Dharmaraja Ratha

(also known as Atyantakama-Pallavesvara-griham)


This ratha, dedicated to Siva, is the pinnacle of achievement of the Pallava stapati-s, of their controlled artistry. Its shape is exquisite, and it is a magnificent sight, even though it is incomplete. The ratha is called Dharmaraja Ratha. This, as well as the others in the complex, bears names after the heroes of Mahabharata. This name is of recent origin and these monuments have no connection with those these are named after.

The ratha with the three floors with architectural embellishments and the crowning glory, the crown (sikhara) itself is a visual treat. In the sculptures the sculptors have some exquisite icons of the Tamil country. Both the architecture and the sculptures are perfectly balanced. This perhaps provided a model for all the shrines in the region, which can boast of some of the greatest shrines.
There are quite a few ‘firsts’ that this can boast of. That it has sanctums on the upper floors and having a Somaskanda relief sculpture on the back wall of one of the sanctums are the important novel features. It is the only ratha that contains inscription, mostly label inscriptions.
One of them calls the shrine as Atyantakama-Pallavesvara-Griham. This would mean that it is caused by Atyantakama. Who is this Atyantakama is a subject of controversy.

It was probably started by Narasimhavarman Mahamalla late in his reign and the work extended far into the time of his grandson, Paramesvara. Some consider that it was Paramesvara, who introduced the Somaskanda panel in the sanctuary of the upper storey and named the shrine Atyantakama Pallavesvaragriham. There are some experts who attribute this shrine to Rajasimha, son of Paramesvara.

The monuments can boast of some of the best sculptures the Pallava sculptors produced. They would also rank high in Indian art. From the point of view of styles of execution, these images can be put into two main groups. The first group of eight is found at the ground level. These consist of portraits of kings and images of gods. All of them are in very similar standing postures.

The upper levels contain some of the best icons produced by the Pallava-s. It is really a pity that these would not be visited by visitors as there is no approach to the upper levels. These figures are basically of divinities in the upper floors and are in lively, dynamic poses.
Because of the difference in style some have even suggested that the two belong to two different periods.

From the stylistic point of view the execution of these sculptures may be compared with similar images found elsewhere in Mamallapuram. Such comparisons are to be done with Subrahmanya, Vishnu and Siva in the Trimurti Mandapam and of with Harihara and Brahma in the Adivaraha Mandapam. Excepting for details, all these, that is, the icons of Dharmaraja Ratha in the ground level, of the Trimurti Mandapam and the Adivaraha Mandapam, are very close to each other stylistically. However one scholar discerns some differences that may be useful in establishing the chronology. Thus, it is felt that the sculptures in the two cave temples have ‘finer shaped sinuous and supple legs and almost diaphanous drapery of the sculptures’, while those in the ratha look heavier, particularly below the waist. This, according to this expert, would make the sculptures in this ratha of a later period.

Studying the sculptures we may try to follow the sequence of excavation. The top level looks complete in all respects, including the sanctum and a Somaskanda relief panel on its back wall. On the second level, all sculptures are finished excepting the sanctum and the two dvarapala-s guarding it on the west face. We may guess that an interruption has taken place then. When the work was resumed the sculptures on the ground level was perhaps taken up, rather than completing the dvarapala-s on the second level. We have no clue when and why these interruptions took place, if they have occurred at all. Work on the ratha itself was abruptly given up after sculpting the eight images at the ground level. This, as well as the stoppage of work on all the ratha-s in this complex, has not been fully understood yet.
The upper floors of this shrine are veritable galleries of the early Pallava sculpture. One can imagine the odds: working on the most difficult material, with rudimentary tools, cramped space and inconvenient working postures. What they have achieved is truly astounding: figures that are youthful, full of vigour and with very few ornaments that don’t distract. Devoid of contrived movement, the emphasis is on clear outlines.

Before we visit the sculpture gallery of the upper levels - it would only be a manasika (virtual) visit only - I need to point out what we would be missing. The sculptures in the upper levels, forty-two in number, are full of feeling (bhava) from benign (saumya) to malevolent (ugra), look as if emerging out of the walls with gusto. Variety of postures (ranging from samabhanga, dvibhanga, tribhanga to atibhanga) and whole gamut from frontal to profile make these animated figures some of the best this culture produced.

To be specific, the following may of interest.

Let us have an inventory. There are fourteen forms of Siva, and of what a range: as slayer of evil (Kalari-murti and Andhakari), as a benefactor of devotees (Chandesa and Gangadhara), as player and teacher of music and dance (Vinadhara and Natyacharya), as Chandrasekhara, Nandi-sahita, Vrishabhantika and finally, as Somaskanda, a family portrait! We have in addition, composite forms figuring Siva, one as Ardhanari, pairing with his consort, Uma, and another with Vishnu, as Harihara.

Vishnu is depicted twice, once alone and once with Garuda. His avatara, Krishna is seen as Kaliya-mardana, a dynamic composition. Subrahmanya twice and Brahma, Surya and Chandra once each are the other divinities. Interestingly, human beings are well represented; there are fifteen of them; but, sadly, only one of them is a female. I may mention here that the human figures include four members of temple establishment: a priest, his assistant, a temple-cook and an oduvar (temple singer). This is a novel feature.

The dvarapala-s, as usual of the Pallava period, have two arms. Excepting for Krishna, as Kaliamardana, Surya and Chandra, all other divinities have four arms. Are the exceptions significant? The extra pairs, wherever shown, are in natural, lively articulation.
We may notice that in most of the sculptures the portions around the feet are more incomplete than the rest. This is most likely because of the cramped space.

