Mamallapuram – Adi-Varaha Perumal Temple

Mamallapuram – The Workshop of the Pallavas

Adi-Varaha Perumal Temple

Photograph of a modern temple in the village at Mamallapuram, from the Archaeological Survey of India Collections taken by Alexander Rea in the1880s | British Library

This temple is in worship since its inception as evident from its inscriptions. Being a living temple, entry of a foreign national was not allowed and this contributed to almost non-existence of this temple in the travelogues of early European travelers and explorers. The scenario has not changed much, as the temple is under worship, it is kept open only for a short period, in the morning and evening, during prayer times and for the rest of the time, it is kept closed. Due to this reason, this temple does appear in the intineraries of many modern age visitors and tourists.

However obscure or inconvenient the access may be, this is the one of the best preserved and most complete temple belonging to the rock-cut architecture at Mamallapuram. The temple has been extended with later period structures, most probably during the sixteenth century CE when the town witnessed resurgence during the Vijayanagara period. A modern structure, in front of the temple obscures the view to the original shrine.

The original cave-temple faces west and measures 33 feet x 14 feet x 11.5 feet1. The rock face is excavated into a hall consisting of two bays. The front facade is supported on four pillars and two pilasters. The pillars have lion-bases with octagonal shafts above. The temple is dedicated to the Varaha incarnation of Vishnu, a stucco image of the icon is carved at the rear wall of the shrine. The image is heavily plastered and modified hiding all the feature of originality, if there is any. It would be difficult to ascertain whether the stucco image is on top of an old Pallava image or an addition during a later period.

The sanctum is adorned with a mandapa in front, flanked with dvarpalas on either side. Lockwood2 mentions that one dvarpala has shankha (conch) and another has chakra (discus) carved on his head, suggesting that they represent the ayudha-purushas of Vishnu. This suggestion appears apt as the cave temple is dedicated to Vishnu therefore vaishnava dvarpalas are expected to guard the shrine. Various sculptures executed on the lateral and rear walls, these are explained in detail below.

Shiva as Gangadhara

Shiva is represented as Gangadhara in one panel. He is shown with four hands, his one is shown extended out holding his tresses to catch Ganga. Ganga, in her female form, is shown in one corner, descending towards Shiva. There are no attendants, devotees, mounts or other figures in this panel. Gangadhara seems to be a famous and frequented icon during the Pallava period. We have two Gangadhara images, which may be predated or contemporary to this image. One is the Gangadhara panel at Tiruchirappalli and another is an image on Dharmaraja Ratha in Mamallapuram. Gangadhara of Tiruchirappalli cave is considered a Pallava masterpiece and predates the panel here. Popularity of the Gangadhara theme in various Pallava edifices can have a significant bearing on the theme of the Great Penance panel, a topic discussed in detail in a different chapter of this article.

Brahma

Brahma adorns the space in an opposite panel to the above. He is shown with four hands, carrying rosary in one, one hand placed over his waist and one hand in abhaya-mudra. He is standing without any companion or devotees. The proportions of this image are somewhat skewed as his upper arms are  placed much away from his body.

Gaja-Lakshmi

Lakshmi, shown seated on a lotus seat and carrying lotuses in her two hands. She is accompanied with four maidens carrying water pots and other toiletries. Two elephants on top corners, flanked on her either side,  are on process of spilling water such as to give bath to the goddess. She is popularly known as Gaja-Lakshmi when depicted in this form. The icon has generated much debate upon being influenced from the Buddhist icon where elephants are shown giving bath to the queen mother Maya.

Durga as Korravai

Facing Lakshmi, we find majestic panel depicting Durga. The Goddess is standing in tribhanga-mudra (three bends) over a buffalo head, the latter represents demon Mahishasura. She has eight hands and carrying shankha (conch), chakra (discus), dhanush (bow), khadga (sword), khetaka (shield) and ghanta (bell). A parrot is perched on her lower left arm wrist and it seems to be looking at what she is holding in her lower right hand. she definitely holds something in her lower right hand. It appears to be a blood-bowl as held by Chamunda or Kali. Behind the Goddess is a standard with trishula (trident) at its top. A lion and a deer, the two mounts of Durga, are shown in the upper corners. Near these animals are ganas, one on either side of Durga. She is accompanied with two female guardians, one bearing a bow and one sword and shield. There are two devotees near her feet. One of the devotee is process of cutting flash from his arm3. Presence of deer as a mount of Goddess has led scholars to believe that the depiction here is of the victory goddess Korravai, as mentioned in the Tamil epic Silappattikaram. This topic of Korravai as Durga is taken in detail in our article on Varaha Mandapa.

