Mahabalipuram – Past References

Mamallapuram – The Workshop of the Pallavas

Annotated Bibliography of Two Millenniums

From 1801 CE to 1900 CE

The period of the nineteenth century was very promising for Mamallapuram. Now, the town was known to the Europeans and they thronged the place in great numbers. Mamallapuram witnessed a tremendous rise, being featured in variety of articles. The scholar community also took a notice of the town and various researches were carried out.

The shore temple at Mamallapuram, with a palanquin and resting bearers by the shore by Geroge Chinnery, published 1802 (image courtesy – British Library)

Lakshmiah, Kavali (1803, The Gods, Goddesses, Radums or Chariots, Muntapums and other Sculptures Now Remaining at Mahavellypooram) – Kavali Venkata Lakshmiah was the head translator of colonel Mackenzie. His account seems to be a very appropriate and accurate one specially in identification of the sculptural theme and style of these temples.

Kavali tells that the large free standing spherical rock, now known as Krishna’s Butterball, was referred as Draupadi’s butter ball during his time. He writes that half of it was eaten by a cat which gives the chipped appearance to the rock. This cat is later tied to a rock, and can be seen with its forepaws raised on The Great Penance relief.

Ganesha Ratha was known as Arjuna’s Ratha at his time and it had a Shivalinga inside. This linga was later removed by a British officer and people put a Ganesha image, lying nearby, at the place of linga. The inscription on the face of this temple wall was written in some unknown characters. The stone Nandi was taken away by the second Lord Clive, the governor of Madras from 1798 to 1803.

Kavali identified various figures of the Great Penance. This of course included Arjuna and Shiva as the major characters. A figure between Arjuna and Shiva was identified a Vishwakarma. Sun and Moon gods were also identified. The old man seated near a miniature temple was identified as Dronacharya. The elephant was identified with Airavata with Indra on it. He also identified figures of Garudas, Gandharvas, Kinnaras, Kimpurusha, Siddhas and Vidyadharas.

He also identified Balarama in the Krishna Mandapa. A ruined excavation above the hill where Ramanuja Mandapa is excavated is only found in this account. This excavation was known as Velugoti Singama Nayadu Mandapa and was in utter ruins. Kavali, being a Hindu, was allowed to enter inside the Adi-Varaha temple and he described various sculptures of this excavation. This temple was not described in any of the European accounts as they were not allowed inside the temple. Kavali tells that the main image of Varaha had been painted above.

The Arjuna Ratha in the Pancha Ratha complex was known as Nakula Ratha at that time. This might be due to the case that Arjuna Ratha was the one situated near the Great Penance (also Arjuna’s Penance) which at present is known as Ganesha Ratha. Due to this, the Nakula Ratha of the Pancha Ratha got renamed to Arjuna Ratha.

The pillar, in front of the Shore Temple, was partly submerges into the sea, the water level was till knees at the time of Kavali. In later period, the water level would have risen. Kavali also mentioned about the seven pagodas, but only two were visible and the rest five are supposed to be submerged into the sea.

Watercolor drawing of a ruined temple, north of Mamallapuram, by an anonymous artist, part of the MacKenzie Collection, 1816 (image courtesy – British Library)

Haafner, Jacob (1808, Reize in eenen Palanquin) – Haafner was in Sadras from 1779 till 1781. He frequented visited Mamallapuram and also made a number of drawings. He published his accounts once he was back in Netherlands. His works have been published in German, French and English thus suggesting popularity among public for his works.

Haafner seems to be a logical observer. He writes, ‘Whatever one might say against the Hindu, one will be convinced on coming to Maweliewaron or Mawelipiyram that this people has possessed in ancient times a great degree of culture and science and that arts have flourished in this country. The ruins which one finds here as well as elsewhere in India surpass all that one knew in this genre, including the famous Egyptian pyramids.’

One of most startling revelations from Haafner was that he saw the Seven Pagodas, visible as reef of rocks till a mile deep into the sea. This is a very important statement as no visitor before and no visitor after ever stated seeing these seven temples. Was Haafner trying to sensationalize his accounts or all other visitors were trying to hide something? As Haafner wrote in Dutch, therefore I have reproduced this statement from his book along with English translation by Liesbeth Pankaja, which more or less, is the translation available from Google Translate tool.

