Mahabalipuram: The Varaha Cave Temple

    Visiting the Mahabalipuram group of monuments, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was on my bucket list and I finally got to put a check against it.  The group of monuments have served as backdrop for classical dance videos, inspired some great photography and is a treat for archaeology enthusiasts. The monuments which were given the World Heritage Status as long back as 1984, are credited to the genius of the Pallava kings and continue to draw admirers from across the world.

    The Heritage Map

    Situated right behind the famous relief, Arjuna’s Penance, is the Varaha Cave Temple (no 2 on the map).   Carved out of a huge piece of granite sometime in the 7th century, the cave-temple took several decades to complete. This is one of the highlights of a Mahabalipuram Heritage Tour and is not to be confused with the Adivaraha Cave Temple (no. 12 on the map). A lot of websites mention that these are the same, but the Adivaraha is situated closeby, is still worshipped as a temple, and photography is prohibited there.

    The Varaha Mandapam

    The Varaha Cave site in 1860. Picture Courtesy: British Library

    At the Entrance: 

    In the cave-temple, the hall in front (mandapam) has two pillars and pilasters supported by squatting lions, and in the centre you can see the two dwarapalas guarding the temple area (inner sanctum).

    The cave exterior: you can spot the pillars, the lions and even the dwarapalas.

    You can also see a small dug up area at the entrance, perhaps intended for worshippers to dip their hands / feet in water before entering.

    The Panels inside: 

    The crux of the Varaha Cave story, lies in the panels inside.  Sadly there are more visitors looking for selfie-spots rather than the story, and I had to request people to move aside just so I could take a photo!

    1. Vishnu, The Boar
      Vishnu in his third avatar : the Varaha boar, holding the Earth Goddess (Bhu-Devi) in two hands, and a Chakra and Shankha in his other two hands. With his right leg, he is crushing the Serpent King.

      That is Varahamurthy, considered to be the third incarnation of Lord Vishnu. The Varaha isn’t an ordinary boar, but the one that is brings out the Earth Goddess (or Bhudevi) from the ocean.
      Legend (and Geology to some extent) has it that long time ago, the Earth was only water. It took about some thousand years for the sea to start withdrawing and slowly, land emerged. Gradually, living beings appeared on land and humans finally made their big appearance.
      This relief represents the resurfacing of land / earth from sea, and it has been depicted quite realistically too [lotus leaves, flowers and ripples at the bottom of the relief]. Vishnu is seen to be holding the Chakra and Shankha in two of his hands at the back.

      Another story is, that this is the depiction of Vishnu as the Boar rescuing his wife Bhumi (the Earth Goddess) from the Serpent King who had abducted her.

    2. Gajalakshmi
    Lakshmi, surrounded by her attendants / nymphs; and the two elephants attempting to bathe her.

    The significance of Lakshmi as the goddess of wealth is known to all. In this panel, the Goddess is shown holding lotus flowers with 4 of her attendants around her, two of them holding matkas, or pots. The elephant on the left has an inverted matka in his trunk right above the head of Lakshmi, while the other elephant is preparing to grip a pot. Perhaps its a bathing / ritual scene.

    • Four-Armed Durga

    Decapitation : Can you spot the man on the left below Durga, cutting his head off for a sacrifice?

    A lot of times, the adjoining panel of the Trivikrama or 8-handed Vishnu is misinterpreted as being Durga. In reality, this panel, is the one that depicts Durga with 4 arms standing under an umbrella and represents a decapitation scene. Below Durga, and to the left of the photo, you can see a man preparing to cut off his own head as an offering to the Goddess. A similar panel representing the same scene is present at the Draupadi Rath too, so its probable that these head-sacrifices were common.

    • Trivikrama or Tiru Vikrama

      unescoTrivikrama : The eight handed Vishnu, who is also the Lord of 3 Worlds, surrounded by Brahma, Shiva (on the top right), the Sun & the Moon.
      For a minute, even I thought this was Durga. But then I counted the hands, and saw the figure wasn’t feminine at all, in comparison to the other panels. This panel represents Vishnu as the Lord of Three Worlds and thus the name. “Tri-vrikrama”. You can see one foot on earth, the other up in the sky, and the third on the devil Bali, pushing him under. He is surrounded by Brahma, Shiva, the Sun and the Moon.

    The Varaha Cave

    Built in : 7th Century

    Built by: King Mahendravarman I

    Dimensions: 10.1×4.3 m in width, and a height of 3.5 m

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