|Water-tank (dry) near Shore temple|
Left to right: Varaha, Pillar temple, Spring
|Left: Diving Varaha when tank has some water |
Right: Rishabantika Siva in the pillar shrine
Just to the north of the twin shore temples at Mamallapuram is an excavated granite water tank (or pond) with some unusual sculptures of the Pallava era. From south to north, they are a digging (diving, rather) Varaha, a pillar temple and a natural spring with a jala-kanya sculpture. These were not discovered until the 1990s by the ASI, being buried in the sand until then. Scholars seem to have not hazarded too many guesses at what this tank could be, though it seems obvious to me. NS Ramaswamy’s book “2000 Years of Mamallapuram” summarises a paper that PL Samy published, titled “Water cult in Mahabalipuram”, in Journal of Tamil Studies, Tuticorin, 1975. Not too many new books on Mamallapuram have appeared after the excavation of the tank. And they have concentrated on the other aspects of Mamallapuram.
The Varaha sculpture is carved out of the mother rock like the three other animal sculptures in the Five Rathas nearby. It has four birudas (titles) of Rajasimha Pallava, some of his favorites, inscribed upon the base, in Sanskrit in the Pallava Grantha script. The birudas on the side are “Sri RajasimhaH” “Sri RanajayaH” and “Sri BharaH”. The biruda on the rear, under the varaha’s tail, is “Sri Citra KaarmukaH”. Between the legs of the boar on both the and under its tail, leaves of acquatic plants are sculpted. These are similar to those at the base of the Varaha and Gajalakshmi panels in the Varaha Mandapam. These indicate that the boar which represents Vishnu, is diving under water, not merely digging.
|Sanskrit inscriptions in Pallava Grantha script- |
Sri RaajasimhaH Sri RaNajayaH Sri BharaH
श्री राजसिंहः श्री रणजयः श्री भरः
The pillar temple, unique even to Mamallapuram, has a small shrine in its middle, about a foot square, with a bas-relief of Siva as Rishabantika on the back wall. The base, part of the mother rock, like the Varaha, has clearly sculpted features that are part of the adishtana, with the lowest level a sixteen sided polygon and everything above it circular. The small shrine has two dvarapalas on seated lions with raised paws. Two similar pilasters adorn the rear of this shrine. The pillar shrine clearly has a kodungai, greeva and a shikara. That it is a temple is not in question. It contrasts nicely with a seated lion shrine on the south side of the Shore temple, which features a similar excavated small shrine, with Mahishasura Mardhinion on the back wall. This lion-vahana temple has a Pallava copy in the mini-tiger cave complex a further half-a-kilometer south of the Shore temple, but the pillar temple has no Pallava imitations. The only attempts at imitation which I can think of, are the modern cement-conrete pilaster shrines in most houses and apartment complexes, all over India, which usually have Vinayaka idols.
|A panoramic photo of Rishabhantika Siva|
with Brahma and Vishnu flanking him
About three feet north of the pillar temple, is a freshwater spring (called sunai in Tamil). It has a sandy base when dry, and seeps water occasionally. It has a flawless circular ring wall, about two feet in diameter, with a niche at the eastern side, which has a sculpted figure of a jala-kanya (water-maiden) and her chaamara-kanyas (whisk-bearers).
|The Spring, when dry|
Sandy bed. Jalakanya sculpture
|Spring under water|
Clearly the whole stepped tank was designed to fill up with fresh water, either from the spring, or by rain. Notice that the topstep of the watertank is lower than the greeva of the pillar temple. If the tank ever filled up to the brim, the shikara would still be above the water level. This is quite significant and by design.