‘Opmerkenswaardig, onder anderen, zijn zeven tempels, die zich van het strand, in eenen regten lijn achter elkanderen, meer dan eene mijl verre, als eene rif van klippen, diep in zee uitsteken.’

‘Remarkable, among others, are seven temples, that stretch in a straight line from the shore, one behind the other, for as far as a mile or more, like a reef of rocks, deep into the sea.’

‘N W View of two ancient Temples by the Seaside. Mahabilipoorum. J. Gantz’, 1825 (image courtesy – British Library)

Goldingham, James (1807, ‘Some Account of the Sculptures at Mahabalipoorum’) – This account was published in Asiatick Researches vol. V. Goldingham has earlier visited various other monuments in India including the Elephanta caves. He had a good knowledge on the Indian temple architecture and sculptures.

He started his account with the Ganesha Ratha which had a Shiva linga inside. He next described The Great Penance in which he identified the skeleton figure with that of Arjuna and the standing figure as that of Krishna. The below figure of a sage near a temple was identified as Arjuna’s father.

He continued with describing Ramanuja Mandapa, Krishna Mandapa and other caves. Surprisingly, the lion of the Lion Seat is said to be imperfect by Goldingham while the same was said to be as near as a real life animal by Chambers. Goldingham says that based upon this unreal lion, it may be said that the Indian did not know this animal, while Chambers says that the Indian were very well aware of the animal and how it looks.

Describing the Shore Temple, Goldingham mentions that he learnt from a Brahman of about fifty years of age, that his father used to tell him seeing the gilt tops of five pagodas in the sea but no longer visible.

On the unfinished rathas, Goldingham mentions a legend, as learnt from the same Brahman, that about a thousand years back, about four thousand sculptors fled from some northern country to reside here. The sculptor fled their original place as they did not agree to the terms of the king for constructing monuments. While they lived here, they executed these rathas.

The northern prince, seeing this work, requested these artists to come back which they did leaving the work unfinished. Goldingham suggests that as the monuments at this village resemble a lot with those of Elephanta, it might be the case that the artists who executed these migrated somewhere from north.

One of the important piece of Goldingham’s account was the facsimile inscriptions which were attached at the end of his article. Though he was not able to decipher any of these, but these played a crucial part for the deciphering those at the later stage.

‘A view of the Sculptures representing the tapass or intense penance of Arjoona Mahabalipoorum’ Jhon Gantz, 1825 (image courtesy – British Library)

Southey, Robert (1810, The Curse of Kehama) – Southey wrote this poem imbibing Hindu mythology with contemporary romance. In this poem, he did mention about a city of king Baly which was located near sea shore and was submerged due to god’s wrath. Baly of Southey can be taken as Bali of Hindu mythology. Southey also mentioned the Vamana story in his poem while describing how Baly was sent to rule the underworld.

Southey never visited India and his impression on various Hindu mythology and Indian cities was mainly driven from the books and journals published with various accounts coming from India and other eastern countries. In the poem, Southey did not give any name to the city of Baly however it has been taken by later writers as Mahabalipuram. Southey did mention about some sepultures however not exactly the way the ruins at Mahabalipuram are.

As per the poem, Ladurlad and Kailyal travel in search of Ereenia and end up in the underwater city of Baly. Ladurlad goes down into the city and enters into the palace of Baly, the ruler of the city who was a demon and put to rule the underworld after his episode with Vishnu, where the latter came in form of a dwarf. Ladurlad comes to the Chamber of the Kings of old where he finds Ereenia. After battling against a naga, he is able to rescue Ereenia. By the time they return to Kailyal, they are attacked by Arvalan’s servants. Baly appears, as he is allowed to do so once a year, and uses his powers to condemn Arvalan’s army to damnation.

‘North View of the 5 Pagodas about one mile south of Mahabilipoorum showing also a Lion and Elephant, the latter as large as life, the former larger, the whole cut sculptured from solid Granite stones – from a Sketch by Mr J. Braddock. J. Gantz’, 1825 (image courtesy – British Library)

Valentia, Geroge (1811, Voyages & Travels to India, Ceylon, the Red Sea, Abyssinia and Egypt) – Leaving Sadras and moving towards Chennai, Velentia paid a hasty visit to the ruins of Mamallapuram. He mentions that the places was known as Seven Pagodas however he did not know the reason as no such number exists there.

