Amazing Rock-Temples of Mahabalipuram (1)

Dr. Sunil Deepak, 12 September 2018

Mahabalipuram on the south-eastern coast of India is a city with some of the most amazing temples cut into granite rocks. Its name (Mahabali or the strong man + Puram or city) refers to the ancient Hindu legend of Bali and his son Banasur.

Krishna's butter ball, Rocktemples Mahabalipuram, images by S. Deepak

This first part of the post is about some of the rock-temples around the area known as Arjuna’s Penance.

Rock-Temples in India

Humans had inhabited natural rock-caves since prehistoric times. With their primitive tools they had started creating niches in those rocks. For example, in Bhimbetaka caves near Bhopal in central India, you can see some of these man-made rock niches.

Cupules cut into rock in Bhimbetka, images by S. Deepak

Since finding natural caves in rocky areas was not always easy, the next step was man-made caves in the rocks. In India, the earliest man-made caves are from around 2nd century BC, made by Buddhist monks, such as those in Ajanta (Aurangabad) and Kanheri (Mumbai) in central-west India. These caves were used as habitations and temples.

Kanheri, Rocktemples Mumbai, images by S. Deepak

Over the next centuries, the idea of cutting rocks to create temples spread across central and south India. 5th to 8th century CE was the golden period of rock temples in India. In this period, a number of Hindu, Jain and Buddhist rock-temples were built in different parts of India – Rashtrakutas and Yadavs built Elephanta and Ellora (Maharashtra), Jain monks built Udaygiri (Madhya Pradesh), Chalukyas built Badami (Karnataka) and Pallavas built Mahabalipuram (Tamilnadu).

Building rock-temples required a lot of resources - to pay the skilled artisans who knew how to cut and mould the rocks over a period of years. Thus, each area of rock temples mentioned above, had a rich empire around 5-8th centuries CE. While there must have been some exchange of knowledge and skills between the artisans working in different parts of India, generations of artisans must have grown up and spent all their lives working the rocks in each of these places. Each of them developed their own specific styles. The rock-temples of Mahabalipuram are in what is called the Pallava style.

Kinds of Rock-temples

In Mahabalipuram there are four kinds of rock-temples:

  • Open-air Bass-relief temples: Figures are sculpted on the rock surface.
  • Temples in rock-caves: Caves are cut in the rock and then inside those caves, statues of deity can be in bass-relief or full sculptures.
  • Monolith temples: Big rocky boulders are taken and cut from the top-to-bottom, creating temples. In Mahabalipuram these are called “Rathas” (chariots).
  • Built temples: Blocks of rocks are cut and then places one over another to create the temple.

Myths & History

The original name of the town comes from the mythical king Bali, who was a very strong and powerful king. The legend says that Bali’s son was Banasur, who had imprisoned Anirudha, who was Krishna’s nephew and in love with Banasur’s daughter. Banasur was killed by Krishna. The town is also linked with the five Pandava brothers from “Mahabharat” and thus, different temples of the town are dedicated to them.

The rock temples of Mahabalipuram were built by the Pallava kings, who had their capital in Kanchipuram, 70 km away to the west, and who used Mahabalipuram as their port to export spices and silks as far as the Mediterranean and Romans.

The first temples of Mahabalipuram were built under king Mahendra Varman (580-629 CE). His son Narsimha Varman 1st, was a strong wrestler (Malla) and gave another name to this place – Mahamallapuram or Mammallapuram. His son Mahendra Varman 2nd, who ruled only for 3 years (668-670 CE), has his name inscribed in Adivaraha temple, where the town’s name Mahabalipuram is also mentioned.

The Ganesha Ratha temple was built under Parmeshwara Varman (670-690 CE) while Rajasimha (690-728 CE) was responsible for the shore temple.

Arjun’s Penance Monument Park

The main rock temples of Mahabalipuram are located in three areas, of which two areas are next to the sea – the shore temple and a group of five temples known as “Pancha Rathas”.

The third area is a little away from the sea, where a granite hill is surrounded by a grassy land and this is known as the Arjun’s Penance area. Apart from the 1,500 years old temples, it also includes a light-house built in late 19th century under the British. It is very rich in monuments. This post is about some of the monuments of this area.

Trimurti Temple & the Round Water Tank

I entered this park from its north entrance, towards the Mahabalipuram bus-stand side. The first temple I saw was the Trimurti temple, which is a rock-cave temple with bass-relief statues of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

Trimurti Rock-temple Mahabalipuram, images by S. Deepak

The sculptures of this temple are not very finally chiselled. At the same time, while Vishnu’s statue was recognisable, those of Shiva and Brahma did not have the distinctive features that we normally associate with their iconography. For example, the image below shows the Shiva sculpture from Trimurti temple – it is only the lingam in the foreground that identifies it as Shiva.

