Mamallapuram – Varaha Mandapam

Mamallapuram – The Workshop of the Pallavas

Varaha Mandapam

This west facing cave temple is one of the most complete and most ornamented cave of Mamallapuram. It is famous for its four majestic relief panels adorning its internal walls. The façade is supported on two pillars and two pilasters. The pillars and pilasters have seated-vyala base with rising cylindrical shaft, topped with bulbous capital and square abacus. The cornice is decorated with dormer-window (kudu arches) motif, six in total. However, instead of a peeping human head inside these arches, we find a lotus. Above these arches is the usual design of interconnected oblong shrines, three in number.

Varaha Cave (image courtesy –

There is only one bay inside the hall of the cave. On its back wall, a central shrine is excavated and projected into the hall. On either side of the entrance of this shrine, a pair of dvarpalas are provided. These dvarpalas wear usual attributes of Vishnu, shankha (conch) and chakra (discus) on their headdress, suggesting their Vaishnava nature. In addition to these dvarpalas on the front, additional dvarpalas have been provided, on the side walls of this shrine, one on each side wall.

Cave Facade (image courtesy –

On the front beam of the central shrine, a frieze of ten ganas is carved out while frieze of hamsa  is found on the beam of the sides. Above the beam is a cornice, decorated with dormer windows (kudu arches).  Interestingly, here we find human heads inside the arches unlike as those in the cornice of the façade.

Two lateral walls and the walls on the either side of the central shrine are adorned with four Pallava masterpieces. On the side walls, we find Durga and Lakshmi while on the lateral walls, Vishnu is present in his Varaha and Vamana incarnations.

Varaha Panel (image courtesy –

When a visitor enters the hall, on his left is shown Vishnu in his Varaha form. Srinivasan1 tells that this relief of Varaha follows Vaikhanasagama iconography. He is shown standing firmly on his one foot, while his other foot is on the hood of Shesha. He is shown with four arms, carrying shankha (conch) and chakra (discus) in his forearms while holding Bhu-devi with his lower arms. Bhu-devi is shown seated on his right thigh, her breasts touching the snout of Varaha. Her attitude is of a shy girl however at the same time she is also happy on being rescued from the nether world.

Behind Vishnu is seen Brahma, shown with four hands and standing in tribhanga posture. Gopinatha Rao2 identifies the objects held in Brahma’s hands as kamandalu while Lockwood3 takes it to be gourd water vessel, however the object is not very clear. His other two hands do not hold objects, one hand is resting on his waist while the other is in kataka mudra. Behind Brahma is a sage identified with Narada by Gopinata Rao and Nagaswamy4, the latter suggesting that he is holding a musical instrument, vina.

Varaha Panel (image courtesy – indiancolumbus.

Opposite Shesha is shown a lady standing and joining her hands in anjali posture. She should be identified as Shesha’s wife5 as both of them are shown originating from the ocean depicted as wavy ripples. Gopinatha Rao took her as Bhu-devi. Behind her is a sage, whom Nagaswamy6 identified as Sunandana. Nagaswamy tells that his musical instrument is shown vertically in front of him, however this vertical object is also identified as cornucopia7, vina8 and tail of shesha9. Surya and Chandra are present on the upper corners.

Gaja-Lakshmi (image courtesy –

On the back wall, left of the central shrine, is a relief of Gaja-Lakshmi. She is shown seated on a lotus pedestal with her two hands in kataka mudra. She has a curious jata-makuta, very characteristic of the Pallava style. She is attended by four maidens, two on each side. Two maidens are holding water vessels, two holding other objects, may be flowers. Two majestic elephants are on upper corners, one is in process of pouring water from a vessel on Lakshmi while other one is in process of lifting a vessel to follow the other elephant. This scene represents the bath given to goddess Lakshmi from celestial elephants, including Airavata, when she emerged from the ocean, during the episode of the samudra-manthana.

Wall Panels (image courtesy –

On the back well, right of the central shrine, is a relief depicting Korravai as Durga. She is shown with four hands, holding shankha (conch) and chakra (discus). Her one hand is on her thighs and one is abhaya-mudra. A parasol above her head suggests her royal status. Lion and stag, mounts of Durga, are in upper corners. Below them are four ganas, two on each sides. Near the feet of the goddess are two devotees, one on her right is holding his hair and holding a sword on his neck while the one on her left has raised his hand in adoration.

Korravai (image courtesy –

Srinivasan10, taking a hint from the stag, tells that it is not mentioned as a mount of Durga in any iconographical texts, however it appears regularly in Pallava and Pandya sculptures therefore the goddess should be identified with Korravai. Stag as her mount is referred by Sambandar and Kamban. Srinivasan describes the iconography of the goddess Korravai, as per the details provided in Silappatikaram, that Durga or Korravai should have a body of blue color, red lips, white teeth and dark neck with a third eye on her forehead. She should be holding a discus, conch, sword, shula (spear) and a bow with string of a snake Vasuki. She should be wearing a skin of a tiger, and a belt of lion’s skin, a kalal (hero’s calf-band) on one leg and silambu (woman’s anklet) on the other, with the coiffure of jata adorned by a serpent, breast-band made of snake. She is said to be fought with asuras and destroyed Daruka and Mahishasura. Deer and lion are said to be her vehicle. She is said to be a younger sister of Vishnu.

