Updated: Sep 30
Durga Puja is one of the grandest festivals celebrated in India, especially in the state of West Bengal with Goddess Mahishasuramardini as the chief deity of the ceremony. But is the notion of Mahishasuramardini confined to the land of Bengal? Let us go back to the 7th century when this avataar of Durga was a very prominent figure in South India.
Mahabalipuram has 14 temples equally rich in architecture and sculpture. One of these is 𝘔𝘢𝘩𝘪𝘴𝘩𝘢𝘴𝘶𝘳𝘢𝘮𝘢𝘳𝘥𝘪𝘯𝘪 𝘔𝘢𝘯𝘥𝘢𝘱𝘢 (locally called Yamapuri) — a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984.
The rock-cut cave temple positioned on a hill, is at Mahabalipuram (dist. Kanchipuram), a few kilometers to the south of Chennai in Tamil Nadu. This east facing temple is one of the finest examples of the architecture of the Pallava times.
Other tourist attractions nearby include 𝘚𝘩𝘰𝘳𝘦 𝘛𝘦𝘮𝘱𝘭𝘦, 𝘊𝘳𝘰𝘤𝘰𝘥𝘪𝘭𝘦 𝘉𝘢𝘯𝘬, 𝘒𝘳𝘪𝘴𝘩𝘯𝘢'𝘴 𝘉𝘶𝘵𝘵𝘦𝘳𝘣𝘢𝘭𝘭 and 𝘝𝘢𝘳𝘢𝘩𝘢 𝘊𝘢𝘷𝘦 𝘛𝘦𝘮𝘱𝘭𝘦..
The cave dates back to the period of king 𝘕𝘢𝘳𝘢𝘴𝘪𝘮𝘩𝘢𝘷𝘢𝘳𝘮𝘢𝘯 𝘔𝘢𝘩𝘢𝘮𝘢𝘭𝘭𝘢 (630—668) of the Pallava dynasty, after whom the town of Mahabalipuram gets its other name— Mamallapuram. Historians suggest that most of the sculptures of this area are attributed to his reign and were built around the year 650 AD.
The cave-temple is dedicated to Goddess Mahishasuramardini (the Slayer of the Buffalo-demon). Legend has it that Durga killed the notorious Mahishasura, who was considered unconquerable. Following his slaying, the goddess was given the title "𝘔𝘢𝘩𝘪𝘴𝘩𝘢𝘴𝘶𝘳𝘢𝘮𝘢𝘳𝘥𝘪𝘯𝘪".
The sculptors of the Pallava period chose to portray on the walls of the cave the mythological battle fought between Durga and Mahishasura. The cave's interior relief depicts the goddess riding a lion, her eight arms holding different weapons, pursuing the retreating 𝘔𝘢𝘩𝘪𝘴𝘩𝘢 with his followers.
𝑨𝒓𝒄𝒉𝒊𝒕𝒆𝒄𝒕𝒖𝒓𝒆 𝒂𝒏𝒅 𝑺𝒄𝒖𝒍𝒑𝒕𝒖𝒓𝒆:
The temple is built in the unique 𝘔𝘢𝘮𝘢𝘭𝘭𝘢 style of architecture introduced by King 𝘕𝘢𝘳𝘢𝘴𝘪𝘮𝘩𝘢𝘷𝘢𝘳𝘮𝘢𝘯. It is carved from an enormous boulder and is open in the east with four widely spaced columns, allowing light to enter. The columns have diverse designs and the panels depict different stories related to divine figures. The cave-temple has many interesting architectural features of which three exquisitely carved reliefs on the cave walls are very prominent.
The exquisite bas-relief panel on the north side of the cave, depicting the battle, is more than eight feet tall and nearly fifteen feet long. It shows Goddess Durga drawing her bow as she steadies an implied arrow at Mahisha, the buffalo-headed asura at the right of the niche. Durga is shown wearing a dhoti and adorned with a crown, large earrings, necklaces, bangles, armlets, belt, and anklets. She is surrounded by an entourage of severa male and female attendants.
The panel on the south of the cave is not so detailed and shows God Vishnu resting on the giant serpent Shesha.
The third sanctum has a sculpture of Shiva.
The walls also have sculptures of other gods and goddesses including Brahma, Surya and Parvati. However, the dominance of Shiva panels point at an inclination towards Shavisim among the Pallavas during this time.
Like most monuments at Mamallapuram, the Mahishasuramardini mandapa was left unfinished with an incomplete roof and unbuilt stairs.
𝑨𝒕𝒕𝒂𝒄𝒌𝒔 𝒂𝒏𝒅 𝑽𝒂𝒏𝒅𝒂𝒍𝒊𝒔𝒎:
Research reveals that the temple had undergone vandalism twice in its lifespan. The first one, most probably during the period of the Pallava king Parameshvaravarman I, was when its Vishnu shrine was converted into a Shiva shrine in the late seventh century CE.
The next attack was during the Vijayanagara period in fourteenth-fifteenth century CE, when its Shiva character was changed to Vaishnava.
From the carved walls of Hindu temples, to manuscript paintings, murals, and contemporary art, Durga’s encounter with Mahishasura has been a popular subject among artists in South Asia and Southeast Asia for centuries. In temples and religious sculpture, she is often depicted as either calmly victorious standing on a decapitated buffalo head or in the act of killing a buffalo-headed figure from whose cut neck a demon in the form of a man emerges. And one of the oldest depictions of Mahishasuramardini is seen in the cave-temple at Mahabalipuram. With intricate designs and detailed engravings of mythological events, this structure is undoubtedly a marvel in rock!