Harihara

Next, right side of the sanctum entrance, we find Harihara, a composite form of Shiva and Vishnu. He is shown with four hands carrying parashu (axe) and chakra (discus). He is shown standing below an umbrella or parasol. Two devotees, one on either side, are shown near his feet. H Krishna Sastri4 raised a doubt on this icon being identified as Harihara or Sankara-Narayana, as he mentions that the icon should hold an axe or trident in his right hand and conch in his left hand. As per him, the icon in this temple holds a chakra and rosary. He is right for chakra however this icon does not have rosary but an axe in this case therefore its identification as Harihara is correct.

Vishnu and Adi-Shesha

A four-armed Vishnu image is placed on the left of the sanctum. Two devotees are shown kneeling near his feet. In the next niche is Shesha, shown with seven-hooded anthropomorphic character.

Now we come of the portrait sculptures of this cave. These portrait sculptures are one of those very few such sculptures found in the whole dimension of the Indian art of that period.  These are the portraits of the Pallava kings and also bear inscriptions however the identity of these kings has not yet reached consensus among the scholar community.

Pallave king seated with his queens

In one panel we see a king seated, in sukhasana posture, on a seat, with two of his standing queens. The king’s one arm is in chin-mudra or contemplative posture, suggesting that he is professing some idea. Shown with minimal jewelry, the king and the queens compliment the serene environment of the temple.  The inscription above this panel reads, “the glorious athiraja (adhiraja) Simhavinna-Potrra (simhavishnu-Pota)”.

This Pallava king has been identified with the Pallava king Simhavishnu (575-600 CE) by Lockwood5, Gopalan6, Dehejia & Davis7, with the Pallava king Narasimhavarman I (630-668 CE) by H Krishna Sastri8 and with the Pallava king Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha (700-728 CE) by R Nagaswamy9.

Pallava king standing with his queen

Opposite to the above panel, is another panel having portrait sculpture of another Pallava king. The king is shown standing with his two queens, and he has raised one hand pointing towards the Durga panel. He is holding hand of one of his queen, who might be the senior or chief queen. The inscription above the panel reads “the glorious athiraja (adhiraja) Mahendra-Pottra”.

This king has been identified with the Pallava king Mahendravarman I (600-630 CE) by Lockwood10, S Krishna Sastri11, with the Pallava king Mahendravarman II (668-672 CE) by T V Mahalingam12 and the Pallava king Mahendravarman III by R Nagaswamy13. Lockwood mentions that these label inscriptions were engraved above the two portraits panels more than century after the creation of the temple.

Riddle of the imprecatory verse

Before we look into the case of the identification of the Pallava portraits, let us visit the riddle associated with the imprecatory verse engraved on the floor of this cave hall as this factor has considerable bearing on the case. This controversial verse speaks about a curse to those who do not follow Rudra or Shiva. Isn’t it very strange to find such a verse in a temple dedicated to Vishnu. Also is strange that this curse is engraved on the floor?

Indeed it is surprising and therefore it is assumed that this verse would have been engraved after the construction of the temple. But by whom and why? What would be the reasons to engrave such a horrific verse cursing those who do not follow Rudra? It can be safely assumed that it was engraved by a staunch follower of Shiva. Mahendravarman I and his son, Narasimhavarman I can be ruled out as we do not find any such strict association with their character, either in the monuments they built not in the Pallava epigraphs.

We may also rule out Mahendravarman II, son and successor of Narasimhavarman I, as he ruled for a very brief period of 2-3 years. After him, there were only two Pallava kings who can be referred staunch Shaiva, and they are Parameshvaravarman I and Rajasimha.

Parameshvaravarman I, in his Vunna Guruvapalem grant14, is said to be staunch follower of Maheshvara (Shiva). Rajasimha, in his Reyuru grant15, is said to be staunch follower of Vishnu, Shiva and Subramanya. In a later grant, Udayendiram grant of Nandivarman II16, Rajasimha is said to be devout worshiper of Shiva. In this situation, Parameshvaravarman I seems to be a better fit for our case.

A support for the above case comes from the Chola inscriptions found in this cave temple, where the temple is referred as Parameshvara-mahavaraha-vishnu-griham. Does the phrase ‘Parameshvara’ stands Parameshvaravarman I or to Shiva? If it stands for the former than it suggests association of the shrine with that Pallava ruler and substantiate the theory that he would be the cause to engrave this verse. The also seems more appropriate as in many other instances, the temple or the god enshrined is named after the donor or his/her parents in whose memory the temple is constructed. It seems unlikely that the phrase “Parameshvara” would be referring to Shiva as the temple name suggests that it was a Vishnu temple and it is dedicated to him as well.

