MAMALLAPURAM ...a virtual serialized walk through
Shore Temple Complex
Shore temple is another icon of Mahabalipuram. As you move down the long path and green lawns, two temples with elegant towers emerge from huge piled up rocks with waves roaring in the backdrop. Even before you enter the temple, we are compelled to say that what you see today is not the same it was about 1970’s. In those days, the huge piled up rocks were not there. The rough and gigantic waves of Bay of Bengal used to lash against walls of the temple.
There was no greenery. The temple stands isolated amidst the expanse of sand. The old photographs may provide you a nostalgic, a picture-card perfect view of the remains. Today you have to imagine the idyllic view. Why is this change? Nevertheless, when it was built, with waves washing it now and then, it must have pleased a million hearts. The architect was sure about the footing of structure and idyllic waves provided the aesthetic beauty. Therefore, he chose this spot to construct the temple. However, the very location itself became its enemy. The strong winds laden with the salts began to erode gently the surface of the wall. Something the architect did not foresee. Time went on. On and On. Today, the effects of gentle erosion had multiplied and weakened the structure considerably.
The Shore Temple
This is an important monument with outstanding universal value and hence a World Heritage Site, It was a step forward in the evolution of temple architecture. Undoubtedly, it is a trendsetter, the icon of Mamallapuram and Pallava architecture. Therefore, Archaeological Survey of India, the custodian of the monument, felt, it is its bounden duty to preserve Shore temple for posterity and present it in a neat and tidy manner to the present. As part of the efforts to preserve this temple, the Archaeological Survey of India built a massive groyne wall. This effort is more than a century old. Groyne wall is a massive wall built as a protection form waves. Here, to protect the temple from lashing waves and keep the sea little far away, walls of stones and concrete blocks were built. But they were not efficient. Therefore, boulders were brought from elsewhere, dumped massively in the sea. This has effectively pushed the sea away from the structure. However, it robbed the ancient beauty forever. We hope that the temple will survive. The groyne wall saved the temple from the recent Tsunami.
The strong breeze contains salt-saturated moisture from the sea. The salt is deposited on the rock surface. The embedded salt slowly damages the surface of the stones. Archaeological Survey of India periodically removes the salt applying paper pulp over the entire surface. These extraordinary, painstaking efforts will preserve the monument hopefully for posterity.
Shall we now enter the monument now?
The long stepped structure As you go near the Shore temple, you cross the the long stepped structure. It was excavated and exposed in 1992 by the Archaeological Survey of India. About 200m in length, this structure is an enigma to the scholars. There are seven massive steps, well paved with granite slabs. Just look at the way these slabs were anchored. Can you see the projected stones and slabs? They were to arrest vertical and horizontal movements. They interlock the slabs with the core.
Why such a long structure was built? When was it constructed? There are no definite answers. Is it jetty to receive the boat? Less likely to be. Is it a ghat-like structure? May be. When was it constructed? Again, there are no evidences.
Judging from the method of construction, it was built earlier than the Shore temple. There are more questions than answers. You too may have many questions. Try. Imagine. You may have the answers. The Miniature shrine Complex. As you walk around the pathway, you suddenly see these small remains below the ground level.
Are they underground temples? No. They are not. The Archaeological Survey of India accidentally discovered these remains in 1990. They are very significant structures. Please get into the trough. At the northern end, you can see a ring stone buried in ground. It is, in fact, a well, now filled with sand for safety. There are two such ring stones. Are you wondering about the quality of water as the well was on the beach? It yields sweet water. Surprised? Almost all the wells in Mahabalipuram yields sweet water because of the presence of an underground aquifer. However, due to extraordinary use of it, saline water from sea is now moving into these wells.
This well may be a sacred well, from which water was drawn for the oblation in the miniature temple nearby. Where is it? Next is the miniature temple. It is dedicated to Siva. Just compare its elevation with that of the big temple. You can identify similar members. If you look closely, its base is carved out of the bedrock. Large bedrock was exposed here before the construction of these temples. This was well utilised by the architects. However, the upper portion of this miniature temple was built of two blocks of stones. Next is a sculpture. It requires no help to identify it. It is a boar. In fact, it represents the third incarnation of Vishnu. The Varaha avatar, Varaha meaning boar, avatar means incarnation.
A great deluge, once, submerged Mother Earth. Vishnu took the form of a boar to retrieve her. A theme favourite of Indian sculptors from fifth to seventh century. Number of sculptures of Vishnu in this incarnation was sculpted all over India. The great Gupta kings of North India ordered the carving of these sculptures. The Chalukyas of Vatapi, the eternal enemies of the Pallavas, sculpted a representation of Varaha in the caves of Badami or Vatapi. No wonder the Pallavas too ordered their carving here and in the Varaha mandapam.
