Although not without a considerable amount of beauty and interest in themselves, the caves at Mahavâllipur are far less important to the history of Indian architecture than the Raths just described. They have none of the grandeur, nor of that purpose like appropriateness of design, which is so characteristic of the earlier Buddhists caves in Western India, nor have they the dimensions or richness of architectural decoration of the contemporary Brahmanical excavations at Bâdâmi, Elephanta, or Elurâ. Still they cannot be passed over, even in a work especially dedicated to the more important caves of the west, and have features which are well deserving of notice anywhere.

Perhaps the most striking peculiarity of these caves is the extreme tenuity of their pillars and generally of their architectural  details, when compared with those of the other groups of caves in the other parts of India. It is true, that when the Buddhists first began to excavate caves in the west of India before the Christian era, they adopted wooden forms and used details singularly inappropriate of rock-cut structures. They, however, early perceived their incongruity, and in the progress of time evolved a style of architecture of more than Egyptian solidity, which quite remedied this defect. In some of the later caves at Ajaṇṭâ, the pillars are under 4 diameters in height, including their capitals, and in such caves as the Lankeśwara at EIurâ they are little more than 2 diameters in height. At Mahavâllipur, on the other hand, 7 and 8 diameters is usual, and sometimes even these are exceeded; and generally their details are such as are singularly unsuited for cave architecture. This, it appears, could only have arisen from one of two causes: either it was that those who excavated these caves had no experience in the art, and copied literally the forms they found usually employed in structures either wholly, or in part, constructed with wood or other light materials; or it was, that so long an interval had elapsed between the excavation of the western caves and those at Mahavâllipur, that the monolithic style was forgotten, and the artists had reverted to a style more appropriate to less monumental erections. These Mahavâllipur caves were consequently either the earliest or the latest among the Brahmanical caves of India, and it was at first sight very difficult to determine to which of these two categories they may have belonged. Just as in Europe it is frequently very difficult to discriminate between the details of a building belonging to the fifth or sixth century and one of the fifteenth or sixteenth; so in India, without some external evidence, it is very easy to confound details belonging to the sixth or seventh century with those of the thirteenth or fourteenth. In both cases it was either the beginning or the end of a particular phase of art, which had only a limited duration, and it is one whose history in this instance has only lately been ascertained from external sources.

Forty years ago, so little was known of the history of architecture in the Madras Presidency that the more modern hypothesis seemed by far the most probable. No one then suspected that the introduction of the art was so very recent, and it seemed most improbable that these rock-cut monuments at Mahâvallipur should really be the earliest specimens of architecture known to exist in the South. Everyone knew that in the north of India men had dug caves and carved stone ornamentally for at least eight or nine centuries before the date of these monuments—assuming them to belong to the seventh or eighth century of our era—and it seemed so much more likely that their very wooden forms were signs of a decadence rather than of a renaissance, that I, with most other inquirers adopted the idea that they belonged to a comparatively modern age. It was besides the one that seemed best to accord with such local traditions as existed on the spot. It now turns out, however, that the difference in style between the northern and the southern rock-cut temples is due not to chronological but to geographical causes. It is not that the inferiority of the latter is due to decay in the art of monolithic architecture, but to difference of locality. Those who carved the raths and excavated the caves at Mahavâllipur had no previous experience in the art, but under some strange and overpowering religious impulse set to work at once to copy literally and ignorantly in the rock, a form of architecture only suited to buildings of a slighter and more ephemeral nature.

If there had been a difference discernible in the style of the various monoliths at Mahavâllipur, if, for instance, we had been able to point out that one was more wooden than another, or more lithic, and exhibited the same progress from wooden to stone forms, as we find in the northern caves, this would have been detected long ago. But it is another of the marked characteristics of the place, that everything is of the same age. No one who either examines them on the spot, or compares the photographs that are to be had, can doubt that the Raths and the caves are of the same age, their details are so absolutely identical. The caves, it is true, do exhibit some slight difference in style, in parts at least, but nothing that can make out a distinct sequence. They may overlap the Raths by a few years either way, but there are no data from which a reliable sequence can be established, and the differences in parts are generally so slight that they may be owing to some individual or local caprice.

