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Temples in South India

The glorious history of Tamilnadu temple and shrines manifests the architectural brilliance of the bygone centuries. Exotic creative skills and construction techniques of the Cholas, Pallavas, Pandyas and the Nayaks have left deep rooted imprints in the thousands of temple structures with lofty towers dotting the skyline of the entire state of Tamilnadu. Temples from the antediluvian era as well as those from the 20th century are still found standing strong in this state, where the ancient rulers have made exceptional contributions to the growth of these monuments of great artistic value. Characterized by the towering Gopurams, primarily built with brick and mortar, these sacred structures are world renowned for their majestic pillared halls, spacious layouts and embellished entrances. Thus, I strongly feel that temple architecture of Tamilnadu best portrays the built heritage and vernacular construction techniques and architecture of this region. For the second task of the GoUNESCO Internship Program I have chosen the ancient Mahabalipuram temple over the myriad of temples here for 3 reasons: First, since it is much more popular; Second, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and lastly, because it also sets example to the architectural character of South India, in terms of built heritage, construction techniques and vernacular architecture.

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The Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram, the best example of rock cut architecture in South India.


Mahabalipuram and its legends

Mamallapuram, also called Mahabalipuram or Seven Pagodas, is an ancient town in northeastern part of Tamil Nadu state, in south India. It lies along the Coromandel Coast of the Bay of Bengal about 65 kilometres south of Chennai (Madras).

Legend has it that, during the rule of tyrant King Hiranyakashyap, his son, Prahlada who was an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu trusted in the omnipresence of the almighty. Since the king considered himself supreme, he argued about the existence of god. When Prahlada says that Lord Vishnu resides in everything, the walls and even dust of the palace, the king hits a pillar and Lord Vishnu, proving his devotee’s words true, emerges out of the pillar in the form of a man with a lion’s head and kills King Hiranyakashap, making his son the ruler of his kingdom. Eventually King Prahlada had a son named Bali who founded the city of Mahabalipuram.

The Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram had been spotted by several sailors and navigators ever since the 7th century. It was called as the Shore temple by foreigners to mark the mainland. The establishment of this complex and town’s religious centre was commenced by a 7th-century Hindu Pallava king—Narasimhavarman, also known as Mamalla—after whom the town was named. Ancient Chinese, Roman and Persian coins found at Mamallapuram are testimony to its ancient existence as a prominent seaport. It still holds many surviving 7th- and 8th-century Pallava temples and monuments, most important of which are the sculptured rock relief commonly known as “Arjuna’s Penance,” and “Descent of the Ganges,” a sequence of sculptured cave temples, and a Shiva temple at the seafront. The town’s five rathas, or monolithic temples, are the remains of seven temples, for which the town was known as Seven Pagodas. The entire cluster collectively was delegated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984.

The matter of concern is that, since centuries, there has been a debate about the reason to why the Shore temple has been called the Seven Pagodas and the existence of six other temples around its own structure. Several speculations claim that, the seven temples of Mahabalipuram caused several Gods to be tremendously jealous of the city. Legend has it that Lord Indra, the God of rains and thunderstorms called upon great floods to submerge the city, that now rests in the sea. Though ancient literature and paintings claim so, it was believed to be a myth for centuries, until in 2004, tsunami hit the Coromandel coast and several tourists and locals claim to have seen six of the submerged temples surface for a short span of time. Several other carved stones of animals like lions and cows, possibly manmade have been a part of the complex ever since. Looks like, there is enough evidence to prove that mythological stories may not always be completely untrue.

Today, Mamallapuram is a tourist hub. In addition to the ancient monuments and temples, it has an extensive beachfront, lined with resorts and tourist attractions.


The Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram


Dravidian Architecture at Mahabalipuram, Chennai and its genesis under the Pallavas

Approaching the 6th century the building art as it was developing in Southern India was assuming a separate form. Also that this form, in view of the fact that it was being practiced almost entirely in the Tamil country, the “newly formed” Dravidadesham, has been referred to as the Dravidian style. This southern type of architecture has been found convenient to resolve into the periods, corresponding to the five principal kingdoms which ruled in the south of India during the trajectory of its evolution. These are as follows:

  • Pallava (AD. 600-900);
  • Chola (900-1150);
  • Pandya (1100-1350);
  • Vijayanagar (13504565);
  • Madura (from 1600).

