The magnificence of the various monuments and temples at Mahabalipuram have to be seen to be believed.
Mahabalipuram is replete with ancient treasures in the form of bas-relief work on stone and temples/shrines carved into monolithic rocks. The magnificent Shore Temple and the Panch Rathas discussed in the Part - 1 were just a trailer for what lies ahead on this magnificent road to discovery.
The Pallava kings during the 7th and 8th century CE built majestic stone structures that survive till today to remind us of our glorious past and rich heritage. They built cave temples carved out of granite stone, monoliths with exquisite sculptures and temples constructed from stones brought from other regions.
The Arjuna’s Penance also known as the Descent of the Ganges
Two giant monolithic rock faces have been sculpted with scenes from the Mahabharata and Puranas. This is one of the biggest bas-reliefs in the world and is an awe-inspiring sight. It was sculpted to commemorate the victory of the Pallava ruler Narasimhavarman I over the Chalukyan King, Pulakesin 2.
There is so much sculpted on these huge granite rocks that it bewilders laymen and archaeologists alike as to the imagination and finery of the sculptors. Towards the left from centre stands Arjuna on one leg, in severe penance. His body is almost skeletal and his long beard denotes the long duration of his tapas. The penance was performed on the bank of the river Ganges in order to obtain the powerful weapon Pasupath Astra from Lord Shiva. The descending fall of this holy river is etched in the centre of the two monoliths. Lord Shiva (with four hands) along with his ganas (one gana has a lion carved on the pot belly) is seen blessing Arjuna. What is most obvious about the entire scene on both the rocks is that the figures of animals, humans, and celestial beings etc. all face the central cleft between the two monoliths.
[The Arjuna’s penance bas-relief. It took me a long while wait in the afternoon sun to get this capture devoid of humans, vehicles, paid photographers and vendors]
Another interpretation of the central figure claims that it is depiction of King Bhagirath, who is doing penance for bringing the holy river Ganga to Earth. Shiva is granting the boon and the cleft between the rocks show the descent of the river Ganges. It is the richness of mythology and masterful carving which has resulted in an imagery so poignant that two totally different events are ascribed to it. Even the best attempts to decide on the actual intent of the artists fail to weigh the scale in favour of either of the interpretations.
Just below Arjuna/Bhagirath are depictions of devotees, who are bathing in the holy water and offering prayers. One holds a water pot in his hands and another wrings his wet cloth. The sculptors have beautifully used the gap between the two monoliths to bring out the Descent of the Ganga in the most unique way. An anthropomorphic representation of snakes (Naga and Nagin) is depicted as if they are coming from below the earth. Nag worship has been an ancient culture in India and in the South East Asian Nations. There is a temple with a deity and a Rishi in meditation along with other worshipers and animals nearby.
To the lower right of the centre there is a cat that stands on his hind legs in a pose quite like that of the emaciated Arjuna in penance. There are mice at his feet that appear to be offering prayers to the pious looking cat. Some say that this depiction is of cunningness of the cat as it is old and the mice at his feet will be an easy catch as they will not be afraid of him due to his meditating pose. The lower right section has majestic life like elephants. There are adorable calves playing between their legs.
The left monolith has carvings depicting a forest setting. It could be a forest scene from the banks of the Ganges in the higher altitudes/Himalayas. There are trees (one is a jackfruit tree with fruits), animals such as lions, deer, mountain goats, monkeys, birds, lizards and humans carrying sticks and bows with hair tied in top knots (hinting towards forest dwelling people). Nature has been etched out beautifully.
The celestial beings are prominent on the upper levels of both the rocks. They are supposed to represent the different beings referred in Indian mythology as Gandharvas, Yakshas, Kinnaras etc. They are shown as hovering in the air and facing the descent of the Ganga. The meditating figure is a human which is shown larger than the ganas accompanying Lord Shiva, who is larger than a human figure. Throughout the expanse of this bas-relief, the relative sizes of various humanlike figures have been painstakingly maintained.
The carvings on the lower portion of the left rock have been left incomplete. On the left extreme there are some square shapes chiselled out of the rock, giving an idea of how the figures would have been carved by working on these separated patches.
