Mamallapuram – Varaha Well

Mamallapuram – The Workshop of the Pallavas

Shore Temple Complex – Varaha Well

In 1990, ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) discovered an ovalish stepped structure with four courses aligned in a north-south orientation. In its southern apse was found a monolithic statue of varaha (boar) in its zoomorphic form. In its middle was a miniature shrine. This ovalish structure was constructed abutting the northern prakara (boundary) of the Shore Temple. The sculpture of varaha was carved in round from a single boulder however it was found severely damaged, with efforts from ASI restorers, we now see this image in its near-original glory.

Apsidal Well | kevinstandagephotography.com

The Varaha is shown standing over a rectangular pedestal with a curved profile. It is shown with its snout drooping downwards, such as getting ready to plunge into the ocean. His forelegs are spread and marine vegetation underfoot suggests the 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. The presence of a Shiva shrine in front of the Varaha may be the reason for this suggestion however, the absence of Brahma in this whole setting upsets the theory.

Varaha in the well | www.indiancolumbus.blogspot.com

Rabe2 presents a political reading of this setting. He tries to explain the reason behind the systematic destruction of the 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. ASI report mentions that this image appears to have been destructed in a systematic manner however, it was not certain whether this destruction happened to facilitate the prakara (boundary) of the Shore temple or it was destructed prior to it, though it suggests that latter appears to be the most probable scenario3.

Monolithic Varaha

Zoomorphic images of Varaha are not rare however most of these are yajna-varaha images where Varaha’s body is carved with a 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, the Varaha image at Mamallapuram is probably the only sample where its snout is rooting downwards. But that does not change the theme of 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 do 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.

Varaha & Cylindrical Shrine

Moving to the other elements of this apsidal stepped structure, 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 adhisthana (base) of the shrine is carved out of the same rock-bed where it stands, starting with an octagonal moulding, topped with a sixteen-sided molding, and after it a circular moulding followed by a tripatta-kumuda and a pattika, all circular in plan. The Above the adhisthana 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 Vrishbhantika-Shiva resting above Nandi with two figures on either side. 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 shikhara above. The shikhara has nasikas in cardinal directions bearing images of Ganesha.

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. ASI report mentions that this well provides potable water though situated near the ocean. On the eastern inner side of the well is a 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.

Inscriptions

  1. On the Varaha image – four titles of the Pallava king Rajasimha are engraved over Varaha image. These titles are Sri Rajasimha, Sri Ranajaya, Sribhara and Sri Chitrakarmmukha.
  2. Inscription on the inner face of the upper rim on the south-western side‘…….Rajasimha, whose well-merited fame is widespread 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
3 Indian Archaeology, 1990-91 – A Review. pp 62-63

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