Mamallapuram – Mahishasuramardini Mandapa

Mamallapuram – The Workshop of the Pallavas

Mahishasuramardini Mandapa

Watercolour of the Mahishamardani cave in Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu, Thomas Colman Dibdin (1810-1893), c.1845 | British Library

This cave temple was known as Yamapuri Mandapa during the visit of Kavali Lakshmiah in 1803, however now it is generally referred as Mahishasuramardini Mandapa, named after an exquisite bas-relief panel depicting the goddess Mahishasuramardin on a lateral wall of this excavation. This east facing cave-temple measures 32 feet long, 15 feet deep and 12.5 feet high1. It is hewn out of a rock crop which on the top has a structural temple, Olakkanesvara Temple. Above the cornice of the front facade are rough carvings of chaitya or kudu arches (dormer windows) and of mini-sala-shrines above that. The front façade is supported on four pillars and two pilasters. One of the pillar was broken and replaced with cut-stone pillar as we see today. Similarly its adjacent pillar’s top portion, abacus, was also broken and removed. Srinivasan2 suggests that these damages might be done during the Vaishnava resurgence when they tried to make a wide gap to bring the inner shrine facing directly to a viewer. The pillars here resemble to the ones found in the inner row of the Koneri Mandapa. The capital of these pillars is a bulbous cushion piece similar to those in the Koneri Mandapa however an additional abacus member is found here.

Photograph taken by a photographer of the Archaeological Survey of India around 1900-01 | British Library
Mahishasuramardini Mandapa | www.kevinstandagephotography.com
Plate 20 from James Fergusson’s ‘Illustrations of the Rock Cut Temples of India’, by Thomas Colman Dibdin 1839 | British Library
Lion and Vyala Pillars | www.indiancolumbus.blogspot.com

Once you enter the cave hall, you are welcome with the large relief panels on the lateral walls, which have made this cave very famous among the visitors and scholars alike. These large scale reliefs are considered among the masterpieces of the Pallava art by various scholars. Longhurst3 writes, “The two large reliefs display an originality of conception and a freedom of execution not often found in Indian Art. The figures are full of vigour and their action is well rendered. Especially is this case with the lion-riding Durga, whose onslaught contrasts with the hesitating attitude of her enemy, the Buffalo-Demon. In the same way the lassitude of the slumbering Vishnu is brought out more prominently by the threatening attitude of the two demons. 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. (sic)”

Photograph taken by Nicholas and Co in 1880 | British Library

The above panel, 4 m long and 2.5 m high, depicting Durga in battle with demon king Mahishasura, is famous for its exquisite carving, grace, beauty and virility. The goddess is shown riding a prancing lion with her bow stretched and ready to attack. She is shown with eight hands, holding a dhanush (bow), arrow, khadga (sword), ghanta (bell), chakra (discus), khetaka (shield), pasha (noose) and shankha (conch). She is followed by her army of nine soldiers consisted of eight dwarf ganas and one female soldier. The female soldier is shown carrying a sword, ready to attack, and is identified as yogini Jaya by Srinivasan4. Her eight ganas are also armed with sword and bows, except the ones shown holding a plate of offerings and a parasol.

Durga Panle | www.kevinstandagephotography.com

While the Goddess is shown with normal size, the demon Mahishasura, wearing a crown over his buffalo head, is shown with colossal size bearing all royal paraphernalia such as crown, jewels and a parasol above him. He is in retreat with his army, defeated and down in moral. The overall scene is depicted effectively and vividly, one soldier is shown falling cut in half, few soldiers are hiding behind the bulky body of the demon king and few have already tasted the dust of the battlefield. Mahishasura is trying to hold his ground and holding his club in his hands. His attitude suggests that he has already suffered much at the hands of the Goddess and now only the final blow is in waiting. Suggesting this panel as the source for a later Rashtrakuta period carving at Ellora, Sivaramamurti5 writes, “The appeal that this panel always has had it clear from the fact that the sculptor of the great Rashtrakuta king Krishna has paid a tribute as it were to this panel, by almost adopting it in his own version of the theme in that magnificent temple at Ellora which is a wonder of temple architecture.”

