Mamallapuram – Past References

Mamallapuram – The Workshop of the Pallavas

Annotated Bibliography of Two Millenniums

From 1901 CE to Present

Scidmore, Eliza Ruhamah (1903, Winter India) – Scidmore was an American writer and geographer. She was the first female board member of the prestigious National Geographic Society. She visited Mamallapuram in December during Christmas period. She took a boat from Buckingham Canal in Chennai to reach Mamallapuram.

About the Shore Temple, she writes, ‘We came out on the hard sand beach where the ocean lapped in soft, creamy wavelets, and the terrible Coromandel surges we had heard and read of only splashed gently on a steps of a quaint little pyramidal temple carved, course upon course, to its final bell-cap. Posts and columns stand far out in the water, and a line of breakers, a mile still further out, mark where the legend says other pagodas stand intact beneath the waves’.

Though she has access to all the available guide books, she mentions that the image inside one of the cell is of Buddha, ninth avatar of Vishnu. Once again in her account, we find the story of cat stealing the butter and getting fixed at the Great Penance panel. She was very much disturbed by the heat and mentions that by nine in the morning, the Sun was scorching high overhead, that killed the enthusiasm to visit any cave further.

Photograph of the Mahishamardini cave temple at Mahabalipuram, taken by a photographer of the Archaeological Survey of India around 1900-01 (image courtesy – British Library)

Workman, William Hunter and Fanny Bullock (1904, Through Town and Jungle) – They took the route to Mamallapuram from Chennai via Chingleput and Sadras. It was not a direct route however it was best suited for their purpose as they both traveled on a bicycle till Sadras. On the advice of the Sadras postmaster they hired boats from Sadras to Mamallapuram.

On the name of Seven Pagodas, they write, ‘It is also known among Anglo-Indians by the name of “Seven Pagodas”, the origin of which is not clear. Some think this name was given by mariners, who thought they saw seven temples when passing by sea; others that it was taken from the temples scattered among the rocks’.

The Vishnu image of the Shore Temple was identified as that of Bali on the basis of the local information. They were also told, by the natives, that other sculptured towers grander than those of Bali lie buried in the sea. They visited few other temples and returned back, passing one day at the site.

Vogel, J Ph (1910, Iconographical Notes on the Seven Pagodas) – This article was published in the Annual Report of the Archaeological Survey of India for the year 1910-11. Vogel kept his focus on the iconography of the various image as he felt that proper attention was not given to this aspect of these monuments. Vogel visited Mamallapuram for a day and prepared his observations published in this paper.

It was the first time when we find description of images on the first and second tiers of the Dharmaraja Ratha. Vogel tells that taking photograph of these would be very difficult due to lack of space. The main figure inside the Draupadi Ratha was earlier identified as Lakshmi or Draupadi, it was Vogel who identified her as Durga or Parvati. He also notices the peculiar sacrificial pose of one of the devotee on this relief. Surprisingly, he identifies another devotee as a female figure though it is a male and it is very clear.

Vogel suggests that the Arjuna Ratha was probably a shrine dedicated to Indra, as we find him one of its external walls and there is an elephant, mount of Indra, standing nearby. He did not offer any suggestion for Bhima and Sahadeva Ratha. Vogel also identified the figures of Madhu and Kaitabha in the relief of the Mahishasuramardini cave where Vishnu is shown reclining over Shesha.

It was Vogel who first suggested that identification of the theme of the Great Penance is not correct. He tells that the cleft in the center of the relief plays a central part as all the figures are moving towards it. The ascetic and Shiva are somewhat drifted to a side from the center. Vogel suggests a possibility of a natural spring filling up this cleft with water thus realizing the river Ganga. He also notices figures of ascetics performing daily activities as they would have done near a bank of a river. Vogel left the task and possibility to find a natural spring to future geologists.

James Fergusson (1910, History of Indian and Eastern Architecture) – This book from Fergusson mainly drew the contents from his earlier works with modifications with recent researches and findings. By this time, various Pallava inscriptions were interpreted and published and obscurity over this dynasty was lifted off. Fergusson reasserts his dating of these temples, done in previous articles, taking sound evidences from the other Pallava inscriptions found at other places.

Fergusson takes cognizance of all the inscriptions or titles found at Dharmaraja Ratha, Ganesha Ratha and Atiranachandra Cave and concludes that all these titles or birudas refer to the same Pallava king, Rajasimha or Narasimhavarman II. His various titles are found in various inscriptions found at other places which supports the above conclusion.

Coombes, J W (1914, The Seven Pagodas) – By the time of Coombes,  ample material was available on Mamallapuram. Coombes was among the line of scholars favoring that these monuments at Mamallapuram were excavated by the Chalukyan artisans under the auspices of the Pallava king. The argument placed in favor of this was their similarity with the shrines of Ellora and Elephanta. Apart from this, there is nothing significant new study or theory in this book.

