Mamallapuram – Varaha Mandapam


    Mamallapuram – The Workshop of the Pallavas

    Varaha Mandapam


    Watercolour drawing with pen and ink of the elevation of the Varaha Cave Temple at Mamallapuram, by an anonymous artist, part of the MacKenzie Collection and from and Album of 37 drawings and plans of the temples and sculptures at Mamallapuram, c. 1816 | British Library
    Photograph of the Varaha Cave Temple at Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu, from the Archaeological Survey of India Collections taken by Alexander Rea in the 1880s | British Library

    This west facing cave temple is the most complete and ornamented cave-temple at Mamallapuram. It is famous for its four majestic relief panels adorning its internal walls. The façade is supported on two pillars and two pilasters. The pillars and pilasters have seated-vyala base supporting a cylindrical shaft, topped with bulbous capital and square abacus. The cornice is decorated with kudu arches (dormer window) with lotuses inside, six in total. Above the cornice is the regular decoration of interconnected oblong shrines (sala), three in number.

    Varaha Cave |

    The cave-temple is excavated in mandapa style with a single hall. A shrine is hewn out in the rear wall and it projects out into the hall. The entrance of this shrine is guarded by a pair of dvarapalas. These dvarapalas wear usual attributes of Vishnu, shankha (conch) and chakra (discus) on their headdress, suggesting their Vaishnava nature. In addition to these dvarapalas on the front, additional dvarapalas have been provided, on the side walls of this shrine, one on each side wall.

    Cave Facade |

    On the front beam of the central shrine, a frieze of ten ganas is carved out while frieze of hamsas (swan) is found on the beam of the sides. Above the beam is a cornice, decorated with dormer windows (kudu arches).  These arches have human heads inside unlike as those in the cornice of the façade. Two lateral walls and the walls on the either side of the central shrine are adorned with four Pallava masterpieces. On the side walls, we find Durga and Lakshmi while on the lateral walls, Vishnu is present in his Varaha and Vamana incarnations.

    Varaha Panel |

    When a visitor enters the hall, the panel on his left shows Vishnu in his Varaha form. Varaha is standing firm on his left foot keeping his right foot over the hood of Shesha. He is shown with four arms, carrying shankha (conch) and chakra (discus) in his forearms and holding Bhu-devi with his lower arms. Bhu-devi is shown seated on his right thigh, her breasts touching the snout of Varaha. She is shown as a shy lady but happy at the same time on being rescued from the nether world. Brahma shown with three heads and four arms stands in tribhanga-mudra behind Vishnu. The object held by Brahma in his lower left hand is not clear, Gopinatha Rao1 identifies it as kamandalu while Lockwood2 takes it to as gourd water vessel. His other two hands do not hold objects, one hand is resting on his waist while the other is in kataka-mudra. The figure behind Brahma is that of a sage, identified with Narada by Gopinatha Rao and Nagaswamy3, the latter suggesting that he is holding a musical instrument, vina.

    Varaha Panel | www.indiancolumbus.

    Opposite Shesha is shown a lady standing and joining her hands in anjali-mudra. Srinivasan4 suggests that she may be identified as Shesha’s wife as both of them are shown originating from the ocean depicted as wavy ripples however wife of Shesha should be shown with a serpent hood. Gopinatha Rao takes her as Bhu-devi however Bhu-devi is already shown being held in the arms of Varaha therefore there does not arise a need to duplication. Behind the lady is a sage, whom Nagaswamy5 identified as Sunandana stating that his musical instrument is shown vertically in front of him, however this vertical object is also identified as cornucopia6, vina7 and the tail of shesha8. In case the male figure is identified with a sage, then the lady may be taken as the wife of the sage. Surya and Chandra are present on the upper corners. Srinivasan9 explains that the grouping and the depiction of individual forms appears to follow the iconography more of the Vaikhanasagama than other texts like Silpa-ratna, Agni-purana or Vishnu-dharmottara.