The Indian artist of that period excelled in carving this image. In all the representations, the extraordinary effort of Vishnu in retrieving the Mother Earth was implied by showing the Varaha, the boar, gigantically. Varaha is shown here in the typical animal form, and not in the composite form of an animal and human. His stretched forelegs and the probing snout suggest that he burrows down to the nether worlds to retrieve the submerged Mother Earth.
Please draw a comparison here. Look at the portion below the belly of the boar. Can you not see the large foliage of marine vegetation, indicating the deep sea? The depth is just sufficient to cover the legs of the boar. Observe the legs. The fore ones so strongly stretched indicating the extraordinary effort of the God in retrieving the mother earth. The task is enormous. The sculptor was the one with commonsense. He delicately modelled the hind legs to counter the balance of the body. Even in this drab modelling, the sculptor was able to produce not only excellent anatomical proportions but also subtle life.
For unknown reasons, this image was intentionally broken into pieces in ancient times. Now, it has been mended as we could get all the pieces, with gaps filled in. This story was depicted as panel in the Varaha mandapam. In this boar is shown in human and animal form. The depiction is more graphic. Look at the base. Can you not see some letters engraved? It is the script of the Pallavas. It is called Grantha, sometimes Pallava Grantha. This script was specially devised by the Pallavas to write Sanskrit. Pallavas patronised both
Tamil and Sanskrit, latter being the court language. Tamil and Sanskrit are completely different languages. The script used for writing Tamil could not be adopted for the aspirates of Sanskrit. Therefore, they devised a new script.
The kings of Pallava family were fond of boasting numerous titles. The proper name of the king may be one. However, he will have many other pompous titles extolling his virtues, sometimes in magnified way. Here four titles are engraved. Among all, Rajasimha was the one known by more than one hundred title.
The elliptical structure around the structure was perhaps built to protect them from being buried. It too has an inscription, verses of which in double entendre, while describing the greatness of Siva, equates him with the patron, Rajasimha. Though the inscriptions are of Rajasimha, the excavator is of the opinion that they belong to Mamalla’s period.
Introduction - The Main temple complex
As you look, you will be seeing two elegantly proportioned towers. These are the one of earliest temples of Tamil Nadu. They are known as Kshatriyasimhesvaram and Rajasimhesvaram. The great Pallava king Rajasimha, who ruled between 700 to 727 CE, built these temples. We say so because the names Kshatriyasima and Rajasimha are favoured titles of Narasimhavarman the second. Prior to the construction of these temples, temples were built of perishable materials like wood, brick, metal and mortar. Stone was considered inauspicious and always associated with death. Mahendravarman changed this conception by excavating cave temples, many of which were excavated here at Mahabalipuram. Until then, Buddhist excavated cave temples only in the north and western India, with few exceptions. These cave temples had many features of temples built of perishable materials they were not exact replicas. Perhaps, this induced Narasimhavarman Mamalla to begin the carving of the monolithic temples, which are exact replicas of the form that were practiced earlier. But carving a monolithic temple on the hardest rock is obviously energy and time consuming. Therefore, Rajasimha felt the need for constructing temples in stone.
For sake of clarity, we call these temples as structural temples. Prior to this stone is being adopted for building temples. Stone temples, belonging to 5th-6th century CE were built elsewhere in India at places like Sanchi and Badami. Pallavas built a temple at Kurram in stone, where stone slabs were used instead of blocks of stones. However, the credit for constructing a temple using blocks of stone from top to bottom goes to Rajasimha. A temple called Mukunda Nayanar, the temple you see while entering Mahabalipuram is generally taken to be the earliest. Shore temple was their first big venture.
It was not a confident beginning. Forms of structure were available. However, the technology of quarrying and sculpting stone was in its nascent stages. Much experimentation was carried out, particularly in the choice of stone. It is well visible in the early temples. Look at the stone used. It is different from the local rocks. It was quarried from elsewhere. It is much softer and coarse grained. Perhaps, easy to work too. However, they were afraid of the load bearing capacity of the softer stones. Therefore, they used hard granite for the bottommost layer, as it is stronger and can take the load and distribute it evenly. The experimentation extended to all temples.
