Recently discovered temple complex provides intriguing proof of temple construction dating back more than 2000 years in Mahabalipuram.
Mahabalipuram is a treasure trove of Pallava era (7-8th century CE) stone temples of which the Shore Temple, Panch Rathas and Arjuna’s Penance are the most well-known examples. The magnificent temples, caves and bas-reliefs form part of a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The tsunami of 26th December 2004 left immense destruction on the east coast but it revealed ancient stone artefacts on the sea floor and also exposed clues on the coastline. Recent excavations have unearthed some new structures and one such site, located just before the Tiger cave complex, has the remains of an ancient temple.
(View of temple remains from the North aspect)
The Archaeological Survey of India has unearthed a breath-taking site that is different from all the other Pallava era stone structures in Mahabalipuram. It is located right next to a huge rocky outcrop and has clear evidence of construction dating back to a period before the Pallavas.
Inscriptions on the Pallava era pillars exposed by the effects of this tsunami at Mahabalipuram, hinted at an ancient Murugan Temple in this area. It was then that ASI conducted a search and these remains were unearthed. Murugan is also known as Kartikeya, Velmurugan or Skandan who is the son of Lord Shiva. Murugan is always depicted with a lance as he is the army general of the Gods. The small pillar that stands in front of the temple is in the shape of a lance. The spear area of the lance is adorned with a lotus. This stone lance is of Pallava era (8th Century CE).
This recently excavated site clearly indicates multiple construction stages. Brickwork was not the forte of Pallava era temple builders. Constructing temples out of stone blocks and carving them into gigantic monoliths to create remarkable temples was the Pallava hallmark. It does appear obvious that the lower levels of this temple remains are older than the Pallava period. Archaeologists and historians vary with regards to date but it is at least a few centuries older than the Pallava construction.
I imagined the site to be an ancient temple and stood in front of the remains. The first structure is a brick-layered square plinth followed by a carved stone pillar on another square base. Beyond this pillar, there is another brick and mortar base with rudimentary steps that leads to the main structure. This structure is the main temple with the Garbhgriha or sanctum sanctorum that hosts the main deity. The temple faces the North. The temple area is surrounded by a brick boundary wall that leaves space for devotees to perform the parikrama or circumambulation of the Garbhgriha. The first impression I got from the remains is that this was once a Shiva temple. There must have been a Nandi on the first square base followed by a Dhwajastambha. A Shivling facing the North must have resided in the Garbhgriha.
The lower temple, most likely to be a Shiva temple, has to be earlier than 5th to 6th century CE as by that period, the Agama Shastra codifying the temple construction in the east-west orientation was finalised. By the style of brickwork, it seems that the earlier temple was built centuries before the Pallava era and may represent the earliest such temple in Tamilnadu, dating back to Sangam Era, more than 2000 years ago. This was the period when Tamilnadu had extensive maritime trade with Roman and Greek civilisations. The exact dating requires more excavations and discovery of more such sites in the vicinity will provide a better context to this forgotten part of Indian history.
(Lord Murugan’s lance. Bricks are not standardised)
The bricks are not standardised and have been fixed with a lime-based mortar. The brick remains on the eastern side have layers of shells which indicates sea water covering and damage to the site indicates an early era Tsunami or tidal wave leaving the site covered in sea waste. Shells have entered the gaps and have got sealed with the bricks with time. Nature has a way of leaving its mark.
(Shells that have gelled with the mortar)
There is a brick Garbhgriha that is below the upper temple’s floor level. A closer look reveals three different layers of building material used for the walls. The base layer appears to be laterite followed by bricks. This must have been the original pre-Pallava Garbhgriha as Pallavas did not use bricks for temple building. There are stone additions to the top layer of the brick structure. One can conclude that the main structure predates the Pallavas who must have restored an earlier shrine with a stone structure. It appears as if they built an entirely new temple above the lower level of the damaged brick temple.
(The original ‘Garbhgriha’ that has different layers of building material for the walls)
The huge monolith rock stands mighty behind the temple. A portion of the western side of this monolith has been cut in typical Pallava style. Pieces of rock have been used in the construction of the temple. Rock slabs, supports and pillars are ubiquitous in the upper area of the temple and in the surrounding parikrama boundary. The rock cutters of that era had an ingenious way of breaking apart huge boulders. They drilled holes at regular intervals, preferably along the fault lines in the stone and then placed wooden stakes in them. Hot water was poured and in due course of time, the expansion resulted in cracks in the stone. Small notches are visible at the base of the monolith in a horizontal line indicating such cutting.
(The Huge Monolith of which a part has been used for temple construction)
On the rock at this site, another such attempt is clearly visible, with holes drilled along a vertical line. Looking at the smooth circumference of these holes it appears as if the ancient workers used mechanised tools. The stone has preliminary crack lines and it looks like the builders abandoned the effort mid-way.
(The holes drilled along a vertical line that has led to a vertical crack)
The various levels of construction and renovation show that the Pallavas repaired and renovated this temple and dedicated it to Lord Murugan. He who is one of the favourite deities depicted in temples throughout Tamilnadu.
The present state of the ruins indicates repeated damage as the Pallava era temple has also not survived. Tsunamis have destroyed this temple in the past and fate has it that the 2004 tsunami helped in revealing the location of this ancient monument of reverence. A feeling of reverence envelops the visitor once one realises that this place has been home to multiple temples in the past, reaching back thousands of years.
(View of Temple remains from the Eastern side)
There are inscriptions on the back side slope of the huge monolith. It is barely legible but it is a sign of the times long gone when kings tried their level best to take care of temples and patronise them. On a courtyard in front of the temple site, there are inscriptions on the rock floor, both of which are in archaic Tamil dating back to the Pallava period.
(Inscriptions on the back side of monolith and on the rock floor)
As the evening sun sets, it creates shadows of the stone pillars onto the monolith and surrounding areas. The brickwork shines in the evening light and even though the work is not so fine, the fact remains that it still stands after facing the vagaries of time and destructive forces of nature, protecting this temple.
(The outer brick boundary with stone pillar support)
One can imagine the majestic Shiva temple standing proud in its chosen location millennia ago, with the huge monolithic rock as a symbol of Kailash Parvat, the Himalayan abode of Lord Shiva and the sea in the background symbolising the holy lake of Mansarovar.
With this temple site and other such discoveries, it seems that Marco Polo’s description of the city of seven Pagodas will one day be finally validated. It is such a shame that something which was clearly mentioned by a renowned chronicler like Marco Polo, is frequently mentioned in later histories as a matter of mere legend. The stones lying below the sea waves within hailing distance from the Shore temple clearly indicate that a much bigger temple complex was there, which we have lost all historical reference off apart from a few mentions by visitors. This scenario repeats across the Indian landscape as if we are genetically programmed to always forget our heritage and need outside help to discover and preserve it.
The historians who are always trumpeting the lack of proof while denigrating all local memory as mere MYTH, become strangely silent as soon as new discoveries take place to challenge their “ESTABLISHMENT” wisdom. It looks as if they have decided that their current limited knowledge is the sum total of all history of this land and there is nothing left to discover.