Under these circumstances it is fortunate that the sculptures with which the Mahavâllipur caves are so profusely adorned afford data from which their relative age can be ascertained with a precision sufficient at least for our present purposes. The fortunate discovery by Mr. Burgess in 1876 of a cave with a dated inscription in it, A.D. 579, at Bâdâmi, has given a precision to our knowledge of the subject not before attained, and his report on these caves has rendered us familiar with the architecture and sculpture of the sixth century of our era. By a singular piece of good fortune one of the great sculptures of the Cave No. III. at Bâdâmi1 is practically identical with one in the Vaishṇava cave (Carr's 25) at Mahavâllipur.2 They both represent Vishṇu as Trivikrama, or the “three stepper” in the dwarf Avatâr; practically they are the same, but with such difference that when compared with similar sculptures at EIurâ, and elsewhere, we are enabled to say with tolerable certainty that the Bâdâmi sculpture is the more ancient of the two. On the other hand, we have at Elephanta and Elurâ many examples representing the same subjects of Hindu mythology as are found at Mahavâllipur, but with such differences of mythology and execution as indicate with equal certainty that the southern examples are more ancient than the northern. As these latter may all be dated within the limits of the eighth century, we have a limit beyond which it seems impossible to carry the date of the Mahâvallipur sculpture either way. They must be after the sixth and before the eighth century of our era, and, in so far as can now be ascertained, nearer the latter than the former date. It is, of course, impossible to speak of sculptures as affording the same precision for fixing dates as architecture is acknowledged to possess. There is so much more individuality in sculpture, and so much that depends on the taste and talent of the sculptor, and also on the material in which he is working, that a comparison with other works of the same age may sometimes lead to conclusions more or less erroneous. Architecture, on the other hand, is so much more mechanical, and its development depends so much on the progress of the school in which it was created, as seldom to lead astray. But when sculpture is combined with mythology, as it is in this instance, its indications may become almost equally reliable, and when these are confirmed by the science of palæography, as before mentioned, there is hardly room to question the conclusions that may be drawn from it. If this is so, there seems no reason for doubting that the caves as well as the Raths at Mahavâllipur were excavated subsequently to the sixth and before the eighth century, and, taking all the circumstances of the case into consideration, there seems no reason for doubting that the date above assigned to them, 650 to 700 A.D., cannot be far from the truth, and may be accepted until at least some new discovery may afford additional means for ascertaining with more precision the facts relating to their age.

As these caves are scattered promiscuously without any order, on both sides of the low ridge of hills in which they are excavated, wherever a suitable piece of rock could be found, it is extremely difficult to hit on any classification by which a description of them can be made clear and intelligible. They are all, too, so nearly of the same extent, and richness of ornament, that they do not admit of classification from their relative importance. Being all, too, as just mentioned, of the same age, with the exception of the Krishna Mandapa, or at least so nearly so, that it is impossible now to discriminate between the older or more modern, and being all unfinished, no chronological arrangement is available for their description. We are even deprived here of the division of the different caves into classes, according to religions, which is one of the most obvious means of characterising them in almost all other groups. There is not in the sculptures at Mahâvallipur a single trace of any anterior Buddhist or Jaina religion, or any feature that can be traced hack to any pre-existing faith, except of course, as above pointed out, the mechanical forms of the architecture. One cave, the ninth in the following enumeration, may be said to be wholly Vaishṇava, but in all the others, representations borrowed from the religion of Śiva alternate with those relating to Vishṇu, in a manner that is most unexpected, at least to anyone accustomed to the antagonism that grew up between these two religions after the rise of the Lingayets in the ninth century. This, however, is only a further proof, if any were requisite, that it was before that time that these caves were excavated.

