With the exception of the caves at Elephanta and Elurâ, there is perhaps no group of rock-cut temples in India which have been so often described, and are consequently so familiar to the English public, as those known as the Seven Pagodas,1 situated on the seashore 35 miles south of Madras. From their being so near and so easily accessible from the capital of the Presidency, they early attracted the attention of the learned in these matters. As long ago as 1772 they were visited by Mr. W. Chambers, who wrote a very reasonable account of them, which appeared in the first volume of the Asiatic Researches in 1788. This was followed in the fifth volume of the same publication in 1798, by one by Mr. J. Goldingham. Both of these, however, may be said to have been superseded by one by Dr. Guy Babington in the second volume of the Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1830. He was the first who attempted and succeeded in deciphering the inscriptions found at the place, and the illustrations of his paper, drawn by himself and his friend Mr. Hudleston, are among the best and most trustworthy of any that up to that time had been published of any Indian antiquities. Before his time, however, in 1816, they had attracted the attention of the indefatigable Colonel Colin Mackenzie, and he left a collection of 37 drawings of the architecture and sculpture of the place, which are now, in manuscript, in the India Office library. Like most of his collections of a similar nature, they are incomplete and without any descriptive text, so as to be nearly useless for scientific purposes. These earlier accounts were, however, to a great extent superseded by “A Guide to the Sculptures, Excavations, &c. at Mâmallaipur, by Lieut. J. Braddock,” which appeared in the Madras Journal of Literature and Science in 18442 (vol. xiii). As this was based on personal knowledge, and he was assisted in the task by such experts as the Reverend G. W. Mahon, the Reverend W. Taylor. and Sir Walter  Elliot, it contained, as might be expected, all that was then known on the subject. Unfortunately, however, it was not accompanied by maps or plans, nor, in fact, with any illustration, so that, except to those visiting the spot, it is of comparatively little use.3

All these—except the Mackenzie MS.—which may be considered the scientific illustrations of the subject, were collected by a Captain Carr, under the auspices and at the expense of the Madras Government. These were published in 1869 in a separate volume. With several additional tracts, and with reproductions of such illustrations as were then available, and a map of the locality reduced from the Revenue Survey, which is the best by far that has yet been published. As a manual for reference this work is certainly convenient, but as its editor had no real knowledge of the subject, and no special qualification for the task, it adds little, if anything, to what was previously known regarding the place; while by rejecting Lieutenant Braddock's numbers, and adopting new ones of his own, scattered broadcast over his map, without any system, he has added considerably to the confusion previously existing in the classification of the various objects enumerated.

In addition to these more scientific attempts at description, the place has been visited by numerous tourists, who have recorded their impressions of the place in more or less detail. Among these, none was more impressed with their importance than Bishop Heber, who described them with his usual taste and discrimination; and Mrs. Maria Graham, in her journal and letters, devotes a considerable space to them, and perhaps done as much as anyone to render them popular with general readers.4 Several views of them were published by Daniel in the beginning of this century. These, however, have lately been superseded by photographs, of which several sets have lately been made and published. The most complete is by Dr. A. Hunter, late Director of the Government School of Art at Madras. They were also photographed by Captain Lyon for the Madras Government. But the best that have yet been done are by Mr. Nicholas, of Madras, which are superior to any that have hitherto reached this country.

Notwithstanding all that has been said and written about them, there is no group of rock-cut temples in India regarding whose age or use it has hitherto been so difficult to predicate anything that is either certain or satisfactory. They are, in fact, like the Undavilli cave just described, quite exceptional, and form no part of any series in which their relative position could be ascertained. They certainly had no precursors in this part of the country, and they contain no principle of development in themselves by which their progress might be compared with that of any other series; one of the most singular phenomena regarding them being, that though more various in form than any other group, they are all of the same age, or at least so nearly so that it is impossible to get any sequence out of them. The people, whoever they were, who carved them seem suddenly to have settled on a spot where no temples existed before, and to have set to work at once and at the same time to fashion the detached boulders they found on the shore into nine or ten raths or miniature temples. They undertook simultaneously to pierce the sides of the hill with thirteen or fourteen caves; to sculpture the great bas-relief known as the penance of Arjuna; and to carve elephants, lions, bulls, and other monolithic emblems out of the granite rocks around them. But what is even more singular, the whole were abandoned as suddenly as they were undertaken. Of all the antiquities on the spot, not a single one is quite finished; some are only blocked out, others half carved, but none quite complete. When, however, we come to ask who were the people who were seized with this strange impulse, and executed these wonderful works, history is altogether silent. They must have been numerous and powerful, for in the short interval that elapsed between their inception and abandonment they created works which, considering the hardness of the granite5 rocks in which they were executed, may fairly be termed gigantic. Yet there is no trace of any city in the neighbourhood which they could have inhabited, and from whose ruins or whose history, we might get a hint of their age, or of the motives that impelled them to undertake to realize these vast and arduous conceptions.