He did not describe any of the monuments as those were already described in two volumes of Asiatik Researches. He was told that Henry Salt had taken several views, and he was provided with one such engraving. He spent about three hours in the town and then left for Chennai.

Plate 18 from James Fergusson’s ‘Ancient Architecture in Hindoostan’, by Thomas Colman Dibdin, 1847 (image courtesy – British Library)

Graham, Maria (1813, Journal of a Residence in India) – Maria Graham traveled a great distance in India and had maintained her travel diary which came very helpful in understanding the practices of that period. She visited Mahabalipuram for three day and visited almost all the ruins including the ones at Saluvanukuppam.

She had a Brahman guide who was in service of Colonel Mackenzie. This guide told Maria that the Shore temple was dedicated to Vishnu however got utterly ruined during the religious clash between the Vaishnavas and Shaivas. She also mentions about the tradition that five such similar pagodas were swallowed by the sea along with considerable part of the city.

While describing the latter, she tells that Arjuna did severe penance to get weapons from Vishnu. Though she mentioned the whole story of how Arjuna obtained Pashupata however instead of Shiva she continued mentioning Vishnu who as per her granted Pashupata to Arjuna. She referred Ganesha Ratha as “Teer of Arjuna” though it has a Ganesha statue inside. She also mentioned a the water cistern and butter ball above the hill. She provided sketches of few ruins which made her account interesting.

She also narrates her experience to gain entry into the Adi-varaha temple which was under worship at that point of time. She says that she found and realized that even the bribes did not budge the Brahmans to allow her an entry inside. She heard that the Varaha inside is of green color which roused her interest to go inside and have a look.

About the incomplete character of the rathas, Graham tells that as per a legend the king of Mahabalipuram received certain artificers from the northern country. He provided them shelter on condition that they would employ their talent in cutting and hewing stones to beautify his capital. The artisans worked accordingly however they had to left in between as a famine fell upon the capital.  They left the capital leaving the monuments unfinished.

Graham also felt sorry that the Madras government was carrying out quarry work in the rocks of Mahabalipuran, so near to these monuments and ruins, causing a serious threat to these ruins. The government could have done the similar work in many other rocks near the capital and other places.

‘South View of a Small Temple on the Southernmost eminence of the Hill at Mahabalipoorum. J. Gantz’, 1825 (image courtesy – British Library)

Heyne, Benjamin (1814, Tracts, Historical and Statistical, on India) – Heyne was a German botanist who joined the British East Indian Company in 1793. He came to Chennai, then Madras, in 1796 as botanist to Samalkot. Heyne also acted as an assistant to Francis Buchanan when the latter was conducting the survey of Mysore region.

On Mamallapuram, Heyne takes a different route while describing the town. He tells that much have been already written and complied therefore, being an attentive visitor, he talked about different point of views than his ingenious predecessors.

Heyne points out three propositions. First, that there never existed, thus never swallowed up by sea, such a town as Mahavellyporam as represented to have been. Second, the new Mahavellyporam, supposedly built upon the old town, never has been better and larger than present. The third proposition was that the sculptures on the rock and pagodas are not superior to many others in country.

The propositions from Heyne were mostly based upon the information collected from locals and from the earlier travelers and writers. He was a skilled botanist however not a historian therefore his propositions lack the evidences when required by a art historian.

Langles, L (1821, Monuments anciens et modernes de l’Hindoustan) – Langles utilized two plates of Daniells, Pancha Rathas and Great Penance, to describe the antiquities of Mamallapuram. There was nothing new in his book which was not earlier published elsewhere. However, Langles was successful to bring the focus into the Indian monuments into the scholar circle of Europe.

Krishna mandapa, anonymous, 1816 (image courtesy – British Library)

Heber, Reginald (1828, Narrative of a Journey through the Upper Provinces of India vol. II) – The bishop visited the town for a very short period of two hours in which he visited the shore temple and bas-relief of The Great penance. He compared these with the caves of Elephanta which he had visited earlier in his tour. He considered this work superior than that of at Elephanta. About the story of Bali, he mentioned a relief where Vamana and Bali story was narrated.

