Thursday, January 5, 2023


This is one of the first images of Mamallapuram that one encountered as a school-kid a few decades ago. The state-government-supplied school notebooks had a closer view of the two elephants on its cover; I don't remember that series of notebooks as having anything else of 'Mahabs'. And for many years, this was the closest that one got to Mahabalipuram / Mahabs in school. Roughly 60 km south of Chennai, this seashore town was not easy to access in the 70s and early 80s; a visit there meant the whole day would have to be budgeted for. Mahabs has become closer these days. One can set out early in the morning and be back home for lunch. But with so many more dining options available all the way between Chennai and Mamallapuram, it is not easy to get back home for lunch. Somehow, one gets the feeling that such ease of access has made us rather blasé about this - it was among the first in India to be inscribed in UNESCO's List - World Heritage Site. 

This particular structure was commissioned by the Pallava king Narasimhavarman (Mamallan) to celebrate his victory over Pulakesi of the Chalukyas in the late 7th century CE. (The shore temple, also part of the UNESCO list, was built later, in the 8th century). Strangely though, the popular names for this do not have any reference to Mamallan's victory. A natural cleft in the rock, around which most of the figures have been chiseled, allowed water to gush through during the monsoons (There is supposedly a tank at the top of the cleft, but I believe that to be a more modern addition; I'm willing to be corrected, though!), giving this its international name: the Descent of the Ganges. A hermit-like figure, standing on one leg, arms raised in prayer could then be Bhagirata, whose unflinching austerities convinced Ganga to come down to earth. But then, Siva seems to also have the Pashupatastra with him, so that sage might also depict Arjuna supplicating Siva for that weapon; hence, we know this also as Arjuna's Penance. 

Siva, Bhagirata/Arjuna, Ganga, the elephants; these are just few of the images. With over 100 other individual bas-relief sculptures making up this monument, there are possibly a lot of stories that can be extracted from them. The guides at Mamallapuram will happily tell you a whole lot of them - and with a little bit of imagination, you possibly can, too. The presence of a lot of frolicking monkeys nudges me to think of the Tirukutrala Kuravanji, no matter that it came about a millennium later!

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