‘A gallery of Pallava art’

Tracing the 2000-year history of Mamallapuram and its trove of monuments, iscriptions, essays, paintings and folklore.

June 09, 2015 04:40 pm | Updated 06:53 pm IST

A view of the Mamallapuram Shore Temple.

A view of the Mamallapuram Shore Temple.

Stopping only to click forward on his PPT, researcher Gopu spoke non-stop for two hours on the catchy topic ‘2000 years of Mamallapuram’. The 200-strong audience at Thakkar Bapa Vidyalaya listened, totally absorbed.

Using inscriptions, essays, travelogues, poetry, paintings and folklore, Gopu narrated how, after centuries of remaining a remote village of monuments buried in sand, Chennai's landmark rose in glory to reveal itself “as a gallery of Pallava art”. While the references help trace the history of the shore art's rediscovery, they also raise several questions, he pointed out. Is Mamallapuram really 2000 years old? Could it have been built in 7th century AD? Was it entirely the work of the Pallavas? Why was it built? Why were the monuments left unfinished? At the end of the lecture, one thing was clear: some aspects of Mamallapuram stubbornly remain shrouded in mystery.

People have been writing about it since 70 AD, he said. The first reference is in Boothazhvar's pasuram (kanpalli kolla azhagiyathe...) in which he asks: Why do you lie down on the bare rock here, Vishnu, instead of the soft coils of Adisesha? In Dandin's poem AvantiSundaraKatha , the sculptor Lalitalaya mentions mending the broken arm of reclining Vishnu by the sea in Mahamallapuram. Thirumangai Azhvar sings “Kadal Mallai kidantha karumbe” in Thiruvaimozhi.

After the Pallava reign, Mamallapuram lost its importance. Then, the British went exploring — Maria Graham mentions a pallakku, Edward Lear sailed in a boat down the Buckingham Canal, Werner Hapmeister found a sea route. Hultzsch recommends a bullock-cart for journeying from Chengalpet. A 1913 South-Indian Railways notification records a train service, while Col. Newell writes about driving a car in 1920.

In his 1788 essay The Seven Pagodas, William Chambers said the natives remembered copper-covered pagodas in the sea. He wrote there were many Saiva temples, sparking the question: Why didn't the nayanmars write about Mamallapuram? Was there a city destroyed in internecine wars?

Photographs taken in 1890 show all the rathams buried in sand at various levels, opening the theory of an earthquake. The language of the inscriptions was “decoded” as Siamese, so were these Buddha viharas? In 1792, Quintin Crawford praised the superiority of the ancient Hindu sciences and arts with reference to sculptures and architecture. Colin Mackenzie left an extraordinary map of the place, Kavali Lakshmayya, Mackenzie's assistant, wrote the first structured essay on Mamallapuram, describing the place reasonably accurately. Thomas Daniell and his nephew [1786-94] did pencil sketches of Sthalasekara Perumal.

In 1828, Benjamin Babington eulogised the Mahishasura Mardhini panel as the “most animated piece of Hindu sculpture.” He translated the inscriptions in the Ganesha-ratha mandapam. Today, we know Rajasimha named it Ayanthakama PallaveshvaraGruham — the inscribed poem carries the words, “I built it because of people's desire, for their benefit.”

In his Geological Notes (1846), Newbolt asserts only an Indian-steel-tipped chisel could have carved the hard stone. James Fergusson discusses the architectural variation of the rathas as hut-shaped/wagon/apsidal/Dravida Arjuna. Alexander Hunter thought the monuments were all Buddhist. In 1915, Jouveau Dubreneil wrote Pallava Antiquities – a comprehensive plan to understand Mamallapuram. He transcribed the Mandagapattu cave inscription and was the first to show the difference in alphabets. FG Pearce, in 1924, said Mamallapuram was a training school for sculptors.

Until 1962, most scholars believed that Mamallapuram was built by three kings, “Mamalla” Narasimha, his grandson Parameshvara and son Rajasimha, citing differences in techniques/poses/compositions in segments of the Kailasanathar temple. But, in 1962, Dr Nagaswamy, in his paper New Light on Mamallapuram, argued that Rajasimha alone made the monuments. Dating of monuments must rest primarily on inscriptions, he said. “He was quite capable of executing different styles.” In 1974, Lockwook Siromoney refuted this assumption through a statistical comparison of differences.

Theories on the panel alone are enough to fill a book. Sri Lankan scholar Ananda Coomaraswamy argued the Arjuna’s Penance panel resembled the Ishurumuni caves of Sri Lanka. Victor Goloubew proposed the theory of the descent of Ganga, leading to the idea of Bhagiratha's penance. In 2001, Michael Rabe saw both Arjuna and the descent of Ganga. But in 1933, T. N. Ramachandran stated the panel was not about Bhagiratha’s penance but Arjuna’s. Baluswamy says the entire panel is about the Himalayas.

Now Gopu has rediscovered the existence of a third script in the Athiranachanda mandapam of the Tiger Cave complex, mentioned by Babington in his 1828 paper. Colonel de Havilland had sent Babington three inscriptions of five stanzas, two listed by Hultzsch, a third in an entirely different devnagari. None of the later works talk of this third inscription, said Gopu. “It perhaps lies buried around the mandapam.”

“I believe Mackenzie’s Inscribed Stone and Inscribed Rock await rediscovery,” said Gopu. ““Supposed Ancient Place” marked in Mackenzie's map and “a monolithic temple for Varuna” in Lakshmayya's paper are two more puzzles!” Mamallapuram's famous sculptures indeed hide a multitude of secrets!

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