Mamallapuram, the city of Mamalla, is after the title of great
Pallava ruler Narasimhavarman-I (AD 630-68). It was a sea-port during
the time of Periplus (1st century AD) and Ptolemy (AD 140) and many
Indian colonists sailed to South-East Asia through this port town.
While there is some evidence of architectural activity going back to
the period of Mahendravarman-I (AD 600-30), the father of Mamalla,
most of the monuments like rock-cut rathas, sculptured scenes on open
rocks like Arjuna's penance, the caves of Govardhanadhari and
Mahishasuramardini, the Jala-Sayana Perumal temple (the sleeping
Mahavishnu or Chakrin at the rear part of the Shore temple complex)
are attributed to the period of Narasimhavarman-I Mamalla.
Of the nine monolithic temples found in Mahabalipuram, the most
important are Five Rathas known after the famous five Pandava brothers
of the Mahabharata fame. These monuments are carved out a single rock
with choice of all known forms of plan and elevations. While the
Dharmaraja, Arjuna and Draupadi rathas are square on plan, the Bhima
and Ganesa rathas are rectangular and Sahadeva ratha apsidal.
The Draupadi ratha is a simple hut like kutagara shrine while the
Arjuna ratha is a dvitala vimana with a mukhamandapa. The Bhima ratha
is rectangular on plan with a salakara wagon-vaulted roof. The
Dharmaraja ratha is a tritala vimana having functional shrines at all
the talas. The Nakula-Sahadeva ratha with an apsidal plan and
elevation indicate the experimental tendency of the architect.
Though monolithic sculpturing, both cut-in and cut-out, continued
even during later periods (Atiranachanda cave, Pidari rathas and
Tiger-cave), the structural architecture was introduced on a grand
scale by Pallava Rajasimha (AD 700-28), culminating in erection of the
world famous Shore temple. The Shore temple is a complex of three
temples, viz, Rajasimhesvara (a small tritala vimana facing west), the
Kshatriyasimhesvara (the larger east facing vimana) and Nripatisimha
Pallava Vishnugriha (an east facing, oblong, flat-roofed mandapa
shrine) housing the reclining Vishnu. These shrines are enclosed by
two prakara walls with openings constructed in later times. The inner
surface of prakara walls once contained panel sculptures which are
worn out now.
The notable cave temples here are the Varaha mandapa, Mahisamardini
mandapa, Paramesvara Mahavaraha Vishnugriha (Adivaraha cave). These
are in the Mamalla style while the Adiranchanda caves temples belong
to the Mahendra period.
The caves here were once plastered and painted as indicated by the
remains. After Rajasimha, there is lull in the architectural activity
of the place, save a few additions during late-Pallava and Chola
times. The grandiose Vijayanagara phase here is represented by the
Raja Gopurams and the Sthala-Sayana temple, juxtaposed to the carved
boulder of Arjuna's penance.
Recent excavations to the north and south of the Shore Temple have
revealed rock-cut figures representing religious themes of period
prior to the construction to the temple. Besides, a monolithic
Bhuvaraha, a reclining image of Vishnu, the base of Durga shrine with
deer and a square socket possibly to accommodate mahastambha have also
been exposed. To the south of the Shore Temple was exposed a stepped
ghat facing the sea.
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