Was this the inspiration behind Mahendra Pallava’s sculptural quest

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.

9 thoughts on “Was this the inspiration behind Mahendra Pallava’s sculptural quest

  1. Your enthusiasm for sculptures amazes me. The fact that you take so much time to review, understand and interpret these sculptures while having a full time job is very commendable. I don’t usually leave comments on your blog because it is too esoteric for me….but I am amazed at your work.

  2. Vijay,
    There are somemore cave temples at centre point of Vijayawada city called Mogalrajapuram.This cave sculptures also first excavated during 5th century. But now only Nataraja and Arthanareeswara and Vinayaga (?) but these sculptures though the historians claim also belong to 5th century, but i doubt. May be little later period. may be 9th or 10th century.

    And one more thing that jains were the main sculptors of cave temples in the early part of century. Still Kandagiri in Bhubaneswar has got similar type (or even bigger) undavalli caves but almost all sculptures in the rock got damaged due to natural calamities. And the reason to believe strongly about this period of cave belong to first century, they have also sculptured an interesting inscriptions mentioned the period.

    In a recent visit, I took copy of all inscriptions, though ASI already registered those. And revealing informations that Kharavela defeated Chola at Tamil country.

    Your beautiful post refreshed me lot. (I have visited this undavalli many many times. Thanks for this particular post.


  3. Wonderful Post. A very good comparison. Thanks for bringing such things to light. You work is awesome.


  4. Can’t wait to see the Bhairavakonda carvings.
    Undavalli sculpture is very high quality as are the two dvarapalakas from Vijayawada, across the Krishna., now in Govt. Mus. Chennai.
    Very early stuff. In the Und. main cave the VamanaLila panels on pillars had been silvered — ugh! Hope they’re cleaned off now.

  5. Wow Vijay,

    Are the photos that you have scanned from Mr Mohammed Tajuddin. I mean the ones on Undavalli Caves or have you been there too.

    And does this mean that “Cave Temple Technology” pre-dates Pallavas? If yes, we see that Pandyas precede Pallavas in Tamizh Nadu for the “Cave Temple Technology”. So… is there a connection between the Pandyas and Vishnukundins? I ask this as, it seems that the timing is the same.

    ரொம்ப யோசிக்கறேனோ??????? 🙂 🙂

  6. முதல் முறையாக் கேள்விப் படறேன் உண்டவில்லி குகைகள் பற்றி. நன்றி, தகவலுக்கும், மிக அரிய பொக்கிஷங்களை வெளிக் கொண்டு வருவதற்கும்.

  7. நான் சமீபத்தில் செங்கல் பட்டு அருகில் வல்லம் குகைக்கு சென்று வந்தேன் அந்த பகுதி மக்களுக்கே அதை பற்றிய செய்திகள் தெரிய வில்லை என்பது வருந்த தக்கது அதுவே ஒரு சிவன் அல்லது பெருமாள் கோவில் என்று அதற்கு தல வரலாறும் வெளி இட்டு இருந்தால் மக்கள் அதிகம் வருவார்கள் பக்தி சுற்றுலா தலம் ஆகி இருக்கும் .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *