Mamallapuram – The Workshop of the Pallavas
Shore Temple Complex – Varaha Well
In 1990, ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) discovered a sunken apsidal stepped well along with few sculptures inside it. This stepped well is located immediately to the north of the Shore Temple, its south edge abutting the northern wall of the Shore Temple. On the extreme south of this newly discovered shrine is placed a monolith statue of Varaha in its zoomorphic form. This image is carved in round from a single boulder. The statue was found severely damaged, however, with efforts from ASI restorers, we now see this image in its near original glory.
The Varaha is shown with its snout drooping downwards, such as getting ready to plunge into the ocean. His forelegs are spread and lotuses are underfoot suggesting presence of water. This pose of Varaha depicts the scene when it was about to enter into the ocean to get Bhudevi out of the ocean. The genius of the Pallavas is showcased to the fullest here as they carved this Varaha so near to the ocean, such that it creates a visual manifestation of the Varaha story. Apart from the usual Varaha avatara story, Lockwood1 presents another identification. He tells that this Varaha represents Vishnu who is diving down to reach the starting end of the fire linga, as explained in the Lingodbhava story. Presence of a Shiva shrine in front of the Varaha may be the reason of this suggestion, however absence of Brahma in this whole setting upsets the theory.
Rabe2 presents a political reading of this setting. He tries to explain the reason behind the systematic destruction of this Varaha image. Rabe suggests that this Varaha monolith was severely and systematically butchered when the Chalukya king Vikramaditya I invaded the Pallava kingdom. The rationale behind this destruction was the submissive and prostrated attitude of the Varaha. Varaha was the dynastic crest of the Chalukyas. This specific posture of Varaha might be taken as a reference to the subjugation of the Chalukyas by the Pallava king Narasimhavarman I. And to take revenge, the Chalukyan army destroyed this Varaha image while marching forward into the Pallava kingdom.
However, how to explain the engraved titles of Rajasimha, as the Chalukyan attacked the Pallava kingdom before the reign of Rajasimha. To explain it, Rabe tells that it was most possible that like other monoliths, this Varaha was also executed during the period of Narasimhavarman I. Therefore, when the Chalukyas attacked the Pallavas, during the reign of Narasimhavarman I and Parameshvaravarman I, this monolith was present in the temple complex. As the Varaha was destroyed before the reign of Rajasimha, it was Rajasimha who restored it and that’s how we find his titles engraved on it. About the restorer, Rabe tells that it might have been the work of Lalitalaya, the artist mentioned in Avantisundarikatha of Dandin.
Zoomorphic images of Varaha are not rare however most of these are yajna-varaha images where Varaha body is carved with multitude of figures. A very early Varaha, of Vakataka period, found at Ramtek is a plain zoomorphic image devoid of ornamentation and carving. This Varaha has its snout lifted upwards. In such a situation, Varaha image at Mamallapuram is probably the only sample where its snout is rooting downwards. But that does not change the theme or the story, as this Varaha also suggests the story of Varaha avtara where Vishnu plunged into the ocean to get Bhu-devi out. With all the available information at hand, all the other suggested possibilities does not attract much attention. Still, a question remains unanswered, why the Varaha image was so severely destroyed while other sculptures are mostly intact or in good form.
Going ahead with other elements of this apsidal stepped well, we find a slender cylindrical shrine constructed partly in rock and partly in stone. This shrine is in front of the above Varaha statue, towards its north. The base of the shrine is carved out of rock. Above the base are placed three stones, forming garbhagrha, griva and shikhara. The garbhagrha is a cubical opening facing east, with four pilasters in form of rampant lions with riders. Inside the sanctum is an image of Shiva as Vinadhara, resting above Nandi. Lockwood identifies this image as Ardhanari holding a vina. He also mentions a figure of Brahma and Vishnu carved on the southern and northern inner walls of this sanctum.
A circular rim-like structure, above the garbhagrha, forms the shikhara and griva part. The circular rim-like structure protrudes all around forming a kapota on which kudu (dormer windows) are carved. Above it are placed dwarfs (bhutas). The griva bears a circular dome above. The dome has nasikas on cardinal directions.
Beyond this cylindrical shrine, further northward, is a circular cistern or mini-well. This is cut downwards with a circular rim-like stone placed at the ground level. On the eastern inner side of this well is an sculpture of a royal lady seated on a throne. She might also be taken as a goddess however she does not hold any attribute which can help in her identification though she has two attendants by her side. Though, Rabe accepts these sockets for the capstones of a well, however he suggests that these might be constructed to hold the ‘pillar of victory’ taken by Narasimhavarman I from Vatapi (Badami) which probably was installed here.
- On the Varaha image – four titles of the Pallava king Rajasimha are engraved over this Varaha image. These titles are Sri Rajasimha, Sri Ranajaya, Sribhara and Sri Chitrakarmmukha.
- Inscription on the inner face of the upper rim on south-western side – ‘…….Rajasimha, whose well-merited fame is wide spread as the ‘Lord among Warriors’, whose crown’s crest-jewel’ splendor is Maheshvara, who is Arjuna in war, long live that ‘Lion of a king among men’, ruler of the entire world!…..’
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1 Lockwood, Michael. Mammallapuram. p 115
2 Rabe, Michael D (2001). The Great Penance at Mamallapuram. pp 129-133