Visiting the monument

We may just stand before the temple of unparalleled nobility to get a magnificent view, to feel the balance and harmony and to pay tribute to the patient sculptors who had laboured under unfavourable weather for years in the production of this marvel. We may also get certain details about the shrine before entering. Once we go in we may lose the perspective.

The best is stand on west side, if possible, at the time when sun is setting. It would be better to avoid the beating sun of the mid-day when the shadows would be too harsh. Mornings are cool and one can get a good silhouette. But the late evenings, in the golden sun-set, is the best to admire at leisure.

General description

The receding pyramidal shape is marvel of rhythm and balance. The Dharmaraja Ratha is a shrine of three storeys (tri-tala vimana). Since it is carved out of a single stone, the work was started from the top. The top storey is complete, including the garbha-griham, and is functional; it has a sanctum with deity in it. The second level is almost complete, with sanctum and its gate-keepers remaining in complete. In the ground floor the work has been stopped after sculpting the reliefs.

It is pity, that we cannot reach the upper levels, for there are some of the exquisite sculptures of the period on the upper levels. You may seek special permission. But how and from whom cannot be easily found and, lesser mortals like you and I will have to be satisfied with photographic reproductions. (How one wishes that the Archaeological Department gets gyanodayam to set up a museum in Mamallapuram and to keep life size reproductions of these images, as they have done for the Chola paintings in Thanjavur!)

The basic plan is square (square tala) but the neck (griva) and the crown (shikhara) are octagonal. The basement (adhishthana) is not finished.

The rough stone pieces strewn all over bring a sigh in us. At the ground floor level we see the ardha-mandapam and its two pillars and two half-pillars, all vyala-based in various stages of incompletion. On the two ends we see two life-size relief statues. We will come to them later when we go around the shrine.

The horizontal superstructure above (technically called entablature) is complete. The curved horizontal member (cornice) is decorated with a number of kudu-s. Below that is a frieze of bhuta-gana-s. Above the cornice are human beings and animals – lions and monkeys, in the pose of namaskaram. (You may have to use binoculars, if you have.)

Above is the first storey. On the outer side is a series of mini-shrines, which became the standard ornamentation in temples later.
To go into some greater detail, what you see are five miniature shrines, three in the centre are rectangular in plan and are called sala-s and the extreme two sqauare, called kuta-s. All these are interconnected by model-corridors (harantara-s).

Between these and the walls is a circumbulatory corridor. On the niches of the wall inside are some excellent figures, some of which are just visible. The storey above is similar excepting that it is smaller in size. Through a small entrance can be approached a shrine on the western side, with a relief sculpture of Somaskanda. There are also narrow passages for circumambulation, like the level below. On the walls of the shrine also we have sculptures of great beauty.

We have some important inscriptions in the upper floors. These inscriptions have a role to play in the debate on the authorship. We will have a detailed discussion on this later.
The finale is perhaps the best ‘graphics’ of the Pallava-s. It is the crown (sikhara), really the crowing glory, octagonal in shape, which became the model for all the temples in the south then onwards. Kudu arches embellish all the eight sides. The floral designs on all the corners remind us of typical brass work of later period. Some experts feel that the originally metal sheets might have covered the crown. On the top of the crown is a lotus base. It is to which a stupi, a symbolic final piece would be inserted, before the actual consecration ceremony (kumbaabhishekam). A stupi was found at the bottom of the east corner of the temple.

Ground level

We may start our visit of the ground level. The entry is from the west like all the ratha-s in this group, excepting the Sahadeva Ratha. We are greeted by two vyala-based pillars and two vyala-based pilasters. All these are incomplete as the stairs to reach this level.
Each corner has two relief sculptures. These are of Gods or a portrait of a Pallava king. Above most of them are inscriptions in Pallava Grantha executed calligraphically.

The plan was to have a narrow corridor around a central garbha-griham with the eight sculptures on its outside. It could not be completed. As per the original plan the outer walls of the second tala would have above the walls of the garbha-griham of the ground floor.
Let us first go around the ground floor. Here the attraction is the group of sculptures. It would be helpful if I describe briefly the style of all these sculptures. These are marked by a static pose – the sthanaka pose in sama-bhanga and sama-pada - and can even be termed as, heavy. This would be the pose in which they would be depicted if they are to be worshipped as in the icons in the sanctum. Most of the divinities have right hand in abhaya-mudra and their lower left hand on the hip (katyavalambita hasta)

Dress and ornaments:

There exist substantial similarities in details in the dress and in the ornaments among them. The lower garments shown are of two types. One is a skirt-like worn in the way very similar to the kachcha fashion seen even today. The other is a tight garment, kaupina-like. Mostly these are secured by waist-band (kati-bandha). In addition we may find a loose waist-girdle (kati-srinkhala) and also a flat cummerbund (udara-bandha). The sacred-thread would be seen as a rolled piece of cloth (vastra yajnopavita) or in strands (sutra yajnopavita). Again it may be worn in the normal (upavita) style or worn with the lower end passing over the right hand, called nivita fashion. The vastra yajnopavita is very often found to be with clasps.

Siva would have jata-makuta and all others may be portrayed with makuta-s, mostly karanda-makuta or kirita-makuta.
Unlike that became to be a fashion later, most icons have very scanty ornaments over the body. Kanthika, only one at that, is the common neck ornament. Sometimes we see the icon decorated with bangles (kankana-s and valaya-s). The ear ornaments are of two kinds. One is a makara-kundala-s. Most of the time, we see them hanging from a distended ear-lobe. The other is patra-kundala-s. It is interesting to note that we come across with images with different kundala-s on the two ears. This is found all over Mamallapuram.
Let us go around starting from the niche on the west side-northern end.

Siva (West face South wing)

The first that we see is an image of Siva, identified by his jata-makuta. The two upper hands are hanging down, which is unusual. He holds a serpent by the tail in one hand and a kamandalu on the other. The lower right hand is also holding some unidentifiable object, a lotus or an aksha-mala. What aspect of Siva is this is not clear.