Other Sites near the Penance
The Panchpandav Mandapam
To the left of the Arjuna’s penance is a large rock cut cave with the front corridor having two rows of pillars. It is dated to the period of Parameswaravarman (672- 700 CE). The beauty of this rock cut cave is the square based lion pillars and lion pilasters. The roof of the cave has beautiful carvings too with lions and mythical animals (half lion and half bird). These caves are incomplete. It appears that the work was suddenly stopped and was never started again.
The Govardhan Parvat – Krishna Mandapam
This is a rock cut cave with huge pillars to hold the roof of heavy granite monolith. From the outside, this mandapam looks slightly insipid compared to its neighbouring caves and bas-relief. But once you walk into this mandapam, you will be gazing at the most beautiful depiction of Krishna lifting the Govardhan parvat (mountain) like an umbrella to shield all humans and animals from the incessant rains unleashed by Indra, the God of water. The massive bas-relief is dated to the era of Narasimhavarman I while the structural mandapam is a later addition during the medieval period.
The height of Krishna is approximately 10 feet. The relief is massive and so life-like that you will keep wandering from one end of the relief to the other, again and again, just to grasp the beauty and liveliness brought along the length of the panel. Krishna is seen effortlessly lifting the Govardhan Parvat with his left hand while the right hand is in vara mudra (boon giving pose).
The right side of the relief shows villagers going on about their normal routine work. There are ladies holding kids, one with pots on her head, a man with a child on his shoulders etc
[The Govardhan parvat bas relief captured from one end]
The left side of the relief shows Krishna’s elder brother Balram comforting an elderly man. Krishna and Balram are bigger in size when compared to the other villagers. Many more day to day life scenes from the village life are carved on this side. A cowherd is milking a cow while she is licking her calf. Another woman is carrying a rolled mat on her head and a container (may be containing milk or curd) in her other hand. A villager is walking with an axe on his shoulders. There are cows and fading impressions of cows on the entire upper area of the relief. A cowherd is seen playing the flute near Balram. This scene shows calmness and the faith that the villagers have in Lord Krishna, the divine saviour.
This relief is so real that you may even consider giving a utensil to the cowherd milking the cow for some fresh milk. Till very recently in India, milk was supplied by this method at ones doorstep and this scene will resonate with most of the elderly urban populace in India. There are monkeys, lions and mystical creatures on the outer left side of this relief. Even in Mahabalipuram, which has a profusion of magnificent stone art, there is nothing else which comes even close to the wonder of this realistic panel.
[A cowherd milking a cow next to Balram]
To the right of Arjuna’s Penance, on top of a small hillock, one can see a huge boulder precariously standing just at the edge of the incline. From a distance it looks to be at an impossible angle. Once you climb the rock front and move behind the butterball (a monolith), then you see that this butterball is oblong in shape and the major part of this boulder is on the back side. A Large portion of this boulder has been broken off by an ingenious method perfected by the ancients. Tourists throng this site as the precarious positioning of the boulder is thrilling. Deeming it to be too dangerous, the rulers (From Pallavas up to the British) have repeatedly tried to dislodge it but it remains there, proud and defiant.
[A side view of Krishna’s butterball]
This is a beautiful monolithic rock cut temple with intricate carving all around it. There are lion pillars and lion pilasters along with Dwarpalas (gatekeepers) towards the front of the shrine. Lord Ganesha is the main deity here. This shrine was originally dedicated to Lord Shiva and its original name is ‘Atyantakama Pallavesvaram’ after the title of the king in the foundation inscription. This temple was most likely built by Paramesvara Varman I (672-700 CE) as it is known that he continued the temple carving tradition started by Narasimhavarman I. The Vimana of this temple is similar to the Bhīma Ratha of the Panch Ratha group of monuments.
[Front view of Ganesha Rath]
This monument is to the far right of the Butterball hillock and is approachable through a narrow pathway between massive monolithic boulders. The Trimurty caves are intriguing and extremelly beautiful. It is a three shrine temple with a carved superstructure. On the outer surface to the right, there is a sculpture of Goddess Durga (Shakti). This is a magnificent portrayal of Durga with eight arms and she stands on the head of the demon Mahishasur.
Steps lead to all the three shrines and to the feet of Goddess Durga. There are dwarpals (gatekeepers) on both sides of the three shrines. These realistic looking life size dwarpals are similar in finery to the carvings on the Arjuna and Dharma Rathas.