    Gaja-Lakshmi |

    On the back wall, left of the central shrine, is a relief of Gaja-Lakshmi. She is shown seated on a lotus pedestal with her two hands in kataka-mudra. She is attended by four maidens, two on each side. Two maidens are holding water vessels, two holding other objects, may be flowers. Two majestic elephants are on upper corners, one is in process of pouring water from a vessel over the Goddess while other one is in process of lifting a vessel to follow. This scene represents the bath given to Goddess Lakshmi from celestial elephants, including Airavata, when she emerged from the ocean, during the episode of the samudra-manthana.

    Wall Panels |

    On the back well, right of the central shrine, is a relief depicting Durga as Korravai. Korravai, the victory Goddess of the Eiynar community, is mentioned in the chapter XII of Silappatikaram. The Goddess in the panel is shown with four hands, holding shankha (conch) and chakra (discus). Her one hand is on her thighs and one is abhaya-mudra. A parasol above her head suggests her royal status. Lion and stag, two mounts of Durga, are in upper corners. Below them are four ganas, two on either side. Near the feet of the Goddess are two devotees, one on her right is holding his hair and holding a sword on his neck while the one on her left has raised his hand in adoration.

    Korravai |

    Taking a hint from the stag, Srinivasan10 tells that stag is not mentioned as a mount of Durga in any iconographical texts, however it appears regularly in the Pallava and the Pandya sculptures therefore the goddess should be identified with Korravai. Stag as her mount is referred by Sambandar and Kambar. Following Silappatikaram, Srinivasan describes the iconography of the goddess Korravai that she should have a body of blue color, red lips, white teeth and dark neck with a third eye on her forehead. She should be holding a discus, conch, sword, shula (spear) and a bow with string of a snake Vasuki. She should be wearing a skin of a tiger, and a belt of lion’s skin, a kalal (hero’s calf-band) on one leg and silambu (woman’s anklet) on the other, with the coiffure of jata adorned by a serpent, breast-band made of snake. She is said to be fought with asuras and destroyed Daruka and Mahishasura. Deer and lion are said to be her vehicle. She is said to be a younger sister of Vishnu.

    The devotees found in this panel are indeed curious and interesting as it appears that they signify a blood sacrifice in honor of the Goddess. J C Harle11 provides a reference from Silappatikaram, when Kovalan and Kannagi were going from Uraiyur to Madura, they came across a wild region where Eiynar of Maravar tribes were living. Their Goddess was Korravai who was worshiped as the goddess of victory. The tribe, in return of victory or wish, has to pay dues to the Goddess in form of their own heads. Warriors used to invoke the Goddess, offering their blood after cutting their necks. Harle suggests that the offering may not be of a head but of blood from their neck.

    “Accept the blood that flows from our severed heads, the price of a victory you granted……Accept the blood and flesh we offer in thanks for victories….Virgin goddess! Accept our blood, our sacrifice performed before your alter in fulfilment of the Eiynar’s vow. The tigerish warriors lie prostrate now, before the lotus of your feet.”12

    Srinivasan13 points to an inscription of the Pallava king Kampavarman which has a sculpture of a decapitated man who is holding his severed head in his left hand while a sword in his right hand. As per the inscription, the man, named Okkandanagan Okkatindan Patti Pottan, has offered his head as the final offering after offering nava-khandam; flesh from nine parts of his body. Srinivasan tells that these kinds of vows were taken by the warrior class when they desire victory for their kings or hunts. References of offering one’s head to a Goddess are found very frequently in Indian medieval literature. However whether the practice was in vogue or not might be questionable. If the practice was in use, then it might be the case of a self-sacrifice, mention of which is made in various inscriptions of various dynasties. Keeping these points in mind, it may be safely said that the Goddess depicted here is Korravai who later merged with the cult of Durga.

    Trivikrama |

    The lateral wall on the right side has a relief of Vishnu in his Trivikrama form. Vishnu, in his Vamana incarnation, took the form of Trivikrama after being granted three steps of land from king Bali. Srinivansan14 tells that like Varaha panel, this relief also follows the principles described in Vaikhanasagama. Vishnu is shown with eight arms carrying chakra (discus), gada (club), khadga (khife), shankha (conch), ketaka (shield) and bow. His one hand is held up with palm turned up as mentioned in Vaikhanasagama. His another hand is stretched along his stretched foot up in the sky.