Goloubew, Victor (1914, La Falaise d’Arjuna de Mavalipuram et la Descente de la Ganga sur la Terre, selon le Ramayana et le Mahabharata)  – This article was published in the Journal Asiatique 11 series, tome 4. Goloubew suggests that the central fissure is the main character of this panel and therefore it plays the most important role in identification of the theme. This fissure represents a river and therefore the theme of the panel is more suitably identified with the penance of Bhagiratha to bring Ganga down to the earth. Strong evidences in support of this are the presence of the Nagas and movement of all the figures towards the center such as to witness a grand event.

Jouveau-Dubreuil, G (1916, Pallava Antiquities) – Dubreuil may be considered as the father of the Pallava researches during the early twentieth century. His work on the Pallava history and architecture hold a very important place in the scholarly world. Dubreuil studied the Pallava monuments with comparative architectural approach. He disagrees with Hultzsch where the latter mentions that to answer the question of authorship and date, careful study of inscriptions is the only way forward. Dubreuil adds that comparative architectural study is also very much necessary to answer these questions.

He studied the Pallava monuments across the Tamilnadu state and outside. He asserts that the town of Mamallapuram was founded by the Pallava king Narasimhavarman I who named it after his surname Mamalla. He suggests that the monuments here are of an intermediate state, posterior to the Mahendravarman I period and interior or contemporary to the Rajasimha period. The caves and rathas are anterior to the Rajasimha period, and the reasons are, missing single arched over the niches, missing rearing lion pillars and chakra (discus) and shankha (conch) of Vishnu are not shown with flames. All these three characteristics are the features of the Rajasimha period.

The caves and rathas are posterior to the Mahendra period, and the reasons are, presence of squatting lion pillars, bulbous abacus above the pillars, slender dvarpalas (door guardians) and presence of Soma-Skanda icon. These four features were not encountered in the caves of the Mahendra period. Based upon these evidences, Dubreuil writes that the execution of the caves and rathas here were started during the reign of the Pallava king Narasimhavarman I (625-650 CE) and finished and consecrated during the reign of Parameshvaravarman I (about 675 CE).

Dubreuil seems to agree with Victor Goloubew on the identification of the theme of the popular Arjuna’s Penance. Goloubew earlier suggested that the theme is not Arjuna doing penance but it depicts the descent of Ganga. About the Shore Temple, Dubreuil goes with others in assigning the monument to the period of Rajasimha.

Aiyangar, S Krishnaswami (1917, The Antiquities of Mahabalipur) – This article was published in the Indian Antiquary vol. XLVI. Aiyangar tells that the town, Mavalivaram, is of little consequence apart from an old light house and the bungalow of the Zamindar. However the town is very important for its archaeological remains which have been described in details in various accounts.

Aiyangar explains the reason of his attempt, he writes, ‘…so far no one has succeeded in expounding what actually this signifies in South Indian History. Even in respect of some of the details that have been examined by archaeological specialists there has not been the coordination of evidence leading to conclusions for historical purposes. This it is proposed to attempt, with just the necessary amount of examination of various archaeological details for coordination with a view to the historical significances of the antiquities of Mahabalipuram.’

On the name of the town, Aiyangar tells that evidences are in wanting to connect it to the story of Bali. He suggests that the name Mahabalipuram became familiar during the rule of the Mahabali (or Bana) dynasty, who ruled form there capital at Tiruvallam. Before this, the place was known as Mamallapuram, derived from Mamalla, the title of the Pallava king Narasimhavarman I.

For the identification of the theme of the Great Penance, Aiyangar rejects the suggestion of Goloubew and states that this indeed represents the penance of Arjuna to get Pashupata weapon from Shiva. Aiyangar argues that Narasimhavarman I was contemporary of Appar and Sambandar and both these saints have eulogized the incident of Arjuna getting the weapon. This suggests that the theme was contemporary and therefore the artists of Mamallapuram took it for this great bas-relief.

He writes, ‘It seems to be then beyond the possibility of doubt that this bas-relief represents Arjuna’s Penance, not as an incident in the Mahabharata but as a representation of one of Siva’s many acts of beneficence to humanti, perhaps because it is so depicted in the hymns of the Tevaram’.

Sastri, H Krishna (1926, Two Statues of Pallava Kings and Five Pallava Inscriptions in a rock-cut temple at Mahabalipuram) – This short monologues was mainly devoted to the sculptures of Adi-Varaha cave temple, specially to the two royal portraits. Sastri tells that the shrines here were started during the time period of the Pallava king Narasimhavarman I Mamalla, however few shrines were continued till the reign of Rajasimja, The only exception of this is the Adi-Varaha cave temple which was started before the Pallava king Narasimhavarman I.