Vishnu Anantashayi | www.indiancolumbus.blogspot.com

The another relief panel shows Vishnu, lying over Adi-shesha, in his yoganidra-murti. He is shown with two arms. Near his feet are shown Madhu and Kaitabha. Srinivasan6 mentions that in this relief, we do not see flames coming out of the hood of Adi-shesha however Nagaswamy7 disagrees stating that the blazing flames emitted from Shesha can be seen on the back wall. The attitude of the two demons also suggests that they are perturbed by the flames and thus bending back to avoid the flames.

Vishnu panel | www.kevinstandagephotography.com

Below Vishnu is shown Bhu-devi, near his feet, with her hands joined in anjali-mudra. Opposite to her are shown two male figures, who may be identified with two ayudha-purushas, Sudarshana (discus) and Nandaka (sword). The figure of Nandaka, identified by Srinivasan, as Nagaswamy8 identifies it with Garuda and Lockwood9 with lotus. Gopinath Rao10 identified the two figures below Vishnu as Markandeya and sage Bhrigu, however this does fit in this context.

Vishnu Panel | www.kevinstandagephotography.com

Two flying figures, above Vishnu, also represent his other two weapons, the male is Panchajanya (conch) and the female is Kaumodaki (club). Beck11 suggests that the flying female figure may be identified with Yoga-nidra, a form Shakti assumed and entered into Vishnu.

Lion Pillars

On the back wall of the cave, three cells have been excavated. The central shrine is provided due importance as it projects out into the hall. This cell is also provided with its own mandapa, supported on two seated-lion pillars and two seated-vyala pilasters. This cave is a good example showcasing the architectural evolution in the pillar styles where the phase of slender cylindrical pillars evolved into the seated-lion base pillars carrying similar cylindrical shaft above its head. The pillars with seated lion base have been assigned to the period of the Pallava king Narasimhavarman I (630-668 CE) by many scholars.

As we have seen in a previous chapter, that study of the form of dvarapalas helps understanding the nature of the temple. This cave temple is a very interesting study in this aspect. It was Gift Siromoney and Michael Lockwood12 who first brought this anomaly into the public view. Let us follow them and understand the issue.

Dvarpalas of the leftmost cell

The first cell, on viewer’s left, has its set of dvarapalas carved on the either sides. The dvarapala on the left has trishula (trident) prongs protruding behind his headdress and his one hand is resting on a club. The dvarapala on the right has a protruding axe-blade on his headdress and he points one finger towards the shrine. These two dvarapalas represent the ayudha-purushas of Shiva and thus was dedicated Shiva.

Dvarapalas of the rightmost cell

Dvarapalas of the rightmost shrine do not have trishula or axe-blade attributes. They are both shown in similar attitude and wear long dhoti coming till their ankles. They both are wearing the sacred thread, one on his left shoulder and one on his right shoulders. As they do not show Shaivite or Vaishnavite association therefore it may be concluded that this shrine was dedicated to Brahma probably.

Central Shrine | www.kevinstandagephotography.com

With the one terminal cell dedicated to Shiva and another terminal cell dedicated to Brahma, and presence of the relief panels of Vishnu and Durga, it is evident that the central shrine should be dedicated to Vishnu. However, we find a large Somaskanda panel inside the central shrine. The dvarapalas of the central shrine show very much the Shaivite attributes, one have protruding trishula prongs and other one has an axe-blade, both are holding clubs and points a finger to the shrine. However looking at the niche in which these dvarapalas are carved and how their clubs are positioned, it appears that these niches were designed to house dvarapalas without clubs as the clubs have been carved where a pilaster should be. It appears that the original design was to have dvarapalas without clubs, as we find in a shrine dedicated to Vishnu, however this idea was dropped sometime during execution.

