If you are on the trail of temples, your journey simply has to begin at Mammalapuram, the 7th century seaport of the Pallava Empire. This is the birthplace of temples, the crucible of Hindu religious architecture in the south.
An open air art gallery with sculptures spread around everywhere from the sea shore to hundreds of meters inland is the town of Mammalapuram or Mahabalipuram and has to be experienced for its 14 rock temples, 9 monolithic shrines, 3 stone temples including the exquisite Shore Temple and 4 sculpted bas reliefs defy description.
The history has it all as it started under the aegis of the Pallavas, powerful emperors, great builders and pioneers of the Dravidian style. The magnificence at Mammalapuram, sheer ‘poetry in stone’ is attributed to three Pallava kings – Mahendravarman I (600-630AD), Narasimhavarman I (630-666AD) and Narasimhavarman II (700-728 AD) and it certainly is a breathtakingly beautiful tribute to these great patrons of art and architecture. The major attractions in Mahabalipuram are exquisitely sculpted stone temples.
The Shore Temple
The temple has stood the vagaries of nature for many centuries, was built in the 7th century during the rule of the Pallava king Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha and now is a World Heritage. A structural temple, it is crafted from stone and put together by master masons who assembled it block by block. In this, it differs from others at Mammalapuram that were carved out of pure rock. The temple is a masterly example of the Pallava style, but was built so close to the shoreline that the waters of the Bay of Bengal have eroded its outer boundaries.
Three shrines combine to make up the Shore Temple – two dedicated to Shiva and one to Vishnu. The vimana over the Vishnu shrine has eroded with time but happily, the other two are intact. The Shiva shrine is adorned with reliefs, to the left of the Shore Temple stands the Dhvajastambha, a stone pillar visible even from ships far out at sea. The walls surrounding the temple were decorated with charming figurines of Nandi, Shiva’s faithful bull, sadly, only a few remain but they are enough to indicate how glorious the temple must have looked in its hey day.
The archetype of Dravidian temples, the inspiration and the cornerstone of all others belonging to the genre can be found at Mammalapuram. This was the first time ever that builders used features that would become integral elements of every temple, not just in the south but also elsewhere in India. The craftsmen who built the rock temples pioneered the use of vimanas; gopurams, mandapams and the intricate carving that make them works of art.
One of the most fascinating site is Arjuna’s Penance, 29m by 13m, carved in relief on the face of a huge cliff. It features Arjuna, the heroic warrior of the Mahabharata who had qualms about the fratricidal battle he was due to fight. The southern face of the cliff tells the story of Arjuna’s penance on the banks of the River Ganga where he prayed to Lord Shiva for the boon of ‘Pashupatashastra’, Shiva’s favourite weapon endowed with magical powers. The scene portrayed on the rock face shows an ascetic standing on one foot performing penance, seated nearby are Lord Shiva and his entourage. A natural fissure in the rock is cleverly used to render the River Ganga; some say that once water flowed down the crevice adding another dimension to the creation. Detailed carvings of gods and goddesses, snakes, birds, animals, creepers and trees complete the representation.
The artist or artists turned to fables from the Panchatantra for inspiration and ideas for the opposite side of the cliff. The fables, like Aesop’s use animals to impart moral lessons to the viewer – an all time favourite is the story of the deceitful cat who successfully fools a group of mice with its fake piety! The realistic depiction of elephants, cats, lions, boars and tigers has universal appeal and is certainly a clever way to teach a lesson!
Originally there were eight sculpted chariots, each depicting the temple cars used to carry the temple deities in processions, but today only five survive. These are excellent examples of monolithic rock sculpture of South India. The best preserved of the rock temples are collectively known as the ‘five rathas’ named for members of the Pandava clan from the epic Mahabharata. Why they are called ‘ratha’ (chariot) remains a mystery, for they bear no resemblance to any vehicle!
Carved from huge rock monoliths, the raths incorporate different elements – the biggest one, multi tiered with a domical shikhara is the Dharamraja Ratha (he was the eldest Pandava sibling). A smaller version of the Dharamraja ratha is named Arjuna, after the heroic warrior of the Mahabharata. These two rathas are embellished with sculptures of kings and couples, possibly members of the royal family. The ratha with a barrel shaped vault represents the Pandava strongman, the mighty Bhima. The Sahadeva ratha has an apsidal shape, which it shares with the imposing stone elephant that stands in front of it. Draupadi, the wife of the Pandava brothers gets her own ‘hut’ shaped ratha preceded by a stone lion, representing the goddess Durga.
The monumental works of art at Mammalapuram use nature’s bounty as their canvas, monolithic rocks, hills, and blocks of stone, cliffs and caves were all put to good use by the builders. Rocks were fashioned into rathas, temples scooped out of hills and boulders chiselled into blocks and pillars formandapams. Take the fabulous bas-reliefs, they use sheer cliff faces as their canvas, engraving upon them complete legends and stories.
Behind the rocky hillock is another group of sculpted rocks. Some of the important ones here are Krishna Mandapam, which shows in intricate sculptures the story of Lord Krishna lifting the Goverdhan Mountain with his little finger and the temple of Mahishasurmardini.
The melody of classic and folk music takes over at the Music Festival held in Mahabalipuram. The artists from all over the country converge here to perform their arts for the benefit of the many tourists gathered here.
Excavated from the rocky hillside are two beautiful rock temples, the Mahishamardani and the Adivaraha Mandapas.
These temples have exquisitely beautiful sculpting, considered by experts to be the most outstanding reliefs in India. Dedicated to Durga Mahishasurmardani, slayer of the demon Mahishasura, the Mahishamardani Temple is cut into the rock on the eastern side of the hill near the lighthouse. The three shrines within the temple have ornate sculptural reliefs, one depicting Durga battling the demon and one of Lord Vishnu in cosmic slumber on the coils of the serpent king, Seshnaga. The artist successfully captures both the intense energy of a battle between the forces of good and evil and the contrasting serenity of a god in repose.
The Adivaraha Temple contains beautiful group sculptures, deities and sub divinities. Outstanding amongst all of them are two group sculptures that portray a king flanked by his two queens, one seated and one standing. The seated king is identified as King Simhavishnu (574-600AD) while the standing king is his son and successor Mahendra I (600-630AD).
Dance Festival: The ancient temples of Mammalapuram return to a time long gone when the sound of dancer’s bells filled the air. The cream of Indian dancers perform in the open air, the temples providing the perfect backdrop to dances as classical and as ancient as the temples themselves.
The Dance Festival is scheduled from December to January every year. The entrance fee for the dance show is Rs 100 for 2 hours.