The Pallava dynasty maintained its varying forms of architecture for some three centuries, from AD. 600 to 900, and its productions resolve themselves into two phases, the first of these occupying the seventh century. and the second the eighth and ninth centuries. In the former the examples were completely rock-cut, in the latter they were purely structural. There were four chief rulers during the phase of their power, and the works of each period have been grouped into 2 groups, comprising four groups in total, each of which is named after the ruler at the time.

The rock architecture of the first phase takes two forms, referred to as mandapas and rathas. In this context, a mandapa is an excavation while a ratha is a monolith. The former is an open pavilion, excavated in the rock, takes the form of a simple columned hall with one or more cells: in the back wall. A ratha is a chariot, provided by the temple authorities for the transport of the statue of the deity during processions.

The second group of the first phase of Pallava architecture, mainly executed during the reign of Narasimhavarman I (AD. 64068), while still adhering to the rock-cut method, in addition to a sequence of mandapas, is also represented by a number of rathas or monoliths. Practically all the examples of this group are found on a single site, marking the position of the deserted seaport town of Mamallapuram. This archaeological record of the one-time might of the Pallavas lies towards the mouth of the Palar river, thirty-two miles south of Chennai, and indicates that here was the harbor for Conjeeveram, (now Kanchipuram) the capital seat of the dynasty, situated some forty miles up the river. Here the design of the coastline was singularly suitable for its purpose, as rising out of the sand near the seashore was, a large rocky half granite gneiss, aligned from north to south, measuring half a mile long and a quarter mile wide with a height of more than a hundred feet. Detached from this main prominence and towards the south, was another and much smaller outcrop, consisting originally of a whale-backed granite about two hundred and fifty feet long and 50 feet high. It was from of these two developments that the rock architecture of the Mamalla group was excavated and sculptured. As earlier implied, however, in conjunction with the rock productions, there was a large amount of structural architecture some of it of considerable importance, but all of which has perished. There are still visible foundations of a citadel and within this were palaces and royal residences, apparently constructed on elevated masonry basements, while the buildings themselves consisted of timber framework filled in by brick and plaster walls. As was not an uncommon practice, therefore the secular buildings were structural while the halls for religious purposes were quarried out of the natural rock.

One other feature is noticed at Mamallapuram, now almost obliterated, but which when in full use gave the town, and particularly its religious architecture, its character. This was a well-designed and extensive water system, drawn from the Palar river, and channeled by means of canals and tanks to all parts of the port. There are indistinct but however definite traces of this installation so that it in its palmy days such a constant supply of running water must have made it a very appealing seaside resort. But this was not provided solely for public use, it was also maintained for rituals, as proved by the layout of some of the temples in which cisterns and conduits appear to have formed an essential part of the scheme. The significance of what appears to be a popular belief in water worship, combined with the serpent cult is manifested in a remarkable scene sculptured on the eastern face of the main hill, and now known as Arjuna’s Penance. This rock-cut drama is an allegorical representation of the holy river Ganges emerging from its source in the distant Himalayas, the water fed from a receptacle above, cascading down a natural cleft in the rock, in the center of a magnificent depictment carved in relief.