Gopalan, R (1928, History of the Pallavas of Kanchi) – In this comprehensive book on the history of the Pallavas, Gopalan also touches upon the shrines of Mamallapuram. Gopalan was of the view that the construction activities at Mamallpuram started during the time period of the Pallava king Simhavishnu as the Adi-Varaha cave temple was started during his reign. The same temple was completed in the reign of his son and successor, Mahendravarman I. The construction activities on other temples continued till the time of the king Rajasimha.

Longhurst, A H (1928, The Pallava Architecture) – Longhurst, in his capacity of superintendent of the Archaeological Survey of India, produced this survey work on the Pallava architecture. He included the monuments from different periods of different Pallava rulers. Mamallapuram got its due attention in this work.

Longhurst describes all the major temples with their measurements and iconographic features. He asserts that the construction activities at Mamallapuram span across the four different Pallava rulers, starting with Narasimhavarman I and ending with Narasimhavarman II, in between ruled Parameshvaravarman I and Mahendravarman II. He agrees with other scholars on the point that the town was founded and named after the Pallava ruler Narasimhavarman I, who bore the title Mamalla or Mahamalla.

Vogel, Goloubew and Dubreuil had already suggested the identification of the Great Penance with that of the descent of Ganga. However, they did not explain how the water was provided to flow in that fissure. It was Longhurst who took forward this suggestion and found that there are a number of rock-cut channels or footings immediately above the cleft, showing that a brick or masonry cistern was once built on this spot. Longhurst suggests that the water cistern was used to be filled during special occasions and the water was allowed to run down through the fissure.

Longhurst was fascinated with the beauty of the town and monuments, while describing the Mahishasuramardini cave, he writes, ‘The visitor to Mamallapuram will be struck by the artistic merit, originality of treatment and power of execution displayed in most of the sculptures, particularly with regard to these tableaux of Vishnu and Durga…

Coomaraswamy, A K (1927, History of Indian and Indonesian Art) –  This authoritative volume on the Indian art included few pages on the Pallava style and the monuments in Mamallapuram. Coomaraswamy goes with Goloubew describing the theme of the popular Great Penance as that of the descent of Ganga. Coomaraswamy describes the phases of art under the different Pallava rulers and by his time, the dark clouds over the Pallava dynasty and their monuments were almost clear. Though he did not describe any of the monument in great detail however inclusion of these monuments in this monumental work provide ample push for the interest in the Pallava in the common public and scholarly world.

H, Heras (1933, Studies in Pallava History) – Heras dedicated a full chapters on the builders of Mahabalipuram. was of opinion that the construction activities in Mamallapuram started with the Pallava king Mahendravarman I. The portraits in the Adi-Varaha cave temple were identified with that of Simhavishnu and Mahendravarman I by the author. Apart from the Adi-Varaha cave temple, Mahendravarman I also excavated the Kotikal Mandapa and Dharmaraja Mandapa as per the author. He agrees that the construction activities continued till the reign of the Pallava king Rajasimha.

Fyson, D R (1949, Mahabalipuram or Seven Pagodas) – Fyson took into account the previous researches of A H Longhurst, Dubreil and others and created a concise guidebook meant for a general visitor who does not want to go deep into history but would like to understand the theme and legends behind the place. He was successful in his attempt by producing this guide book. He almost covered all the monuments at the place, few in details and few with cursory glances.

He also narrated legends and anecdotes connected with the place and the temples. Additionally, he also drew the comparison of these monuments with the earlier Buddhist monuments and architectural elements. Overall, this guide book serves its purpose and is very helpful for an inquisitive visitor. We did not expect any new theories or idea in this guidebook and Fyson clearly mentioned it stating that this guidebook is intended as an introduction to a fascinating place and makes no claim to the original research.

Sivaramamurti, C (Mahabalipuram, 1952) – This guide book on the monuments of Mamallapuram was published by the Archaeological Survey of India. Sivaramamurti, in his simple but scholarly language, was successful enough to bring out the important features of the town and its monuments. Incidentally, this guide books also included the sculptures found on the different upper stories of the Dharmaraja Ratha, which were not described in details in any earlier work, except an article from Vogel.

Brown, Percy (Indian Architecture, 1959) – In this iconic work, Brown gave proper attention to the Pallava monuments, specially the one at Mamallapuram. He was of strong opinion that all these shrines had influence from early Buddhist architecture. He praised the skills and ingenuity of the Pallava builders and at the same time he was amazed at their zeal and variety shown in these monuments. He was of opinion that the town was founded by Narasimhavarman I Mamalla and therefore this king initiated many construction activities in the town. The caves and rathas were done during the time frame of this king.

