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Newly-discovered Mamallapuram temple fascinates archaeologists

By T.S. Subramanian



Parts of the ancient temple discovered to the south of the Shore Temple at Mamallapuram during the excavation done from February to April 2005. — Photo Courtesy ASI

CHENNAI, APRIL 9 . The temple discovered by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), a few hundred metres to the south of the Shore Temple at Mamallapuram, near Chennai, must have been as big or even bigger than the Shore Temple, said archaeologists conducting the excavation there. The ASI had discovered massive remains of a temple on the shore, close to the Shore Temple during the excavations it had conducted in February and March.

While continuing the excavation, it discovered a subsidiary shrine adjacent to the remains of a square garbha graham (sanctum sanctorum) of the newly- discovered temple.

The garbha graha measures 2.6 metres by 2.6 metres. The sanctum sanctorum is surrounded by an open courtyard, which is encircled by a massive prakara (outer wall). A beautiful ring-well, made of terracotta; a sculpted capstone, a shikara stone; parts of a stupa; granite architectural members with sockets; and beautiful potsherds have been found within this temple complex.

The newly discovered temple "is a separate complex by itself. Its magnitude and area is akin to that of the Shore Temple," said T. Satyamurthy, Superintending Archaeologist, ASI, Chennai Circle. Alok Tripathi, Deputy Superintending Archaeologist, Underwater Archaeology Wing, ASI, who is heading the current excavation at Mamallapuram, said, "This temple must have been as big or bigger than the Shore Temple."

What has fascinated archaeologists is that mason's marks (engravings) have been found on the granite architectural members of the square garbha graha.

These mason's marks depict a bird, a lamp, a bow and arrow, and two interconnected triangles. The bird occurs like a leitmotif on several stones.

"We have found a lot of mason's marks, who built this temple. We have to compare these mason's marks [with those found elsewhere] and find out whether the same group built the temples at Kancheepuram. In the temples in north India, the mason's marks have been studied quite well," Dr. Tripathi said.

Mamallapuram is known for its unparalleled works of architecture including open-air bas relief, rock cut temples and structural temples built by the Pallava kings Mahendravarman, Narasimhavarman I, Paramesvara and Narasimhavarman II, during the 7th and 8th century A.D.

The majestic Shore Temple, which stands on the edge of the sea, was built by Narsimhavarman II (circa 690- 715 A.D.). He also built the huge Kailasanatha temple and the Iravatanesvara temple at Kancheepuram. Nandivarman II (circa 736-769 A.D.) built the Vaikunta Perumal temple.

Obviously, the newly discovered temple close to the Shore Temple, was built by the Pallava kings. The question that arises is: why did the Shore Temple survive while this one did not?



The ring well of the temple, made of terracotta. — Photo Courtesy ASI

Dr. Satyamurthy said, "The Shore Temple was built on bed rock. So it survived all these years. But this temple was constructed on sand and it collapsed. There was some setback, it developed cracks and collapsed." There must have been several reasons behind the survival of the Shore Temple and the collapse of the newly discovered temple, he said.

The ASI so far has not been able to find the deities of the square garbha graha and the subsidiary shrine adjacent to it. "There must have been deities inside because it was a structural temple. The deities must have been at a high level. We are now excavating at a lower level," said Dr. Tripathi. He pointed out that the garbha graha had a definite pattern. It was divided into four parts. Stones had been arranged in a specific manner.

The ring-well made of terracotta, found in the open courtyard, is an arresting sight. "Four rings have been exposed. There may be more. We have to see how deep it is," he added.

The ASI has also discovered the remains of a second temple, built on a low-slung rock, to the south of the Shore Temple. To the north of the Shore Temple, it has found onland a wall under water (because the water table is very high). Six blocks of stones of this wall ran to a length of 20 metres, said Dr. Tripathi. More trenches would be dug on land to see how far this wall ran. This wall extended into the sea (that is west to east) and its remains have been found in the sea. The ASI officials are keen on finding out the extent to which this wall runs into the sea and where it turns. For, they want to know whether the Shore Temple was surrounded by a prakara on all its sides. A wall existed north to the south, they said.

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