Yet even with such lively relics still in place, it is difficult to reconcile this deserted area consisting of a bare rocky hill and desolate sand dunes with what was once a populous maritime center. The drifting sands have covered up and obliterated most of its landmarks while the warring elements of wind and tide have altered the contours of the coastline, so that its ancient appearance can only be imagined. But in its art connections alone this port had more than ordinary significance. For there is little doubt that from Mamallapuram,in the middle of the first millennium many deep laden argosies set forth, first with merchandise and then with emigrants, eventually to carry the light of Indian culture over the lndian Ocean into the various less enlightened countries of Hither Asia. Amidst the opalescent colouring of Java’s volcanic ranges, and on the lush green plains of old Cambodia, in the course of time there grew up important schools of art and architecture derived from an lndian source. That the origin of these developments is to be found in the Brahmanical productions of the Pallavas, and before them in the stupas and monasteries erected by the Buddhists under the rule of the Andhras, is fairly clear. It is possible to identify in the Khmer sculptures at Angkor Thom and Angkor Vat, and in the endless bas-reliefs on the stops temple of Borobudur, the influence of the marble carved panels of Amaravati, while the architecture that this plastic art embellishes owes some of its character to the rock-cut monoliths of Mamallapuram. In addition, therefore providing the foundations of the Dravidian style of architecture in southern India, the vigorous creations of Pallava craftsmen exercised considerable effect over a much wider field and it was from this now deserted port that their art was probably conveyed to more distant lands.

Of the rock cut examples of architecture at Mahabalipuram, the mandapas may be referred to first: these excavated halls are ten in number: and are to be found on suitable sites on the main hill. In most instances they are of the same general character and proportions as those of the previous group, but much more developed, a proof of the rapid progress that took place during the short period that intervened. None of them is large, their approximate dimensions being as follows: – width of facade 25 feet; height from 15 to 20 feet; depth overall including 25 feet; pillars 9 feet high and 1 to 2 feet wide diameter; cellars, rectangular and from 5 to 10 feet side. It will be seen from these measurements that these measurements that the mandapas are relatively shallow halls or porticos, and are remarkable therefore. Not for their size but for the exceptional character of their design and execution. This character is shown in 2 ways, first in architectural treatment and secondly in the disposal and quality of the sculpture combined with the architectural forms. As regards the former, except for the pillars which are the main features of the composition as a whole, the actual architectural treatment is of the simplest kind. On the facade there is a roll cornice decorated with chaitya arch motifs(kudu) and above this is a parapet, or attic member, comprising of miniature shrines, a lengthy one alternating with a short one. The remainder of the scheme both inside and out consists principally of pilasters of moldings acting as a framework of figure sculpture, the display of which appears to have been one of the prominent objects of the mandapa idea. For it is fairly clear that the rock cutter was primarily and fundamentally a sculptor, and these pillaged halls were regarded very largely as a means of presenting to the visiting devotees pictures of mythological and other subjects produced in this plastic manner. Not that the treatment of the architectural features was in any way inferior to the relief work, some of the architraves, cornices and string-courses being as finely wrought as the figures.

“Arjuna’s Penance,” and “Descent of the Ganges,”
Mandapa (pillared halls) at Mahabalipuram

As an instance the precision with which the basements were designed and executed is admirably shown in the Varaha mandapa, where the stylobate has been sunk so as to form a long narrow receptacle for water. Apart from the manner in which this important part of the facade has been conceived and carried out so as to compel ablutions before entering the temple, it is an excellent illustration of the artistic handling of a purely material adjunct. As in all rock architecture of a similar type, the pillars, especially those of the facade, are the principal elements in the composition, and those of the Mamalla group are no exception. The beginning of the Pallava order of the column has already been referred to in the works of the previous reign, but the Mamallapuram mandapas show this feature in its rich maturity. In some of the examples the crude block bracket is still much in evidence, primitive traditions usually die hard, but on the other hand some of the pillars as for instance those on the exterior of the Mahishasura mandapas are singularly graceful conceptions, when the purpose and peculiar technique are taken into consideration.

A further development, with the addition of the heraldic lion forming the lower half of the shaft, is seen in the facade pillars of Varaha Mandapa, one of the most finished examples in the entire group. But the culmination of this lion form of pillar is represented by 2 interior columns of the former mandapa, so different from any of the others, yet refining and combining all their attributions, implying the punishment of a craftsman of more than ordinary powers. The lion as a pillar base is not an uncommon motif in the architecture of several civilizations. It is found in Roman work, and also in Lombardic Romanesque buildings of Europe dating from the eleventh century, but in occidental examples the shaft is usually supported on the animal’s back. In the Pallava type the pillar is made to rest on the sedent animal’s head, and, in the case of the lion in the Mahishasura interior, it is not the horned grotesque of the mandapas, but a more natural leonine figure yet sufficiently conventionalized to suit its architectonic purpose. The remaining members forming this particular class of pillar are equally well designed, the fluted and banded shaft (stambham), the refined necking (half), the elegant curves of the “melon” capital (kumbha), and its lotus form (idaie) above, with its wide abacus (palagai), are all so united so as to produce an “order” of marked propriety and stability.