‘S E View of Krishna’s Choutry Mahabalipoorum. J. Gantz’, 1825 (image courtesy – British Library)

Babington, Benjamin Guy (1830, ‘An Account of Sculptures and Inscriptions at Mahamalaipur’) – This article was printed in The Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society vol. II. His article becomes valuable as he provided artistic illustrations of the ruins, prepared by himself and his associate Andrew Hudleston.

He started his article referring to the previous accounts on this site. He mentions that the Krishna Mandapam was in threat due to constant running water on its face. He writes that this bad relief is very important to understand the pastoral life of ancient India. As per his opinion, the execution of this panel was coarse, limbs were out-proportioned and excluding some meritorious works, the whole panel is rather carved rudely with countenances without expressions.

He maintained the same critical approach across all ruins except one where his praises were showered without much malice. He disclosed the culprit who took away the linga from the Ganesha Ratha, it was Lady Hobart, wife of Lord Hobart, who was the governor of Madras from 1794 to 1798.

While describing the Varaha Mandapa, on the Mahishasuramardini relief, Babington writes, ‘..I have no hesitation in pronouncing this to be the most animated piece of Hindu sculpture which I have ever seen; and I would venture to recommend that a cast of it should, if possible, be taken for this Society’.

Babington refused to believe the legend that there were many pagodas at the site and few got submerged into the sea. The pillar in the sea, which by earlier visitors, was taken as Shiva linga was in fact a pillar, raised in front of the temple. Babington referred Heber stating that the sea coast is receding along the Coromandel Coast therefore there is no specific reason on why the sea will encroach at this site but recede on other.

This account of Babington was the first attempt deciphering the inscriptions at the Ganesha Ratha and above the sculptures on the Pancha Ratha complex. His attempt was worthy of praise as he succeeded to an extent. However, we had to wait for almost half a century to get an authentic translation of these inscriptions, from the efforts of E Hultzsch.

Watercolour of the Mahishamardani cave in Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu, Thomas Colman Dibdin, 1845 (image courtesy – British Library)

Heeren, A H L (1833, Historical Researches) – Heeren took into account the monuments of Mamallapuram while describing the rock-cur architecture in India. He mentions that Mamallapuram stands apart as it also displays types which are not found at other places, those are monolith temples and bas-reliefs. He writes, ‘The range of Hindu architecture, however, was not limited to the construction of the this first, and probably most ancient class of buildings; nor did it remain satisfied with excavating temples and habitations in the heart of rocky mountains; but it also elaborately fashioned the outside of the rocks themselves into the form of an architectural monument, and thereby produced effects still more great and surprising than in those temple grottos we have just now described, although even these latter are not wanting to increase the magnificence of other kind.’

‘India contains one specimen of this new class which is so preeminently distinguished above all the rest, that a particular description of it alone will be sufficient. Such are the “Seven Pagodas,” or ancient monuments so called, at Mavalipuram on the Coromandel coast, of which extraordinary buildings it will hardly be too much to assert, that they occupy a most distinguished place in the scale of human skill and ingenuity.’ 

‘The ruins of Mavalipuram, do not merely consist of a few subterranean temples, but the whole has an appearance of a royal town, almost complete hewn out of the rock. A large, and probably most considerable portion, appears to have been swallowed up by the sea; but a few miles inland are seen, on the summits of a rocky hill, a vast collection of grottos, halls, apartments, and other buildings, all worked in the solid stone: not all of these, however, are temples; for among the other structures, we meet with one supported by two of three rows of pillars, which seems to have been a choultry, or place of accommodation for travellers: in another part of the hill is kind of couch formed out of the rock, and which some imagine to represent a king’s throne.’

Heeren’s work was a comprehensive one on the art and monuments of India and inclusion of Mamallapuram in this provided the necessary impetus to the study of the monuments.

Watercolor drawing with pen and ink, by an anonymous artist, part of the MacKenzie Collection, 1816 (image courtesy – British Library)

Caunter, Hobart (1834, The Oriental Annual or Scenes in India vol. I) – This account was a very brief account of a travel of few days. The travelers were bewildered and surprised to see the magnificent monuments at Mahabalipuram. They were aware of the poem The Curse of Kehama and also the underground city of Baly as mentioned in the poem.