He is seen with a veshti reaching to the ankle is held by a waist-band, with sparse neck ornaments and small rings in his distended ear-lobes. This kind of dress is unusual for Siva, for this can be taken for a royal figure, except for the four arms.
There is no label inscription above the figure

Siva (west face-north wing)

This is another Siva, as he can be seen holding a deer on his left hand. But it is difficult to say here also what aspect is being depicted here. Some identify this with Bhairava, a fearsome form of Siva.

It is a graceful figure, holding a deer and rosary on the upper left and right hands respectively. His sacred thread is flat, his kaupina-like lower garment held by a waistband and sports patra-kundala in both ears. A snake can be seen coiling around his thighs raising its hood on his left. He is seen wearing bangles on his wrists.

These two Siva sculptures, this and the earlier one, are unique and are not repeated anywhere in Mamallapuram.
There is no label above.

Brahma (northern face-western wing)

Here is an image of Brahma, identified by his four heads. Of course, only three are visible. But only the front and the left faces are finished.
The upper right and left hands hold lotus buds. His veshti, reaching almost to the ankles, is held by a waist-band. His ornaments are kanthika-s, makara-kundala-s, karanda-makuta, kankana-s and bahuvalaya-s.

There is yet another sculpture of Brahma in Mamallapuram, in the Adivaraha Mandapam. Both can be seen to be very similar in style.
There is no inscription above the niche.

Harihara (north face-east wing)

Hindu iconography excels in certain novel dimensions like composite figures, icons which represent two dissimilar deities. In this ratha we find two such icons. One of them, namely, Siva and Vishnu, called Harihara. Close by we would be seeing another, the Ardha-nari, an integrated image of Siva and Parvati, which even more popular and also important in a philosophical sense.

The sculpture in this niche of Harihara is executed bringing out clearly the iconographic differences between the two gods. The right side of the body is Siva and the left, Vishnu. The sculptor has succeeded in bringing out the essential differences excellently.

Siva’s jata-makuta with terminal crescent juxtaposes with tapering cylindrical crown of Vishnu. Siva’s part holds an axe, Siva’s weapon, in the upper right hand, and the lower right is in abhaya mudra. A snake coils out from the waist on Siva's side. The Vishnu part must have had a conch shell, but this hand is, unfortunately, broken. Vishnu holds a discus on the upper hand. But this is curious, as the hand projects awkwardly, actually outside the trim-line. Is it an after-thought? This can be done only if the boundaries were finished first. The pleated lower garment looks natural. There is a kanthiki round the neck and makara-kundala-s in both the dangling ear-lobes.
The Harihara relief in the Adivaraha Mandapam is similar to this sculpture stylistically.

The inscription above the figure reads 'Sri-Narasimha', coronation name of the Mamalla.

Ardhanari (east side –north end)

This is considered to be an exquisite modeling, as the sculptor has executed a perfect balance of the feminine and the masculine features and a graceful poise. The right part of the body is of Siva and Uma forms the other part.

The droop in the shoulder and the dip near the waist and the pelvis of the female half are beautifully shown. Its upper hand, of Parvati, holds a lotus and the lower left hand, resembles swaying trunk of an elephant. The chest of the male half is very broad and the shoulder is very prominent. The upper right hand holds a parasu and the lower right hand is in abhaya-mudra. The inveterate cobra is seen loosely girdling with its raised hood and with its tail end on the right of Siva’s side.

The mukuta also is a combination of jata-mukuta and karanda-mukuta for Siva and Parvati respectively. In the left ear-lobe we find a patra-kundala and in the left leg an anklet. The lower garment is common to both the halves which folds around the waist and tassels hang to the sides.

In later depiction of Ardhanari only two hands are found, unlike here where the image has four hands. The absence of anklet for Siva is also notable. The early Pallava male figures don’t have this leg ornaments, but came into vogue from the Rajasimha time. There are no Ardhanari of this period found in Mamallapuram. The two on loose stone are to be seen in the Shore Temple complex. But these are all seated forms. They carry vina or other standards.

Bhuvana-bhajanah meaning ‘possessor of the world’ is engraved above. This is a Pallava title.

Subrahmanya (East face – South wing)

On this corner is a four-armed Subrahmanya. Some identify this image with Skanda as Gurumurti or Brahmasasta. It is a youthful figure with the upper right hand holding an aksha-mala and the upper left a lotus.

His headdress is conical karanda-makuta with a broad rounded turban-like band. He wears patra-kundala-s in both the ears. His garments are close to that of Siva we have seen before. He wears a tight kaupina-like lower garment. The image here is very close to Subrahmanya depicted in left shrine of Trimurti Mandapam.

There are two royal titles engraved above this sculpture: 'Pridhivisara' (‘the best on earth’) and 'Sridhara', (‘bearer of prosperity”).

Siva (south face –east wing)

In this niche is depicted Siva with jata-makuta, holding an axe (parasu) on his upper right hand and, perhaps, aksha-mala on the upper left hand. His dress is similar to that of Subrahmanya in the adjacent niche.

The titles above are, 'Atyantakama' ('He of boundless desires') and 'Anekobhaya' ('The highly enterprising').

Narasimha Pallava (south side-western end)

The sculpture is identified to be that of Narasimha Pallava, believed to be author of the ratha. It is a majestic royal figure with slightly tapering crown and all royal regalia.

Heavy gold earrings, a jewelled necklace, a kind of garland formed of multiple strands of pearls, worn diagonally across his bare chest, a jewelled stomach-band, and three gold bracelets on each wrist are all appropriate to his chakravarti status. His garment is familiar, seen elsewhere too, and not anything special.