Under these circumstances the best mode will probably be to begin at the southern end of the ridge, nearly opposite the great group of Rathas above described, and take each cave, as nearly as can be done, in sequence as we proceed northward. Following this plan, we find—

1. At the south end of the ridge is a very neat cave in excellent preservation known as Dharmarâja's Mandapa3, measuring 17 feet by 12, with four pillars, two in front and two in the middle, square above and below and octagonal in the middle. In the back wall are three empty shrines with steps ascending to their doors. Along the back wall is a moulded base, and the central door has had dwârpâlas, now hewn off.

2. Just behind the southern sculptured rock is another cave4 with two pillars in front, but the work has been little more than begun.

3. To the north of the first is the Yamapuri or Mahishamarddani Mandapa, a fine lofty cave5 33 feet long by 15 feet deep. In front it had originally four round pillars (the second is quite destroyed) and two pilasters. These pillars have a thick torus capital surmounted by a spreading cima recta, carrying a square tile. This upper portion is cut away from the third column, and from the manner in which this is done it would seem as if it was intended to remove the pillar entire, as was probably the case with its fellow. A short square block carrying a wide bracket rises above the capitals of all these pillars. They have also moulded bases, and two belts of florid work round the shafts. Above the façade is a range of small simulated cells similar to those on the Raths, and such as are found on nearly all the cave façades here; but in this instance they are even more unfinished than usual, and it requires a practised eye to detect the intended design. There is a porch to the shrine advanced into the middle of the floor, with two pillars rising from yalis or sârdûlas at the corners of a platform.

On the left or south wall is a large bas-relief of Nârâyana or Vishṇu, reclining upon the snake Sesha, with his head to the east. Below are three worshippers or attendants. The third is a female; their headdresses are of the Elephanta type with regal mukutas or tiaras, and above two Gandharvas, a male and female. At Vishṇu’s feet are two giants struggling with each other, one said to be the partisan of Nârâyana, and the other of Mahishâsurâ, the buffalo demon.6

At the other end of this hall is a sculptured tableau 12 by 8 feet, representing the strife between Mahishâsurâ and Durgâ, the female counterpart of Śiva. This group merits special attention, because of the spirited character of the style in which it is sculptured; as Mr. Babington states he “has no hesitation in pronouncing this to be the most animated piece of Hindu sculpture he had ever seen”7 The demon is represented with the head of a buffalo, a minotaur in fact, and not as is often done in later sculptures as a buffalo itself. He holds a huge club with both hands, has a long straight sword by his side, and wears the mukuta or tiara of a king with the chhatra or umbrella borne over it. Between his feet is a human head; behind him are four figures, two with round shields, and one of them with a sword, while one seems to have fallen. In front of him is a fifth also with shield, while a sixth is represented falling headlong upon a female who is fighting with a crooked sword just at his foot. Durgâ is mounted on her lion, her eight arms girded for the strife and armed with bow, sword, club, śankha, axe, gong, &c., and canopied by the Chhatra, and attended by eight pramathas, some with bows and others with swords.

In the back are three cells, with male dwârpâlas by the doors of each; the central one is a shrine (called by the villagers KaiIâs), with a linga, in the middle of the floor, and on the back wall is a sculpture of Śankara or Śiva and Pârvatî seated together, she with Karttikaswâmi or Mahâsena on her knee. Behind them is seen a figure of Vishṇu, and to the left is Brahmâ, and below the seat is the bull Nandi and a female. This sculpture is exceedingly badly executed, and the style of headdress much higher than in either of the other sculptures.

Immediately above this cave is the fragment of a structural temple, which forms one of the most conspicuous objects in the landscape from whichever side it is seen.8 It is not, however, centred exactly on the rock-cut portico below9, and is evidently the erection of a later age, though probably intended to complete what the original cave excavators had left, like everything else in this place unfinished. Its dimensions are 22 feet by 16 feet in plan, and its height 16 feet.10 What its interior dimensions are cannot now be ascertained, as its roof has fallen in.