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Rathas at Mahabalipuram

Passing now to the other type of rock architecture of Mamalla’s reign, namely the series of monolithic temples called rathas, and widely known as the “Seven Pagodas”, these exemplify an entirely novel form of expression. Although in much the same architectural style as the mandapas, they enunciate a completely different idea. Each is obviously a replica, quarried out of the whale-backed rock previously mentioned, of a separate type of religious structure evidently common at the time, and built largely of wood, as is shown by the beams, purlins and rafters faithfully represented in the granite reproduction. Each example, with all these features is so well preserved as to be perfectly understandable, but the question at once arises, what was the object and intention ‘of recording so faithfully and with such minute toil each architectural type, as if it were a full sized model, or to be regarded as a standard pattern for the guidance of the temple builders? Solitary, unmeaning, and clearly never used, as none of their interiors is finished, sphinx-like for centuries these monoliths have stood sentinel over mere emptiness, the most enigmatical architectural phenomenon in all India, truly a “riddle of the sands”. Each a lithic cryptogram as yet undeciphered, there is little doubt that the key when found will disclose much of the story of early temple architecture in Southern India.

As with all the rock productions of the Pallavas, the rathas are of no great size, the largest measuring only 42 feet long, the widest 35 feet, and the tallest is but 40 feet high. They number eight in all, and, with one exception, are derived from the two types of structure hitherto attributed to the Buddhists, the Vihara or monastery, and the chaitya hall or temple. The exception is that known as Draupadi’s ratha, the smallest of the series, as well as being the simplest and most finished. This example is merely a cell or pansala, and the shape of the roof indicates plainly that it was replica of a thatched structure, most possibly a form of portable shrine belonging to a village community, as shown by its sub-structure. For its base is supported by figures of animals, a lion alternating with an elephant, their attitudes suggesting that they are bearers of a heavy burden. Such an idea is occasionally represented in Indian architecture of the temples and shrines borne along by supernatural creatures, or supported on poles by grotesque human bears, thus implying that these religious constructions were sometimes not fixtures but could be carried in procession or moved about from place to place.

The portable shrine represented by Draupadi’s ratha may have some connection with certain models of tabernacles depicted on the gable ends of the remaining rathas. Of the Vihara or monastery type of ratha at Mamallapuram, all of which are square in plan and pyramidal in elevation, there are five examples, varying in size and in their details, but all treated in the same architectural manner. In shape and appearance these vihara rathas seem to have been developed out of a building composed of cells arranged around a square courtyard, the inner court being afterwards covered in with a hat roof on pillars. In the course of time, as the community of monks occupying the monastery grew, another story was added, and finally still another, the whole structure eventually being finished off with a kind of domical roof. In the rock-cut interpretation of this composition, the cells have lost their original character and intention, and become modified into ornamental turrets, while other substantial alterations have been effected in order to make it suitable for its new purpose. The transformation from a Buddhist hostel to a Hindu shrine is best illustrated in the most enormous of these vihara rathas, that known as the Dharmaraja, enough of which has been completed to show the full architectural style of the exterior, as well as the manner in which it was proposed to treat the inner compartments.

With regards to elevation, this is in two parts, a square portion with pillared verandahs below, and the pyramidal shape or sikhara (tower) formed of the converted cells, above. With its strongly molded stylobate, its lion pillared porticos wasting their deep shadows, the scintillating appearance of its turreted roof, this type of design is not only an effective production in itself, but it is a storehouse of pleasing forms and motifs, besides being replete with potentialities. That such promises were amply fulfilled is shown by the architectural monuments developed from this rock-cut model which evolved later.