Royal figures are found in the Adivaraha Mandapam. Let us consider certain essential differences. This figure sports a taller crown compared to the truncated ones in the cave shrines. While here the stance is sama-bhanga, the ones in the cave are in dvi-bhanga. Even the body is less heavy in the Mandapam.

Another noteworthy feature is that all the sculptures here, excepting the Ardhanari, are invested with yajnopavita, while the royal figures in the Adivaraha Mandapam have none. What would this mean?

The king's titles, engraved above his head, are, 'Srimegha' ('The cloud which showers prosperity'), 'Trailokyavarddhana' ('He who prospers the three worlds), and 'Vidhi' (‘Ruler’).

The second level

The second storey of this temple has more sculptured figures and inscribed titles. And there is even a sanctum excavated into its western side, though this is empty and has no sculpture in it.

Sculptures on this floor

This floor is a treasure trove and the best among all that are found in this ratha. Their varied iconography, forms and poses make them important in the study of Indian sculptures. These compare well with those in the Arjuna Ratha in the same complex and those in the Great Penance panel. The reason could be that all these belong to the same period. We may now start on the virtual visit, starting from the west side, where the shrine exists, though incomplete.

West face

The following are the four sculptures on this face: (From left) Siva as Kankalamurti, two dvarapala-s and a woman devotee.

Siva, the divine beggar

Siva as a divine beggar is depicted as Bhikshatana-murti or Kankala-murti. There are some iconographic differences between the two. We can identify easily the latter by the staff he carries. Here we see him carrying a begging bowl, which is a human skull. On the remaining hands are a pasa (upper left) and a trisula (lower right). What he has on the upper right hand is not clear. He holds a staff on the right shoulder on which hangs the dead body Vishvaksena. With the right foot kept slightly forward and alert, this is a typical Pallava icon.
In terms on style, one can see a slight change in the depiction of nose. The Pallava nose is some what flat, but here we find a thinner and sharper one, a precursor to the later Chola bronzes, it looks. Some consider that this figure is the combination of Bhikshatana and Kankala forms, as he has Kankala danda.

Satya-parakramah and Paravarah are two inscriptions found engraved above the sculpture.

Woman devotee

The southern extreme niche accommodates a graceful woman devotee. She walks towards the shrine carrying on her shoulder a pot, which must be containing water for puja.

On the east face, where another shrine has been attempted, the wall is filled with four temple employees. She, along with those on the east face, is the only non-divine sculptures of this ratha and she is the only female in this shrine.

Postured in tribhanga and in slight angle of the body suggests her moving towards the sanctum with careful gait. The woman is somewhat plump for classical beauty. This is offset by her features, bust, hip, legs etc, by her almost diaphanous skirt, retained by a cloth belt and unobtrusive, but significant, ornaments – karanda-makuta, patra-kundala-s, anklets in both legs, make her an important creation of the Pallava sculptors.

We come across with a few more feminine forms in Mamallapuram, most noteworthy being the royal ladies on the outer walls of the sanctum of Arjuna Ratha, in the Govardhana Panel and Durga and the royal figures in the Adivaraha Mandapam and the Varaha Mandapam. All these are excellent portrayals. Some even consider superior to the later sculptures of Rajasimha.

North face

On this face are sculpted seven excellent images. They are (From left) Vinadhara-Siva, Siva and Tandu, Siva and Chandesa, Gangadhara-Siva, Vishnu and Garuda, Kalari and Siva and Rishabhantika Siva

Vinadhara Siva

Siva with vina is a common icon. One in a standing pose like this must be the earliest Pallava sculpture. Later on it is sitting Vinadhara that became the norm. Here he stands graceful, holding his rod-like vina close to his chest and is playing attentively, as can be seen from his lowered head.

There is also another Vinadhara on the south face of this floor. We find two more in the Shore Temples complex, but they are in the sitting

The vina itself is peculiar. It looks like a rod. Where is the resonator? Some consider that it exists on the top, looking like an inverted cup close to his left breast. Is it the position of a resonator and will it be inverted? This leads to another conjecture, by a scholar, that this may be a Vinadhari Ardhanari. In that case the cup is really the breast of the Parvati-part of the figure. In justifying this, it is pointed out that the left cheek look womanly, and the left shoulder is rounder than the right and droops. Continuing on these lines, we find another Vinadhara Siva, (shown on the right) on the south face, where one can find clear masculine shoulders.

Siva and Tandu

Siva as a cosmic dancer is perhaps the best known aspect that had kindled creative urges over centuries. But Siva instructing his foremost disciple, Tandu, in the art of dancing is rare. The Mahabalipuram sculptor has captured both of them in early lessons. The attainment of the disciple in the chosen art is evident from the fact that the very art, Tandava, being named after him. Isn’t the cramped space of the niche obstructing free movement for the student?

The four-armed Siva, with his customary weapons on the upper hands, has his lower left hand on his chest (chin-mudra like hamsa-sahasya pose?). The unpredictable Pallava sculptor has come up with a peculiar head-dress. His jata-bhara is flat and worn as a turban, crested by a jewel. Again the left earlobe is empty while the right one sports a patra-kundala. The remaining attire can be seen to be typical for Siva of Mamallai.

The student is a personification of guru-bhakti and dedication. The jingling anklet and the raised foot betray his station. Attired like others on the walls on this floor, the absence of ear ornaments is the only feature that looks different. While attempting early steps under the watchful of the Supreme Master, the left leg is raised suitably bending the knee required for the effort. The forward stepping is further suggested by his right arm, slightly bent at the elbow and by the dangling left arm. Note how naturally the veshti with pleats is shown.
In the sculptures of this ratha, we find that men didn’t wear any leg ornaments, except this male dancer. In later times, anklets became a common feature for males, divines or human.