[Front view of the Trimurty caves]
Trimurti cave shrines
These three chambers are supposed to represent the holy trinity of Hinduism by some accounts. In all three chambers, there are deities with slightly differing adornments in their hands with royals kneeling in worship and celestial beings hovering near their shoulders. In the central chamber there is a shivlinga made of black granite, a stone not found in the immediate surroundings.
[The sculpted wall inside the trimurty shrines]
Stone cut Water reservoir
Right infront of the Trimurti caves, there is an absolutely circular rock cut water reservoir. It has been cut into a granite boulder. Steps have been cut into the rock which lead up to this circular reservoir. The precision of this flawless circular finish that was made almost 1400 hundred years ago boggles the mind. What tools/machines must have been used by these ancients to bring about such perfection!
The standard method of stone splitting was by making regular notches across a stone face and using hot water to split the stone. There are numerous instances of such split rock strewn around this area where the stone has the mark of these notches and the split surface is visible on the face of the rock. Even after seeing this method, it seems well nigh impossible that the same technolgy can result in the flawless circular stone trough shown above.
Sites on top of the hillock starting from butterball till the Lighthouse
This rock cut temple shrine was built around middle of the 7th century. Here we see further advanced architectural style and realistic Pallava iconography. The entrance has a small reservoir with steps that lead to the lion pillared mandapam. The central garbh griha (sanctum sanctorum) is empty. Life-size Dwarpalas stand guard on both sides of this sanctum. The most intriguing aspect of this mandapam are the four bas-relief panels on the walls.
[Entrance to Varaha mandapam]
The first panel on the left of the entrance shows Lord Vishnu in his Varaha avatar (wild boar) saving Bhudevi (Mother Earth) from being submerged into the depths of the primordial ocean. Lord Vishnu has one of his legs on the head of a Naga King that represents the nether world. Lord Brahma stands on the right side holding a kamandala (brass vessel). Surya (Sun) and Chandra (Moon) are depicted with halos on the top corners of this panel. Bhudevi is shown to be blessed by all divine from all the three worlds.
The next panel depicts Goddess Lakshmi, wife of Lord Vishnu in her Gajalakshmi avatar that represents the fruitful abundance of nature. She is shown sitting on a lotus pedestal but not in the normal cross legged Indian style. According to some experts, this style was influenced by the Greco-Roman architectural style. Goddess Lakshmi is being bathed by her four lady attendants and two royal celestial elephants.
[Varaha and Durga Panels]
The right rear wall is the relief of Goddess Durga, who represents Shakti, standing on a lotus pedestal. There is a chhatri(cupola) above her head and a lion and dear nearby. Four ganas float on the sides and there are two royals at her feet.
The last panel relates to the story of Vaman avatar, where Lord Vishnu appeared before King Bali as a dwarf and asked him for a donation of land to the extent that he could measure in 3 steps. Bali granted his wish and Lord Vishnu measured the earth and sky in his two steps. Bali had to go to netherworld (Pataal Lok) as a result. This panel shows Vishnu in his Trivikram form showing him in the process of measuring the world in one step.
[Durga and Trivikram panel]
This is an intriguing but unfinished structure, with a lot of promise but lack of execution. The layout suggests that it may have been planned as a massive Gopuram or Vimana. Usually the structures in this area are not very large. This is the largest structure in size. Only the four pillars give an idea of the planned structure. It was being built in the 16th century by the Vijayanagar kings, giving it the name of Rayar Gopuram.
When one walks by a fully constructed Gopuram where the carved pillars are part of the whole massive entry doorway, one hardly glances on the carvings within the walls. Here the pillars are the centre of attraction as the accompanying structural walls were never built. One of the pillars show the sequential progression of Lord Vishnu’s Avatars starting from fish and progressing through tortoise, boar, Narasimha, Vaman and so on. During the carving, an error was made and Lord Ram (in the Kothandaramar pose) was shown after Balarama. Whereas it should have been reversed. It is said that due to this error, the construction was stopped and never completed. Like many such local beliefs, it is not easy to confirm the historical veracity of these stories.
[Rayar Gopuram carved pillar]
This is another fine example of a rock-cut cave temple. It has six flat faced pillars followed by another two lion-faced pillars into the rock cut cave. No deities are present inside the cave and there is just the barest hint of plans to create carved panels on the walls. But no carving work was initiated.
