There still remains to be described one of the most remarkable antiquities of the place, which, though rock-cut, can neither be classed among the temples nor the caves. It is, in fact, a great bas-relief carved in two great masses of rock, and extending nearly 90 feet north and south, with an average height of about 30 feet. It is popularly known as Arjuna's penance from the figure of Sanyasi standing on one leg, and holding his arms over his head, which is generally assumed to represent that hero of the Mâhâbharata , but without more authority than that which applies his name with that of his brothers and sister to the Rathas above described.1
The most prominent figure in the southern half of the rock is that of a god four-armed, probably Śiva, but his emblems are so defaced that it is difficult to feel sure which god is represented; but the attendant gana and generally the accompaniments make this nearly certain. On his left is the emaciated figure of a man doing penance, just referred to. Below him is a small one-storeyed temple, not unlike Draupadî's Ratha, but further removed from the original utilitarian type, and of a more architectural design. In the cell is seen an image apparently of Vishṇu, to which an old devotee on the left hand, said to represent Dronachârya, is offering worship, with another, a little lower on the right. Besides these there are some 13 or 14 human beings, men and women, life size, represented in this southern half, some six or seven gaṇa or dwarfs, usually attendant on Śiva, as many gandharvas or harpies, flying figures, the upper part of whose bodies are human, the lower extremities those of birds with claws.2 In addition to these, there are lions, deer, hares, monkeys, and birds; and if the lower part of the rock had been complete—like everything here, it is left unfinished—it would have contained a whole menagerie of animals.
The upper part of the right half bas-relief contains some 20 figures of men and women with the same admixture of animals, gandharvas, and gaṇa, like those on the southern half, all hurrying towards the centre, where the principal object of worship was evidently placed. The lower part of this half is occupied by two elephants, a male and female, life size, with four young ones, which are as perfect representations of those animals as were probably ever executed in stone.
In the centre on a projecting ledge, between these two great masses of rock, once stood the statue of the great Nâgâ Raja, who was the principal personage for whose honour this great bas-relief was designed. The upper part of the figure, above 5 feet in height, was that of a man overshadowed by a great seven-headed serpent hood (woodcut No. 41), below the figure was that of a serpent. The upper part has fallen, but still remains on the ground,3 the lower part is still attached to the rock. Below him is his wife, about 7 feet in height, but with a hood of only three serpent heads, and below her, again a simple head of a cobra. On either hand are other figures with serpent hoods, and men and animals, among which may be remarked a cat standing on its hind legs, and all doing homage to the great Nâgâ Râja.
Even if this great bas-relief does not afford us much information regarding the rock-cut architecture of Eastern India, it has at least the merit of fixing almost beyond cavil the age of the various objects of interest at Mahâvallipur. The sculptures, for instance, of Cave No. XXIV. at Ajaṇṭâ, are so nearly identical that their age cannot be far apart. We have in these the same flying figures, male and female, the same Kinnaras (harpies), the same style of sculpture in every respect, and such as is not found either before or afterwards. As this Ajaṇṭâ cave is only blocked out, and only finished in parts, it is probably the latest excavation there, and may therefore with certainty be assumed to belong to the seventh century of our era, and most probably the latter half of it. The sculptures, too, at Elurâ and elsewhere, whose age has been ascertained, when compared with this bas-relief, so fully confirm this, and all we learn, from other sources, that the date of rock-cut monuments at Mahâvallipur can hardly now be considered as doubtful.
If it were not that this work is expressly limited to the rock-cut examples of Indian architecture, few things would be more instructive for the history, of Dravidian architecture at least, than to describe also the structural examples of this place. The temple on the shore is not only one of the most elegant but one of the oldest examples of the style.4 It is small, measuring only about 60 feet east and west and about 50 feet in height, and simulates a five-storeyed Vihara, though with considerable deviation from the forms originally used by the Buddhists and copied so literally in the Raths at this place. Its details had become at the time it was erected so far conventionalised that it is not at first sight easy to detect the wooden original in all parts, and the general outline had become taller and more elegant than in the Raths. It has also the advantage, so rare in the south, of being all in stone. In nine instances out of ten, only the lower storey, which is always perpendicular, is in stone. The upper or pyramidal parts are in brickwork plastered or in terracotta or some lighter material. In this example the whole is in stone, and though weather worn from its being within the reach of the surf, it still retains its outline with sufficient sharpness to show what its original form must have been.
Its age probably is about the 8th or 9th century, and if so is the earliest known structural temple in the Dravidian regions. It certainly is older than the Krishna Mantapa or than the frustum of a Vimana above the Yamapuri cave, at this place, and very considerably older than the present village temple, which is still used for worship by the inhabitants of Mahâvallipur.
This last probably belongs to the 12th or 13th century, and though comparatively modern, is an unusually elegant specimen of the class, and if illustrated, with the other antiquities of the place, would afford a complete history of the style during the six or seven centuries in which it flourished in the greatest perfection. As before mentioned it is one of the few temples that adopt the straight ridged form of Bhima's Rath, instead of the domical termination of the pyramid as exemplified in the Arjuna and Dharmarâja Raths. It has, however, a smaller temple alongside of it in the same enclosure, which follows the more usual patterns. Together they make a very perfect pair of temples, and notwithstanding their difference in age their details are so little altered that there is no difficulty in tracing all their forms back to the Raths from which they were derived.
- 1. The bas-relief is very fairly represented in the Trans. R.A.S. vol. ii. in Plates I. and II., Fig. 1, that accompany Dr. Babington's paper. They are reproduced in Carl's compilation under the same numbers. I possess besides numerous photographs of it by Dr. Hunter, Capt. Lyon, Mr. Nicholas, and others, which enables me to bear testimony to the general correctness of Dr. Babington’s drawings.
- 2. These occur frequently at Sanchi (Tree and Serpent Worship, Plates XXV., XXVI., XXVII., XXVIII., and passim XXIV., Figs. 1 and 2, and in all Buddhist sculptures, though generally in a different form from those here represented. Also in the wall paintings in the Ajaṇṭâ Caves; they are called Kinnaras.
- 3. It was evident that the bead of the Nâgâ Raja had fallen from the accident of its position, the artists having placed it in the centre, where it could have a shadow behind it, but where it had no support. I consequently wrote to my friend Dr. Hunter to try and find it. With the assistance of the then Madras Government he removed the sand, and found it lying where it fell. I afterwards made application to the Government to have it replaced, which could easily be done, and so give meaning to the whole bas-relief. This, I understood from my friend Mr. Campbell Johnstone, who took out my application, was also sanctioned and ordered to be carried out, but from photographs recently receivedi t appears not only thatt this has not been done, but that the bust has been removed from where it originally stood after its recovery.
- 4. A view of it will be found in my Picturesque Illustrations of Indian Architecture, Pl. XVIII., with description.