Somaskanda Panel

During these change of schemes, a Somaskanda panel was carved out on the back wall of the central shrine. This is a unique panel as the features we find here are not found or rarely seen on other similar panels. A figures of Shiva, Parvati and baby Skanda is shown seated on a lion throne, under which is shown Nandi seated. Shiva is shown seated in a sukhasana-mudra. Pendent legs of Shiva and Parvati are resting on the back of Nandi. Baby Skanda is seated in the lap of Parvati. Behind Nandi is shown a devotee, whom Srinivasan13 identifies with Chandikeshvara, however this is not agreed by Lockwood and other scholars. Behind Shiva are shown Brahma and Vishnu, both standing. Above them is shown Surya.

Lockwood and Siromoney also point to the difference of style in the Somaskanda panel and the relief panels of Vishnu and Durga. They compare this Somaskanda panel with that of the Dharmaraja Ratha and concludes that the panel in this cave does not match with that of the ratha however it matches with several ones in the Kailasanatha Temple, Kancheepuram. Thus, Lockwood and Siromoney conclude that this Somaskanda panel is a later work in comparison to the reliefs of Vishnu and Durga. And this Somaskanda panel would be done around the period in which Kailasanatha temple was built. They suggest a possibility that originally this central shrine was designed to be dedicated to Vishnu with corresponding dvarapalas. However the nature of the original design got changed and this resulted in central shrine being dedicated to Shiva. This ides of central shrine dedicated to Vishnu is also supported by Dehejia14.

Srinivasan15 suggests that the three cells were meant to house three forms of Shiva and the central cell could only be completed during the reign of Parameshvaravarman I. However, from the concluding remarks of Lockwood and Siromoney, it appears that the cave was originally designed to be dedicated to Hindu Trinity, with Vishnu shrine in the center, and it later got changed with Shiva taking place of the central shrine. This may have happened during the reign of Parameshvaravarman I, who in his own inscriptions, is mentioned as staunch devotee of Shiva.

It appears that this cave-temple underwent vandalism twice in its lifespan. The first vandalism, most probably during the period of the Pallava king Parameshvaravarman I, was when the dedication of its central shrine was changed from Vishnu to Shiva. The next act of vandalism was during the Vijayanagara period of fourteenth-fifteenth century CE, when its Shiva character was changed to Vaishnava. Vaishnava symbols of shankha (conch) and chakra (discus) were carved on its pilasters and two middle front pillars were removed or damaged to create an opening into the porch of the central shrine to accommodate an image.

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1 Longhurst, A H (1928). Pallava Architecture Part II. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 34
2 Srinivasan, K R (1964). Cave-Temples of the Pallavas. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 150
3 Longhurst, A H (1928). Pallava Architecture Part II. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 36
4 Srinivasan, K R (1964). Cave-Temples of the Pallavas. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 154
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6 Srinivasan, K R (1964). Cave-Temples of the Pallavas. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 155
7 Nagaswamy, R (2008). Mahabalipuram. Oxford University Press. New Delhi. ISBN 9780198071273. p 33
8 Nagaswamy, R (2008). Mahabalipuram. Oxford University Press. New Delhi. ISBN 9780198071273. p 34
9 Lockwood, Michael (1993). Mamallapuram – A Guide to the Monuments. Tambaram Research Associates. Chennai. p 88
10 Gopinatha Rao, T A (1914). Elements of Hindu Iconography Vol. I Part I. The Law Printing House . Madras (now Chennai). pp 109-110
11 Beck, Elisabeth (2006). Pallava Rock Architecture & Sculpture. East West Books. Chennai. p 131
12 http://www.cmi.ac.in/gift/Archeaology/arch_dvarapalaka.htm
13 Srinivasan, K R (1964). Cave-Temples of the Pallavas. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 153
14 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 6
15 Srinivasan, K R (1964). Cave-Temples of the Pallavas. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 156

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