    The whole scene can be divided into three parts, the upper parts represents svarga (heaven), the middle part sky and lower part represents the earth. In the upper part is shown Brahma, seated on a lotus, near Vishnu’s stretched foot, offering ablution. On his opposite is shown Shiva, also seated on a lotus. In between Vishnu and Brahma is shown Jambavan, beating drum. All the three belong to the heavenly world therefore their depiction in the upper part of the panel is most appropriate. The middle part of the panel has Surya and Chandra, both representing the sky. Another figure, shown falling down, is also present at the same level. Srinivasan15 identifies him with Trishanku while Nagaswamy16 as an attendant of king Bali who was tossed up when Vishnu stretched his feet into the heavens. Lockwood17 mentions that he may be Namuchi, who, opposing Vishnu, and grasping his left feet was flung sky high.

    On the lowest level, the earth, near the feet of Trivikrama, are shown four figures, two on either sides. Nagaswamy takes the seated figure immediately to the right of Trivikrama as Garuda. The other figure close to the legs of Trivikrama is Sunandana. On the extreme left is a seated royal figure King Bali holding a long necked vessel. Seated before his is his guru (preceptor) Shukracharya, in agitated posture. However this identification may have issues as three people out of the four are shown wearing long crowns. The crown of the extreme left and right person seems to the same. Therefore all of them may be identified as the party of King Bali.

    Srinivasan take all these panels into account and suggests that these represents victory and therefore it would have been appropriate for the Pallava king Narasimhavarman I to carve out these panels representing his victory over the Chalukyas and sacking of their capital city Vatapi. As the panels and the cave-temple follows principles of Vaikhanasagama, Nagaswamy concludes that it matches with the titles of Rajasimha, Agama-parakrama and Agamanusri, explaining that Rajasimha was a follower of the agamas. Therefore this cave should have been excavated by him.

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    1 Gopinatha Rao, T A. Elements of Hindu Iconography vol. I part I. p 138
    2 Lockwood, Michael (1993). Mamallapuram – A Guide to the Monuments. Tambaram Research Associates. Chennai. p 54
    3 Nagaswamy, R (2008). Mahabalipuram. Oxford University Press. New Delhi. ISBN 9780198071273. p 41
    4 Srinivasan, K R (1964). Cave-Temples of the Pallavas. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 147
    5 Nagaswamy, R (2008). Mahabalipuram. Oxford University Press. New Delhi. ISBN 9780198071273. p 42
    6 Longhurst, A H (1928). Pallava Architecture Part II. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 31
    7 Gopinatha Rao, T A (1914). Elements of Hindu Iconography Vol. I Part I. The Law Printing House . Madras (now Chennai). p 138
    8 Srinivasan, K R (1964). Cave-Temples of the Pallavas. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 147
    9 Srinivasan, K R (1964). Cave-Temples of the Pallavas. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 146
    10 Srinivasan, K R (1960). Some Aspects of Religion as revealed by Early Monuments and Literature of the South. University of Madras. Chennai.  pp 22-24
    11 Harle, James C. (1963). Durgā, Goddess of Victory published in Artibus Asiae Vol. 26, No. 3/4. pp 237-246
    12 Tarakov, Gary Michael & Dehejia, Vidya (1984). Sharing, Intrusion, and Influence: The Mahiṣāsuramardinī Imagery of the Calukyas and the Pallavas published in Artibus Asiae Vol. 45, No. 4. p 330
    13 Srinivasan, K R (1960). Some Aspects of Religion as revealed by Early Monuments and Literature of the South. University of Madras. Chennai. pp 29-30
    14 Srinivasan, K R (1964). Cave-Temples of the Pallavas. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 147
    15 Srinivasan, K R (1964). Cave-Temples of the Pallavas. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 148
    16 Nagaswamy, R (2008). Mahabalipuram. Oxford University Press. New Delhi. ISBN 9780198071273. p 43
    17 Lockwood, Michael (1993). Mamallapuram – A Guide to the Monuments. Tambaram Research Associates. Chennai. p 63