They first saw the Shore Temple which was told to be dedicated to Vishnu. On seeing the caves and open air bas-reliefs, the author writes, ‘The impress of true genius is really stamped upon them in a most marvellous degree, especially when we consider the remote era to which they belong‘. This account was accompanied with few sketches from William Daniell and his uncle.

‘The Muntapom at Mahabalipoorum. J. Gantz’, 1825 (image courtesy – British Libray)

Fergusson, James (1843, On the Rock-Cut Temples of India) – Fergusson visited this place in 1841 and his account was published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland vol. VIII. Fergusson mentioned that much had been already published on the Mahabalipuram monuments that there is nothing much left to describe further. Mahabalipuram had attracted the similar attention from the European visitors as the caves of Ajanta and Ellora therefore this site of Mahablipuram is well known among the scholarly circuits. And due to this reason, Fergusson did not attempt the description of these monuments in detail in this paper.

He mentions that the previous accounts were devoid of good illustrations therefore it would be a great service to the public if the illustrations taken by Colonel Mackenzie in 1816 would be made available. Fergusson writes that the relief of Durga as Mahishasuramardini in the Varaha cave is the best specimen at Mahabalipuram and it can be compared with any other best at Ellora. He tells that he did not find any trace of Buddhism or Jainism in these temples and all were denoted to some or other Hindu gods.

Fergusson writes, ‘One of the most singular characteristic of this series of caves is that they are all of one age, and probably the work of on prince, who carried on the works simultaneously, but from some cause or other has been unable to complete even one of them; had one been finished, or had there been any gradation of style or workmanship, some chronological arrangement might easily be traced; but nothing of that sort exists, at least among the monoliths, and the temple at the shore does not fall strictly within my present limits, though I may mention that its age does not differ materially from that of rest.’

‘N Easterly View of the Village Pagodas and adjacent Mountain Mahabalipoorum from an Original sketch by Mr Braddock. J. Gantz’, 1825 (image courtesy – British Library)

Braddock, John (1844, A Guide to the Sculptures, Excavations and Other Remarkable Objects at Mamallaipur) – This article was published after the sad demise of John Braddock by his friend and well-wisher Reverend George William Mahon. Mahon had earlier requested Braddock to work upon the guidebook for this place, however the latter passed away before finishing his work. On request from Braddock’s family, Mahon published the papers as made available to him by Braddock before his death. This account was published in the Madras Journal of Literature and Science vol. VIII.

Mahon took reference of an earlier article from Babington as it contained the best account of the inscriptions at that time. Mahon tells that Babington mentioned about an inscription at Adi-Varaha temple, partly hidden by a wall, which mentions the name of the place as Mahamalaipur, “city of great mountain”. If this is true, it might be adduced as proof of the more recent age of the inscription; for the hill is by no means remarkable, otherwise than for the sanctity or renown because of its sculptures. He also pointed out William Taylor who found that the place is called Mamallaipur in two of its inscriptions. He adds that the present common name of the place was Mavalavaram but not Mahabalipuram.

About the antiquity of the place, Mahon says that except the Panch Rathas all other monuments are in the most perfect preservation, and present a freshness of appearance which creates an involuntary idea of their almost recent execution. The subject of the sculptures too are an evidence that they are not of very remote antiquity. He adds that an historical paper amongst the Mackenzie MSS affords grounds for supposing that at least some of these excavations were executed so lately as the seventeenth century by a prince denominated Simhamanayudu.

Braddock’s guide was the first such attempt describing the monuments in a geographical order. From the descriptions of sculptures, it is assumed that Braddock possessed good amount of understanding of the Indian mythology and he was able to identify the main theme of various sculptures. Being an European, Braddock had seen the Egyptian monuments and therefore he tried to compare the Indian counterparts to those at Egypt. He found many similarities between Ganesha Ratha and Egyptian models as he states that the kind of architecture and style provided in this Ratha is very rarely seen in other parts of South India.

Braddock followed the geographical sequence while describing his list of ruins and therefore his guidebook was one of the comprehensive book of that time which described almost all the present existing monuments including those of at Saluvankuppam.

William Taylor appended few notes to this article. He explains that the probable name of the town could be Mamallapuram and it might be derived from the Malla race. About the antiquity, Taylor relies much on the freshness and clarity of the inscriptions, thus putting the antiquity of the town back to between twelfth and sixteenth century CE.

