MAMALLAPURAM ...a virtual serialized walk through
THE FIVE RATHAS
You are now standing in front of the Five Rathas, the five monolithic temples. The great Pallava king Mahendravarman, emphatically states that he created a temple for the great Hindu trinity of gods, Isvara, Vishnu and Brahma, which is brickless (anishtakam), timberless (adrumam), metalless (alokam) and mortarless (asudam). Therefore, he is one with a curious mind, a vichitrachitta. This statement amply attests to the fact that the temples were indeed built of perishable metals before Mahendravarman. He began the practice of excavating cave-temples.
Narasimhavarman Mamalla, son of Mahendravarman, perhaps decided to recreate the forms of then existing temple in stone. The result is these exemplary monolithic temples.
The Five Monoliths
Visualise the construction of a temple. Blocks of stone are placed one above the other. These rathas are indeed such temples, but are carved on live boulder from top to bottom. They are of one stone, not many.
The charnockite rock of Mamallapuram is one of the hardest rocks on the earth. Hence, carving the rock into intricate forms of Indian arts is very difficult, energy and time consuming.
Narasimhavarman Mamalla began this novel experiment. In spite of the best efforts of his son and grandson, they are still mostly unfinished. So difficult was carving. These monolithic temples are locally called as rathams. Rathams are literally a chariot. It also means the temple cars one commonly seen in the temple
towns of Tamil Nadu. These cars, massive wooden structures resembling a temple, are used for carrying the bronze images of gods in a procession. These monolithic temples are called rathams because they look the wooden temple cars. Obviously, this is a misnomer as there are no wheels nor they could be moved.
The names – Draupati, Arjuna, Bhima, Dharmaraja and Nakula-Sahadeva too are monomers. They are the virtuous heroes of the epic Mahabharata. Since there five temples, they are associated with the Pancha Pandavas, as the above five are known as. However, there is logic in the naming pattern. In spite of the
logic, the Pandavas has nothing to do with these temples. They were all for gods of Hindu pantheon. When completed, they all would have images of the gods.
The Pallava artists chose a long rock, shaped like a whaleback, to carve these temples. He decided to locate the Dharmaraja ratha, the largest of all forms, at the place where the rock was at its maximum in size, then the long Bhima ratha in between and the shortest Daraupati ratha at the end where the rock was at its least in size. In these five temples, the sculptor had tried all the known forms. The sculptors were at their best when they used the free rocks to carve the animals at their anatomical best. Let us begin the tour with Draupati ratha, nearer to the entrance.
This ratham is the most elegant and almost complete of this group. Look at it closely. It resembles a simple hut. Yes indeed. Such form is called kutagara. This is the simplest form of any structure. Such simple temples were constructed in ancient days. The temple has a sanctum; to pray, the devotees had to stand in open. Look into the sanctum. On the rear wall of the sanctum is an image of Durga. The entire composition is magnificent. Durga is one of many forms of Devi, personification of Supreme energy. Many Hindus consider Devi the Supreme power. She is manifested in various magnitude and forms everywhere in the universe. All over India, Devi is perceived in many forms. Some are benign and many are terrific. Her philosophy is extensively discussed in the Indian literature, including Tamil. In Tamil country, she was known as Korrvai in ancient times. She is the guardian deity of dry lands. Look at the image. She is peaceful and charming. This is the benign form of Devi.
In the religious sculptures of India, the gods are depicted with many arms, four being the minimum. Here, Durga is with four arms, the left upper arm holds a chakra, a spinning wheel, a weapon of destruction of evil. The right lower is in abhaya posture, protecting the follower. The left kept on the thighs to ease the posture. She is of appealing beauty with an attenuated waist, buxom breasts, and lively face. The parasol above is to indicate her supremacy.
Look at the bottom. Two male worshippers kneeling at her feet adore her. Strangely, the one on her right holds the tuft of hair with one hand. With the other hand, uses his long sword to cut his head off. Is it not foolish? Is it not suicide? No not at all. Then what is it?