There are, it is true, numerous inscriptions on the raths, from which, being in Sanskrit, we gather that the people who engraved them probably came from the north, but they consist only of epithets of the gods over whose images they are written, and only one name of a mortal man can be gleaned from them all. Eventually, when the numerous inscriptions in the Madras Presidency are deciphered, we may come to know who Atiranachanda Pallava may have been.6 At present, we only know that it does not occur anywhere else; but we gather indistinctly from it that the Pallavas lived before the rise of the Chôla race, in the 10th and 11th centuries of our era. Chôla inscriptions in the Tamil language, recording gifts to these temples, occur on several of the rocks in this neighbourhood7, and tell us at least that, at that time, they had superseded the people who executed these wonderful carvings.

In the absence of any real knowledge on the subject, the natives, who are never at a loss on such occasions, have invented innumerable fables and legends to account for what they did not understand. Some of these “guesses at truth” may be, and probably are, not far from the truth; but none of them, unless confirmed from other sources, can be considered as authentic history. It may also be added, that we are here deprived of one very common indication of age, for the stone out of which these monuments are carved is so hard that it shows no sign of weathering or decay, so as to give a hint of their relative antiquity from that cause; all are fresh as the day they were executed, and the chisel marks appear everywhere as if executed only a few days ago.

Under these circumstances it is hardly to be wondered at that authors have not been able to agree on any certain date for the execution of the works at Mahâvallipur. Some have been inclined to believe, with Sir Walter Elliot, that they could not well have been made later than the 6th century.8 Others to side with the Rev. W. Taylor, who "would place them (loosely speaking) between the 12th and 16th centuries of our reckoning."9 It was not, in fact10, till the publication of Mr. Burgess's account of the caves at Elephanta in 187111, and of his still more important researches at Bâdâmi in 187412, that the public had any real data from which to draw any conclusions. To these have been added his subsequent investigations among the Brahmanical caves at Elurâ and along the whole western coast of India, so that now our knowledge of that branch of cave architecture may be said to be tolerably complete. Hitherto, attention has been mainly confined to the Buddhist caves; they were infinitely more numerous, and extending through a period of nearly 1,000 years—from B.C. 250 to A.D. 750—it was easy to arrange them in a  chronometric series, in which their relative age could be ascertained with very tolerable certainty. It still, however, remained uncertain when the Brahmans first adopted the practice of carving temples and caves out of the living rock, and the data were insufficient to allow of their sequence being made out with the same clearness as existed in the case of the Buddhist caves. The discovery, however, of a Brahmanical cave dated in 579 A.D. at Bâdâmi13 first gave precision to these researches, and with the dates, approximatively ascertained, of the temples at Pattadkal and Aiholê, made the fixation of that of the Kailâsa at Elurâ and other temples of that class as nearly certain as those of the Buddhist caves in juxtaposition with them. This was all-important for the fixation of the date of the rock-cut structures at Mahâvallipur, where, though the architectural forms, as we shall presently see, are exclusively Buddhist, there is not one single emblem or one mythological illustration that belongs to that religion. Everything there is Brahmanical, and executed by persons wholly devoted to that creed, and who, so far as their works there bear testimony, might be supposed never to have heard of the religion of the mild Ascetic.

Another source of information which is almost as important for our present purposes has only, even more recently been made available, by the publication of Mr. Arthur Burnell's researches in the Palæography of Southern Indian alphabets.14 Hitherto we have been mainly dependent on those published by James Prinsep in 183815, but they were compiled mainly from northern sources, and besides the science has acquired very great additional precision during the last forty years. It may consequently be now employed in approximating dates, without much fear of important errors arising from its application for such purposes, provided the geographical position of the inscription and all the local peculiarities are carefully attended to.

There are other minor indications bearing on this point which will be alluded to in the sequel, but for our present purpose it may be sufficient to state that both Mr. Burnell and Mr. Burgess agree in fixing the year 700 A.D. as a mean date about which the temples and sculptures at Mahâvallipur were moat probably executed. It may be 50 years earlier or later. On the whole it seems more probable that their date is somewhat earlier than 700, but their execution may have been spread over half a century or even more, so that absolute precision is impossible in the present state of the evidence. Still until some fixed date or some new information is afforded, 650 to 700 may probably be safely relied upon as very nearly that at which the granite rocks at Mahâvallipur were carved into the wondrous forms which still excite our admiration there.

If this date can be established,—and there seems no reason for doubting its practical correctness,—the first and most interesting inference we derive from it, is that as all the rock-cut structures at Mahâvallipur are in what is known as the Dravidian style of architecture of the south of India, they are the earliest known examples of that style. The proofs of this proposition are of course mainly of a negative character, and may, consequently, be upset by any new discovery, but this at least is certain, that up to the present moment no more ancient buildings in that style of architecture have yet been brought to light. No one has in writing described anyone that can lay claim to an earlier date, and no photograph or drawing has exhibited any more Archaic form of architecture in the south of India, and so far at least as my researches extend, none such exist. The conclusion from this seems inevitable that all the buildings anterior to the year 700 or thereabouts, were erected in wood or with some perishable materials, and have perished either from fire or from causes which in that climate so soon obliterate any but the most substantial erections constructed with the most imperishable materials.

