The Elephants that Linger: The Buddhist Legacy of Mamallapuram

// August 17th, 2015 // Cultural Politics

Apsidal or Gajaprishta shrine and the Gajotama the full size elephant, both carved out of monoliths at Mamallapuram site called Five Chariots. Aug 2015

Apsidal or Gajaprishta shrine and the Gajotama the full size elephant, both carved out of monoliths at Mamallapuram site called Five Chariots. Aug 2015

Mamallapuram or Mahabalipuram was known as Mallai, Kadal Mallai, Mallai Kadal and Mamallai invariably in ancient Tamil texts till early middle ages. The reference to the Mallai could be a clear denotation to the Malla people. It was the Mallas of Kalinga and Magadha who revered the Buddha most during his later teaching career and performed his last rites when he died at Kusinara. In this sense Mamallai could be the great Malla, the compassionate one, the boundless ocean of mercy. And Mallai Kadal represents the ocean of his mercy and compassion. As a great renouncer upholding Maitri and mercy he could be the mightiest of all; the Mamalla or Mahabali.

These Mamallapuram elephant images and the Kinnara/Yaksha images are remarkably similar to the Ajanta, Amaravati and Kalinga Buddhist iconography

These Mamallapuram elephant images and the Kinnara/Yaksha images are remarkably similar to the Ajanta, Amaravati and Kalinga Buddhist iconography

Anyway this beautiful stretch of sand having peculiar granite rockery formations called the whaleback granites between the sea and its backwaters was inhabited by the human race from the stone age onwards, and they had global connections, as stray pottery and even Roman coins were recovered from this land strip. It was the port of the Pallavas of Kanchi from ancient times. Bodhidharma the Pallava prince who went China to teach Chan or Zen and Kung Fu at the Shaolin temple perhaps began his long voyage to South China Sea from this Pallava port of Mamalapuram in the 6th century.

The rock cut temples in Mamallapuram are exactly like a Stupa with the top structure and the front pillars and the egg like overall shape.

The rock cut temples in Mamallapuram are exactly like a Stupa with the top structure and the front pillars and the egg like overall shape.

Most of the rock cut caves and monoliths now existing on this beautiful shore are the work of the 7th and 8th century Pallava kings who also adapted the name Mamalla. The lion was also their favourite motif. Both the Dhamma Simha and Dhamma Gaja are lavishly portayed in the exquisite carvings and reliefs. It must be remembered that the Mallas and Mauryas of Kalinga and Magadha were also fond of the lion and elephant motifs. The Mauryan emperor Asoka for example, depicted the enlightened one as a unique elephant or Gajotama or Ganapati or the leader of the democratic order as emerging from the womb of a granite boulder on top of Dhauligiri on the banks of the river Daya at the site of the Kalinga war near Bhubaneswar in Odisha in third century BC. From then on the elephant has been a key icon and a universal symbol of the Buddha. Dhamma Simhas or lions are also depicted in Buddhist art and architecture in India and in the whole of Asia.

The shore temple at Mamallapuram. Also called the shore pagoda by western sailors as it closely resembles the Buddhist pagoda style of architecture.

The shore temple at Mamallapuram. Also called the shore pagoda by western sailors as it closely resembles the Buddhist pagoda style of architecture.

The lion seat or the Simhasana and the lion pillars at Mamalapuram gain historical and archeological importance in these contexts. There is a lion seat at the top of the mount carved into a monolith and the ruins of a large structure using granite and baked bricks. It is the ruins of, most probably a Maha Stupa at Mamalapuram, that probably existed up to the 6th century AD. The presence of a rock cut overhead water tank and a small square pond also endorses the presence of a Buddhist monastic structure there. It was the early Teravada tradition to worship the compassionate one in the forms of simple symbols as in a Simhasana the lion seat or the Bo tree. Such Simhasanas or lion seats are still found in the rural corners and old temples of Odisha and Maharashtra.

The lion seat or Simhasana at Mamallapuram. The Simhasana was a typical Teravada tradition of worship like the Bo tree

The lion seat or Simhasana at Mamallapuram. The Simhasana was a typical Teravada tradition of worship like the Bo tree or the urn. To its right is the ruined brick structure, most likely to be great Stupa.

The Pallavas who were Buddhists till the sixth and seventh century as testified by the voyage of Bodhidharma himself, might have begun the early works in true Buddhist architectural tradition and later generations who got Hinduized into the Vaishnava Bhakti tradition gradually altered the iconography into what is now termed as South Indian Pallava Hindu temple architecture. It must also be remembered that just before them, from the third to the sixth century AD it was the dedicated Buddhists called Kalabhrars who were ruling in Tondai Mandalam and Kanchi. Kalabhrars even stopped the Brahmadeya or Brahmaswam land enjoyed by the Brahmans free of tax and they were called as Kali Arachars and Kazhapalars by the Brahmans. Bodhidharma it is said was keenly influenced by this long Buddhist tradition of Tamilakam.

Another rock cut temple in Mamallapuram resembling the monasteries of Ajanta, Ellora and Aurangabad.

Another rock cut temple in Mamallapuram resembling the monasteries of Ajanta, Ellora and Aurangabad.

Another important Buddhist architectural element that is anchored in the sand and whaleback granite terrain of Mamalapuram is the apsidal structure or the Gajaprishta style of construction. At the Five Chariots site the life size elephant and the apsidal shrine are placed side by side carved out of monoliths. The other Rathas or chariots also could be compared to the pagoda architectural style of Buddhism. The shore temple was traditionally called the shore pagoda by western sailors. The longer shrine facing south could be compared to the Baital or ship pagoda in Bhubaneswar.

Bricks and ruins of the great structure at Mamallapuram next to the lion seat, most probably a Maha Stupa. The reddish tint of the soil is because of the fragmented bricks.

Bricks and ruins of the great structure at Mamallapuram next to the lion seat, most probably a Maha Stupa. The reddish tint of the soil is because of the fragmented bricks. Small rock cut pond and a tank is also near.

Though the apsidal sanctum design is rarely found in the diamond triangle of Ratnagiri-Udayagiri-Lalitgiri in Odisha it is abundant in Kerala and Ceylon. The apsidal and rounded shrine design called Vattam in Kerala or Vattadage in Sri Lanka is basically developed from the circled Stupa design and the rock cut vestiges of Ajanta, Ellora and Aurangabad. These sculptural and architectural elements substantiate the development of Buddhist art and architecture in south India, its connections with Kalinga, Ajanta, Amaravati, Anuradhapura and Magadha; and its gradual absorption and appropriation into Vaishnavite and Shaivite Bhakti cults through the aberration of Mayana.

Lion pillars in the rock cut temple at Mamallapuram. Lion and elephants motifs were key icons in Buddhist architecture.

Lion pillars in the rock cut temple at Mamallapuram. Lion and elephant motifs were key icons in Buddhist architecture in India and South Asia.

One Response to “The Elephants that Linger: The Buddhist Legacy of Mamallapuram”

  1. Gauthama Prabhu says:

    Dear Sir, I am a Buddhist from Tamil Nadu. I am keen to know more about Buddhism in Mahabalipuram. It would be really nice If you could share your resources from which you have taken references about that facts that Mahabalipuram was having a great influence of Buddhism. Thank you.

    With much regards,
    Gauthama Prabhu

Leave a Reply

Enable Google Transliteration.(To type in English, press Ctrl+g)