Sir Walter Elliot appended the article with description of the monuments at Saluvankuppam, few miles from Mahabalipuram. He was successful in identifying that the constructor of these excavations were the Pallavas and these were excavated not later than sixth century CE. Till then it was assumed that this part of the country was habited by the Kurumbas, a half-civilized people of Jain religion during the sixth and seventh century CE.

Plate 21 from the fifth set of Thomas and William Daniell’s ‘Oriental Scenery’ called ‘Antiquities of India’, 1808 (image courtesy – British Library)

Captain Newbold (1846, “Notes, chiefly Geological, on the Coast of Coromandel, from Pennaur to Pondicherry”) – The article was published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society vol. XV. The article was meant to describe the geological properties of the Coromandel coast. Newbold also included the brief description of the ruins at Mahabalipuram. Newbold tells that the tool, with which the Hindu artists would have carved these granite rocks, would be built of finest tempered steel for which India was known worldwide.

He did not describe the monuments in details but touched upon few prevalent theories. On the dates of these monuments, Newbold states that nothing decisive can be interpreted on the evidence of inscriptions hitherto deciphered. He agreed with the conclusion drawn by Elliot that the characters of the inscriptions cannot be placed older than the sixth century CE. He also discarded the theory supporting the modern origin of these monuments, because of the freshness of the chisel marks, based upon the evidences from other quarries in Thebes and Syene.

Photograph taken by Nicholas and Co in 1880 (image courtesy – British Library)

William Hoffmeister (1848, Travels in Ceylon and Continental India) – William Hoffmeister was a traveling physician to the Prince Waldemar of Prussia. They visited Mamallapuram in 1844. They took a sea route from Chennai to Mamallapuram in august company of Walter Elliot. The sea journey was not very cheerful as mentioned by the author. He refers the town as Mahamalaipur.

Hoffmeister saw the Shore Temple, the Great Penance and the Seven Temples hewn in the rock. Had these Seven Temples hewn in rock taken place of the famous Seven Pagodas? Hoffmeister did not described the monuments in details except stating that many appear to be fresh.

Watercolour of a general view of the Shore Temple and beach, by Elisha Trapaud, 1805. Inscribed on front in ink: ‘E.T. 1805′; on back in ink:’ The Seven Pagodas. 30 Miles South of Madras.’ (image courtesy – British Library)

Gubbins, C (1853, ‘Notes on ruins at Mahabalipuram on the Coromandel Coast’) – This article was published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal vol. XXII.  Gubbins referred previous works while describing these monuments. As per his opinion, these excavations were carried out in the same fashion as of Ellora and Elephanta, though these were far inferior in dimensions however superior in taste and symmetry in comparison to those at the latter sites.

Gubbins was very critical with the myths and legends associated with the town. He tells that the Brahmins of the town had made all these myths to assert their claim over the monuments. He also discarded the seven pagoda theory and submerging of five of those under the sea. He writes, ‘I am sorry of obliged thus to demolish the beautiful romance of the ‘Wave-covered metropolis of Bali'; but it is not the first of the aerial castles of Indian tradition that has faded before the fuller light of modern European investigation’.

We can have a little sample of his “modern European investigation” when he identified the Great penance with a famine theme, where the skeleton figure represents a person suffering from famine and the figure standing next to him is the king or lord rescuing his people from this famine. His identification of Mahishasura with Yama is also topic of laughter as many writers before him had identified the figure correctly.

He referred the earlier works and corrected few of the statements. He referred a theory, put forward by James Fergusson in 1842, where he suggested that Singhama Nayadu was the prince of this region and was killed in Jalli Palli siege. After his death the work at Mahabalipuram was suddenly stopped as the successor of the prince did not give any attention to it.

Photograph taken by Nicholas and Co in 1880 (image courtesy – British Library)

Bruce, James (1856, Scenes and Sights in the East) – Bruce used the Braddock guidebook during his visit therefore his account is more or less on the same line as that of Braddock. However, during the description of mythological episodes, Bruce elaborated on the various contemporary thoughts and works and compared those with the themes and mythology as observed at Mahabalipuram. This of courses added much value to his accounts.