Even more significant than the foregoing are the remaining three examples of rathas known as Bhīma, Sahadeva and Ganesh, which appear to be based on various types-of chaitya hall, or Buddhist temple; They are all oblong in plan, and rise up into two or more stories, while each has a hector barrel roof, with a chaitya gable end. The Sahadeva type is apsidal, and structural replicas of this form were erected at a subsequent date, of which the later Pallava temple of Vadamallisvara is an example. A still more informative instance of the chaitya hall type is Bhīma’s ratha, which is a copy of a building in two stories, the upper story portraying an ideal representation of a keel roof with a gable at each end. A similar effect was produced later in two structures of the lndo-Aryan order, the tenth century temple of Vaital Deul at Bhubaneswar, Orissa, and in the eleventh century Teli-ka-Mandir in Gwalior Fort.

The remaining ratha of the group, that of Ganesh, is in some a combination of the two previous examples, but it is different in as much as the entrance is enough a pillared portico on its long side. Not only were these three rathas the prototype of temples but they were also the pattern out of which was evolved an important later development, for it was on their oblong plan, diminishing stories, and specifically, the keel roof with its pinnacles and gable ends, that the gopuram was based. It is possible to see here the beginnings of those great towering pylons forming the entrance gateways to the temples of the south, and which gives their chief character to the Dravidian style.

These monolithic shrines were of saivite character and in their vicinity are images, also carved in rock, of a lion, an elephant, and a bull, symbolizing respectively Durga, Indra and Shiva. Though the fact that these saivite shrines are in a style of architecture traditionally associated with the Buddhists, seem to imply that they were a type of structure and not a monopoly of one religion, but that they had a common origin. There is evidence in the support of this in emblematical subjects carved within the gable ends of the 3 chaitya hall examples, each of which is full of allegory. And in more than one of them there is a central symbol not unlike a stupa. Each gable illustrates a conventional or diagrammatic rendering of a prayer hall, the barged boards taking the place of the vaulted roof, the decorated brackets on either side simulating the ribs of the vault, while most important of all, the central object is a tabernacle or sacred relic. Each of these representations takes a different form, just as the ratha on which it it depicted also is of a certain design, so that both ratha and reliquary maybe identified as belonging to one another. It is possible therefore that each ratha is a shrine consecrated to one of the manifestations of Shiva, its shape being conditioned by the traditions which has ordained that it should take such a form for that particular manifestation. A remarkable feature of the Pallava rock architecture is the fine quality of sculptures adorning the rathas and mandapas. But in the plastic form it was only part of the movement which extending over the whole of Southern India, found expression in a school of sculpture of a ground classical order. Most of this is in the rock cut technique, of which caves at Ellora and Elephanta, are rather later examples, but some of the finest and earliest productions were the work of the Pallavas. These figures are endowed with that same passionate spirit that Pilates in the Christian art of Europe of the corresponding date, but with even a finer feeling for form and more experienced craftsmanship. There is a notable sense of restraint and refined simplicity specially in the bas reliefs of single figures, yet even more pronounced in several of the larger sculptured dramas, as for instance in the Vishnu panel of the Mahishasura mandapa, which has some of the breadth and rationality shown in the sculpture of the Greeks towards the end of their first period. In view therefore of the superb quality of the Pallava plastic art it is not surprising that the schools of sculpture which developed out of this movement in Java and Cambodia also displayed the same high artistic character.

From the unfinished state of nearly all the rock architecture at Mahabalipuram, much of it lacking that final touch and effort which would have made these shrines really serviceable, it would seem as if some unexpected political convulsion had interceded, making the rock-cutter to throw away his mallet and chisel, dash away and never return. History records no such cataclysm, so a clarification must be looked up somewhere else. What these shrines reveal is the patronage of the rulers, for with their rule the rock cut architecture ceased and no further labor was put into the excavated mandapas or monolithic rathas.

Kunds (water tank) for rituals
The light house at Mahabalipuram



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