Nagaswamy, R (New Light on Mamallapuram, 1962) – This article was published in the Transactions of the Archaeological Society of South India, vol VI, Silver Jubliee Volume. Nagaswamy was the first scholar who proposed the theory that all the monuments at Mamallapuram belong to the period of the single Pallava ruler, Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha. The study of Nagaswamy was mostly based upon the inscriptions and titles found in those. As many of these titles are among the known titles of Rajasimha therefore his association with the monuments is inevitable.

The popular theory at that point of time was that the temple at Mamallapuram were started during the reign of the Pallava king Narasimhavarman I and continued till the reign of the king Narasimhavarman II. This period spans for almost hundred years. This led Nagaswamy to argue that if these monuments were worked upon for more than hundred years, why all of these are in incomplete state. This suggests that the monuments were worked upon for a smaller span but not the span of hundred years as assumed.

Srinivasan, K R (1964, The Cave Temples of the Pallavas) - This comes out of as the first authoritative work on the cave temples of the Pallavas, including the ones found at Mamallapuram. Srinivasan studied all the cave temples within the Pallava domain and categorized the chronology among the three main Pallava kings, Mahendravarman I, Narasimhavarman I Mamalla and Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha.

Willetts, William (An Illustrated Annotated Annual Bibliography of Mahabalipuram, 1966) –
wait for updates here once I have the resource available

Ramaswami, N S (Mamallapuram: An Annotated Bibliography, 1980) – wait for updates here once I have the resource available

Thiagaraja Iyer, A V (Indian Architecture, vol II, 1980) - This volume was edited by M A Ananthalwar and Alexander Rea and compiled by A V Thiagaraja Iyer. The contents were mostly borrowed from the previous studies and travelogues. The author emphasizes that the various theories, rendered in support of the derivation of the old name of the town, are not convincing except the one which states that the name Mamallapuram means ‘the city of Mamalla’, a Pallava king bearing the same title and responsible for many monuments found here. He further adds that the recent name Mahabalipuram is derived from the King Bali who is sculpted with his court and retinue on the rock known as Arjuna’s Penance.

About the authorship, he agrees that there is no doubt that these are the creations of the Pallavas. The theory that it was the Chalukyas who built these monuments is a myth. While describing the Arjuna’s Penance, the author narrates all the theories, that of king Bali, of Arjuna and Shiva and of the descent of Ganga. He seems to be more inclined to accept the theory of Arjuna and his penance to get the Pashupata weapon.

K R Srinivasan (Encyclopedia of Indian Temple Architecture, South India, Lower Dravidadesa, vol I, part I,1983) – As this encyclopedia is prepared for the Indian temple forms therefore the cave temples were not included in it. Only the rathas and structural temples of Mamallapuram found mention in this work. These monuments were described by K R Srinivasan, who in his earlier works, have already described the cave temples of the Pallavas in much details. As this encyclopedia is dedicated to the architectural aspects of the temples, therefore the monuments described in it are mostly explained in terms of their architecture, briefly touching on the iconography however noting on inscriptions or epigraphical aspect. Srinivasan, in his erudite approach, describes all the included temples providing details on their architectural parts with comparative study.

Lockwood, Michael (1993, Mamallapuram) – This guidebook from Lockwood was a comprehensive guide, useful for commoners as he avoided all the scholarly descriptions of the various architectural elements. However, he included main elements of the research works he did with Gift Siromoney on the various monuments and riddles of the site. Therefore, this guidebook provides a detailed account of the monuments along with necessary information on associated puzzles.

Nagaswamy, R (2008, Mahabalipuram) – This guide book was published under the Monumental Legacy series of Oxford Press. Being a guide book, it talks about all the monuments and shrine at Mamallapuram. It also touches on authorship, architecture, iconography and inscriptions. Nagaswamy keeps his previous stand that all of these monuments were the construction of the same Pallava king, Rajasimha.

Beck, Elisabeth (2006, Pallava Rock Architecture and Sculpture) – This work from Beck can be taken as a consolidation effort on the latest studies on the Pallava rock cut architecture. She talked about almost all the Pallava cave temples with recent photographs. She also touched upon the evolution and authorship, however she did not draw any new hypothesis etc. on these points.

Swaminathan, S (2010, Mahabalipuram – Unfinished Poetry in Stone) – This is the latest reference available on the Mamallapuram. This is in form of a coffee table book with excellent photographs. The text is therefore kept at minimum however it deals with all essential aspects of the monuments.

Back to Contents                                                                                                 Next Chapter