A majestic survivor

Published : Jan 28, 2005 00:00 IST

AS G. Baskar stood in the vicinity of the Shore Temple at Mamallapuram near Chennai on December 26 and scanned the sea, he could not believe what he saw. The waves receded by about 500 metres from the shoreline, exposing four or five "conical structures, broad at the basement". As he stood gazing at the structures, the waves returned, rising to a "height of about 25 feet" and smashing against the shore. "It looked as if a dam had burst and there was neck-deep water everywhere," said Baskar, a foreman with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Chennai Circle, based at Mamallapuram. However, the Shore Temple survived the onslaught of the waves although six feet (two metres) of water had entered it. Before the massive wall of water slammed this World Heritage Monument, it fell against a long groyne made of granite blocks and tore down a fence. The water toppled a few boulders on the outer prakara wall and dislocated the foundation of the bali peeta in front of the temple.

The surging waters deposited about a metre of silt in the temple. The boat-jetty/the keyed flight of steps, the Maha Varaha sculpture and the miniature shrine, all of which are located adjacent to the temple, were submerged. The ASI discovered these between 1990 and 1993. The water laid waste to the beautiful lawn around the temple, which the Central Public Works Department had laid on about 3.5 acres (1.4 hectares) and handed over to the ASI on December 22. Several shops outside the lawn were washed away.

"The Shore Temple is on a bed-rock. That saved it," said Dr. T. Satyamurthy, Superintending Archaeologist, ASI, Chennai Circle. G. Saravanan, Senior Conservation Assistant, ASI, Mamallapuram, said the ASI took up on a war-footing the cleaning up of the Shore Temple and the area around it. Teams of labourers set about removing the silt that had deposited to a height of about two feet inside the temple. "We used potable water to clean up the place", Saravanan said. The ASI has re-erected the outer prakara wall and rebuilt the dislocated core of the bali peeta.

Satyamurthy estimated the total loss at Rs.10 lakhs. He said he would recommend the setting up of an expert committee to suggest how to protect the temple from similar disasters.

The Shore Temple was built by the Pallava king Narasimhavarman II, also called Rajasimha (circa 690-715). He is also the author of several monuments at Mamallapuram.

The tsunami has rekindled a long-standing controversy - whether more temples or "pagodas" existed on the beach beyond the Shore Temple and were subsequently submerged. Archaeologists are sharply divided on this issue. Eyewitnesses, including Baskar, said they saw a row of structures, "broad at the basement and rising like a cone", and that they did not look like "bald boulders". Although the ASI staff took pictures of the ravaged Shore Temple complex a few minutes after the waves receded, they did not take pictures of the "structures" that loomed into view when the waves receded before the tsunami struck.

According to Satyamurthy, the ASI staff and tourists saw several "remains of the Shore Temple running 500 metres into the sea towards the south" before these were submerged again. "Some remains were noticed in situ. This shows that there were many temples other than the Shore Temple," he said. The ASI had done an underwater exploration off the Shore Temple in 1998 with the help of the marine wing of the Geological Survey of India. In 2003, the marine wing of the ASI did an underwater exploration off the Shore Temple and Satyamurthy took part in it. "The offshore explorations showed that some structures are available. Some oblique structures which remained below the water level were found... . They are now confirmed," he claimed.

Dr. B. Narasimhaiah, former Superintending Archaeologist, ASI, Chennai Circle, argued that there could not be any structures submerged in the water. He said, "If you think logically, there is no possibility of any more structures." According to him, when the Pallavas built the Shore Temple, there was water all round it. In other words, they chose a place that was encircled by water to build the Shore Temple. Only the rock on which the temple stands was visible above the water level. No other rock was visible above the water. At a later stage, the Pallava rulers reclaimed the land around the Shore Temple and it was in this reclaimed area that the Maha Varaha sculpture and the miniature shrine were excavated. "So there cannot be any (underwater) structure anywhere. But if you were to excavate on the beach, you may come across some remnants of structures. They cannot be below the present water level. We don't have any evidence to show that the water level has risen there," Dr. Narasimhaiah said.

A team of archaeologists from the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO), Goa, and the Scientific Exploration Society, United Kingdom, conducted an underwater exploration off Mamallapuram from April 1 to 4, 2002. A statement by the NIO on April 9, 2002, said the team "had successfully unearthed evidence of submerged structures off Mahabalipuram and established the first-ever proof of the popular belief that the Shore Temple is the remnant of a series of a total of seven such temples that have been submerged in succession."

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