It was a practice in ancient days, to cut ones head off as an offering to Durga. For any warrior, in any part of the world, in any society, death in the battlefield is supreme. To die in action is a great honor. Victory was secondary, of no consequence. Therefore, ancient Indian warriors often took a vow to offer themselves to the Durga, if they come alive victorious from the battlefield. This practice is immortalized in this depiction.
The Tamil literature glorifies the death of a soldier in a battlefield. There are many such stories immortalised in the ballads of Sangam literature. Around Durga are four dwarfs. They the ganas. They are flying overhead.
Ganas are the dwarfish members of divine army. When not fighting, they surround their masters, were always playful, enjoys music and dance. The Indian sculptors did take a passion for depicting the ganas with maximum life. They used the gana motifs everywhere to infuse life into otherwise drab depictions of Gods. They are the favourite motif of Indian sculptors. They took immense pleasure in depicting these ganas is different attitudes. Here and everywhere, you cannot fail to appreciate their attitude. It is a usual practice to depict door attendants on either side of the sanctum, doorways in all the temples. Being a shrine dedicated to a goddess, guarding the entrances are dvarapalikas, literally female door attendants.
There are images of Durga in the niches of walls. A bare boulder perhaps was standing in front of the shrine. The sculptor masterfully used it to carve a beautiful and anatomically realistic, majestically standing lion and aptly too, as it is the vehicle of Durga.
Next to Draupati ratha, is the Arjuna Ratha. Draupat ratha is a simple structure. Arjuna ratha is a step ahead, but simplest of temple form. In Draupati ratha, there was only a sanctum. Here is a small porch in front of the sanctum, for the devotees to stand and prey. Draupati ratham has simple curvilinear superstructure. The platform of this ratham has sculptures of seated elephants and lions. It is a way of relieving the drab straight elevation. There are two flights of steps to climb to the levels.
The pillars in front were inserted in early 20th century. If you look at the corner pilasters, they have lion in their base. In all the monuments of Narasimhavarman I, the pillars will have seated lions at the base.
Look above. Can you see faces in between the arches? The arches indicate the openings, generally found in the cornice portion of any structures. Here these are merely decorative. Nevertheless, it faithfully,copies the original prototypes built of perishable materials. If you look further above, the rectangular and square members at the corner are in true form miniatures of the whole. However, here they are decorative in purpose. This represents the parapet of the structure.
This ratham has a superstructure with a tier, surmounted by an octagonal member, called sikhara. This kind of plan and elevation was later preferred for all the temples constructed in South India. The exterior walls have some exquisite sculptures of the gods. Please proceed around the temple in clockwise direction.
In the central niche is a depiction of Vishnu standing by his mount Garuda, shown here in the human form. Garuda is the celestial eagle. In human form, he is distinguished by a beak-nose.
On the eastern wall, the central niche has a Skanda seated on an elephant. Skanda, the son of Siva, considered a god of valour as he led the army of gods in a fight against the demons.
On the southern wall, is a depiction of Siva gracefully leaning on Vrishaba, the bull, his vehicle! The other niches have figures of adorers and royalvcouples. One interesting fact is that all these images were
gracefully carved in small niches. In the limited space available, the sculptor intelligently carved them in three quarters profile. A masterstroke indeed! In later temples, the niches become broader and deeper so that they could accommodate the images in the round. As you proceed further, please look at the corner of the platform. Can you spot the finial still part of the virgin rock? A Hindu temple becomes fit for worship first when the finial was placed atop. Then, it was consecrated with sacred water after observing the rituals. In this case, the finial is yet to be placed in its place.
Behind the ratham is a sculpture of couchant Nandi, the bull, vehicle of Siva. This majestic sculpture was carved out of the bed rock.
The next large monolithic temple is Bhima ratham. It is altogether different. Notice its oblong, plan. The roof is shaped like the hood of a country-wagon. The Narasimhavarman I’s period. On top is a lovely parapet. The superstructure is very interesting. It is like the roof of a wagon. It resembles the roof of the bullock carts of Indian villages. There were 18 finials, finished of the same stone are now broken. This superstructure portion is fully finished indicating that these monolithic temples were finished from the top.