So it seems clear that it was Parameshvaravarman I who consecrated this temple and it was he who would have engraved this imprecatory verse. But still we do not understand why. The temple was most probably started by his ancestors and in this case why he would do such a demeaning act. Support for this may come that as he is associated with few temples at Mamallapuram and this imprecatory verse is found on all of those, when he consecrated this Vishnu temple, he also put the imprecatory verse, though it has no meaning in the context. However, there is no consensus among scholars on who was king who engraved this verse. Some favors Parameshvaravarman I17 and some go for Rajasimha18, majority going for the former.

An interesting fact is that we have few inscriptions at other places from the reign of Parameshvaravarman I and in those we do not encounter this verse. Also, we have many inscriptions of Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha at other places, and there again we do not find this verse.  It appears that this verse is only found in the shrines at Mamallapuram but nowhere else.

Identification of the Pallava portrait sculptures

We have seen these portrait sculptures above and also seen the label inscriptions engraved over these panels. Also we have seen that this temple was consecrated during the reign of Parameshvaravarman I however its excavation might have been started during the reign of Narasimhavarman I. Let us now take a stand on the identification of the kings shown in these portrait panels.

Case 1: Simhavishnu and Mahendravarman I – If the excavation was started by Mahendravarman I, then it would be easy to say that the portrait sculptures refer to the Pallava king Simhavishnu and Mahendravarman I. It would be appropriate for Mahendravarman I to show himself and his father in this Vishnu shrine.

However, we know that the temple was consecrated during the reign of Parameshvaravarman I, could it be the case, that the excavation was started in Mahendra’s time and got completed in Parameshvara’s time? This seems highly unlikely, as Narasimhavarman I, son and successor of Mahendravarman I, ruled for good forty years and this time was enough to complete and consecrate this temple, if it was started during Mahendra’s time, even if in his late years.

This identification has been supported by many scholars including Sivaramamurti19, Dehejia20, Lockwood21, T N Ramachandran22, R Gopalan23, S Krishnaswami Aiyangar24 and H Heras25.

Case 2: Mahendravarman I and Narasimhavarman I – Not many scholars have proposed this identification, as I come across only H Krishna Sastri26 who has proposed such. Sastri studies the style of characters of the inscriptions and mentions that the characters resemble with the period of Parameshvaravarman I, when the script of the time of Mahendravarman I was not totally forgotten however new innovations were also taking place. However, can we rely on the style of characters when the period is so short like between Mahendravarman I and Parameshvaravarman I, about 70-80 years. In my opinion, this period is very short to carry out any comparative study on scripts.

Case 3: Narasimhavarman I and Mahendravarman II – The seated Pallava king could be Narasimhavarman I as he bore title ‘Simhavishnu’ in his Badami inscription. Then the standing Pallava king might be Mahendravarman II. Though Mahendravarman II ruled for a very short period, however he might be involved in continuation of work on this temple.

In this case, the only thing left for Parameshvaravarman I was to complete and consecrate the god in his name. And portraits of his father and grand-father, adoring this temple, would be very appropriate for Parameshvaravarman I. And probably this might be the reason, that though he was staunch Shaiva, but he consecrated this temple as the temple had royal statues and may be seen as the Pallava royal temple.

But why Parameshvaravarman I did not put his portrait in the temple? One issue might be that as it was a Vishnu temple therefore the Shaiva king was not much interested. Another issue might be that, probably, portraits of living kings were not put into the temples. A support for the later theory comes from Partimanatakam of Bhasa27.

भरतः – भवन्तं किञ्चितप्रच्छामि । धरमाणानामपि प्रतिमा: स्थाप्यन्ते !
देवकुलिक: – न खलु अतिक्रान्ता नामेव ।

When Bharata returned to Ayodhya, after hearing the episode of Rama-vanavasa, he stayed on the outskirts of the city waiting for the right mahurta to enter. There was a royal temple at the outskirts and Bharata had a look inside. He found portrait images of his ancestors Raghu, Dileepa and Aja. When Bharat asked the caretaker whether the images of living people are installed, the attendant answered in negative stating that images of dead people are only installed.

If this is the case indeed, we get an answer why there is no portrait image of Parameshvaravarman though it was during his reign, the temple got consecrated.

This view is supported by many scholars including Srinivasan28, Mahalingam29, V Venkatasubba Ayyar30.

Case 4: Rajasimha and Mahendravarman III – The third and the last theory is that the seated king represents the Pallava king Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha and the standing king represents his son, Mahendravarman III. It is evident in the Kailasanatha temple at Kancheepuram where both the kings were involved in the construction of the temple and therefore the same might be the case with this cave temple as well.