This is another cave cut into the hillock above the Arjuna’s penance of which the outer pillars are without any adornments and has an unfinished look. This feeling vanishes as soon as one enters the Mandapam as the walls on both the sides have two striking carved panels showing stories from a bygone era.
One of the panels show Goddess Durga in her form as Mahishasurmardini, vanquisher of the demon Mahisasur (buffalo headed demon). Durga is shown like a warrior riding her mount, lion and aiming an arrow towards the demon. It is to be noted that the carving doesn’t show her in the usual ceremonial ladylike form used in other temple carvings, but in a warrior like get up. The demon army is shown as retreating and Goddess’s army is in the aggressive attack mode.
The other panel shows Lord Vishnu in his Ananta shayana pose where he is sleeping on the coils of his snake, the Sheshanag. This form represents his deep slumber after the start of the universe when he is resting in the primordial ocean while Brahma creates all the objects in the universe. Two demons near his feet are shown trying to disrupt his sleep. Mother earth is worshipping him and the other four human forms can be interpreted as the humanoid forms of his usual adornments, Conch (Shankh), Discuss (chakra), Mace (Gada) and Lotus (Padma or Kamal).
This temple is just above the Mahishasurmardini caves and is the highest structure amongst this group of monuments. This temple has beautifully carved sculptures on its outer walls.
This mandapam is carved out of the face of the hillock at the ground level. It has three cells and it has inscriptions in the Grantha script that has been attributed to the Pallavas. The name of this temple inscribed in Grantha script is Atyantakama Pallavesvara –graham. It was built during the reign of Mahendravarman during the early 7th century.
Below the functional lighthouse that has been in usage since 1900, there is a twin monolith bas-relief that seems to be a draft sculptural work. The carvings are more of an outline and lack the real life feel of the finished carvings. It must have acted as a practise site before selecting the current site of Arjuna’s Penance for the final depiction.
[Trial site to learn carving - Unfinished bas relief]
It looks like an incomplete water tank on top of the hillock situated away from the main pathway. An effort was made to carve steps in the tank, may be to facilitate bathing.
This is a carved and polished seat, with steps leading up to it, situated on the top of the hillock in a remote area. With a lion shown at its head, it looks like a throne and it has been named Yudhishthira’s throne. It is remarkable how the structures created in this area have been randomly associated with characters from Mahabharata even though there is no direct link of this geographical area with the story of Mahabharata.
There are more caves scattered around on this hillock in various corners. Most of the tourists miss these as they are located away from the main pathway, Draupadi cave and Kottikal Mandapam are two such unfinished caves.
Sthala Sayana Perumal Temple (Thirukadalmallai)
This functioning temple is located bang opposite to Arjuna’s Penance. This temple has been mentioned by the saints since the 6th century CE and is one of the 108 shrines (Divyadesam) dedicated to Vishnu. It was built by Pallavas with later contribution from Cholas.
At the entry point there are carvings depicting stories from Ramayana and other ancient texts related to Vishnu and his avatars.
[A carved wall inside the temple]
This is a unique structure as it shows tiger heads carved on a huge boulder with a cave in the centre. It is dated to the Pallava era and is part of the monuments of Mahabalipuram although it is situated a few kilometres before the town.
Barely a few hundred meters away from tiger’s cave, a recent excavation has discovered another buried temple site. This new found temple structure is significant, as it gives credence to the claim that there are many more structures around Mahabalipuram, still waiting to be discovered.
During the 2004 Tsunami, the retreating sea had moved far enough and many onlookers had seen temple like structures and stone remains which proves the point that this location was a trading and shipping hub in the past. The force of the waves shifted the sand around the southern part of shore temple to bring up new structures buried into the sand. At present, restoration work is being carried out. Much more lies buried within the sea close to the coast, awaiting exploration and discovery.
Mahabalipuram is ancient, but the stone cutting art has lived through time and the continuity is evident in the presence of stone craftsmen in the entire area. All the monuments here come under the UNESCO World Heritage Site and are maintained by the ASI. This glorious heritage must be respected and preserved.
The sculptures of lean and animated figures and deities amidst nature should be a reminder to all us humans to remember to live in harmony with the gifts of nature and not let our greed disrupt this balance.