Bruce was much exalted on his visit and he writes, ‘In this world there are days of perfect happiness to be met with – rare as they must be – if we may call them perfect where the imagination can conceive nothing more blissful. Such a day was this to me. I had long desired to be here, and thought if I could get this desire gratified I should feel all that resignation to fate which the Italian proverb enjoins on the traveler who has been fortunate enough to see Naples’.

Photograph taken by Nicholas and Company in the 1875, showing the Ganesha Ratha (image courtesy – British Library)

Phillips, Maurice (1873, The Seven Pagodas) – This article was published in Indian Antiquary vol. II. Phillips tells that the most celebrated monuments were the rathas and all the sculptures are representations of Brahmanical mythology, chiefly taken from Mahabharata. His comment seems to be derived due to the native accounts of the association of the Pandavas with the monuments. He mentions that the inscriptions, translated by that time, did not afford any date or a known line of kings to derive some dating of these monuments.

Based upon certain MSS in the Mackenzie collection, Phillips assign the construction of these monuments to 13th century CE and not earlier. He tells that it was Kulattungachola who subdued Jain Kurumars and established Kancheepuram. This event happened in the 12th century CE. Adondai, the son of Kulattunga, brought some Brahmins from the north and settle them in this country. As all the structures at Mamallapuram are Brahmanical, and giving about 100 years for Brahmins to subdue Jains, it would be the 13th century earliest when these monuments could be excavated.

About the founders of Mamallapuram, Phillips gave this honor to the Malla, a northern tribe who had petty rulers and named many cities bearing their name. About the Shore Temple, he mentions that it is very evident case of sea encroachment as the temple would have not been constructed so near to the shore. He also mentions that the unfinished state of these monuments are because of some natural calamity, like earthquake, which resulted in the rise of sea level and subsequent encroachment.

Hunter, Alexander (1862-76, College of Arts and Crafts) – Hunter started the College of Arts and Crafts in Madras in the year 1850. In the year 1855, photography was included in its syllabus. The students took many photographs of Mamallapuram temples however their focus was mainly on the Panch Ratha complex. These photographs are available in the school library, in a binder volume titled, ‘School of Industrial Arts, Photography Class, 1862-1876’. There are 61 photographs of Mamallapuram temples in it.

Hunter identifies the Great Penance to be depicting the great king Bali with his attendant dwarfs, five kings with their wives, four warriors, five ascetics and a holy sage in his cave temple. The figure of Vishnu in the temple was taken as Buddha by Hunter and he mentions that he is sitting with his five disciples. Hunter tells that the theme of the panel seems to be the reestablishment of the Buddhist order resulting in peace, good-will, tolerance and kindness to all men and creatures.

Hunter identifies the snakes in the central fissure as the snake king Vasuki and his daughter, Ulupi. He tells that the head of the make snake was missing and it was found buried in the sand by Hunter. Hearing this news, Lord Napier, the Governor of Madras, visited Mamallapuram next week and excavated to the depths of 7 to 8 feet which exposed many new figures which were hidden by the silt settled since ages.

Watercolor drawing of a ruined temple north of Mamallapuram, by John Gantz, 1825 (image courtesy – British Library)

Crole, Charles Stewart (1879, The Manual of the Chingleput District) – This manual was prepared on the instance of Crole. Mamallapuram was give due attention, however most of the accounts were taken from Fergusson and Hunter. The author discusses on the name of the town and various associated legends, available inscriptions and little bit on the monuments. There was nothing new to be found here, but simple consolidation of few existing theories and accounts from other authors.

Pen and ink drawing of the figure of Krishna from the sculptured panel in the Krishna Mandapa, from an Album of 37 drawings and plans of the temples and sculptures, part of the MacKenzie Collection, 1816 (image courtesy – British Library)

Fergusson, James (1880, The Cave Temples of India) – This was the first authoritative work on the cave temples of India including those of at Mahablipuram. Fergusson was the first notable archaeologist who came up with the comparison study of the Indian monuments on the aspect of their architecture. His book on the cave temples of India was the first such study undertaken.

Fergusson had visited Mahablipuram before and his earlier accounts were also published in 1843. In this work of his, he improved upon his earlier observations. Fergusson mentions his earlier theory that there is no parallel to the Mahabalipuram monuments which can help in deciding their age or comparison.