One issue with this theory is whether Rajasimha bore the title ‘Simavishnu’ or not? In his Kancheepuram inscription, where more than hundred of his titles are mentioned, this particular title is not mentioned. Also this title is not found in any of his other inscriptions, in this case how to ascertain that this Simhavishnu is Rajasimha?

Another issue to tackle here is who engraved the imprecatory verse. Dehejia mentions that it was Rajasimha. We have seen above that Rajasimha was told to be a staunch follower of Bhagvat (Vishnu), Maheshvara (Shiva) and Brahmanya (Subramanya) in his Reyuru grant. Udayendiram plates of a later period, time of Nandivarman II, mentions Rajasimha as devout worshiper of Mahesvara. Reyuru plates were issued in the twelfth regnal year and Rajasimha ruled for good thirty years, is there a possibility that in his later period, he became more inclined to Shiva? We do not know.

in the other inscriptions of Rajasimha, Saluvankuppam cave inscription, at Mamallapuram, we do not find this imprecatory verse. This raises a question that why he did not include this verse to an inscription which is of his without any doubts. In such a situation, associating Rajasimha with this imprecatory verse is very dicey. Also this makes rather difficult situation to identify the kings as Rajasimha and Mahendravarman III. We do not have many scholars supporting this identification except Nagaswamy31.

Conclusion – The imprecatory verse found at Mamallapuram is associated with Parameshvaravarman I as there is no other Pallava king fitting in the context. However it would be really interesting to understand why this verse was included only in the inscriptions at Mamallapuram. The Pallava kings in the portraits should be identified with Narasimhavarman I and Mahendravarman II as other suggested cases do not fit to the context as discussed above.

Inscriptions:

  1. Above the panel displaying a seated Pallava king32 – not dated – reads “Sri Simhavinna-Potrathirajan”, translates “the glorious athiraja (adhiraja) Simhavinna-Potrra (simhavishnu-Pota)”
  2. Above the panel displaying another standing Pallava king33 – not dated- reads “Sri Mahendra-Potrathirajan”, translates “the glorious athiraja (adhiraja) Mahendra-Pottra”
  3. On the lintel above the Harihara image34 – not dated – Enumerates ten incarnations of Vishnu, as Matsya, Kurma, Varaha, Narasimha, Vamana, Rama, Rama, Rama, Buddha and Kalkin. The three Ramas of the inscriptions should be taken as Parashurama, Rama the son of Dasharatha and Balarama.
  4. On a slab built into the floor in front of the temple, near bali-pitha35 – refers to the Pallava king Nandivarman II – dated to sixty-fifth regnal year, corresponding 796 CE – mentions purchase of land by Idaivalanchan Kandan, son of Ilam-Paduvumar, the headman of Kunrattur in Amur-nadu, a merchant of Mamallapuram, in lieu of gold. Boundaries of the land are specified. Among the boundary are two tanks, Kon-eri and Mandai-talaivan-eri.
  5. On the floor of the mandapa36“Six times cursed be those, in whose, hearts does not dwell Rudra (Siva), the deliverer from the walking on the evil path”
  6. On a niche in the temple37 – refers to the reign of the Chola king Rajendra II – dated in the ninth regnal year, corresponding 1061 CE – The Chola king is referred as Parakesarivarman alias Udaiyar Sri Rajendra-deva. It records a tax free gift of land by the nagarams and perilamai of Mamallapuram alias Jananathapuram to the god Sri Parameshvara-Mahavaraha-Vishnhu-griha. Mamallapuram was a nagaram in Amur-nadu in Amurk-kottam, a sub division of Jayangondachala-mandalam.
  7. On a niche in the temple38 – refers to the Chola king Rajendra II – date is not clear, approximate date 1052 CE – mentions a tax-free land donation to the temple of Parameshvara-mahavaraha-vishnu-grihattalvar at Mamallapuram by the village of Tiruvelichchil.