A separate shrine for oneself is what one would earn for unflinching devotion to the Lord. Chandesa did that and a pilgrimage to a Siva shrine would not earn religious merit without paying respects to Chandikesvara. Chandi’s rare devotion is rewarded by a warm embrace of tenderness from the Lord. Siva is holding Chandikesvara with great affection with one arm. Siva’s countenance is one of great benediction and that of the devotee is of utmost gratitude and devotion. This is one among the earliest depictions.

The other hands of Siva carry a chawry, a snake and the last kept on the thigh. His dress and ornaments are as usual. But his standing posture invites attention. Extremely graceful is the pose. His right leg planted firmly on the ground and the left leg crossed behind the right one which rests on the ground, with the toe gently grazing the ground.

The total submission to the lord is evident in Chandesa’s mien, and reminiscent of the stance what one expected to stand before a guru: kai-katti-vaay-puthaiththu (arms-folded-closing-mouth-with fingers). In respect of dress and ornaments, they resemble that of Siva.
According to a scholar it is Arjuna who is with Siva.


Gangadhara is another favourite motif for the Pallava-s. But the Pallava sculptor abhors stereotypes. Here Siva is seen holding Ganga while she descends. The pose and attitude is, as usual, excellent. Ganga on his upper, left hand, aksha-mala in the upper right, lower right in mushti-hasta posture and palms of lower left suggesting anugraha, is a stately Siva as Gangadhara in tribhanga. Ganga is seen adoring. It is a composition of lively portrayal.

Vishnu with Garuda

The Pallava times were bereft of sectarian feuds, it looks. Siva in Vishnu shrines and vice versa were common. You can see here and elsewhere in Mamallapuram. Shown here are Vishnu and Garuda, his vahana. Vishnu is resplendent in his royal attire, with high crown ityadi, ityadi. His mount, identified by the beak-like nose, is shown in the human form, a youthful person. His submissive character is shown by holding his mouth by the two fingers. Resting his left palm on his knee, he is ready to bear the lord. His lord is holding him with vatsalya.
For us who feel sorry that the sculpture is not approachable, we are happy to note that the same can be seen on the northern wall of Arjuna Ratha, where time has taken its toll. In terms of composition we have a similar one, of Siva and Nandi in human form on the same floor.
Once again the skill of the sculptor astonishes us, for he could create a masterpiece in the narrow confine available to him.
Over this niche are inscribed the biruda-s Sri Narasimhah, Bhuvanabhajanah, Sri Meghah Apratihatasasanah

Siva as Kalarimurti

Siva triumphed over another demon, Kala, and this is yet another composition of Siva destroying evils for the benefit of the humankind. This is also a very dynamic sculpture.

Standing and dancing (yes, dancing on the demon is the most noteworthy feature in this motif.) on Kala, Siva (deer in upper right hand, trisula in upper left, parasu in lower right and lower left pointing at the demon) is shown in the chatura pose, the right leg, bent and firm on the ground and the left raised at the moment of attack. His deportment is as usual except that we find a large skull in front of his jata-makuta and a rudraksha-yajnopavita.

The vanquished Kala (jata-bhara, patra-kundala and yajnopavita) with two small tusk-like teeth projecting on the corners of mouth is a pitiable picture.

Divinities in vanquishing demons are portrayed in three places: Siva as Kalari-murti and as Andhakari and Krishna as Kalia-mardana. In all of them, a sense of action is palpable with the expressions of utter discomfiture and total surrender on the faces of the vanquished.

Rishabhantika Siva

Siva standing by the side of his bull, known a Rishabhantika, is an exquisite composition. We find the same on the south wall of Arjuna Ratha. The relaxed tribhanga pose (left leg firm on the ground, right bent and crossed over the other and resting on the toes) is yet another gift from the Pallava stapati. The dress and the ornaments are typical, except that matted hair around his head as a turban. It has a jewel on its top.

The lower left hand, resting on his hip, has the third and thumb folded. His lower right hand kept elegantly on the hump of the bull. He is perhaps caressing the nape of its head. The lively bull is meek and looks enjoying the presence and caressing of his master.

On top of this are inscribed the biruda-s, Sthirabhaktih, Madanabhiramah and Vidhi.
Thus we have gone around the alluring gallery of seven marvellous sculptures.

East face

Entrance to the upper floor is from the east side. Stairs from both south and north side with parapet walls have been excavated. A very important inscription in Pallava Grantha, reading Mahamalla, is found on the outer, northern coping. You can even see from the ground floor using a binocular. This short inscription plays figures importantly in the debate on the authorship of Mamallapuram monuments in general and this monument in particular.

Because of this opening, less space is available for relief sculptures. In fact there are only four panels on this side. That the temple staff are accommodated on this side is significant. Rarely do we get the priests, and his team, the most important in the religious functioning of a shrine, given cognizance of even in temple arts. Here is that rare moment when members of temple staff greet you at the stairs. The personae comprise (from left in the figures) the oduvar with vina, the cook (svayampaki), carrying prasadam on his shoulders, the attendant (paricharaka) ringing the bell and the priest (archaka) with the basket of flowers. The sculptor has managed an ambience of the temple and its rituals on the walls of the sanctums by portraying all the personae appropriate to the scene. Because of the stairs, the inner two figures are sculpted only upto the waist. For once we get an idea how common people looked like fourteen centuries ago!

Temple singer (oduvar)

The first temple staff we meet on turning on the east is the singer. He is called oduvar today, and every temple even today maintains one such singer of hymns. How was he called then? Panan or yazh-panan are the names that we come across in Sangam literature. Here he is carrying a vina, with a small, bulbous base, very similar to tuntina or ektar of the present day. He is strumming. The right hand and his facial expression indicate that he singing enraptured. His simple dress and his matter hair make that he does not belong to well-to-do section of the society.