He writes that the stone on which these are executed is so hard that it shows no sign of decay or weathering making it difficult to arrive at their relative antiquity. Inscriptions could be of help here, however the only proper name coming out of these was of  Atiranachanda Pallava which suggests that these temples were excavated by the Pallavas who would have ruled before the Cholas. In absence of any real knowledge, the natives have fabricated many legends and fables to account for authorship of these temples, all of which seem to be far from truth.

On the dating of the temples, Fergusson explains the dating from various authors. Sir Walter Elliot dates these to 6th century CE or earlier, William Taylor puts these to between twelfth and sixteenth century CE. With the latest studies from James Burgess and Arthur Burnell, the mean date of these temples have been put to 700 CE.

Fergusson classified the temples of Mahablipuram into three categories, Rathas, Caves and Open-air bas reliefs. He described these in detail. Fergusson was of opinion that the Rathas were the prototypes in stone of the earlier wooden structures as they copy the details as used in the wooden architecture. On the crack in the rock on Bhima Ratha, Fergusson tells that the authors of these rathas were trying to copy the wooden architecture and as a consequence, even before they had nearly completed the excavation of the lower story, the immense mass of the material left above, settled and cracked the edifice in all directions.

Fergusson says that the caves at Mahabalipur are far less important to the history of Indian architecture than the Rathas as the former do not have any grandeur and the purpose as the Buddhist caves of the Western India. But these cannot be passed over, evenin a work specially dedicated to the more important caves in India. Fergusson was good with the comparative architecture however his iconographic knowledge was limited. For example, he identified Madhu-Kaitabaha as a partisan of Narayana and Mahishasura respectively.

Photograph of two of the five Rathas, from the Ramsden Collection, taken by Nicholas and Company around 1880 (image courtesy – British Library)

Sewell, Robert (1882, List of Antiquarian Remains in the Presidency of Madras) – Sewell did not describe the temples as it was already done many times earlier. He was more interested to find who were the authors of these monuments, how they started suddenly and ended abruptly. He suggests that the authors were the Western Chalukyas, who enjoyed the Pallava domain for a short duration, and utilized this time to excavate these monuments.

The Chalukyas would have employed the local labor in carrying out these activities. As the Chalukyas have to leave the land after the Pallava resurgence, this explains why the monuments were left incomplete and the work ended abruptly.

Photograph of Arjuna’s Penance, Mamallapuram, taken by an unknown photographer in the 1880s (image courtesy – British Library)

Maclean (1888, The Manual of the Administration of the Madras Presidency) – Though the book does not describe the monuments in detail, however it makes a very important point with respect to the etymology of the Seven Pagodas. It is mentioned, ‘The seven pagodas of Mauvellipooram, about 7 miles to the north of Sadras, are not discernible except when, well in the land. Two of them are near the sea,one of which, standing on a rock, is washed by it and is now nearly destroyed, although its pagoda, it is said, formerly stood at a considerable distance inland, the sea having encroached greatly on the land. Four of them are in the valley near the foot of the south island (probably five rathas) and other on its extreme point. The woods often interrupt the view of those in the valley, particularly when they bear to the west.’1

This is plate 21 from James Fergusson’s ‘Illustrations of the Rock Cut Temples of India’, by Thomas Colman Dibdin 1839, (image courtesy – British Library)

Hultzsch, E (1892, South Indian Inscriptions vol. I) – Hultzsch, in his capacity of the government epigraphist for Madras, was the first one to publish the inscriptions of Mahabalipuram. He published the Sanskrit as well as Tamil inscriptions found at Mahablipuram. This was a major event in the history of Pallava studies as before it the Pallava dynasty was almost obscure to the scholars and common public.

Hultzsch explains that the Dharmaraja Ratha was excavated by the Pallava king Narasimhavarman I whose title (biruda) was Atyantakama and therefore the temple, in it sinscriptions, was known as Atyantakama-Pallaveshvara-griham. He was also behind the name of the town Mamallapuram, as Mamalla is also one of his title.

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1 Sunadresh & Vora. Mahabalipuram: A Saga of Glory to Trinulations. Migrations & Diffusion vol. 4 issue November 16,2003. p 70