I believe the pillar temple is not merely a temple, but a representation of Siva as Lingodhbhava and is integrated into the tank for this purpose. There is no other Lingodhbhava at Mamallapuram, but there is a magnificent Lingodhbhava on the southern wall of the Kanchi Kailasanatha temple, also built by Rajasimha Pallava. Eight armed , and encased in a rhombus like pattern of four slanted lines within a rectangular niche, neither the feet of the Lingodhbhava nor the tip of his crown (jata-makuta or matted hair) are shown, just as they were not seen by Brahma or Vishnu. To his sides below his waist are Brahma and Vishnu, standing in adoration. Above them respectively are (1) Brahma flying (b) Surya and Chandra flying, Siva’s jata-makuta raising over them. Directly under Siva, is shown a four armed boar, carrying the conch (shankha) and discus (chakra), the weapons of Vishnu.This is severaly damaged, but it is unmistakeable. In later Chola sculptures, a similar Lingodhbhava but more cylindrial, with Siva in an oval rather than rhombus-like interior, can be seen with a hamsa (swan) representing Brahma. Often Brahma himself is seated on the swan.
|Lingodhbhava - Kanchi Kailasanatha temple|
Varaha below Lingodhbhava
|Lingodhbhava at Sivapuram |
near of Coovam river
|Brahma on hamsa - Sivapuram|
|Vishnu as Varaha, Sivapuram|
|Brahma on hamsa - Konerirajapuram|
Living Sculptures: Water in the Bas-Relief Panels
Prof Baluswamy in his Tamil books அர்சுணன் தபசு Arjunan Tapasu (about Arjuna’s Penance) and புலிகுகையும் கிருஷ்ண மண்டபமும் Puli Kugaiyum Krishna Mandapamum (about Tiger Cave and Krishna Mandapam), showed that not only the Arjuna’s Penance bas-relief, but also the Govardhana bas-relief in Krishna Mandapam had water themes. The cleft in the middle of the Arjuna Penance indicated the Ganga, which led Victor Goloubew to propose that it is Bhagiratha’s Penance rather than that of Arjuna. And several scholars have pointed out that there existed a brick-and-mortar cistern at the top of the cleft. So when rain filled up a tank there, and water flowed out, viewers would see a torrent of water pouring down the Ganga cleft – rendering it a living sculpture, where water was integrated with the stone figures. Baluswamy argued that the Govardhana panel was also a living sculpture, before Vijayanagar kings built a mandapam preventing rain. Imagine seeing Krishna lift the Govardhana panel through the drizzle as people had for the previous seven or eight centuries!
Several of the monuments in Mallai, including Trimurthi mandapam with a well, Varaha mandapam, with a small tank, Dharamraja Ratha with water spouts, Mahishasura Mardhini Rock lapped by the sea at high tide have obvious water integration, besides the two great bas reliefs. I believe a case could me made that Tiger Cave, Mini Tiger caves, Athiranachanda mandapam, Koneri mandapam (named after the large pond nearby called Koneri) and most likely the original Vishnu shrine in the shore temple, had themes based on water integration. Like Fermat’s theorem, those are too small to fit here in this blog.
Now imagine the Lingodhbhava water-tank filled to the brim with clear water. Imagine a swan flies in and swims along the surface, representing Brahma – but still below the top of the Lingodhbhava pillar. Peer through the water, and see a Varaha diving, but not quite reaching the bottom of the water : a Varaha with the title “Sri Bhara”, the perfect epithet for Vishnu!
A play with water and sculpture, worthy of a king who called himself IndraLeelaH? A well-measured marvel, isn't it? Or to use the Sanskrit phrase : atimaanam atiadputam! अतिमानम् अति अत्पुदम् ॥
Can you, like me, see Athyantakaama Pallava smiling at us, through the misty drizzle of thirteen centuries?
|Pond at TTDC Resort, Mamallapuram|
If you liked this essay, you may also like my other blogs on Mamallapuram or Rajasimha
1. Atyantakaama Pallava's poem - a musical experiment
2. Rajasimha's third inscription
3. An overview of Mamallapuram
5. Pallava Grantha alphabet in Kanchi Kailasantha temple
2. Rajasimha's third inscription
3. An overview of Mamallapuram
4. Rajasimha’s Calligraphic Nagari script