4. To the west of this at the foot of the hill is a temple of Varâha Svâmi, or the boar avâtara of Vishṇu, but being still used for worship, it is not now accessible to strangers, and its contents are only known by hearsay, and from what can be seen from the outside. The  rock excavation has four pillars and a shrine at the back. It contains (by report) the usual four-armed figure of Varâha holding up Prithvî, a four-armed Śaktî, figures known as Râja Hariśekhara and his two wives; Śri as Gaja Lakshmî (attended by elephants); Mâruti worshipping Râma; and others. In front of this rock-cut temple a modern mandap has been built, lighted only from the door, which now prevents the interior being seen.11

5. Râmânujya Maṇḍapa.—This has been a small cave 18 feet by 10, with two pillars standing on lions' heads, well cut, with octagonal shafts in front. There are three cells at the back with some sculptures on the walls, but the back wall and divisions between the cells have been cleared away, and the sculptures hewn off the walls.

At each end outside is a niche for an image surmounted by a little simulated cell like those found on all the Rathas, and in front a verandah supported on six pillars has been erected.

On the threshold is an inscription in three lines, of an old florid character. The façade of this cave has a bold projecting drip, and is ornamented above with dormer windows similar to those found on the structural or rock-cut Chaityas. The style altogether is very like that of the third or Bhima's Ratha.

The Chakra and Śankh of Vishṇu are carved on the returning walls at the end of the verandah, and at each end stairs ascend to the top where is the plain rubble temple, called by the natives Velugoṭi Singama Nâyaḍu's Maṇḍapa. Below in the valley is a stone couch, and near the front of the cave lies the top of the dormer window of a Ratha. The Ratha itself has been totally quarried away.12

6. Maṇḍapa to the west of Oḷakkaṇṇeśwaraswâmi's Temple.13 This is an unfinished cave with four lion pillars blocked out in its front.

7. Krishṇa’s Maṇḍapa.-Proceeding northward the next in order locally, is Krishṇa’s Choultry, which cannot be passed over in a description of the caves at Mahâvallipur, though it has very little claim to be considered as a cave, or as a rock-cut temple. It is quite exceptional here, and its structural arrangements belong to a different age from all those surrounding it. It probably was erected at the same time as the structural Vimana over the Yamapuri Cave described above, and may probably belong to the time of the Cholas, in or about the eleventh century of our era.

It consists of a large Maṇḍapa or porch 48 feet by 23, with twelve structural columns in three rows erected in front of a great bas-relief in a recessed portion of the rock. Six of the pillars have Śârdûlas or Yalis at the bottom, and the rest are square with carving upon them, but all have the drooping bracket capital so common in modern buildings in the south of India. The roof is formed of large slabs of gneiss laid over the lintels, which join the heads of the pillars.

The sculptured decoration of the cave consists of one long bas-relief following the sinuosities of the rock some 45 feet in length and from 10 to 11 feet in height in the centre. It represents Krishṇa holding up the hill of Govarddhana. To the left is Balarâma leaning on another male figure, and on each side are numerous Gopalas and Gopîs with cows, calves, and a bull. On the return of the wall are lions and other animals. The sculpture of all these is much more developed than those in the Daśa Avatâra and Kailâsa at Elurâ, and is almost certainly of later date, thus confirming the comparatively modern date of this hybrid temple, which, except from Its locality as one of a series, is hardly worthy of much attention.

On the top of the hill, but like the Vimana over the Yamapuri cave placed unsymetrically with this porch, a very splendid structural Gopura has been commenced in the style of architecture prevalent in the eleventh or twelfth century, and evidently a part of some great design. It had not, however, been carried up higher than the sub-basement, and then like everything else at this place, abandoned and left unfinished.

8. The Maṇḍapa of the Pâncha Pâṇḍavas.14—A few yards north of the last, and adjoining the great sculptured rock, is a large but unfinished cave, 50 feet wide in front, and about 40 feet deep at the right end, and 33 feet at the left. It has six octagonal pillars in front rising from Śârdulâ bases (one is broken) with broad square abacuses, and, in place of brackets, three rampant Śârdûlas, one on each side of the architrave. The second row of pillars are plain octagons standing on simple plinths, and behind them the front of the shrine occupies the width of four pillars or about 23 feet. The shrine itself is an irregular small cell, unfinished, as are also the side aisles, in each of which three pillars are roughly blocked out. Over the façade, the rock is hewn into little models of cells, as on the Rathas and the fronts of the other caves.