The devotees found in this panel are indeed curious and interesting as it appears that they signify a blood sacrifice in honor of the goddess. J C Harle11 provides a reference from Silappatikaram, which goes that when Kovalan and Kannagi were going from Uraiyur to Madura, they came across a wild region where Eiynar of Maravar tribes were living. Their goddess was Korravai who was worshiped as the goddess of victory. The tribe, in return of victory or wish, has to pay dues to the goddess in form of their own heads. Warriors used to invoke the goddess, offering their blood after cutting their necks.  Harle suggests that the offering may not be of a head but of blood from their neck.

Srinivasan12 points to an inscription of the Pallava king Kampavarman has an sculpture of a decapitated man who is holding his severed head in his left hand while a sword in his right hand. As per the inscription, this man, named Okkandanagan Okkatindan Patti Pottan, has offered his head as the final offering after offering nava-khandam; flesh from nine parts of his body. Srinivasan tells that these kinds of vows were taken by the warrior class when they desire victory for their kings or hunts.

Offering one one’s head to a goddess is very frequent in Indian medieval literature. However whether the practice was in vogue or not might be questionable. If the practice was in use, then it might be that case of a self-sacrifice, mention of which is made in various inscriptions of various dynasties. Keeping these points in mind, it may be safely said that the goddess depicted here is Korravai who later merged with the cult of Durga.

Trivikrama (image courtesy –

The lateral wall on the right side has a relief of Vishnu in his Trivikrama form. Vishnu, in his Vamana incarnation, took the form of Trivikrama after being granted three steps of land from king Bali. Srinivansan13 tells that like Varaha panel, this relief also follows the principles described in Vaikhanasagama. Vishnu is shown with eight arms carrying chakra (discus), gada (club), khadga (khife), shankha (conch), ketaka (shield) and bow. His one hand is held up with palm turned up as mentioned in Vaikhanasagama. His another hand is stretched along his stretched foot up in the sky.

The whole scene can be divided into three parts, the upper parts represents svarga (heaven), the middle part sky and lower part represents the earth. In the upper part is shown Brahma, seated on a lotus, near Vishnu’s stretched foot, offering ablution. On his opposite is shown Shiva, also seated on a lotus. In between Vishnu and Brahma is shown Jambavan, beating drum. All the three belong to the heavenly world therefore their depiction in the upper part of the panel is most appropriate.

The middle part of the panel has Surya and Chandra, both representing the sky. Another figure, shown falling down, is also present at the same level. Srinivasan identifies it with Trishanku14 while Nagaswamy15 takes him as some attendant to king Bali who was tossed up when Vishnu stretched his feet into the heavens. Lockwood16 mentions that he is Namuchi, who, opposing Vishnu, and grasping his left feet was flung sky high.

On the lowest level, the earth, near the feet of Trivikrama, are shown four people, two on either sides. Nagaswamy15 identified these figures as the seated figure immediately to the right of Trivikrama is likely to be his mount Garuda. The other figure close to the legs of Trivikrama is Sunandana. On the extreme left is a seated royal figure King Bali holding a long necked vessel. Seated before his is Shukracharya, in agitated posture.

However this identification may have issues as three people out of the four are shown wearing long crowns. The crown of the extreme left and right person seems to the same. Therefore all of them may be identified as the party of King Bali.

Srinivasan14 take all the panels into account and suggests that these represents victory and therefore it would have been appropriate for the Pallava king Narasimhavarman I to carve out these panels suggesting or reprsenting his victory over the Chalukyas and his sacking of their city Vatapi.

As the panels and the cave follows principles of Vaikhanasagama, Nagaswamy concludes that it matches with the titles of Rajasimha, Agama-parakrama and Agamanusri, which tells that Rajasimha was a follower of the agamas. Therefore this cave should have been excavated by him. Other scholars assign this cave to the Pallava king Narasimhavarman I. In the absence of foundtation inscription, we can not be certain of its real author.

Back to Contents                                                                                                       Next Chapter

1 Srinivasan, K R. Cave-Temples of the Pallavas. p 146
2 Gopinatha Rao, T A. Elements of Hindu Iconography vol. I part I. p 138
3 Lockwood, Michael. Mamallapuram. p 54
4 Nagaswamy, R. Mahabalipuram. p 41
5 Srinivasan, K R. Cave-Temples of the Pallavas. p 147
6 Nagaswamy, R. Mahabalipuram. p 42
7 Longhurst, A H. Pallava Architecture part II. p 31
8 Gopinatha Rao, T A. Elements of Hindu Iconography vol. I part I. p 138
9 Srinivasan, K R. Cave-Temples of the Pallavas. p 147
10 Srinivasan, K R. Some Aspects of Religion as revealed by Early Monuments and Literature of the South p22-24
11 James C. Harle. Durgā, Goddess of Victory. Artibus Asiae Vol. 26, No. 3/4 (1963), pp. 237-246
12 Srinivasan, K R. Some Aspects of Religion as revealed by Early Monuments and Literature of the South. pp 29-30
13 Srinivasan, K R. Cave-Temples of the Pallavas. p 147
14 Srinivasan, K R. Cave-Temples of the Pallavas. p 148
15 Nagaswamy, R. Mahabalipuram. p 43
16 Lockwood, Michael. Mamallapuram. p 63