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Documentary Film Series on Mahabalipuram

Mahabalipuram has been famous as a sea-port even from the beginning of the Christian era. A work called the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea by an unknown Greek navigator of the first century AD refers to it along with Poduke (modern Pondicherry) as a port north of the Kaveri. Ptolemy, a Greek geographer of the next century, refers to it as Malange. The occasional finds of Roman coins and pottery in the neighbourhood testify to its importance as a trading centre.

Hiuen Tsang, the Chinese traveller of the seventh century, mentions Kanchi as the sea-port of the Pallava rulers of south India, but this is an obvious mistake for Mahabalipuram, Kanchi (modern Kanchipuram) being situated inland. The modern name Mahabalipuram is derived from Mamallapuram, 'the city of Mamalla', a title of Narasimhavarman I ( circa 630-70),

the great Pallava ruler of the seventh century, who was responsible for most of the rock-cut temples and carvings at the place.

But probably the name Mallai or even Mamallai was known earlier and used by early Vaishnava saints. Another ancient name of the place was Kadalmallai referred to by the Vaishnava saint Tirumangaialvar, probably a contemporary of Nandivarman, one of the successors of Narasimhavarman he gives a graphic description of the harbour with its anchored ships laden with treasure, huge elephants and the nine gems. As Mallai, the place is known to be the birth-place of Bhutattahlvar who preceded Tirumangaialvar. Let it be said at once that the name Mahabalipuram is in no way connected with Mahabali, the mythical demon suppressed by the god Vishnu, nor with Mahabali dynasty which rose into prominence in south India in about the ninth-tenth centuries.

Of the early European travellers the first to be attracted by these monuments was Manucci, an Italian of the seventeenth century. The present popular name of 'Seven Pagodas', like the name 'Black Pagoda' for the Sun temple at Konarak, is due to the early Europeans in India and was originally applied to the Shore temple and the other temples a little inland, the spires of which could be seen from the sea, but local fishermen would have us believe that there were more temples on the shore itself that have gone under the sea within the past few centuries.

The Pallavas The monuments at Mahabalipuram owe their origin to the Pallava rulers of south India, who came into existence in the third-fourth century and ruled from their capital at Kanchi. From the beginning the Pallavas were a seafaring people who spread Hindu culture in the Indian Archipelago, where the early inscriptions are written in the Pallava-Grantha script and the sculptures show unmistakable affinity with south Indian Pallava culture. Mahabalipuram, the port of the Pallavas, must have played a great part in the propagation of the Pallava culture outside India.

In the first half of the seventh century the Pallavas suffered a reverse at the hands of the Chalukya monarch Pulakesin II (609-642) who wrested the Telugu districts from them. The contemporary king Mahendravarman I (circa 600-30) had to be contented with a reduced territory extending over the Districts of Chingleput, North Arcot, South Arcot, Thanjavur, Tiruchchirappalli and parts of Salem and Chittoor.

Originally a Jaina, Mahendravarman executed the cave-temple at Sittannavasal (District Tiruchchirappalli) and embellished it with paintings, which are the best examples of Pallava brushwork. Later in his life he was converted to Saivism by the saint Appar with the zeal of a convert he studded the whole of his kingdom - particularly the Chingleput and North Arcot Districts with rock-cut Siva temples. Particularly important is his rock-temple at Tiruchchirappalli, where a sculptured panel depicting Gangadharamurti is one of the most notable plastic achievements in India.

The name of Mahendravarman has come down in history not only as the pioneer of south Indian temple architecture and painting but as a poet, dramatist and musician. The Mandagapattu inscription describes him as a curious-minded king, who, discarding perishable materials like brick, timber, metal or mortar for constructing temples, scooped them out of the living rock. The great tank Mahendratataka, one of the most famous irrigation tanks in south India, was excavated by him to help his subjects.

His son Narasimhavarman I, surnamed Mamalla (circa 630-70), was an even greater figure than his father both in war and in peace and was one of the three great Indian rulers of the seventh century, the other two being Pulakesin II of western and Harshavardhana of northern India. Aided by Manavarman, the refugee-king of Sri Lanka, he inflicted a defeat on Pulakesin and avenged his father's defeat. To help Manavarman to regain his throne he sent a large fleet to Sri Lanka which must have started from Mahabalipuram. To his reign belong most of the monuments of Mahabalipuram.

Narasimhavarman II, also called Rajasimha (circa 690-715), associated with his queen Rangapataka, built the Kailasanatha temple at Kanchipuram, the best example of an early Pallava masonry temple. A subsequent king, Nandivarman (circa 717-779), was responsible for the other famous, temple at Kanchipuram, the Vaikuntha-perumal. After him came a period of weak succession. The Pallava power was finally overthrown by the Cholas in the ninth century.

