The lecture on "2000 years of Mamallapuram" by Rangarathnam Gopu was one of the best ones I've ever attended. The speaker has the unique ability to switch from one topic to another without disrupting the continuity of the lecture and slip in bits of trivia at will. Perhaps, such comfort could be attributed to Gopu's mastery over the subject and on the whole, it made the talk very interesting. My only regret is that I was tired, hungry and worn out and certainly not in the best of health and I could not concentrate as much as I would have liked to. But the good thing is, I did manage to pick up important keywords and jot them down in my notebook to make a Google search later on.
Mr. Gopu began his lecture by giving out a brief chronology of the rediscovery of the site and the people who had tried to interpret their observations. As expected, Gopu started his history of Mamallapuram with the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea. Mamallapuram is generally identified by scholars with the port "Sopatma" of the Periplus though even this identification is not without its share of controversies. Perumpanarrupatai, usually dated to the 2nd or 3rd century AD, mentions a place called Nirpeyarru which is usually considered to be the same as Mamallapuram. Perumpanarrupatai speaks of one Tondaiman Ilandiraiyan as the ruler of the area whom P. T. Srinivasa Iyengar opines to be the same as the fabled Trilochana Pallava. After Perumpanarrupatai, Mamallapuram is mentioned by Bhoothathalvar who is believed to have lived during the time of Pallavas of the Simhavishnu dynasty. The Sanskrit writer and playright Dandin who lived during the 7th century makes Mamallapuram the setting of four of his stories - Avanti Sundari Katha, Dasa Kumara Charita, Raghava Pandavya and Kavya Darshana. In his works, Dandin names two sculptors (Lalithalaya and Mandhata) who had allegedly participated in the construction of the monuments of Mamallapuram. After Dandin, Mamallapuram is mentioned in the Thiruvaimozhi of Thirumangai Alvar.
The Englishman William Chambers who visited Mamallapuram in 1772 and 1776 was the first to record his observations. Chambers' account which was published in 1788, describes Mamallapuram as either the remains of a lost city or a Brahmin village of the time. The sculptures, Chambers interpreted as episodes from the Mahabharata. But he was clueless about the script in which the inscriptions were written. In the end, he speculated that they were put up by a Siamese monarch though he still could not read them yet (Such a conclusion is logical - the Siamese script derives from Pallava grantha or the Vengi alphabet, as A. C. Burnell calls it, in which the inscriptions of Mamallapuram were written. The Vengi alphabet is so named because it is believed to have originated in Vengi near Visakhapatnam in the 3rd century AD and was transmitted to lands as far as Indo-China, Sumatra and Java by Kalingan traders). Due to the possibility of a Siamese connection, Chambers linked the monuments with Buddhism. Robert Southey, a contemporary of Chambers, wrote a pseudo-mythological poem "The Curse of Kehama" spreading the rumour that the whole complex was destroyed due to a curse. The monuments were also written about in 1792 by Quintin Crawford who heaps lavish praises on Hindu architecture and science. Perhaps, one of the moat elaborate accounts of these times was by Colin Mackenzie who postulated that the monuments were constructed by one Singama Naidu, 400 years back. The next person to write on the monuments was Mackenzie's Brahmin assistant Kavali Lakshmaiah. Lakshmaiah was the first to accurately identify most of the monuments (including the Rathas) by name. The artist Thomas Daniells painted and Captain Carr wrote the first book titled "Seven Pagodas".
In 1830, a breakthrough was achieved by Benjamin Guy Babington who concluded that most of the inscriptions were either in Sanskrit or Tamil. He also deciphered many of the Sanskrit inscriptions with the help of a Jain pundit (This was news to me. I was under the impression that Hultzsch and Venkayya were the first to decipher the inscriptions in the 1880s and 1890s). Babington's most important find were the three inscriptions on the Ganesha Ratha. These consist of verses in the anustubh metre. Another discovery was the Rajasimha inscription on the Athiranachanda mandapam.
Newbolt, in 1846, wrote on the architecture of these monuments and the chemical composition of the materials used. He says that the whole series of monuments were chiseled from quaternary granite and lavishes praise on "Indian steel" which was used to shape them. The famous James Ferguson, the doyen of architectural studies, wrote extensively on the Mamallapuram temples along with other monuments of South India.