This conclusion is, it must be confessed somewhat unexpected and startling, inasmuch as it has just been shown from Aśoka's lâts, and from the rails at Buddha Gaya, and Bharhut, that stone was used for architectural and ornamental purposes in the north of India for nearly 1,000 years before the date just quoted, and though we might naturally expect a more recent development in the south the interval seems unexpectedly great. What makes this contrast of age even more striking is the fact that in the neighbouring island of CeyIon, stone architecture was practised in considerable perfection even before the Christian era. The great Ruanwelli Dagoba was erected by King Duttugaimani between the year 161 and 137 B.C., and the Thuparamya even earlier by King Devananpiatissa, the contemporary of Aśoka—and both these exhibit a considerable amount of skill and richness in stone ornamentation.16 Still facts are stubborn things, and until some monuments are discovered in Dravida Deśa, whose dates can be ascertained to be earlier than the end of the seventh century, we must be content to accept the fact, that the rock-cut temples at Mahâvallipur are the earliest existing examples of the style and must be content to base our reasoning, for the present at least, upon that assumption.

The rock-cut remains at Mahâvallipur may be divided into three very distinct classes. First there are nine Raths or Rathas17, small isolated shrines or temples each cut out of a single block or boulder of granite.

Second, there are thirteen or fourteen caves excavated in a rocky ridge of very irregular shape, running north and south parallel with the shore, at a distance of half-a-mile inland, and two more at a place called Sâluvankuppam about two miles further north.

Third, there are two great bas-reliefs18, one wholly of animals, and a number of statues of elephants, lions, bulls, and monkeys, each carved out of separate block.

  • 1. There seems to be great difficulty in ascertaining what is the proper name of this place. In the beginning of the century it was the fashion to call it Maha Bali puram, which was the name adopted by Col. Mackenzie in his MS., and by Southey in his Curse of Kchama. Dr. Babington, in his paper in the second volume of the Trans. R. A. S., states that in the Tamil inscriptions in the Varâhaswâmi Pagoda it is called Mahamalaipur, which he states means “city of the great hill”. This is disputed by the Rev. G. Mahon and the Rev. W. Taylor, and they suggest (Carr. 66) Mamallaipur, Mahalaram, &c. I have adopted, as involving no theory, Mahâvallipur, by which it is generally known among Europeans, though far from pretending that it is the real name of the place.
  • 2. I visited the spot in 1841, and my account of the antiquities was first published in the eighth volume of the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1843, and afterwards republished with a folio volume of illuatrations in 1845.—J. F.
  • 3. The plans and sections used to illustrate this chapter are taken from a very complete set of illustrations of these Raths made for me, at his own expense, by Mr. R. Chisholm, Superintendent of the Government School of Art at Madras. They are all to a large scale—2 feet to 1 inch—and are not only correct but full of detail beautifully drawn. They are, in fact, a great deal more than can be utilised in a work like this, but I hope may someday form the foundation of a monograph of these most interesting monuments.
  • 4. At the end of Capt. Carr's book two pages (pp. 230, 231) are devoted to the bibliography of the subject, which is the most original and among the most useful in his publication.
  • 5. The proper description of the stone I believe to  be quartzo-feldspathic gneiss.
  • 6. The Pallavas are distinctly mentioned as ruling in Kânchîpura (Conjeveram) in an inscription dated 635 A.D. See Indian Antiquary, vol. viii., p. 245.
  • 7. See Sir Walter Elliot's paper in Madras Journal, vol. xiii., reprinted in Carr’s compilation, pp. 132 et seq.
  • 8. Carr's compilation, p. 127, reprinted from Madras Journal, vol. xiii.
  • 9. Loc. cit., p. 114.
  • 10. When I first wrote on the subject, I felt inclined, for reasons given, to place them as late as Mr. Taylor (say 1300 A.D.), but from further experience in my later writings I have been more inclined to adopt Sir Walter Elliot's view. It now appears, as is so often the case, that the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes.--J. F .
  • 11. The Rock Temples of Elephanta or Gharipuri, by James Burgess, Bombay, Thacker Vining, & Co., 1871.
  • 12. Report of Operations in the Belgám and Kaladgi Districts in 1874, London, India Museum, and Allen & Co., 1874.
  • 13. Report on Belgâm and Kalâdgi, p. 24.
  • 14. Researches in the Palæography of the Alphabets of Southern lndia, by Arthur Burnell, M.C.S., 2nd edit., Trübner, Loudon, 1879.
  • 15. J. A. S. B., vol. vii. p. 277.
  • 16. History of Indian Architecture, p. 188, et seq.
  • 17. Ratha, from a root meaning “to move”, “to run”, is the Sanskrit word for a wheeled vehicle, chariot, or a car of a god. The Tamil word is Têr.
  • 18. Perhaps the sculpture in the Krishna Mantapan ought to be enumerated as a third bas-relief, but it is under the cover of a porch, and there are no signs of any such being intended to cover the great bas-relief known as Arjuna’s penance.