For which god this temple was intended to be? In all probability, it was intended for the reclining form of Vishnu. Vishnu, the god of protection in the Hindu trinity, has many manifestations. He said to have taken ten incarnations. One such form is Vishnu reclining on the serpent couch. Therefore, to suit this long depiction, the sanctum too had to be oblong.
However, but for its extraordinary shape, this ratham is interesting are there are evidences as to how the unwanted rock portion was removed by the Pallava architect-sculptors. To understand the methods, please go to the far end of the ratham and notice the boxes on the rock.
In order to remove a large chunk of rock, the Pallava architect-sculptor first cuts deep grooves like a chessboard. Then, by striking a blow in the groove, a large chunk of rock corresponding to the box will come off the mother rock. By repeating this method, maximum of the unwanted rock mass were removed leaving out only those wanted. Then the repeated chiselling – rough to fine- provided the necessary smooth finish like the Draupati and Arjuna rathas.
As you walk down you reach Dharmaraja ratha, the largest ratham of this group. The architect was intelligent. In order to carve a temple in the fully evolved form with two tiers, he chose the place where the mother rock was largest and tallest. This temple is having a sanctum in all three floors, or talas. Of course, the largest of the sanctum was planned for the ground floor. However, it is yet to be attempted. If completed, there would have been a circumambulatory passage to go round it and perhaps doors on all the four sides of the sanctum. The sanctum in the uppermost floor is complete dedicated to Siva.
As you look up, to see the impressive architecture. The towering superstructure perfectly finished in two diminishing tiers, surmounted by an elegant octagonal finial. Every effort was taken to complete the temple from the top, but the enormous requirement of human energy and patronage were wanting. Therefore, while ground remains unfinished, the upper storeys are finished to have some of the exquisite sculptures of Hindu pantheon.
The best you could see are the sculptures on the ground floor. There are four corner-blocks in the ground storey each with two panels containing standing figures. Please take a round around the temple in clockwise direction from the western side to see the sculptures.
Western face – Northern End
On this face, there are two sculptures on either end of the face. To your left, i.e. in the northern end, is a representation of Siva. As you see, he has a matted hairdo. The upper hands hold an akshamala that is a rosary, a string of sacred beads and the deer. The lower right hand is in the protection posture while the left is placed on the waist to ease the stance. The undergarment is very simple. There is a serpent hanging from his waist. Clearly, this is an image of Siva, but the exact identification is very difficult.
Walk down in the clockwise direction to view the north face. Adjoining the above niche is an image of Brahma. Brahma performs the process of creation. There is a general belief among the Hindus that there are no temples to Brahma and he need not be worshipped. This is not true. The cult of Siva and Vishnu is indeed very domineering. Brahma, therefore, was relegated to a subsidiary deity. However, his images had to be placed in the niches in all the temples.
How to identify an image of Brahma? Brahma should be shown with four faces. However, in sculptures, only three will be visible; you have to assume the fourth face, as it will be embedded within the niche itself. He will be holding a rosary and a sacred pot. He personifies the creation; hence, he is shown in deep meditation with closed eyes. Observe this image. Here too, the three faces are visible. He holds a rosary in right upper arm and sacred pot in the upper left. The lower right arm is in the abhaya posture that is in the posture of protection.
As you move down, the same side, you come across the image of Harihara in the far niche. It is the combination of Vishnu (Hari) and Siva (Hara).The right half represents Siva, the god for destruction and left is that of Vishnu, the god for protection. The weapons the images holds in their hands is indicative of the Hindu divinity. Therefore, the right upper hand of right half holds the parasu, the battle-axe, the weapon of Siva. The inseparable serpent is hanging out from the waist. The hairdo is matted on the right and wears a crown on the left. The weapon of Vishnu, discus, is shown outside the frame, perhaps it was released by him a few moments ago.