About this time, scholars began to ponder over a larger question. Charles Gubbins writing in 1852 felt that Mallai was a harbour while T. M. Subramaniam writing in 1967, not only refuted his claim but even proposed that Nirpeyarru was not Mamallapuram at all but neighbouring Sadras. Alexander Hunter, the Principal of the Madras School of Fine Arts, published a paper on the monuments in 1872. His paper threw the matter a hundred years back. Hunter postulated that the monuments were Buddhist just as Chambers had done in 1788. A second breakthrough in the interpretations of these monuments was arrived at in the late 19th century when the famous palaeohistorian and antiquarian Alexander Rea decisively proved that the all the monuments were erected by the Pallava dynasty. The great philosopher and art historian A. K. Commaraswamy suggested that the Isurumuniya Cave temple in Sri Lanka might have perhaps been an inspiration for the rock cut architecture of the Seven Pagodas.
Another question which had bothered scholars for a long time was the theme of the sculptures on the so-called Arjuna's Penance panel. Victor Goloubew in a 1914 paper felt that they represented Bhageeratha's penance and the descent of the Ganges from heaven onto the earth. He reasons that the cleft in the middle of the frieze could not represent anything other than the Ganges river flowing down the Himalayas. The cleft is also oriented towards the middle with the Nagas huggling close to it. His viewpoint is supported by Coomaraswamy and Jouveau-Dubreil. T. N. Ramachandran, on the other hand, contradicts their viewpoint saying that while the Ganges river flowed down to the earth after passing through Shiva's hairlocks there is nothing in the canvas to suggest that the cleft had anything to do with the Shiva sculpture. Hence, he concludes, the theme is Arjuna's penance. Michael Rabe, writing in 2001, compromises both these viewpoints. He feels that the sculpture itself is a sort of royal prasasti incorporating different scenes from Hindu mythology within itself and thus open to multiple interpretations. Mr. Baluswamy, on the contrary, feels that the sculpture represents none of these but only gives a general panorama of the Himalayas.
Another question which has perplexed scholars is the authorship of these monuments. Based on the character of the scripts used, epigraphists and scholars such as Hulzstch (Epigraphia Indica Vol X) have suggested that monuments were built over a considerable period of time with the majority of the shrines belonging to the time of Mamalla (Narasimhavarman I (630-660)) and much of the rest to the time of Rajasimha (Narasimhavarman II (700-728)). Historian T. N. Ramachandran (who appears to be an ardent fan of Mahendravarman I) has argued in his 1933 paper titled "The Royal artiste Mahendravarman" published in the Journal of Oriental Research that much of the construction was started during the reign of Mamalla's father Mahendravarman I itself. As evidence, Ramachandran quotes his self-appellations "Vichitra chittan" (Curious minded) and "Chitrakara puli" (tiger among artists). But his theory does not have many buyers. On the contrary, historian R. Nagaswami created a storm in 1962 when as Director of the Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department, he claimed that all the temples belonged to the same period and that they were created in the reign of that monarch-par-excellence, Rajasimha or Narasimhavarman II who as a matter of right deserves the appellation "the Great". Nagaswami demonstrates how it was not unusual for the same monarch to commission inscriptions in two or more different scripts. For example, the Kailasanatha Temple in Kanchipuram built by Rajasimha himself had inscriptions in grantha as well as Nagari and even a form of decorative Nagari. Thus with his abounding interest in calligraphy, there is no reason why all the inscriptions could not be attributed to him. Nagaswami also argues that Rajasimha was a versatile genius who left inscriptions on Carnatic music and even experimented with different architectural styles. This is evident in the different vimana styles of the shrines in the Kailasanathar Temple and the musical platform in Tiger Cave. But some later historians have rejected the claim on basis of the fact that iconographic styles within the precincts of the Mamallapuram complex themselves differ which is impossible if created by the same monarch.
So Mr. Gopu concluded his lecture on an indecisive note leaving the debate wide open. Questions like who built these monuments, for what purposes were these monuments constructed or what they depict will probably never be satisfactorily answered. There have been many scholars who had given out-of-the-box suggestions. For example, F. G. Pearce in 1924, suggested that Mamallapuram might have actually functioned as a sculptors' laboratory. Mamallapuram is hence filled with wonders. Take the example of the three inscriptions discovered by Babington in the Ganesha Ratha. Only two of them are known - the third remains as yet undiscovered, probably buried somewhere. It may perhaps contain the solution to many of our unanswered questions.