (690 – 900), the Rajasimha and Nandivarman Group is entirely structural. In the first phase, the rock-cut structures took two forms: the mandapas (610 – 40), and the rathas and mandapas (640 – 90). A mandapa is an excavation, an open pavilion excavated in the rock. It takes the shape of a simple pillared hall with one or more cellas in the back wall. A ratha is a monolith, in the shape of a chariot or a car that is used to take the deity out but here it means a series of monolithic shrines in granite resembling certain wooden prototypes. A mandapa in all probability had other structurally attached buildings, but these have perished because of their impermanent material.

The Mahendra group (roughly 14 in number, 610 – 40), named after the chief patron, scattered all over Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, three being at Mamallapuram, represents the early beginnings. However, recent scholarship attributes most of these mandapas and the later rathas to the later patronage of Rajasimha. Each pillar of the rock-cut mandapa is about 7 feet in height with a diameter of 2 feet. Shafts are square in section except for the middle third which is chamfered into an octagon. Heavy brackets provide the capitals with no cornices above the pillars. Later examples become more ornate, when the pillars start becoming 4 storied, rising to a height of 50 feet. These changes can be seen at Bhairavkonda (Nellore district), where a distinctive Pallava order makes its appearance. This is seen in the sophisticated fusion of two forms of the capital and the shaft of the pillar. Another element, a typical Pallava feature of a lion, combined with the lower portion of the shaft and another introduced into the capital as well makes its appearance. This is the beginning of a pillar design that transformed into an elegant Pallava type with the heraldic lion beast standing for dynastic connotations as a symbol of the dynasty’s lion ancestory (simhavishnu).

The Mamalla group of temples (640 – 90), contrary to the group above, are found in one place, Mamallapuram. They were mainly executed during the reign of Narasimhavarman I (640 – 68), who took the title of ‘Mahamalla’. The site lies towards the mouth of the river Palar, 32 miles south of Chennai. The place served as the harbour for the capital Kanchipuram. The coastline is well suited for these rock-cut structures to come up. There is a large rocky hill of granite rising out of sand near the seashore, aligned north to south, measuring half a mile long and a quarter of a mile wide with a height of over a hundred feet. Detached from this, towards the south is another smaller outcrop consisting originally of a whale-backed mound of granite, about 250 feet long and 50 feet high. It was out of these rock formations that Mamallapuram was excavated and sculpted. The site also exhibits foundations of structural secular buildings like citadels, palaces and residences.

The mandapas on the main hill are ten in number. None of these are large as they have shallow halls or porticos. In most instances, they are of the same general character and proportions as the earlier group, but there are differences. These cave shrines are more ‘elaborated’ in design and execution. Their columns, except for the corbels, are relatively more slender, but with so many facets that they appear fluted and even round. These pillars forecast the elements of true Dravidian pillars and pilasters with their balanced proportions and further decoration. The shaft carries the malasthana, a low relief band of pearl festoons, and then flares out gently to where a deep throat or indentation separates it from a cushion like element called the kumbha (pot or a jar) or the ‘melon’ capital. Above the kumbha, a lotus element, the padma or idaie, flares out to the broad thin abacus (palagai). Sometimes, as in the Varaha Mandapa, the notched flaring idaie, surmounted by the thinnest of palagais is indistinguishable from the later fine early Chola examples. The only element still missing, and which will come up later, is the Chola notch in the shaft before it flares, with a slight swelling above it, to become the most delicate of vases (kalash). The bases of these pillars have the sedant yalis or lions, a feature, which, as noted, has already made its appearance.

More elaborate decoration can also be seen in the treatment of the facades of these halls, where a roll cornice decorated with Buddhist chaitya arch motif (kudu) runs with a parapet above. The parapet is formed of alternating long and short miniature shrines in most of these examples. But ground plans differ for various pavilions. The Varah Mandapa has a basement with a provision for a receptacle for water. This feature corroborates with the particularly well designed water system of the site, evidenced by the canals and tanks that are strewn all over the port. However, this elaborate water system was not solely for public use. It was also needed for ritualistic purposes or for water worship, as many temples stand testimony to this, in which cisterns, in addition to conduits appear. As regard the othermandapas, the Trimurti has no hall and the three cells open directly to the exterior. The three part Mahisamardini Mandapa has a two pillar portico in front of the central hall.