Harihara images were made to emphasise the equality between these two supreme gods of Hindu trinity, and to unite the Hindu sects when the heretical Jainism was very strong in this part of the country. Similar concept of equality of gender was achieved in the Ardhanarisvara image, which is aptly carved on the other side.
We invite your train your eyes just above the image. Can you not see some letters engraved above it? This is the 7th century script and is called Pallava Grantha, a special script devised by the Pallavas to write Sanskrit. It reads Sri Narasimha. This is a proper name, perhaps that of Narasimhavarman, patron of these wonderful carvings on stone. The Pallava kings were extremely fond of having many pompous epithets. Everybody had many similar titles, all ostentatious ones. Among them, the title Mamalla seems to be exclusive to Narasimhavarman the first, the initiator of these monolithic temples.
If the image of Harihara is a fine balance between two equal powers, between protection and destruction, this image of Ardhanarisvara, portrays the significance of Sakthi, the feminine form of energy, in creation and equality of genders. Once, Brahma, the creator, found it difficult to proceed with creation. In his contemplation as to what went wrong, Siva appeared in the composite form of half men and half women to impress upon Brahma the need for a feminine gender.
The Hindu mythology gives another version. Siva and Parvati were seated in mount Kailasa. A great seer, Bringhi had vowed only to worship Siva and not Parvati, the wife of Siva. Parvati, angered at this, and cursed the seer to be devoid of flesh and blood. Unable to withstand this sudden loss of weight, the seer was in deep trouble. Siva came to his rescue by providing another leg. Joyed at this act, the rishi became even more ecstatic and began to dance even more widely. Parvati became angry at the act of Siva and left him to do penance.
Without Parvati, the absence of sakthi, the creative energy, the creation came to a halt. Siva pleased at the penance of Parvati and her imperative need to have her for the cycle of creation, imbibed her into his body. This union of Purusha, the omnipresent male and prakriti, creative energy is vital for creation. Without creation, there is neither protection nor destruction. Therefore, Ardhanarisvara form of Siva signifies the philosophy equality of genders in the survival process. On the flip side, our tenacious Bringhi was still adamant. Now he had to worship Parvati in this form. Intelligently, he took the form of a bee and drilled a hole across the body of Ardhanarisvara, thus avoiding Sakthi. Parvati had to compromise with the tenacious devotion.
The Pallava sculptor has imbued this image with extraordinary beauty. The integration of static right half representing the Siva, the purusha and the slender left half, representing Parvati, the prakriti is without parallel. Every stroke of the chisel was perfect to create this perfect harmonious blend. However, you may try it is difficult to demarcate the male and female characteristics. This image is amply testifies to the deep concentration and the ultimate unison of the sculptor himself with the philosophy the image stands for. The title Bhuvanabhajana , is inscribed above.
As you proceed in the same anti-clockwise direction, you come across the image of Skanda as Brahmasata in the next niche. Skanda was a celebrated god in the Hindu mythology. Sometime treated as son of Siva, he was also the supreme commander of the army of gods. The rich Tamil literature, the literature of this land, too celebrated him as the god of Tamils. His valour was celebrated in the Tamil work Tirumurukkarruppadai, a Sangam Tamil work of about 2000 years old. In the Tamil literature, he was called Murugan, the root means “youthful” person. Later on, with passage of time, he was syncretised with Karttikeya, Subrahmanya and Shanmuga, the god with six faces. Even today, temples and shrines dedicated to Murugan are highly celebrated all over south India. There is a very rich collection of poems on him, both in Tamil and Sanskrit. His youthful vigour is well captured in this sculpture. The titles “Prthivisarah” and Sri Bharah are engraved over the niche.
This face has two images of Siva on the eastern niche and a two-armed person on the western niche. It is the two-armed figure is identified to be that of the patron king Narasimhavarman. The image as such wears a long crown. Ancient sculptors of India differentiated gods from mortals in sculptures by providing multi-arms to the former and two arms to the later. There is another sculptural representation of the same king in the Adi varaha-manadapam, where the representation is provided with a contemporary label too.