Since the site is dedicated to sculpture and its easy to fall in love with Pallava sculpture, it was very difficult for me to do this post. Quite often we get so obsessed with our favorites to the point of becoming fanatics. I am one such proclaimed Pallava fanatic. Quite often Kathie would drag me back to ground zero with interesting questions and photos from the middle kingdom. One such fanatical quest was that of Mahendra Pallava and his sculptural quest. A King hitherto unparalleled in his pursuit for artistic excellence in my eyes. But a chance glance at a collection of photos of Dr. Mohammed Tajuddin KHAN of an impressive cave in Andra Pradesh - the Undavalli Caves (Guntur District about 6km south west of Vijayawada, 22km north west of Guntur City and about 280 km from Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh - thanks wiki) propped up some interesting questions.
I tried to check with Sri Dhivakar, who had done much research on the early life for Mahendra Pallava for his book - vichitracithan. Two interesting informations came out of the interaction - one - these caves were excavated between the 4th and 6th C.E (The caves are associated with the Vishnukundina kings of 420 to 620 A.D), definitely predating Mahendra Pallava’s famous excavation in Mandagapattu and two - Mahendra spent a good part of his early life in and around these parts. ( Simha Vishnu had a Vishnukundin Wife !!)
Before we start inferring anything from above, lets compare the sculpture styles under question. without burdening you with two many, am just throwing in one door guardian from both sites and a pillar each.
The pillar design, fluting, styling - the stance of the door guardian, the flexing of his hips down to his mace, the way he places his hands on his hips - the the lion banner on the pillar.
On the other extreme side, we can argue as to if Mahendra was responsible for carving the Undavalli caves - but then the time frame sets us back by atleast 50 to 100 years.
One more clue - is again the main argument proposed for Mahendra as the originator of cave or rock cut architecture is the famous Mandagapattu inscription. Let us see it once more now.
I quote Dr Nagaswamy’s words below
Let us study the inscription itself. What does the inscription say? It says that this temple, dedicated to Brahma, Vishnu and Siva was caused to be made by Vicitracitta, without the use of brick, mortar, wood or metal. It does not mention that this was being excavated for the first time in South India. Nor in any of his subsequent inscriptions Mahendra assumed a title, commemorating this great achievement of his life. He was certainly fond of titles and could have assumed a title like “the first excavator of cave” Adyaguhayatanakari or some such thing. We do not come across any such titles in his inscription.
None of the epigraphical records, both lithic and copper plates, which were issued after him, refer to Mahendra’s achievement in excavating caves for the first time.”
But whatever we infer from the above, one thing is for sure - this was the first excavation of Pallavas.
The theory is not without speculation - as door guardians could have been carved later ( especially the ones in Mandagapattu door guardians seem to be slightly advanced in styling when compared to its own pillar designs !!)
Keeping these aside, what we infer is a logical progression. Both the styles are dramatically similar and one definitely predates the other. So, was Undavallai the inspiration behind Mahendra Pallava’s sculptural quest, heralding a golden age in south Indian cave / temple / sculpture / architecture.
For those who are still not convinced about the remarkable similarity in styles, presenting to you more parallels from other Mahendra caves and Undavalli. Believe me, this is not any trick photography - just placing them side by side for you to make your judgements.
Now, do you agree?
Another cave which offers some clues is Bhairavakonda, which we will see shortly.