But perhaps the most extraordinary of all rock architecture at Mamallapuram are the rathas, the monolithic shrines carved out of whale-backed mound of granite, standing near the beach. Sometimes called the Seven Pagodas, they are unique replicas of earlier wooden structures. It is not clear if these monoliths preceded the first stone structural buildings but both evolved from the earlier wooden prototypes. Their purpose remains still unknown as these ‘riddle of the sands’ are mostly unfinished from the inside. They are of no great size, the largest being only 42 feet long, the widest is only 35 feet and the tallest too is only 40 feet high. The typical Pallava pillar is used here in these rathas, with all its parts and elements, as described above. The rathas are eight in all, and with one exception, all are derived from the two Buddhist structures of the vihara (monastery) and the chaitya (prayer hall or chapel). The exception, Draupadi’s Ratha (dedicated to Durga) is also the only one, not characteristically in the pure Dravidian style. This ratha, the smallest and the simplest in the series, however, is the most complete. It is mainly a one roomed cell or a pansala with a large boulder cut lion besides it. It has female door-guardians and inside is a relief of Korravai (the Goddess of victory with a deer). The structure has four sided steep pitched curvilinear roof, found later in South India but resemblances are more to the Bengal region. Its base is supported by figures of lion and elephant alternating, suggesting a portable character to its wooden prototype.

Of the typical Dravidian rathas, 5 follow the old rule of vihara construction in which a central square is surrounded by cells initially to be covered by a pillar supported flat roof in later examples. More stories were added to this basic vihara model, as the number of monks increased and the structure came to be eventually finished off by a domical roof. In these compositions at Mamallapuram, however, some modifications in this original pattern can be seen. In the Dharamraja Ratha, one of the best examples, the cells from the old pattern have lost their original character and intention and instead have become modified into ornamental turrets. In this ratha of lion pillared portico, the elevation is in two parts: a square portion with pillared verandahs below, and the pyramidal shikhara formed of converted cells above.

The remaining three examples, Bhim, Sahdev and Ganesh rathas are based on the chaitya type. They are all oblong and rise to two or more stories, while each has a keel or barrel roof, with a chaitya gable end (triangular part of the roof). The later gateways (gopuras) in Dravidian architecture are based on this keel roof with pinnacles and gable ends. These shrines are of Shaivite attribution, evidenced from the images of a lion, elephant and a bull that are carved on rock in the close proximity, symbolising Durga, Indra and Shiva. It is interesting that while being derived from traditional Buddhist architecture, they are Hindu shrines – implying that monolithic religious categories should not be associated with architectural forms.

A remarkable feature of this assemblage is the fine quality of figure sculpture which adorns these mandapas and the rathas. Large mythological relief panels are carved in these shrine walls. One distinctive panel has the figure of Durga as Korravai. The reliefs of Pallava sculpture are shallower than in the Deccan because of the hardness of the stone that is found here. The human figures are slender and delicately built. In one of the caves, the Adivaraha, there are two portraits of a Pallava king and his son, each accompanied by their queens. These are the earliest portrait sculptures after the Kushana figures from Mathura. Other reliefs are the figures in plain shallow niches on each storey of the Dharmaraja and the Arjuna ratha, being the finest in Early Pallava style.

Last but not the least, the precincts of Mamallapuram has a large sculptured panel, variously described as the Descent of the Ganges, Arjuna’s penance andKiratarjuniya (Shiva disguised as Kirata, with Arjuna). The panel is cut on the vertical face of two huge boulders. A narrow cleft dividing these boulders from top to bottom provides the focal point for a vast congress of life sized figures and animals, all facing the cleft or hastening towards it. The figures are of Gods, demi-Gods, sages, kiratas or wild hunters and kinnars, half birds and half humans. The panel has other mythological vignettes as well.

After Narasimha Mamalla, the rock method seems to have lost its eminence, and a more permanent inflexible carving of the granite, the art of structural building, was taken up. This would have provided a greater freedom to the workman and the patron, who would be now freer to introduce any form, while not being constrained by the limitation of the rock sites. Henceforth in the reign of Rajasimha, patronage extended to structural temples when the first free-standing temple, the Shore temple was partly erected under him (first quarter 8thcentury CE).

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