Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Lingodhbhava at Mamallapuram Shore temple

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
4. Rajasimha’s Calligraphic Nagari script
5. Pallava Grantha alphabet in Kanchi Kailasantha temple
7. மாமல்லபுரத்து உழைப்பாளர் சிலை 

...or these videos

Prof Baluswamy on Arjuna's Penance (in Tamil)
Prof Baluswamy on Krishna Mandapam (in Tamil)
R Gopu on 2000 Years of Mamallapuram (in Tamil)


  1. Annae, I am one of the fortunate few to be there when you explained this right there at the temple premises. It was both interesting and novel interpretation.

    However IMHO (purely based on instincts), I wish to share the following reservations with you

    The adhistanam, the shrine and the vimanam all are in 3 different COLOUR TONES suggesting me they are from 3 different pieces.

    Also the PROPORTION of the 3 components looks skewed and gives me a feel that someone has assembled different components brilliantly.

    Furthermore the contrasting seated lion shrine you mention is a monolithic unlike this.

    The gap between the Varaha and the pond wall is another point to ponder, would the artistically sensitive and sensible Pallavas carve a rounded sculpture and restrict us from going around it?.

    Last but not least the 3 components don't share the same STYLIZATION (I am afraid to say this therefore kept this as a last point, because my best connections to sculptures are through you and other TH acaryas; I don't have the necessary knowledge to comment, but still did it out of ஒரு முரட்டு தைரியம்)

    1. Muthu, thanks for the compliments and the comments, all of which are quite insightful. Perhaps they are all correct. But let me offer counterpoints.

      1. Different color tones. In this, the pillar temple resembles the Shore temples, which have upapeetham and segments of adhishtana made from granite mother rock but walls and vimana of laterite. I say this based merely on amateur observation. A geologist must confirm or deny whether the component rock of the upper parts of the Shore Temple and the upper part of the pillar temple are made from similar rock material.

      2. a. If the proportion is skewed how can the assembly be brilliant? It would look terrible. There are examples of bad assembly all over the shore temple, mainly of the mandapam walls.

      b. I feel that the Pallava sculptor fit the structural components of a different material on to the fixed adishtana of the base material brilliantly. And the ASI has put the pieces back together very well : as well as they have put together the broken pieces of the adjacent Varaha

      3. Seated lion is monolithic because they had enough material to work with. Pillared temple is not monolithic perhaps because they had just enough to sculpt the adishtanam. I think the Pallava sthapathi has used the uneven mother rock brilliantly and with great imagination. The non-aligned twin temples are the most obvious example. This is another.

      4. Gap between Varaha and wall. Now allow me be more subjective, but cite a couple of examples.

      a. Artistically sensible and sensitive the Pallavas were, but not uniformly so. The lions on the southern end of the Krishna mandapam and the faces of the cattle leave something to be desired, compared to the rest of their work. A number of ganas in the ganavaris of several monuments are of questionable quality. The variation between between the sculptures of the upper and lower floors of the Dharmaraja ratha is obvious. The quality of the sculptures inside the nasis of the shore temples also tell their own tale. To leave us so many unfinished monuments is perhaps most insensitive of them - but perhaps they had sensible reasons, which we cannot discern!

      b. While this is the case, I think the Varaha is there by design. The Pallava silpi took advantage of his medium, and let his patron's imagination license to work a little. So the bull in the Five rathas is out of place. The right extreme portion of Arjuna's Penance curves with the rock, out of sight. The rishi and his disciples there are carved in full relief, in a panel where all other figures are not. One woodcutter seems to have wandered off, like Daedelaus, a little close to Surya. This is more ambitious than either Arjuna or Bhageeratha.
      The bull on the upper right of the Govardhana panel is almost in the round, and a little outside the umbra of the mountain lifted by Krishna. The lowest part of the left leg another bull in the middle this panel alone seems to be in the round, with a small gap from the mother rock.