The biruda-s inscribed above his niche are Anupamah and Nayankura.

Cook (Svayampaki)

We now meet the cook of the temple. He is called svayam-paki even today, and in demeanour very similar to temple cooks of present day: food on the right hand held aloft over his shoulder, a large-size key on his left shoulder, uchchi-k-kudumi (top-knot on head), pancha-kachcham and yajnopavita. A lively portrayal!

Temple Attendant (Paricharaka)

This bearded attendant is carrying a bell, holding by its top handle, on his right hand. He wears a jata-bhara. His expression is one of utter devotion to his service to the lord.

Priest (Archaka)

Finally we come to the priest (archaka). His uchchi-k-kudumi (top-knot of hair), yajnopavita, pancha-kachcham (lower garment) all make it clear of his role as the archaka. His kanthiki on the neck and kundala-s as ear ornaments adds to his importance.
He is holding a long basket in his left hand and is in the act of performing archana. Deep devotion to his duty can be felt in the composition.

The birudas inscribed over this sculpture niche are Vamah and Parabharah.

South Face

This face also contain seven exquisite reliefs
The southern face is another gallery containing seven sculptures like the northern face. We may first list these: (From left) Siva, Andhakari Siva, Vinadhara Siva, Vishnu, Siva and Nandi, Kaliya Krishna and Siva. Interestingly, in this shrine for Siva, the central position on this face is given to Vishnu. Further, we have Krishna as a Kalia-mardana portrayed here. This speaks of catholic spirit in the past.

Looking at the compositions and also arrangement of the sculptures one can see some balance. Now we have come to take for granted the rhythm and movement in these Pallava sculptures. Haven’t we?


This depiction and the one on the western end are similar in certain respects. They are shown alone and not in any action; but they are fine dynamic sculptures. We also have no clue as to what aspects of Siva these represent. The only other Siva image of this kind found in the upper levels is in the third level, but it is as Dakshinamurti. Both Siva images are shown in graceful tribhanga postures. There are a few differences between them.

Here we see Siva carrying rosary and chamara on the two upper arms. Later, it would not be the deities, but attendants or attending deities who would carry chamara. The lower right is in kartar (?). Though on the left ear is a customary patra-kundala, the left has no ornament. Is it significant?

The biruda-s inscribed over this sculpture niche are Vidhih and Vibhrantah.

Andhakari Siva

Andhakasura Vadha is another popular theme in the Saivite shrines. Here is another panel of great sensitivity. Siva has just vanquished the demon. The posture is vigorous, legs astride, with the right one on the back of the asura. A skull on his jata-makuta bespeaks of the mission undertaken. He is attired in the usual way. His lower left hand holds a trisula. Since the trisula is reversed, we may take that the fight is now over. In his triumphant posture Siva looks calm and composed. Don’t gods assume benign countenances after destroying evil? Isn’t this restraint more powerful than ughratvam?

We see Andhakasura, with curved side tusks showing out of his mouth, lying on the ground writhing, fear and pain writ on his face.
In the Saivite mythology we have a story of Siva destroying an asura, called Andhaka. Obtaining enormous powers the demon had the temerity to go to Kailasam to kidnap Parvati. Then followed a terrible battle. The asura could not be vanquished easily. Every drop of his blood falling on to the ground produced another Andhaka. Then came Vishnu to help; he finished off the Andhaka copies. Also out of the flame issuing out of Andhaka’s mouth came Jogesvari, who caught all the blood in a bowl. Finally Siva pieced the killed the original Andhaka by thrusting his trisula on the demon.

Vinadhara Siva

We have seen a Vinadhara Siva on the north face of the same floor. It is very graceful pose here too. Body leaning left, the wait of it taken by the right leg, with the left crossed over it. His lower hands playing vina, held against his chest. The upper left hand rests on a gana standing by him and the upper right holding a damaru. His has a very heavy jata-bhara almost covering the ears. A patra-kundala is worn in the left ear, while there is none on the right. His dress is similar to what we have seen elsewhere. A snake can be seen coiled loosely around the thighs, with its hooded head on the right. That Siva has no yajnopavita is noteworthy. The pot-bellied gana sports an unusually large patra-kundala-s.

Titles Srinidhih and Niruttarah are inscribed over the niche.


On the central niche is a sculpture of Vishnu. It is in sama-bhanga, like those which are in the sanctum and for worship. The posture, dress, standards and ornaments are those that are normally found for Vishnu.

Siva with Nandi

Nandi, for all the devotees, is known as the mount of Siva and is seen in the form of a bull in all the temples sitting facing the Lord in the sanctum. An ardent Siva-devotee even as a boy was given the honour as his mount by Siva, according to mythology. The Pallava sculptors celebrated the Rishabhantika motif in many ways. In this ratha Siva is depicted with Nandi, both in the human form and in the form of a bull. Both are found in the second storey. We have a very similar composition of Vishnu with Garuda, in a semi-human form.

A relaxed Siva, in perfect beatitude, in graceful tribhanga, rests his left hand on Nandi. His deportment is typical for Siva, excepting for his turban-like head dress, a patra-kundala on his right year and none in the other. His benign smile and deep inner contemplation are the hall mark of the Pallava sculptor. Such images, we are certain, served proto-types for the later Chola bronzes.

Nandi in human form, is seen kneeling by the lord’s side. The bhakta in humble reverence is proclaimed by his right hand holding the mouth in submission and looking up to the lord waiting for his command.

The biruda-s Nayanamanoharah and Sarvatobhadra are inscribed on the niche above.