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1 Longhurst, A H (1928). Pallava Architecture Part II. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 33
2 Lockwood, Michael (1993). Mamallapuram – A Guide to the Monuments. Tambaram Research Associates. Chennai. p 147
3 Lockwood, Michael (1993). Mamallapuram – A Guide to the Monuments. Tambaram Research Associates. Chennai. p 144
4 Sastri, H Krishna (1926). Two Statues of Pallava Kings and five Pallava Inscriptions in a rock-cut Temple at Mahabalipuram. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 2
5 Lockwood, Michael (1993). Mamallapuram – A Guide to the Monuments. Tambaram Research Associates. Chennai. p 140
6 Gopalan, R (1928). History of the Pallavas of Kanchi. University of Madras. Chennai. p 87
7 Dehejia, Vidya & Davis, Richard (2010). Addition, Erasure and Adaptations: Interventions in the Rock-cut Monuments of Mamallapuram published in Archives of Asian Art vol. 60. p 4
8 Sastri, H Krishna (1926). Two Statues of Pallava Kings and five Pallava Inscriptions in a rock-cut Temple at Mahabalipuram. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 4
9 Nagaswamy, R (2008). Mahabalipuram. Oxford University Press. New Delhi. ISBN 9780198071273.
10 Lockwood, Michael (1993). Mamallapuram – A Guide to the Monuments. Tambaram Research Associates. Chennai. p 142
11 Sastri, H Krishna (1926). Two Statues of Pallava Kings and five Pallava Inscriptions in a rock-cut Temple at Mahabalipuram. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 4
12 Mahalingam, T V (1988). Inscriptions of the Pallavas. Agam Kala Prakashan. New Delhi. pp 145
13 Nagaswamy, R (2008). Mahabalipuram. Oxford University Press. New Delhi. ISBN 9780198071273
14 Mahalingam, T V (1988). Inscriptions of the Pallavas. Agam Kala Prakashan. New Delhi. pp 148-51
15 Mahalingam, T V (1988). Inscriptions of the Pallavas. Agam Kala Prakashan. New Delhi. pp 169-72
16 Mahalingam, T V (1988). Inscriptions of the Pallavas. Agam Kala Prakashan. New Delhi. pp 227-39
17 Sastri, H Krishna (1926). Two Statues of Pallava Kings and five Pallava Inscriptions in a rock-cut Temple at Mahabalipuram. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 7 | Lockwood, Michael (1993). Mamallapuram – A Guide to the Monuments. Tambaram Research Associates. Chennai. p 149 | Mahalingam, T V (1988). Inscriptions of the Pallavas. Agam Kala Prakashan. New Delhi. p 167
18 Dehejia, Vidya & Davis, Richard (2010). Addition, Erasure and Adaptations: Interventions in the Rock-cut Monuments of Mamallapuram published in Archives of Asian Art vol. 60. p 4
19 Sivaramamurti, C (1952). Mahabalipuram. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 19
20 Dehejia, Vidya & Davis, Richard (2010). Addition, Erasure and Adaptations: Interventions in the Rock-cut Monuments of Mamallapuram published in Archives of Asian Art vol. 60. p 4
21 Lockwood, Michael (1993). Mamallapuram – A Guide to the Monuments. Tambaram Research Associates. Chennai. pp 140-142
22 Ramachandran, T N (1933). The Royal Artist, Mahendravarman I.
23 Gopalan, R (1928). History of the Pallavas of Kanchi. University of Madras. Chennai. p 88
24 Aiyangar, Krishnaswami S (1917). The Antiquities of Mahabalipur published in the Indian Antiquary vol. xlvi. p 31
25 Heras, H (1933). Studies in Pallava History. B G Paul and Co. Madras. p 72
26 Sastri, H Krishna (1926). Two Statues of Pallava Kings and five Pallava Inscriptions in a rock-cut Temple at Mahabalipuram. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 4
27 Pratimanatakam of Bhasa. The Kashi Sanskrit Series 276, third chapter, p100
28 Srinivasan, K R (1964). Cave-Temples of the Pallavas. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 173
29 Mahalingam, T V (1988). Inscriptions of the Pallavas. Agam Kala Prakashan. New Delhi. p 141 & p 145
30 South Indian Inscriptions vol. XII, no 17 & 18
31 Nagaswamy, R (2008). Mahabalipuram. Oxford University Press. New Delhi. ISBN 9780198071273. p 25
32 Mahalingam, T V (1988). Inscriptions of the Pallavas. Agam Kala Prakashan. New Delhi. p 141
33 Mahalingam, T V (1988). Inscriptions of the Pallavas. Agam Kala Prakashan. New Delhi. p 145
34 cg 100 of A Topographical List of Inscriptions in the Tamilnadu and Kerala States vol. III
35 Mahalingam, T V (1988). Inscriptions of the Pallavas. Agam Kala Prakashan. New Delhi. pp 323-24
36 Mahalingam, T V (1988). Inscriptions of the Pallavas. Agam Kala Prakashan. New Delhi. p 167
37 cg 108 of A Topographical List of Inscriptions in the Tamil Nadu and Kerala States vol. III
38 cg 109 of A Topographical List of Inscriptions in the Tamil Nadu and Kerala States vol. III