      All of these indicate ambitious sculptors, who worked with the material they found, and used whatever imagination they had. And rarely shied away from a challenge. I lay these arguments in favor of the location of the Varaha. They merely sculpted it where they could. I dont think circumambulating the Varaha was anywhere on their minds.

      4. Stylization - I dont know what you mean.

    2. Annae, thanks for the speedy and lengthy response. INSPIRING.

      Points 1&3 helps me to understand how you see the whole and me the parts alone.

      Point 2, I am unable to explain why it looks skewed to me, now this is difficult for anybody to respond to my skewed perception :-) . However this on subsequent visits I am sure I would be able to engage better, probably without my viparyayam and vikalpam :-).

      Point 4(a&b) are enlightening.

      Last point on Stylization, despite my disclaimers I am undone by your simple statement. If I push myself I would say i am referring to the features, sharpness of edges, thickness etc. But normally I do not suffer so much of vagueness while making a point therefore I wish to resume discussion on this point later when we visit there.

      Before I conclude, I say it again, Lingodhbhava interpretation is very INTERESTING and NOVEL. It surely enhanced my experience when I was there.

  2. Wow. What an article and wow what a comment from Muthu. Like Muthu I am fortunate to have been part of the team. And it was lovely indeed to listen to your poetic decipherence of the freshwater tank sculptures.

  3. Wow! What an article and what a comment by Muthu! Like Muthu I am fortunate to be part of the team and it was lovely listening to your poetic decipherence of the freshwater tank.

  4. The concept is so poetic and very much pallava like. But I too have some doubts to be cleared by stalwarts like you. And I take the liberty of putting them down here considering the amount of freedom given to us to be part of any discussion despite the level of knowledge possessed.

  5. 1. Somehow i too feel the pillar shrine looks skewed. Also the size of the three parts look awkward to me thanks to maybe my poor understanding. Also the top part i.e. Vimana is not centerly positioned on top of the cylindrical structure. Anyway lets consider that as a unit.

    2. Now if it is intended to be a Lingodbava story why do we have a Rishabantika inside the shrine. Why not a lingodbhava?

    3. The size of the varaha is too big compared to the pillar shrine. Does it match with the poetic inference? Or should we take it as yet another poetic way of telling that inspite of being so big Vishnu found it difficult to reach the feet of Shiva?

    4. The varaha being carved on the base rock somehow justifies it being there in the cramped space. Without having any space to go around. Well..But why do we have an elaborate pedestal for the Varaha? This being an action scene the depiction should have been one of movement right?

    5. The varaha pedestal is done with details and has a majestic look. This more likely looks like a proud depiction of the Pallava flag icon Varaha. Also the names written down in the pedestal. Sribhara as said in the article maybe identified with Vishnu. But why Rajasimhah and Ranajaya here?

  6. 1. Skew of pillar : I think I have answered this in my response to Muthu's comments.

    2. Why Rishabhantika inside the shrine? : I have no satisfactory answer, except why not. Only the sculptor can answer this satisfactorily; or perhaps not. The Pallava artist seems to specialize in questions, not answers.

    3. Size of Varaha: They may have hewn the Varaha to the size of the rock available. Also size, like beauty, is the in eye of the beholder. Consider the size of Krishna and Balarama next to the cattle in Govardhana panel. Did they bother you? Or the elephants and other animals in the Penance panel - will they stand up to a scrutiny of comparative sizes?

    4. Varaha Pedestal : I think the pedestal shows that the varaha has not and will not reach the bottom of the tank - the level of the bottom of the Lingodhbhava

    5. The Pallava emblem is a bull, not a Varaha (which was the emblem of the Chalukyas). The other names are birudas of Rajasimha, but they could also double as names for Vishnu.

  7. One sure shot proof of it being filled with water to brim is a small hole / Vent for water to pass through below Rishabantika. The Varaha would be surely submerged