Mahabalipuram
(Mamallapuram)
   Mahabalipuram was an ancient port city, known to Greek traders, which served as a provincial capital under the Pallava dynasty (sixth through eighth centuries). It is known for its extraordinary rock carvings.
   The city served as the port for the chief Pal-lava capital at KANCHIPURAM. It was situated at the mouth of the Palar River, 32 miles south of Madras (Chennai). The river long ago changed course.
   A granite hill about 100 feet high and a half a mile in length, and a smaller granite outcropping farther south, provided the site and the raw mate-rial for the sculptures. Each work is carved out of solid stone, without the use of any brick or mor-tar, and without assembly of individual pieces. The technique was also used at the Kailasanatha temple at ELLORA TEMPLE contemporaneously.
   The most dramatic carving, “Descent of the GANGES” (also known as ARJUNA’S Penance), covers an entire cliff 30 feet high and 60 feet wide. It shows the Ganges’s descending from heaven, flanked on both sides by NAGAS and NAGINIS. Deities, human beings, and animals all face the fissure in the rock where the Gan-ges descends in attitudes of adoration. A small shrine immediately to the left has a standing SHIVA image, before which bows Bhagiratha, who was responsible for the Ganges’s descent. Above the temple Bhagiratha is shown doing penance, emaciated, holding his arms above his head, as was on the orthodox ascetic practice. There are monumental elephants to the right of him and a cat, delightfully imitating the ascetic posture of the sage. Mice are depicted at his feet and nearby are remarkably realistic carvings of deer and a monkey plucking fleas from its mate. The “ascetic” cat is faking asceticism to get mice, a Monolithic stone architecture in Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu (Constance A. Jones) not so subtle jab at renunciants who have not truly left behind desire.
   The hills contain 10 carved-out mandapas (temple areas) with pillars. The largest is 25 feet wide and 15 to 20 feet high, with a depth of about 25 feet. The mandapas contain reliefs and statues of VARAHA and VAMANA (AVATARS of VISHNU), the Sun God SURYA, DURGA, and the special LAKSHMI, Gajalakshmi, a form showing her being bathed by celestial elephants.
   Several rathas (chariot-shaped temples) can be found as well—the granite copying in every detail the shape and form of wooden buildings, although without finished interiors. They are dedicated variously to DRAUPADI, Arjuna, BHIMA, Dharmaraja, and Sahadeva. Some of these are of the oblong chaitya type, most often associated with Buddhist architecture.
   Finally, there is an elaborate shore temple, with two towers, all carved from solid granite. It contains images of both SHIVA and Vishnu, quite unusual in Indian temples of any era.
   Further reading: Michael Lockwood, Mamallapuram: A Guide to the Monuments (Madras: Tambaram Research Associates, 1993); M. Purushothama Rao, K. Lalitha, and M. C. Subramanyam, Mahabalipuram (Madras, Maps and Atlases Publications, 1970); C. Sivarama-murti, Mahabalipuram (New Delhi: Archaeological Sur-vey of India, 1978).

Encyclopedia of Hinduism. . 2007.

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