As a boy Krishna subdued the snake-demon Kalia. This is the theme for the next depiction. The composition is different from what we are used to, that of Baby Krishna standing and dancing on the terrible snake with multiple heads. Here he is shown as a grown up and two-armed, unusual for a divinity. The demon is also in the human form, with a serpent hood and with a serpent tail. The Pallava artist is fanciful and imaginative! But with unmistakable energy and power!

Krishna is adorned with peacock feathers, heavy patra-kundala-s and a vastra-yajnopavita. He is standing on Kalia and holding his tail. His left foot planted firmly and the right one tramples upon the writhing demon. The demon has a human head but with serpent-hood.
The artist has used the restricted rectangular space to manage a dramatic moment.


This is another beautifully modelled Siva, very similar to the few we have seen before on the extreme west on this face.
A single title, Lalitah, is written on the lintel above.

Top storey

The top storey of the Dharmaraja Ratha has images carved on its outer walls. There is a sanctum cut into its western side. Inside this sanctum, carved in relief on the back wall is a Somaskanda panel.

Siva and his consort, Uma are seated on a simple seat, with Baby Skanda taking his position on the lap of his mother. Brahma and Vishnu are shown on the two sides (left and right respectively) adoring Siva.

Somaskanda in the sanctum:

The Somaskanda composition was the deity worshipped in the Pallava shrines. This was painted, or made of wood and stuck on the rear wall of the sanctum. Later a relief was carved on the live rock. The composition is important in the debate on the authorship and chronology of this shrine as well as those in Mamallapuram.

Scene: Let me describe the scene. Siva sits comfortably on a divan-like seat. His right leg hanging and left folded up on the seat. This is a characteristic pose. His lower, right hand is in a pose, called vyakhya mudra (exposition) with his left hand clenched and placed on his thigh. The upper hands are holding his emblems, which are not shown (or indistinct).

Uma is two-armed and sits facing Siva. (In later compositions her pose would be almost frontal.) The way she holds her right hand at her ear, makes us surmise, she is being attentive to what her husband is going to say. Skanda sits cozy on her mother’s lap, while Uma holds him by his waist. Skanda is in a playful mood. He is attempting to grapple the fore-arm of his father.

Very close to the right ear of Uma can be seen a pet parrot, not very clear, though. It is surmised that the parrot repeats what Siva utters for the benefit of all. This is a novel feature of this composition.

On either corner hover two gana-s, a male above Siva and a female above Uma, both holding chamara-s in one of the hands. (We find gana-s in all the shrines of the Trimurti Mandapam, and in the Durga panels of Varaha and Adivaraha shrines. This is considered to be a Paramesvara practice.)

Definitely significant is the depiction of the other two members of the Trinity. Both are found pride of place. They have rectangular panels to themselves where their full figure is shown, Vishnu by the side of his sister, Uma and Brahma by the side of Siva In later composition they are seen behind the divine couple. Urdhva-pataka is the pose struck by both in their upper, outer hands. Maintaining symmetry the lower, outer hands are on the hip (kati). Remaining hands hold standards appropriate to each.

The whole composition is interesting. The Pallava royalty have the great penchant for puzzles. One among the ways is employing double-entendre, in both words and in sculpture, in the later definitely the Pallava-s are unique. Which could excel the Tiruchy inscription of Mahendra? Siva here in many ways resembles the sitting royalty in the Adivaraha Mandapam and Uma resembles the royal ladies in the same cave.

Who was the originator of Somaskanda composition? The Somaskanda composition is a Pallava conception. But who was the originator among the Pallava-s is debated even now. There are as much as forty Somaskanda panels unmistakably attributed to Rajasimha. Two of them are in the Shore Temples. Does this also belong to the Rajasimha period? Some consider that this Somaskanda antedates Rajasimha. For this they point out a number of stylistic differences. According to this school of thought the relief in the sanctum of Ramanuja Mandapam, now scrapped out, is another pre-Rajasimha sculpture in Mamallapuran.

Some find that there exist differences – in features, style and depth of relief - between this sculpture and the sculptures on the wall outside, and that the Somaskanda could belong to a slightly later period.

Other sculptures on this floor:

The walls of this floor are some excellent depiction of devotees too. Except for Chandra (north face), Surya (east face) and Dakshinamurti (south face) occupying the central niches, we have fourteen devotees. All of them, including Chandra and Dakshinamurti have some uniformity. All are youthful, charming figures, broad horizontally straight shoulders, tapering torso, tapering and thin legs and a downward look with head bent forwards.

The sculptors have wrought wonders more on the non-divines. Utter reverence and total surrender are not easy virtues, and pose great challenge to inject them into hard granite figures. It is incredible that the Pallava craftsmen could do it and do it admirably. It is easier to feel the effect by following what Sri Aurobindo described such scenes: “Not only the face, the eyes, the pose but the whole body and every curve and every detail aid in the effect and seem to be concentrated into the essence of absolute adoration, submission, ecstasy, love, tenderness which is the Indian idea of bhakti. These are not figures of devotees, but of the very personality of devotion. Yet while the Indian mind is seized and penetrated to the very root of its being by this living and embodied ecstasy, it is quite possible that the Occidental, not trained in the same spiritual culture, would miss almost entirely the meaning of the image and might only see a man praying.”

West face:

The Somaskanda shrine is guarded by two gatekeepers (shown second and fourth from left), the clubs being their Saivite emblem. It can be seen that they are lively, attentive and, at the same time, relaxed. You can also see a faint smile on their faces, a tribute to the Pallava craftsmen. They are attired in the traditional dress - loosely coiled cummerbund, yajnopavita made of cloth, heavy patra-kundala and jata-makuta - appropriate to their station.
Two almost identical devotees, one on either extreme niche of the west face, are refined sculptures, exuding great charm and in stylistic unison with the rest on this floor.

