INTRODUCTION TO MAMALLAPURAM
Welcome to Mamallapuram, the great centre of art of the Pallavas. Today, you are going to see and enjoy the world famous sculptural, architectural and artistic remains that won the recognition of the UNESCO and hence declared a World Heritage Site. May I guide you through these wonderful remains?
As you see the amazing carvings on stone, you begin to wonder what sets apart the sculptural and architectural remains of this place from the rest.
Can living beings be infused with life when carved on stone?
Yes. The sculptors of the seventh century, by their shear involvement and
extraordinary mastery over their art achieved this.
Who were they?
Who patronized them?
The enigma of ancient Indian art is that rarely we get information about the persons who created them, the architects and the sculptors. However, in some cases we know who patronised these works of art. Here, in Mamallapuram, the Pallava kings, who ruled northern Tamil Nadu from the sixth to ninth centuries patronised the creation of these works of art.
Who were these Pallavas? There are many surmises by historians, but nothing is for sure. Some say they were descendents of Pahalavas, a Persian dynasty. Few believe in the mythical origin that they were born in the Naga tribes of Manipallavam Island near Sri Lanka. Many say they were local chieftains ruling this area well before 6th century.
Among a long list of Pallava kings, Narasimhavarman, the first, who ruled from 630 to 668 AD, his son Mahendravarman the second who ruled for about four years, Paramesvaravarman the first, who was on the throne from 672 to 700 AD and Narasimhavarman the second a.k.a. Rajasimhan, who enjoyed the kingship from 700 to 727 AD, were the ones intimately associated with this place.
It all began with the great Pallava king Mahendravarman. He emphatically states an inscription in the cave temple at Mandagappattu that he created a brickless (anishtakam), timberless (adrumam), metalless (alokam) and mortarless (asudam) temple for the great Hindu trinity of gods, Isvara, Vishnu and Brahma.
Therefore, he was one with a curious mind, a vichitrachitta. This statement categorically implies that the temples were built of perishable materials. He was not only a curious minded person also an author, of two satirical works in Sanskrit. However, he did not contribute directly to the artistic creations of Mamallapuram. His decision to use stone for temples set the trend for a great movement on the stones of Mamallapuram during his son’s reign.
Narasimhavarman I Mamalla was the greatest king of the Pallava dynasty. He avenged the defeats of his father at the hands of their eternal enemy, the Chalukyas of Vatapi. He was “a great wrestler”, Mamalla. He was a great warrior. He was the greatest connoisseur too. Perhaps, he wanted to go a step further than his father’s creation of many rock-cut temples.
Therefore, he chose the rocks of Mamallapuram; incidentally, the name Mamallapuram was derived from his pet title Mamalla.
The rocks of Mamallapuram are a very hard igneous rock. Carving them into sculptures, excavating rock-temples into them is very difficult. A large portion of unwanted rock- mass had to be removed to create these great works. It requires massive human energy. It is time consuming. It requires tremendous patience to slowly chip and remove the unwanted rock-mass. Therefore, it is for sure that the projects initiated by Narasimhavarman were not completed during his lifetime. They were continued by his successors Mahendravarman the second and his son Paramesvaravarman too.
The difficulty of carving the hard stone perhaps induced the Pallava architects to seek an alternative to create temples in quick time. They began to construct temples by putting blocks of stones on one above the other. Rather than carving or excavating the stones into temples. Once perfected, this technique was used in constructing thousands of temples, all over Tamil Nadu. The seed for this great movement in stone was laid at Mamallapuram.
Even before the Pallavas, an ancient port city existed here. The 2nd century AD Greek geographers’ mentions a “Melenge”, which possibly was this place. It was a celebrated Vaishnava centre since 5th century CE. The recent excavations of a temple has proved that this was a sacred place even before. It was also the port city of the Pallavas. A Vaishnava saint speaks about the ships laden with rich precious stones off the shores of Mamallapuram.
The medieval mariners of the west mention this place as Seven Pagodas. How this name came into use in not certain, nevertheless, it led a story. The story refers to seven temples dotting the shore and of them, five were washed away by sea. The recent underwater explorations did not yield any thing concrete to make this story a fact.
Europeans of Madras knew Mamallapuram as Mahabalipuram or Mahavelipoor. Mahabalipuram, means the town of Mahabali, a mythological king. It is a misnomer. This place was known in the Pallava times as amallapuram only. Why and how it was changed into Mahabalipuram is not known. The Europeans from Madras used to sail overnight through Buckingham canal to reach Mamallapuram. They were really charmed and awestruck by the sculptures. Their continuous writings and reports indeed popularized the site and brought great recognition for this site. Therefore, today it is a World Heritage Site.