Arjuna’s Penance

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I’d seen these temples before but only in books. To reach Mahaballipuram for the first time and gaze upon some of the most wonderfully carved temples in India was truly a superb experience. We took the bus together with a lady who was returning to her home in Chennai after spending a couple of days at Samarpan. Rajni had visited London and stayed at Rayners lane, a rather familiar stop on the Piccadilly line for us…

We decided to hire the services of a rickshaw to guide us around the various sites at Mahaballipuram having decided beforehand on the fee, essential in these cases.

The first Hindu temples were literally hewn out of rock. At first caves were enlarged and sculptured. Subsequently whole boulders were carved to produce free-standing buildings. Finally quarries supplied stone to build masonry temples independently of their location.

The granites of this part of India lent themselves superbly to precise architectural details and exquisite carvings.

The first site we visited was called the panch ratha or the five godly vehicles. What look like masonry built temples are amazingly carved from whole boulders. There are thus no lines separating one block from the other; each temple here is in effect a virtuoso work of sculpture.

But when and why and by whom were these temples built?

Mamallapuram, to give Mahaballipuram its alternative name, was the Pallava kingdom’s major seaport and surely these temples were built to afford protection from the gods for sailors going on long risky sea journeys to places as far as Egypt where trade between India and the Roman empire thrived.

The majority of the temples and their carvings date from the seventh century and they tell us much about life and culture under the Pallava kings, in particular king Narasimhavarman II. One could easily spend a whole day at this breezy town; there so much to see and admire.

On Mamallapuram hill we admired the Trimurti cave temple with its gracefully ┬ácarved elelephants. We climbed up the vertigo inducing lighthouse stairs to take in a gorgeous view over town and sea. We enjoyed pretending to hold up Krishna’s butterball, a seemingly precariously balanced rock, somewhat in the manner of Pisa’s leaning tower. Then we came to the jewel in the crown of this wonderful group of temples: the group of carvings known as Arjuna’s penance and named after the hero of the Bhagavad Gita. This has to be one of the most splendid works of Indian art anywhere. Yet even here there is room for whiskery humour in the depiction of a cat making fun of Arjuna’s penance and preaching to – of all animals mice.

The highlight of our visit was the shore temple, again carved out from a single mammoth rock. Small in size in it is immensely  rich in artistic delicacy. Its position close to the crashing waves of the bay of Bengal is spectacular but the salt has weathered many of the statues into a Medardo Rosso blur. I enjoyed the almost Egyptian feel of the line of Nandi bulls. Surely there has to be a connection between them and the cult of Apis?

The temples are meant to be even more spectacular at sunset but we had to leave before then to return home. Next time I’m sure we’ll stay there for the night and await the dawn too as it rises on these marvels of India.




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