Dvarapala-s of the Pallava shrines are a class by themselves and worthy of iconographic study. Asymmetrical postures, a Pallava trait, avoid monotony. In style and execution these two belong to the sculptures on the walls around. They are easily identified as Saivite gatekeepers because of their clubs and by their hair-do. Normally, they would also have a horn-like projection on either side of their crown, which is absent here. But we see a small protuberance on the hair-dress of the dvara-pala on the proper left. Do we take this to represent an axe, a Saivite weapon?

Both stand gracefully and keep a vigil, at the same time relaxed in his duty, but in slightly varied postures. While the hands of the northern one rest firmly on a club, the southern one is shown differently; his club is made to lean against a corner. But he is attentive and, in fact, is pointing the devotees towards the entrance with his right hand. This is called suchi mudra. His left hand is on the hip (kati). Both are in three-fourth profile but in opposite directions. The slight slanting of the torsos of both are excellent studies in contrast and dynamism.

North face:

Chandra and devotees

Chandra: Identified by a large circular halo (prabha-mandala) Chandra (shown in the centre) stands in sama-bhanga posture, but is not stiff. Two sacred threads from the two shoulders, worn in the channavira fashion is a special feature. He holds a lotus (nilotpala) on his right hand and the left is on his hip (kati). There are similarities with Chandra in the Great Penance panel.

Devotees: The two devotees on either side are similar and almost symmetrical, except for a small variation in hand poses, a Pallava trait to avoid monotony. There are two more devotees on either extreme end, again more are less similar, but not exact mirror images. A faint smile on the faces speaks of the calibre of the Pallava craftsman.

The inner pair and outer pair are differentiated, particularly, in terms of dress: in the pancha-kachcham-fashion for the inner ones and tight for the outer ones. In both the cases, they are retained, in many cases, by a belt (kati-sutra) and a ribbon-like bad looping around loosely.

East face

Surya and devotees

The central figure, Surya, resembles Chandra we have just visited. Here also the sculptor has differentiated the two pairs of the devotees among the pairs and with the main figure, Surya. Sama-bhanga of Surya against tri-bhanga is one of the distinguishing features. The other is that the chin-up posture of the central god opposed to the slight downward look of the rest. As usual the inner and outer pairs have differences in their dress.

Above the central niche, that is above Surya is an inscription that reads Atyantakama Pallavesvara Griham and another, Ranajayah, below it.

The consistency in the work in this floor mars slightly with this depiction of Surya. This sculpture exhibits some differences with the rest on this floor. Though the posture is very similar to that of Chandra, the head is somewhat smaller than those of other sculptures and the torso out of proportion: narrower chest, but wider hip and lower parts. Legs are no more tapering gracefully, but monotonously tubular. The right hand that holds a lotus looks longer than it should be. Lastly its relief is shallower than the others. May be the sculptor was in some hurry as can be gauged from the yet-to-finish niche walls.

Unfinished too are the niches of the flanking devotees.

This apparent incompleteness as well as a few other factors lead one of the experts to feel that the original plan might have been altered at the last minute, leaving the sculpture along with its niche incomplete. According to him the original plan was to cut another entrance to another shrine symmetrical with the west-facing shrine.

The following are the reasons given. One is that there is an inscription, Atyantakama Pallavesvara Griham, above the figure, very much like the one on similar position of the west-facing Somaskanda shrine. Also the parapet (of harantara) has been cut to provide steps to the middle level. In fact, because of this Surya can be seen from the ground level above a semicircular parapet. The rail can be seen issuing from the mouths of vyala-s. The famous and important inscription, Mahamalla, is seen on the northern rail.

East face

Dakshinamurti and others

Dakshinamurti, Siva as the preceptor, depicted here (shown in the centre above) is one of the finely modelled sculptures and is a rare icon. All Siva temples came to house this aspect of Siva on the southern face of the shrine, normally found in the sitting pose. Perhaps his taking the southern face started here. Unlike in the later depictions here he is seen standing. He can be taken to be almost dancing.

The posture, with left leg firmly on the ground, the right leg bent at the knee and almost touching the shank, is graceful, but uncommon and reminds us of the ascetic in the Great Penance panel. His head is tilted and is in a contemplative mood. His upper right hand is in chin-mudra, suggestive of preaching, while the upper left strikes a kapittha-mudra, suggesting counting beads of a japa-mala. Lower right hand is in abhaya-mudra and the lower left mushti-hasta mudra. What is the significance? He is, as it would wont for an aspect of Siva, wears a jata-bhara and a kaupina-like lower garment.

The two devotees that flank the deity are some what different from the corresponding ones on the other faces.
Since they are worshipping a god of yoga, one on the god’s right wears jata-mandala, a special turban and the other wears it in the kirita-fashion. The two on the extremes is similar to the others elsewhere. But it looks that the one on the extreme west, instead of turning towards the shrine, is shown looking away. Such a lack of symmetry is rarely met with the Pallava sculptors. Is this an exception, of carelessness?

The stupi

Stupi is the top-most part of a temple, to be separately made and fixed before the kumbhabhishekam. For some reason we find it on the ground. This is made of basalt, a black stone different from granite. This is the material the Pallavas have used for stupi-s and for lingam-s. Where did they get it from?

Similarly, the stone pinnacles of the Draupadi and Arjuna Rathas are found on the ground. A scholar conjunctures that this was the outcome of vandalism.

Winding up

So we come out of the ratha, with a sense of fulfillment, of having seen a gallery of exquisite icons of the Tamil country. Nowhere would you see any thing like this. But the human frailties, manifesting in vandalism perpetrated later, sadden you. Further all these images in the upper floors not being easily accessible disappoint you. But the pride, of the artistic heights our ancestors attained, lingers.