Mamallapuram: A monumental effort

After a delay of about 40 years, the master plan to beautify Mamallapuram, a World Heritage Site, becomes a reality.

Published : Nov 21, 2003 00:00 IST

The Shore Temple at Mamallapuram, surrounded by the lawn that the Archaeological Survey of India has laid around it as part of the beautification project. The temple is undergoing a pulp and chemical treatment to arrest saline action.-

The Shore Temple at Mamallapuram, surrounded by the lawn that the Archaeological Survey of India has laid around it as part of the beautification project. The temple is undergoing a pulp and chemical treatment to arrest saline action.-

MAMALLAPURAM, or Mahabalipuram, famous for its rock-cut sculptures of the Pallava period, is undergoing extensive beautification. One among the 16 World Heritage Cultural Sites in India, it is a protected monument that comes under the care of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Chennai Circle.

After hanging fire for about 40 years, the master plan to beautify Mamallapuram has become a reality. The Union Ministry of Tourism and Culture is financing this multi-crore project called the "Integrated Development of Mamallapuram". Under the project, hectic work is going on to spruce up the area around the monuments. This includes fencing the area around the monuments, laying lawns and pathways, building parks, removing hawkers and encroachments, and so on. A son et lumiere will dazzle the monuments at night. The bus terminus, now in the heart of the town, will be shifted to Poonjeri, about a kilometre away. A parking lot will come up near the Tigers' Cave, which is a monument on the East Coast Road leading to Mamallapuram.

While the ASI has laid the lawns and pathways around the monuments, the Housing and Urban Development Corporation (HUDCO) has designed the parks that are coming up on both sides of the roads leading to the Shore Temple and the Five Rathas, two important monuments. There are other ambitious plans too. These include the laying of a pathway from behind the Shore Temple to the Five Rathas, and conserving more monuments.

The area around the Shore Temple, which fringes the Bay of Bengal, wears a new look. The horticulture wing of the ASI has laid a sprawling lawn on 11 acres (4.4 hectares) around the Shore Temple.

The Central Public Works Department (CPWD) is building the park with lawns, pathways of granite, a rendezvous in the middle with benches and so on. Estimated to cost around Rs.2 crores, the work on the park began in January this year. It is hard to believe that a little more than a year ago, this place was an open ground where hawkers pestered foreign tourists, pigs wallowed in slush, and political parties held meetings.

A sea change has come about on the hillock, which houses 13 monuments including the world's largest bas relief, Arjuna's Penance. The other monuments on the hillock include the Ganesa Ratha, the Olikanneswara temple, the Adivaraha rock-cut cave temple, the Kotikaal mantapa and the Yali mantapa. Until three years ago, the bushes on the hillock witnessed a variety of activities. The ASI has erected a grill fence around the entire hillock, which keeps out the cattle. The horticulture wing has now laid a sprawling lawn in front of the Butter Ball (a natural rock formation, perched precariously on the hillock slope), girdling the Ganesa Ratha and beyond.

T. Satyamurthy, Superintending Archaeologist, ASI, Chennai Circle, said: "Once the project is completed, Mamallapuram will be the pride of Tamil Nadu." More than the money pumped into the project, it was the will of the government and the cooperation of the local people that helped make the project a success, he said. "Members of the Mamallapuram town panchayat are cooperating with the project," Satyamurthy added. He refuted allegations that the number of visitors to Mamallapuram had dropped after the ASI started collecting a fee in 1977 from visitors to the Shore Temple and the Five Rathas. In fact the number of visitors to Mamallapuram had increased 100 per cent in the last few years, he said.

MAMALLAPURAM is known for its unparalleled works of architecture: rock-cut temples built by the Pallava rulers. According to the Mandagapattu (near Villupuram) inscription of the Pallava king Mahendravarman I (A.D. 580 - 630), unlike his ancestors who built temples using perishable materials such as brick, wood and metal, he built temples by cutting imperishable rocks. Mahendravarman I, who was a soldier, a playwright, a great builder, a poet and a musician, was the son of Simhavishnu, the founder of the Pallava dynasty.

The monuments at Mamallapuram are generally ascribed to four Pallava rulers: Mahendravarman I, Narasimhavarman I, Paramesvaravarman I and Narasimhavarman II. Pallava rule lasted from the third century to the eighth century A.D. Their capital was Kancheepuram.

In his book Seven Pagodas, the Art and History of Mahabalipuram, the late N.S. Ramaswami, scholar and journalist, writes: "Mamallapuram must have been exceptional among the cities of India as the middle ages crept in on it. It was a port, a royal seat, a centre of piety, and a thriving seat of commerce, with a palace on top of the northern hill and the monuments towering over the town." The place was known by different names such as Mallai, Kadal Mallai, Mamallai and so on in ancient Tamil Vaishnava hymns. Ramaswami writes: "The Mamallapuram art was created in the aftermath of a victorious struggle waged by Hinduism against Buddhism." The place is named after Narasimhavarman I, known as Mamallan, the great wrestler. He was the son of Mahendravarman I.

The monuments can be grouped under four categories: rock-cut caves, monolithic structures, open air bas-reliefs and structural temples.

The rock-cut caves are situated on the hillock. The caves are known for their simplicity in plan and decoration, massive pillars and absence of any deity in the sanctum sanctorum. Notable among these are the Koneri mantapa, the Kotikaal mantapa, the Mahishamardhini cave, the Adhivaraha temple and the Yali mantapa.