Elsewhere in Kanchipuram, they used a fine but very soft sandstone with granite for one layer to take the load. The architect was very clear about the choice of the location. He chose a place where there is an exposure of bedrock. He planned the temple to the extent the bedrock was visible. The temple exactly spans over the rock only. Therefore, while selecting the scenic spot, they were also aware of the threat to the structure by waves. They failed to anticipate the damage caused due to erosion by the salt laden wind. The very choice of the rock, which is porous and non-homogenous, led to the quick erosion of the features. Later rulers tried to apply a coat of lime plaster to preserve the temple. It controlled erosion but camouflaged the brilliant sculptural details. Shall we move forward?
Narapathisimha pallavesvara graham
The temple between the temples As you walk from the excavated remains you enter small passage to a shrine in between the two temples. It is dark inside. You can see a carved image. This is Vishnu in his sleeping form. The image was carved on the bedrock. It is not a great sculpture but a significant one.
A great Sanskrit poet Bharavi, who visited Kanchipuram and Mamallapuram, mentions this image in his work. He says the master sculptor; Lalitalaya repaired the broken hand of the image, which no one could identify it.
It said that this form of Vishnu without much ornamentation was carved to ward off the threats from enemies. In fact, the Pallava king Mahendravarman was terribly beaten by the Chalukya king Pulikesi when he invaded this region. On the other hand, the reign of Rajasimha, about a century later, was very peaceful.
Therefore, this image was probably carved during the difficult times of Mahendravarman.
As you walked through the small passageway towards the sea, you stand in front of the shrine of the larger temple. In side, is a large panel of Somaskanda panel, i.e. Siva, and Parvati with their infant son Skanda. All the images are easily identifiable. In front is a massive linga, with fluted surface. Such lingas are known as dharalinga.
If you turn towards the sea, there is an opening with a small structure over it. This was the intended to be the original entrance. The first gateway or gopura. As you travel in southern India, you can see the massive structures over the gateways to almost all the temples. They are called gopuram. Such massive structures were built in 16-17th century. However, their humble beginning is in this gateway.
As you go around the structure, you can see the damage caused by the saline winds. Not a single image is visible. The sculptures are barely identifiable. You may be wondering at the magnitude of the action of salt laden winds. Over 1300 years, it had completely eroded the features of the walls. But, the structure is still standing as a mute testimony to the greatness of the Pallava architect.
As you come round the larger temple, in open court are two interesting images. One is a large lion image. See from the front. It has a small shrine cut into its chest. It is dedicated to Mahishamardini. The image is minutely carved in such a small space. What is more interesting is at the base; it is carved out of the bedrock, on which so many figures were carved. Look below. A beautiful deer, though broken is reclining in the most graceful posture. We request you to sped a minute in observing the ornamentation on its body and the tender legs. So realistic on stone.
Further down in the court is a huge stone tank, carved out of single stone. These were very common in the temple of ancient days for storing sacred waters for temple rituals. What is amazing is the amount energy in transporting the block of stone and chiselling they had to do!
This is the smaller temple facing west. Another elegant temple, considering the fact that these were their initial structural temples. There are more questions than answers as far this temple complex is concerned. There is no foundation record. If you walk around there is a long record engraved on the basal white granite stone. The script and language is Tamil. It is a record of 25th and 26th regnal year of Rajaraja, the great Chola king, who ruled between 985 AD to 1014AD. Unlike the Pallavas, who used Sanskrit for their many epigraphs, the Cholas used Tamil. These records mentions about a contract entered into by the middle-aged citizens of the town about apportionment of land. At the same time they mentions three temples, Jalasayana alias Kshatriyasimha-Pallav-Isvaradeva Rajasimha-Pallava-Isvara-deva, and of Pallikondaruliya-deva, perhaps
these three temples. From this record, we understand its authorship, as Kshatriyasimha and Rajasimha are favoured titles of Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha.
There are more questions than answers about this temple. Why was this location chosen? Why they are two temples? Which one is earlier? What was there before the construction of these temples? These are some questions, for which there are no answers.
Nevertheless, they took a bold decision to build their first biggest temple near the sea on a jutting rock. It was nevertheless an elegant structure. This bold experiment and its great success made similar temples being built all over the Tamil country. This idiom is followed until today. The excavation of cave temples and carving of monolithic temples were given up. Those were incomplete, allowed to be incomplete. Therefore, these two temples were a turning point in evolution of temple architecture in South India.
As you walk around the Shore temple, you may be able to see several freestanding rocks, one washed by the sea waves, other jutting out from the sand. These all have been finished as miniature niches for Durga, the most preferred goddess of the Pallavas. All are marvellous efforts of the Pallava sculptors. They utilised this scenically located rock to excavate a small sanctums for Durga.