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    Pallava Rock-cut Sculpture

    Map Academy

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    Known for making use of hard materials such as granite, gneiss and charnockite, Pallava rock-cut sculpture was a tradition of carving living rock that was patronised by the Pallava Dynasty between the seventh and ninth centuries. The earlier instances of rock-cut sculpture of the Mauryas, the later Guptas and the Western Chalukyas deliberately used softer rock such as sandstone and traps that were easier to excavate and carve. The Pallava rock-cut tradition, especially in the Tondaimandalam region of their dominion, used hard stone instead as their substrate in a marked, and perhaps deliberate, departure from their immediate northerly antecedents.

    A significant portion of sculptural art produced under Pallava patronage was created using the rock-cut technique. Entire architectural edifices, statues, and reliefs were carved out of either formations or large boulders of the local granite or granitic schist, gneiss and charnockite. This technique, introduced by second Pallava king Mahendravarman into the Dravida kingdoms, was a revival of a thousand-year tradition that is believed to have been used in the excavation in the Buddhist caves of Gaya, Bihar, on hard surfaces such as quartzose-gneiss. The early Pallava caves and sculptures were shallower and simpler in organisation than those at Ajanta and Ellora, reflecting both the infancy of rock-cutting as a method of building in the region and the constraints of the material and place. These constraints therefore resulted in beams and brackets being squat and clunky; pillars being short with little space between; and a sparse sculptural and decorative programme in the interiors and exteriors. Notably, during this early phase, the sculptures were also usually low relief, large in size and economical in their distribution. Evidence of lime plaster has led some scholars to attribute the relatively simple forms of sculpture to their presumed purpose as scaffolds for subsequent stucco modelling rather than as finished pieces in themselves.

    Over time, however, the architecture and sculptures grew more complex, displaying a naturalistic treatment and more attention to modelling and detail. Monolithic temples, secular pavilions, large sculptures (in the round) and sculptural tableaus represented the culmination of the Pallava rock-cutting tradition. Carried out under the patronage of at least three Pallava rulers over a century, the activity of rock-cutting for the sculpting of edifices is divided into three phases. The first period in the Mahendra style refers to the initial phase during the rule of Mahendravarman I and his contemporaries (c. 680–730 CE), when the earliest Pallava caves were excavated. The second period refers to the subsequent phase during the reigns of Narasimhavarman I (Mamalla) and then Paramesvaravarman I. Subsequent monarchs, such as Narasimhavarman II (also known as Rajasimha), were responsible only for interventions to existing caves as by then the locus of architectural activity had shifted to the environs of Kanchipuram and the mode of building had changed so that structural temples became the norm and sculpture became more ornate, decorative and stylised.

    The Mahendra style is characterised by a simplicity of plan, a relative austerity of sculptural decoration and minimal, if any, ornamentation. Some of the simple octagonal-sectioned pillars have lotus medallions etched on the face of the cuboidal shaft extremities and their undecorated bevelled corbels are mostly angular in profile. In this period, dvarapalas began to make their appearance on either side of the sanctum entrance (and, in Mandagapattu, the facade entrance) in a frontal or semi-frontal pose; they are depicted as resting on a club entwined by a serpent — a symbol associated with Shiva. Makara toranas, in their simplest form, begin to appear above the doorways, mostly of of the garbhagriha, and sometimes the mukhamandapa. The cave temples at Mandagapattu, Dalavanur and Siyamangalam are early examples of this stylistic phase.

    In the subsequent phase, Narasimhavarman I and his son Paramesvaravarman I later made significant contributions to the earlier Mahendra-style, initiating a period of cut-in architecture that was more sculpturally vivid and expressive. The cave temples grew more elaborate in their plan as well as ornamented. The pillars became more slender and tall and later assumed a lion base and a bevelled cushion capital, while the corbels — of angular of curved profile — became more slender, contoured with the roll-ornament and patta band introducing an element of decoration. The Somaskanda relief began to feature on the back walls of the slightly protruding garbhagrihas, and the relief panels that began to adorn the mandapas and porches grew numerous, larger and finer in their modelling and composition. While the excavated temples such as the Mahishasuramardhini cave, Dharmaraja cave, Trimurti cave and Varaha cave themselves were examples of the studied evolution of rock-cut architecture, the most identifiable sculptural landmarks of this phase — all situated in the former Pallava sea-port Mamallapuram (now Mahabalipuram) — are the large open-air sculptural tableaus, the monolithic animal sculptures (of lions and elephants) and the monolithic cut-out shrines or rathas and pavilions in a variety of shapes, roof-decorations and forms, and with more numerous relief panels with a greater degree of modelling. The monolithic sculptures here include the famous Descent of the Ganges, or Arjuna’s Penance, the Govardhana hill tableau, now partly concealed by the Krishna Mandapa and monolithic rathas (chariot) named after the principal characters of the Mahabharata. There are also several incomplete shrines, mandapas, relief sculptures, and even carvings on rock-fronts — one of particular interest being the rudimentary duplicate of the Descent of Ganges, considered a blueprint or rough sketch of the larger relief — led to speculations that the site may have functioned as a school of architecture and sculpture where parts of shrines and mandapas may have been sculpted as models for the cave temples, monoliths and sculptural panels in the vicinity.

    The Rajasimha style was the least significant with regard to the development of rock-cut architecture. The Yali mandapam (also known, erroneously as the Tiger Cave), which likely served as a processional stop, is ascribed to Rajasimha. The unusual structure, which has a large arched opening surrounded by vyala heads, and sculptures of two elephants (with their chowdahs) and a horse, is among only a few rock-cut structures of such attribution. Not far from this pavilion is another monolithic shrine in the shape of a crouching lion with an empty niche (presumably for goddess Durga), which is thought to belong to the same group. Another sculpture in the form of a sitting lion with a socket shrine for Mahishasuramardhini is found within the complex of the Shore Temple. The latter is the only structural Pallava temple and the largest of the Pallava edifices in Mamallapuram. Although the site subsequently witnessed intermittent temple-building activity under other southern Indian dynasties, this was significantly more cursory after Pallava rule.

    The Pallava rock-cut edifices, especially the group in Mamallapuram, were subject not only to the vagaries of their rulers and the shifting political and cultural agendas but also to the sectarian conflicts between their Vaishnavite and Shaivite patrons and custodians. Some early caves of the Mahendra period — three- and five-shrined temples like Trimurti and Koneri caves with multiple dedications, usually to Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Skanda and sometimes Durga or other deities — reflect a notable desire to bridge divisions across Hindu sects. However, successive waves of conquests and conflicts with Vaishnavite monarchies and clans, such as the Western Chalukyas and the Vijayanagara kings, resulted in competing sectarian interests and influences. Evidence of effacement and of additions, most notably of the “Shaivite curse” inscriptions, attests unequivocally to a subsequent culture of sectarian dominance and religious intolerance.

    Whatever influences it drew on or was unwittingly subject to, Pallava rock-cut sculptures served as a standard for the development of temple architecture in South India and parts of South Asia. It is perhaps one of the most significant and renowned cultural landmarks of the Pallavas and their greatest instrument in shaping the artistic efforts of both their contemporaries and successors.


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