The monolithic rathas (chariots) - Dharmaraja, Arjuna, Draupadi (square), Bhima and Ganesa (rectangular), and Nakula and Sahadeva (apsidal) rathas - are popularly known as the Five Rathas. They are square or rectangular or apsidal in shape. Narasimhavarman I is credited with building the chariots, which are carved with images of Hindu divinities and royal patrons. There are inscriptions on the Dharmaraja and Ganesa rathas in Grantha and Nagari scripts. The language of the inscriptions is Sanskrit. There are 18 inscriptions on the Dharmaraja ratha, and 16 of them are royal cognomen, that is, single-word titles mostly given to Narasimhavarman I.

The bas-reliefs, sculpted on the surface of the hillock, are bewitching. There are four bas-reliefs and the most famous ones are Arjuna's Penance and Govardhanadhari.

Among the structural temples, what stands out is the Shore Temple built by Narasimhavarman II (circa 690 - 715), popularly known as Rajasimha. He also built the Kailasanatha temple at Kancheepuram.

Another structural temple at Mamallapuram is the Olikanneswara temple, perched on top of the hillock. A Siva temple, it has lost its superstructure. The Makundarayanar temple, situated at the entrance to the town, was excavated during the early 20th century.

It is the Shore Temple that steals all attention, because of its extraordinary location and majesty. Built on the margin of the sea, it is actually a twin temple, dedicated to both Vishnu and Siva. The reclining Vishnu, carved over a boulder, is sandwiched between the twin temples. N.S. Ramaswami writes: "In locating the temple on the very margin of the sea, exposing it to avoidable dangers, the builders, there can be little doubt, sought theatrical effect."

THE preservation of the monuments at Mamallapuram is a perennial challenge to the conservators of the ASI because of the constant threat of salinity and abrasive action of the sand-bearing wind. What makes their work more difficult is the amorphous growth of encroachments. There are about a thousand hawkers. Besides, there are a few hundreds of shops, which can be divided into four categories: those selling artefacts made out of sea shells, sculptures made out of granite or sandstone, ornaments including necklaces made out of beads, and toys made out of dried palmyra leaves. A number of roadside eateries have sprung up, dirtying the surroundings.

After Jagmohan became the Union Tourism Minister, he visited Mamallapuram three times and spoke to the elected representatives of the town panchayat. The State government cooperated with the Centre in preparing the action plan for the project. The Union Ministry of Tourism and Culture, the ASI, HUDCO and the CPWD set to work. Immediate attention was paid to beautify the surroundings of the hillock housing the 13 monuments, the Shore Temple and the Five Rathas. A radius of 100 metres around Arjuna's Penance, the Shore Temple and the Five Rathas was declared a regulated area in order to keep out hawkers and shops.

Satyamurthy said: "Mr. Jagmohan wants to develop Mamallapuram on the lines of the Ajanta caves and the Taj Mahal." After admiring Arjuna's Penance, a visitor should be able to go straight to the Shore Temple without any hindrance. From the Shore Temple, he should be able to walk on the shore to reach the Five Rathas. So land is being acquired to lay a road between the Shore Temple and the Five Rathas. Thus, Arjuna's Penance will form the central point of an axis for tourists who want to go round Mamallapuram.

The ASI's horticulture wing laid the lawn around the Butter Ball and the Ganesa Ratha in a short span of one month, between February and March this year. "One month was our men's deadline and they met it," said an ASI official. Saplings have been planted on the lawn. "With the fencing almost complete, a big garden will come up on the hillock," he added.

Some of the encroachments, including 15 shops on the road leading to the Shore Temple, have been removed. The District Collector has issued orders for the removal of other shops too. While the ASI has fenced the area around the Shore Temple and laid a lawn, the CPWD is building a park on the road leading to the Shore Temple. The shops that were removed have been accommodated in a portion of this park. Vehicles will have to park 100 m away from the fence surrounding the Shore Temple, that is, about 200 m from the monument. The park coming up now will have space for parking vehicles.

When a Frontline team visited the Shore Temple, the ASI staff was giving pulp treatment to the Shore Temple to arrest the saline action. G. Saravanan, Conservation Assistant, ASI, Mamallapuram, said: "We put pulp on the rock, which has a tendency to absorb the salt. We give this treatment to the monument every year. Besides, we give chemical treatment to the monument. This treatment stops water from going into the rock. It will push out the water inside too. It allows the stone to breathe and prevents it from becoming weak." Saravavan said new, artistic signages would be erected near the monuments. The signages, giving accurate historical information, will be surrounded by a fountain-like structure.

A big lawn has been laid on the eastern side of the Five Rathas. The State government is widening the road leading to them. There will be a proper footpath for pedestrians. A contentious issue remains though. It is on this road that a score of sculptors' shops are located. They make exquisite sculptures but the use of chisel, hammer and power drill make the air polluted and the environment noisy. The sculptors fear that if they are shifted elsewhere, their business will slump.

The Union government has acquired land near these shops to build a "Crafts bazaar", where sculptures will be allowed to be sold but not made. An informed official said that the shops making sculptures would be accommodated at an alternative site.

When the Integrated Development of Mamallapuram got under way, rumours spread that all buildings in the town would be demolished. ASI officials said that the organisation will stop new construction (in the prohibited or regulated area around the monument, as per the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Rules, 1959), and not destroy existing structures.

According to Satyamurthy, the ASI will execute three more projects, to protect and conserve the Sthalasayana Perumal Temple in the heart of Mamallapuram town, the temple tank situated on the way to the Shore Temple, and the Boothathalwar mantapa. "We shall declare all the three as protected monuments," he said. The ASI will set up a centre to provide academic-minded visitors with information on the history of the Pallavas and their architecture.

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