My interest in ancient Indian art and architecture took me to Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu. As a part of my course-work in Archaeology, I had read about the Pallava rock-cut temples – ‘ratha’.
And I was transported to a whole new world when I visited Mamallapuram in October 2014.
Pallava dynasty (c. 300 – 800 CE) is described as the pioneer of ‘Dravida’ style of temple architecture in India (see, Huntington 1985, Tomory 2009). True to these descriptions and analyses, the work I saw at Mahabalipuram was nothing short of being colossal.
With my collegue, Rajalakshmi Karakulam, I explored the ancient site of Pallava architectural splendor. The ‘Pandava’ ratha – each with their distinctive floor plans and capping ‘kuta’ and ‘shala’ patterns; presented an imposing cultural landscape. Dravida style in its nascent form was worth second looks of minute speculation and observation.
Dharmaraja Ratha (three layered, tritata)
Bhima-ratha with elephant backed rooftop
Pallava sculptural style of low relief was also distinctive.
Full-bodied larger than life or lifelike figures, attention to minute details and eye-pleasing compositions captivated me.
Shiva and Nandi
Female warrior (note the minute details, such as the dagger in her waist-belt, abdominal muscles)
Lively additions in the Pallava sculptural galore: family of monkeys
The details of Pallava sculpture unfold themselves in every nook and corner. The characteristic pillars as if balanced on the head of a lion, sporadic additions of ornate flora and fauna in the composition add to the likeness of Pallava art. The scene of Krishna balancing Gowardhan to shield from rain and thunder, for instance is a pleasing composition by Pallava artists. It gives a glimpse of artistic fervor and economic stability in the kingdom reflected through these works commissioned by the laity.
Krishna holding Gowardhan and accompanying ‘gopi’ folk in the background, fluted pillars in the foreground.
Each pillar base is ornamented with a different motif. The pillar capital is a consistent two-bell motif in this piece.
Characteristic Pallava pillars with sitting lion as the base
The shore temple, Durga temple and old temples on the hill form a part of Mahabalipuram complex. However, the sculpture labeled as ‘Arjuna’s penance’ takes the breath away! This imposing sculpture exhibits finest of skills through the sculpted animals executed with lifelike likeness. The elephants especially endear the viewer to look at the sculpture again and again.
The sculpture shows beings of the Earth and Heaven near the place where river Ganga descended from the Heaven. The water stream of Ganga is depicted by the rendering of Naga and aquatic fauna, utilizing the natural depression in the rock. The upper registers of the sculpture depict heavenly deities. An emaciated mendicant is depicted alongside Ganga, debated whether he is Arjuna or Bhagiratha, who did a penance to get Ganga onto earth. A small temple is sculpted at the base of the stream, with a worshiping devotee. The composition renders a snap shot from Puranic stories.
The dreamy ambiance transported me to Pallava times… Trip to stone quarry sites and traditional stone masonry workshops opened an engaging discussion on quarrying and sculpting methods. I plan to write in detail on the discussion and interactions with local sculptors.