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Living Rocks of Mamallapuram

July 2010
Living Rocks of Mamallapuram On the shores of Tamil Nadu, on the eastern coast of peninsular India, is a marvellous town of temples, carved out of rock. Mamallapuram was one of the greatest seafaring ports of ancient times. In early times, this bustling town would have had a great cosmopolitan culture. In its markets, people from Southeast Asia would have rubbed shoulders with Romans. Coins found here testify to extensive trade with Rome and other places, since at least the 1st century. Colonies of Romans are also known to have been present in this part of Tamil Nadu at that time.

This port town was called Mamalai, or ‘great hill’. Narasimhavarman Pallava, known as Mamalla or the ‘Great Warrior’, expanded the facilities of the port in the 7th century. Ships sailed constantly from here to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. Narasimhavarman changed the name of the port to Mamallapuram or ‘city of Mamalla.’

Here, over perhaps a hundred years, from about 630 to 728 AD, marvelous monuments were cut out of outcrops of hard gray granite. Cliff faces were transformed into a teeming world of animals and people. Boulders were carved into fine temples. Rocks were chiseled into the shapes of animals.

The magnificent temples of Mamallapuram reflect fully developed styles of South Indian temples. Obviously, such temples must have been made for a long time prior to this period. The earlier ones must have been made out of ephemeral materials and have not survived.

Facing the ancient port and not very far from it is one of the marvels of the sculptural art of India. The face of a vast granite rock, almost 100 feet by 50 feet, has been transformed into a world of divine and earthly beings. This giant relief is believed to be of the early or middle 7th century.

This tableau presents the auspicious moment of the descent of the river Ganga, to bestow her blessings and her treasure of fertility on the world. Some scholars have also interpreted this scene to be of the penance of Arjuna, the hero of the epic Mahabharata. A deep cleft in the rock has been artfully used to represent the great river, as she descends. In fact, a storage tank was made above it. On ceremonial occasions, water must have been let out to rush down the cleft, giving a sense of reality to the sacred scene.

The teeming world of a forest has been created around the river. About a hundred figures of animals, men, women and divine beings, all turn in reverence towards the life-giving river. These are all made approximately life-sized and with great sensitivity and naturalism.

The many beings, which populate the world created around the river, are made with a great sense of liveliness. In these there is a sense of freedom and the joy of creation expressed by the artists.

The realism and lifelike softness of the elephants is remarkable. The details of the baby elephants show the artists’ deep concern for all the beings of the world. Another detail, of a deer scratching his nose, shows great sensitivity and observation of the natural world. Close by is another relief depicting the same subject. However, it is unfinished.

A little to the left of the great ‘Descent of the Ganga’, a Krishna Govardhan scene is carved out of a boulder. Lord Krishna holds up the Govardhan mountain to protect a village from the fury of a storm. It is a charming scene. With peace restored and the storm forgotten, a cowherd plays the flute and another milks a cow. This is one of the finest depictions of rustic life in Indian art. In Pallava times, when this relief was made, there was no mandapa made in front of it. Therefore, we saw clearly the whole mountain above Krishna as he lifted it. In later times, with the coming of more formalized norms, a mandapa was made in front of the scene, to accord due status to the deity. With this, the effectiveness of the theme was largely lost.

The soft rendering and slender forms of the Pallava idiom are again seen in the Varaha mandapa of around the middle of the 7th century. Here we also see the developments of Pallava iconography and architectural styles. Seated lions made on the bases of pillars are characteristic.

There are four major sculptural panels in the cave. Vishnu is seen in the Varaha avatara, saving the earth goddess Bhu Devi from being submerged in the ocean. All Indian myths operate at many levels and this also signifies the saving of mankind from the ocean of ignorance. Vishnu is also presented in the form of Trivikrama, the conqueror of the three worlds.

The rear wall of the cave has Gajalakshmi made on it. Lakshmi, who represents prosperity, is shown being lustrated by elephants. Also on the rear wall is a relief of Durga, who represents victory over ignorance.

In Pallava art, the figures are slender and delicately made. The scale is naturalistic. A depth is given to the relief by figures that turn inwards and others that are seen from the back. Such arrangements of figures were also seen in the paintings of Ajanta of the 5th century and in the art of the Krishna Valley in Andhra Pradesh.

One of the most magnificent depictions in Mamallapuram is that of Mahishasuramardini, made in a 7th century cave. It is entirely different from earlier representations of this subject. Durga battles the demon buffalo or Mahisha, who represents the evil of ignorance. It is a most animated scene and, unlike before, the scale is naturalistic. Here the demon has a human body and the head of a buffalo. The natural poses of the figures, advancing from one side and pulling back upon the other, enhance the drama and realism of the subject. The self-assured ganas of Durga’s Army of Righteousness are unforgettable.

The Adivaraha cave is notable for having portraits of King Narasimhavarman with his queens. There is also a representation of his son with his wives. After the period of the Kushanas, who hailed from southern China and had portraits made of themselves in royal shrines in the 1st century, these are the earliest surviving portraits of Indian kings.

In early India, the purpose of art was always to take our thoughts away from the passing reality of the world, to that which was eternal. Therefore, art did not traditionally depict ephemeral personalities. From here onwards, we see a shift take place and emphasis begins to come upon the personality of the monarch.

There are nine monolithic freestanding temples, cut out of boulders. Five of them are in one group. These are the earliest such rock edifices in India to be carved both on the outside and the inside. They are popularly called rathas, or temple chariots. This is a misnomer as they are meant to be temples. They are a marvelous record in stone of the many forms of temple architecture in South India at that time.

The monoliths are named after the five Pandava brothers of the epic Mahabharata and their common wife Draupadi. They form a coherent group and were probably made in the middle of the 7th century.

With its two towers, Shore Temple, one of the glories of Mamallapuram, is right next to the lapping waves of the sea. The finely worked slender towers are among the most beautiful structures in the Indian subcontinent. The temple was probably built in the 8th century by Narasimhavarman II or Rajasimha. He is believed to have established the tradition of building structural stone temples in Tamil Nadu.

Perhaps the most memorable aspect of the art of Mamallapuram is the depiction of the many beings that inhabit the world: deer, cows, elephants and others. Man is seen amidst the world of nature, as one of its many manifestations. The Indian sculptor manages to communicate the living, breathing quality and emotions of animals with a rare empathy.

The art of ancient India sees unity in the whole of creation, imparting a vision of great harmony and compassion.

[The author is a filmmaker, art historian and photographer.]

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