An obsolete touristy village today, on the shore of Bay of Bengal, 60 km south of Chennai, Mahabalipuram in 7th century CE, however, was a flourishing city bustling with activities of sailors who came from far and near to load and unload their cargoes. Today all that is lost except the drifting sands and the solitude after the sun goes down beyond the horizon of Bay of Bengal whispering its glorious past.
On this puzzling landscape, there still stand 35 monuments, large and small of different types. But interestingly a majority of them are unfinished. One of the types of monuments is the monoliths, small shrines cut out of a single boulder of rock. Best known of the series is the Pancha Pandava Rathas that attract visitors in large numbers throughout the day.
These monuments, the first of its kind in South India had been erected under the patronage of Pallava rulers between 580 CE and 720 CE.
Mahabalipuram is located on picturesque Beach Road that connects Chennai with Puducherry on the Bay of Bengal. A popular tourist destination in Tamil Nadu, Mahabalipuram is well connected by Bus service from Chennai, Kanchipuram and Puducherry. The destination offers a large number of stay options including high-end resorts. It takes about 2 hours to reach Mahabalipuram either from Chennai or Kanchipuram. While at Mahabalipuram also explore the stone craft in the village. It requires a minimum of 6 hours to appreciate the archaeological ruins of the place. December and January are the best months. From February onward it becomes very hot and humid.
The first Pallava ruler was Mahendra who ruled until 630 CE from his capital Kanchipuram. Under his leadership, the Pallava kingdom had extended as far south as modern-day Trichy. He was succeeded by his son Narasimha I Mammala.
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Mammala had fought several wars with the Chalukya rulers of Badami (today’s north-central Karnataka) and had defeated many kings of South India. Mahabalipuram, earlier known as Mammalapuram was named after Mammala, who had also developed the site into a major port.
Paramesvara was the next ruler who too had fought several wars with the Chalukyas. Paramesvara was succeeded by the great ruler Narasimha II Rajasimha during whose reign Pallava territory had remained in peace. Rajasimha was also a great builder. Notable structural temples at Mahabalipuram and his capital at Kanchipuram were built during his reign.
According to a recent trend of research, most of Mahabalipuram’s unfinished monoliths were erected during Rajasimha’s time. Because all his predecessors were too busy in wars with Chalukyas and there was little time to focus on building or carving temples. After Rajasimha’s death, there was anarchy like the situation with political instability and that may explain why most of Mahabalipuram’s monoliths are unfinished.
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Among the best known of Mahabalipuram’s monoliths are a group known as Pancha Pandava Rathas. Four of the five rathas have been cut from a single whale-back boulder. The fifth is excavated from an isolated boulder. The rathas are named after the five Pandavas and their common wife Draupadi. However, the monuments have no connection to Pandavas.
These monoliths exhibit four completely different styles of architecture. Except for the Draupadi Ratha, none of them is complete, which depicts a common man’s hut. The Arjuna and Dharmaraja Rathas depict the early stage of South Indian temples. The Bhima Ratha is an example of a structure with a cylindrical form of roof that later became the basis of the typical South Indian gopurams.
The Nakula – Sahadeva Ratha is an example of Gaja Pristha or elephant backed architecture. An elephant shaped monoliths stand nearby suggesting that the apprentices were first made to carve out the elephant and the curvature of its back was set out as the model for the shape of the shrine.
These shrines were never completed and hence never in use. Perhaps space was used as an experimental ground to create different forms of architecture at the formative phase of South Indian temples. Some of them were later formalized and evolved into mature forms of Dravidian temples.
There are a few other rathas, one in the middle of the village, the Ganesh Ratha, which is in a relatively complete state and three on the other side of the village close to the Highway, which is abandoned and in a fairly preliminary state of excavation. But a close observation of their unfinished state gives an idea of how the rathas were carved from isolated boulders of rock.
Author – Jitu Mishra
He can be contacted at email@example.com