Architecture and sculpture

Mahendra style - There is no extant example of masonry temples of the reign of Mahendravarman, all the monuments known to us being rock-cut, i.e., scooped out of the living rock. The pillar-inscription of Mahendravarman from Kanchipuram, however, points to the existence of masonry temples even in his time. The pillars of his rock-cut temples are massive and are divided into three

parts, the upper and lower being square in section and the middle octagonal. The bracket above it is cut away obliquely at 45 degrees or is rounded and often has a wavy ornament on either side of a smooth central band. The chaitya window or kudu is simple, with a human head looking out and has a finial like a spade-head. The doorkeepers (dvarapala) on either side of the doorway of the sanctum are huge and hefty, carry a heavy club, are sometimes horned and have the sacred thread (yajnopavita) running over the right arm but they are not fierce-looking and have, unlike their later counterparts, only one pair of arms. Human sculpture, as seen in Mahendravarman's Gangadhara panel at
Tiruchchirappalli and in his caves at Tirukalukunram (District Chingleput), Mandagapattu (District South Arcot), Kumavilangai and Dalavanur (District South Arcot) displays ample and well-rounded limbs, a somewhat elongated face, a double chin, a not too conspicuous nose and rather thick lips. The weapons are held by the deities in a realistic fashion. Below the waist-band, tied centrally like ribbon, are two or three heavy and broad loops. The yajnopavita is shaped like ribbon with a fastening over the left breast.

Mamalla style - In this period cave-temples continue, but free-standing monolithic temples also came into existence. The pillars are more slender and slightly more ornamented and are supported by squatting lions. The kudu is still simple and has the spade head finial. The pavilion-ornament is like a thatched hut with a simulated railing below. The niche is decorated with a torana-arch on top, and the two makaras with riders at either end of the torana have floriated tails. The dvarapalas are much the same as in the earlier caves. The figures, though still heavy, have a definitely slimmer contour. On the whole, the general features of the earlier period continue.

Rajasimha style - In this period, the practice of excavating rock-cut temples falls into disuse. The pillars of the masonry-temples are slender and are supported not by squatting but by rampant lions. The kudu still has the spade-head finial but is now a little more

ornamented. The niche appears with greater ornamentation. The dvarapalas are similarly more ornamented. The figures are conceived and executed with greater delicacy and there is a greater exuberance and larger grouping of figures. Numerous small panels are also characteristic of this period. The central vimana is given greater emphasis and is quite large compared with the tiny gopura -

a new feature - which is no larger than the small cells arranged in a row all around. The forms of Gangadharamurti, Ravananugrahamurti, Gajantakamurti and Dakshinamurti predominate. A noteworthy feature in all these Pallava temples at every stage is the representation of Somaskanda (Siva with Uma and Skanda) behind the Siva-linga, which is generally prismatic in Pallava temples.


The Monuments at Mahabalipuram can be grouped as follows according to the mode of their construction:

1. Monoliths, i.e., free-standing temples cut out of solid rock, most of which are locally styled rathas or chariots;
2. Caves, excavated in hill-scarps and used as temples, these being in some cases called mandapas or canopies;
3. Temples, the term being here used to denote built-up masonry-temples; and
4. Sculptured scenes, carved on the hill-edges. They - illustrate all the styles of Pallava architecture and plastic art though the majority belong to the period of Narasimhavarman I.

The Five Monoliths

This compact group is hewn out of a solid rock to form five free standing monolithic temples. The temples, like many monuments all over the land, are associated, without any historical basis whatsoever, with the five Pandavas of the Mahabarata. They were excavated during the reign of Narasimhavarman I and are the earliest monuments of their kind in India.

Note particularly the different types of super-structure which no doubt illustrate the varieties of contemporary roofing.

(1) Monolith I (Dharmaraja - ratha), (2) Monolith II (Bhima - ratha),
(3) Monolith III (Arjuna - ratha), (4) Monolith IV (Draupadi - ratha),
(5) Monolith V (Nakula - Sahadeva - ratha)

The Hill Area

(1) Cave I (Varaha cave), (2) Temple I (Olakkanatha temple), (3) Cave II (Mahishamardini cave), (4) Cave III (Dharmaraja mandapa), (5) Cave IV (Krishna mandapa), (6) Cave V (Panchapandava mandapa), (7) Arjuna's Penance, (8) Monkey Group, (9) Elephant Group, (10) Monolith VI (Ganesha - ratha), (11) Cave VI (Varaha cave II), (12) Rayala - Gopuram, (13) Cave VII (Ramanuja - mandapa), (14) The palace-site and lion-throne, (15) Cave VIII (Kotikal - mandapa), (16) Cave IX (Koneri - mandapa), (17) Cave X, (18) Stone Cistern ('Gopi's churn'), (19) Cave XI (Trimurti - cave), (20) Temple II (Talasayana-perumal Temple).

21. The Shore Temple
A straight path opposite Krishna Mandapa adjourning Arjuna's panace leads to the sea. Close to the sea shore, as almost to allow the spray of the waves, to dash against the walls of the temples is what is known as the Shore Temple, an example of masonry temple of Rajasimha's time. Here, we may find the Vimana, Gopuram,

Pradakshina Patha, Mukhamandapa, Dhvaja Stambha, Balipeetha, Dharapalayas, Rows of Nandis and other statutes of Gods and Goddesses. The whole compound of the Shore temple was buried under a thick deposit of sand till a few years back. This has been cleared, but the extreme nearness of sea is a perpetual menace to the safety of the temple. The salt-laden winds from the sea are eating into the vitals of the fabric and supplemented by rain, causing erosion of the sculpture. The temple has, however, recently (1944 - 45) been effectively protected from the direct beating of the sea-waves and spray by the erection of the semi-circular groyne-wall.

Other Monuments

22. Mahishasura Rock
23. Carved rocks
24. Cave XII (Atiranachanda cave)
25. Monolith VII (Valayankuttai - ratha)
26. Saptamatrikas
27. Temple of Mukunda
28. Tiger - cave
29. Monolith VIII & IX (Pidari - rathas)