9. Vaishṇava Cave.—Near to the isolated monolithic temple of Ganeśa described above (p. 114) is a very neat excavation on the left of the pathway and facing west.15

In front it has two pilasters and two octagonal pillars rising from śârdûlas, the shafts half covered with minute florid work. The capitals have a thick heavy torus over a few members, forming an astragal round the neck, and above a cima recta spreads out under a plain square tile, and the brackets are separated from this by a square block, as in the third cave described above.16 The eaves above are ornamented with six Chaitya dormer windows enclosing rosettes, and above, the façade is carved as in the Rathas.

The hall measures 19 feet by 9 with a single shrine at the back which projects into the hall. In the left or north end is a sculpture of the four-armed Varâha or Boar Avatâra and Prithivî17 or the earth, who, according to the legend, he had rescued from the deluge in which it or she had been submerged at the churning of the ocean in the previous Avatâra. This sculpture is not unlike the figures in two of the Bâdâmi caves, but showing so much difference in style, and such general inferiority of design and execution, as to leave little doubt that this is the most modern example of the two. The geographical distance, however, of the two localities prevents any exact determination of the chronological interval that may have elapsed between the execution of the two examples.

In the Mahavâllipur example Varâha's right foot is placed on the head of the seven-headed snake Śesha. To the left are two male figures one of them with a long crook. Behind is a four-armed figure with a bag or bottle in one of his left hands, and addressing another figure, perhaps a female, and above them in the corners are two smaller figures of Gandharvas.

On the back wall adjoining this Varâha sculpture is a singularly interesting representation of Śri or Gaja Lakshmî, seated on a lotus flower, with her feet on the sepals of it, and two elephants above receiving pots of water from two female attendants on each side and pouring it on the goddess. The execution of this sculpture does not seem remarkable for its excellence. The interest lies in the fact of its being the first known example of this Goddess appearing in a Hindu garb. As above pointed out (p. 72) we know of some20 examples of her appearance in Buddhist monuments from the time of the Tope of Bharhut B.C. 150, to 6th or 7th century in the Panjab. From this time to the present day she is one of the most frequently represented deities of the Hindu pantheon, but does not afterwards. so far as is known, appear on Buddhist monuments.

To the right of the shrine is a somewhat similar sculpture, but perhaps it may rather be considered as a representation of Durgâ; though the Śankha and discus rather belong to Lakshmî, four armed, with umbrella over her head, a deer over her left shoulder, and a tiger over the other, while four gana, one with a sword, attend her. Below to the right is a suppliant, and on the left a man grasping his long hair with one hand and a long sword with the other, as if about to cut off his locks.18

On the right or south end of this cave is a loepresentation of the result of the Wâman, or dwarf Avatâra, differing from similar sculptures at Bâdâmi inasmuch that the suppliants are omitted before the principal figure, which represents Vishṇu with eight arms as Trivikrama or the three stepper, taking the first step by which according to the legend he deprived Maha Bali of the dominion of the earth. The local pandits regard the figure seated at the right foot of Trivikrama19 as Maha Bali, and the one behind him as his minister Śukrâchârya. On the return of the wall and on each side of the shrine are male dwârpâlas or doorkeepers, but inside there is only a bench without any figure or image in it.

10, 11. These two caves are close together on the west side of the rocks and face W.N.W. towards the last-mentioned pair of Rathas. The northern one is an unfinished cave about 36 feet long and 10 deep, with four lion pillars blocked out in front (similar to Cave 6) which is not far to the south of this. A large recess is also roughly hewn out in the back.

The other (11) is about 34 feet in length by 15 feet deep, and has four square and octagon pillars in front, with a second row inside, 16 sided, with capitals similar to those of the Raths, with brackets above, but no abacus over the torus.

In the back are five cells, three of them with steps leading up to the doors, which have male dwârpâlas by their jambs. Over the doors is a projecting cornice with a drip on which are carved Chaitya window ornaments each with a head within it.

All the cells have had lingams in them, which are now removed.

