Mamallapuram – Cave Temples


    Mamallapuram – The Workshop of the Pallavas

    Cave Temples

    Tamil Nadu is famous for its cave temples and these are strewn across its length and breadth. We can safely say that Tamil Nadu has the largest concentration of such temples among all states of India. Though it may have the largest numbers, however the history of it in Tamil Nadu, cannot go beyond the sixth century CE, the time by when the rock-cut architecture had attained its zenith in various other parts of India. Though Tamil Nadu started its journey late, however it surpassed many of its predecessors by the end of the seventh century CE.

    The credit of laying the foundation of the rock-cut architecture goes to the Pallavas. As per an inscription in the Mandagapattu cave temple1, the Pallava king Mahendravarman I (580-630 CE)2 is taken as the founder of the rock-cut style architecture in Tamil Nadu by many scholars. The cave temples of Mahendravarman were simple excavations with a front pillared portico with one or multiple cells on the rear or lateral wall. These shrines show various advancements in decoration and relief sculptures. An image of Gangadhara in the Trichy cave temple shows the zenith of the plastic art of the Mahendra period. His cave  temples were dedicated to various Hindu deities including Vishnu, Shiva and the Hindu Trinity.

    Photograph of an unidentified cave temple at Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu, from the Archaeological Survey of India Collections taken by Alexander Rea in the 1880s | British Library

    Narasimhavarman I (630-668 CE), the son and successor of Mahendravarman I, continued the tradition of the rock-cut temples. However, and surprisingly, Pallava cave temples of post-Mahendra period are only found in and near Mamallapuram but nowhere else in the whole Pallava dominion. Mamallapuram exhibits the zenith of the Pallava rock-cut architecture in every sense. We find here cave temples of simple Mahendra type and also of much advanced types belonging to the later period of Narasimhavarman I and later Pallava kings.

    The cave temples of Mamallapuram retained the basic thought of a rock-cut temple, as crystallized during Mahendra period, however, in addition, these also demonstrate various advancements suggesting gradual development. Due to this gradual development observed in these monuments, scholars have suggested multiple authorship. For the moment, we will skip the authorship topic as it is being addressed as a separate chapter in this series.

    Within the category of the cave temples, Mamallapuram provides various examples of different designs and styles. We find here simple temples with a front portico and a central cell in the rear wall, a front portico and multiple cells in the rear wall, cave temple without a front portico, cave temple with two porticos comprising of mukha- and ardha-mandapas and various other elements of decorations and motifs. These temples are left in various state of completeness, few almost complete, few as work in progress and few barely started. Therefore, the town reflects a character of a workshop in its true sense. The topic of the degree of completeness with its reasons and impacts is addressed in a separate chapter of this series.

    Mode of Excavating a Cave Temple

    The incompleteness of these temples have been advantageous for the scholars, as it helps them understand the mode and technique utilized to excavate a cave temple. From the cave temples which barely started off, we come across the mode of excavation. It appears that to get a vertical and plain scarp of the rock, the rock was divided into small squares with deep markers incised in between. These square blocks were later chipped off to get a plainer façade. Joanna William3 explains that the square sections of the groves were soaked in oil and set on fire to soften the stone to carve out using chisels.

    Whatever be the mode of excavation and further scooping, it is certain that it was a very tiresome and time consuming activity. Though I do not have a reference so to ascertain how much time it would have taken for a simple cave temple to be excavated in that period of time, however I may simply say that it would have easily taken around 10 years depending on the design and sculptures. Without much ado, let us move forward and witness the beauty of cave temples of Mamallapuram in next chapters.

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    1 Mahalingam, T V. Inscriptions of the Pallavas. Agam Kala Prakashan. New Delhi.
    2 Hirsh, Marilyn (1987). Mahendravarman I Pallava: Artist and Patron of Mamallapuram published in Artibus Asiae vol. 48, no ½. pp 109-123
    3 Joanna Williams (1986). Unfinished Images published in India International Centre Quarterly Vol. 13, No. 1, IMAGES. pp 90-105