Trimurti Rock-temple Mahabalipuram, images by S. Deepak

Outside the rock-temple, there is a circular water-tank cut into granite. It does not have steps for going inside, so it was not built as a usual temple-pond for the pilgrims. While cutting the rocks, a lot of water is needed to cool the surface. So, I wonder if they had created the circular tank to store water for the artisans, both for drinking and for rock-cutting? It is too well made in a perfect circle, to be used just for storage, so its purpose could have been two-fold – storing water while constructions were going on and then to remain there as a symbol of beauty in front of the temple.

Water tank, Trimurti Rock-temple Mahabalipuram, images by S. Deepak

Krishna’s Butter Ball

Between the Trimurti temple and the rest of the park, there are some huge granite boulders and the starting of a ridge that goes up towards the hill. As I walked on this ridge, I came across “Krishna’s butter ball”, a huge round boulder with its top surface cut smooth, that seems to be resting precariously on the rocks.

Krishna's butter ball, Mahabalipuram, images by S. Deepak

It is the most popular tourist spot in the park, with people vying to get their selfies all around the boulder.

When I saw it, I asked myself if there was a story behind this boulder? Was it cut and then left in that place deliberately because it was visually striking? Or was it a work in progress which was left incomplete because of some external event like some war or lack of funds?

Process of Rock-Cutting

Cutting the boulder must have been a long and hard work, requiring a knowledge about veins and planes of the rocks so that artisans knew where exactly to cut it. There are many other unfinished cut rocks in this area where you can see the process of cutting a rock and making rock-temples. For example, the image below shows that steps were cut in the rock and 3 niches were marked for making of statues, but the work was left unfinished.

Unfinished Rock-temple Mahabalipuram, images by S. Deepak

Similar unfinished rocks show how they cut such a smooth surface on the huge granite boulders. They first made holes in a line on the rock surface as you can see in the image below.

Holes in rocks, Mahabalipuram, images by S. Deepak

The next image shows a cut boulder with markings on the upper edge showing the places where holes were made.

Cut rock showing hole-marks, Mahabalipuram, images by S. Deepak

However, the holes do not seem to be very deep. So how did making holes in a line, divided the boulder in two parts with smooth surfaces? Did they have one deeper hole where they pushed in an iron rod to act as a lever? Did they use water in some way to force the separation? Do you have any ideas how they did it?

Ganesh’s Rath

This is a monolithic temple chiselled out from a single big boulder like a sculptor sculpts a statue. It is located a little to the south on the grass-land below Krishna's Butter Ball, along a rocky path that leads up to another granite hill.

It looks like the wooden temples on the chariots used for the annual functions in the temples when deities are taken out in processions. Perhaps that is why such temples are called “Rath” (chariot).

Ganesh rath, monolithic temple Mahabalipuram, images by S. Deepak

Since the sculptors start with these constructions from the top, their top parts are much more elaborate compared to the bottoms.

Rayar Gopuram

The path going uphill from Ganesh’s rath leads to other constructions on the top, with a raised platform and pillars, including an entrance gate, which could have been somewhat like a Gopuram, that became popular in the temple architecture some centuries later.

Rayar Gopuram, Mahabalipuram, images by S. Deepak

Other Rock Temples

As I walked around this area, I saw different rock-temples. Some of these had inscriptions, such as the one in Adivaraha temple in the image below, which includes the word Mahabalipuram.

Epigraph, Adivaraha temple, Mahabalipuram, images by S. Deepak

The sculptures at the top of this hill are older and more finely made. For example, look at the image below showing the Vamana story when Vishnu assumed giant form and in three steps covered the whole universe, from one of the temples. This story is based in Mahabalipuram because in the myth, Vishnu had come as a Vamana to the Asura king Bali and tricked him into donating his empire. I loved this sculpture – it has Vishnu in the vamana form at the bottom and also in the giant form with his left leg raised up to an impossible yogic angle reaching out to the universe around him.

Vamana Vishnu, Mahabalipuram, images by S. Deepak

I also suspect that the 3 figures shown sitting at his feet include the king and some other important persons of that period – probably the king is the one sitting close to the right leg of Vishnu. However, it does not show the mythical king Bali.

Conclusions

This first post about Mahabalipuram shows the richness of iconographies and rock-cut sculptures from 1,500 years ago. If you are interested in art, history and archaeology, you can spend hours in each of the temples described above and discover new things.

The area known as Arjun’s Penance has a large number of monuments. In this post I have limited myself to the northern and western parts of this area. The eastern and southern parts of this area will be the subject of my next post.

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Dr Sunil Deepak
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Email: sunil.deepak(at)gmail.com