12. Kotikal Mandapa.20
One hundred and twenty yards to the north-east of the last is a third cave on this west side of the rocks. Like the last, the two pillars in front are square below and above, and octagonal in the middle with brackets only roughly blocked out. It has only one shrine which is empty; but the door has a female dwârpâlas on each side, indicating that (like Draupâdi's Ratha) it was dedicated to a goddess or Śaktî. Over the door is a plain drip, no frieze but with small square holes countersunk in the rock as if a wooden verandah were once intended and perhaps executed.

At first sight the style of this cave, externally, looks older than the others, and it may be so, but can hardly be removed from them by any great interval, and the contrast between the outer and the inner rows of pillars as in Cave 11 seems to be in favour of its being of about the same age. If its outer appearance only were taken into account it would be difficult not to believe that it was the oldest cave here.

13. Kapul Iśwara.—Proceeding from this to the north-east, we reach three shrines joined together cut in the face of the rock, with slender pilasters at the sides of their doors, and by each are dwârpâlas with high, peaked caps; those to the left are bearded. The cornice or drip is ornamented with Chaitya-window sculptures, each containing a head, and the façade above is carved in the usual Ratha style. On the rock to the right or south of these is an eight-armed Durgâ, standing on a buffalo's head.

  • 1. Report on Belgâm & c., Plate XXXI.
  • 2. Trans. R. A. S., Vol. ii. Plate VI. of Mr. Babington's paper.
  • 3. Carr's No. 44; Braddock, p. 103 (?).
  • 4. Carr's map, No. 46.
  • 5. Carr, No. 32; Braddock, No. 19, p. 96, see also pp. 7, 32, 49, 149, 208.
  • 6. See the legend, p. 99 of Carr’s compilation.
  • 7. Trans. R. A. S., vol. ii. p. 261; Carr, 49.
  • 8. Lord Valentia’s Travels, vol. i. Plate opposite p. 380.
  • 9. Rock-cut Temples, folio, 1845, Plate XVII.
  • 10. Carr's compilation, quoting Braddock, p. 96.
  • 11. On the rock to the left, but partly covered by the end wall of this erection, is a long inscription dated “in the ninth year of Koppari Kesarwarmâ, also called Uḍaiyâr Śri Râjendra Devar, who having taken the whole of Iraţţaippâḍi seven lakhs and a half, having intimidated Âhavamalla in battle, &c.” Another inscription at Gangondaram on the Kâveri speaks of “Ko-Virâja Keśarwarmâ named Râjendra Deva” as “having intimidated Âhavamalla of Kudala Sangama” (Bilhana's Vikramakâvya); and a third inscription at Augiri in Dharwad mentions the invasion of the Karnatic by Râjendra Chôla.( Conf. Caldwell, Gram. int. pp. 135, 136.) Now Someśvara Deva Âhavamalla the Chalukya ruled the Karnatic from Śaka 962 to 991, A.D. 1040 to 1069, and Râjendra Chôlâ succeeded his father Râjarâja Chôla in Śaka 986, A.D. 1063, and his reign was a very long one.( Ind. Ant. V. 321.) The grants, for there are two, are thus fixed to belong to A.D. 1072, but unfortunately they only record donations to the temple, which was probably excavated in a much earlier age.—J.B.
  • 12. Quarrying operations are going on on a very extensive scale among these caves at the present time, and it will be nothing new if the finest of them are sacrificed without a thought.
  • 13. No. 30 in Carr's map, where it is placed much to the west of its real position.-Not mentioned by Braddock.
  • 14. No. 15 on Carr's map; Braddock's No. 12, p. 92; see also pp. 4, 205.
  • 15. Carr, 25; Braddock, No.9, p. 81. Carr’s Plates V. To IX., and pp. 6, 49, 205.
  • 16. Carr’s 32; Braddock's 17.
  • 17. Trans. R.A.S., vol. ii, Plate V.; see also Carr's plate with the same number.
  • 18. Carr, Plate VIII., Fig. 1.
  • 19. Carr, Plate VII. Fig 1.
  • 20. Carr, No. 52.