The venue of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping over Friday and Saturday has been referred to, interchangeably, Mamallapuram and Mahabalipuram. It is 56 km to the south of Chennai on the coast. The Ministry of External Affairs’ media advisory mentions ‘Mahabalipuram’, and officials have been using that name in informal communication.
THE PALLAVA ‘MAMALLAN’
Today’s seaside resort was once a bustling port that derived its name from Mamallan or ‘Great Wrestler’ — one of the names of Narasimhavarman I, the Pallava monarch who ruled from 630 AD to 668 AD, and who commissioned much of the architecture Mamallapuram is famous for.
BIRTH OF ‘MAHABALIPURAM’
S Swaminathan, author of Mamallapuram, a book on the architectural and sculptural achievements of the Pallavas, said Mamallapuram was the original name, even though the town is also called Mahabalipuram. “The name Mahabalipuram emerged much later, some time in the Vijayanagara period (14th-17th centuries). But there is nothing to directly connect the Asura King Mahabali with Mamallapuram,” he said.
The only, indirect link, he added, is the legend of Trivikrama carved in stone at Mamallapuram’s famous Varaha Mandapam (Varaha Cave Temple). “Mahabali was killed by Trivikrama, the giant form of Vamana, the fifth avatar of Vishnu. Maybe that is the only connection that Mahabali has with Mamallapuram. But this Trivikrama panel too is just one of the many compositions there,” he said.
BACK TO ‘MAMALLAPURAM’
After Independence, the prevalent Dravidian politics of Tamil Nadu made sure that Mamallapuram’s original name was retained. ‘Mamallapuram’ was notified in a government gazette in 1957, and that name was reiterated when the ancient port town was declared a village panchayat in 1964. “Instead of the association with a mythological king (Mahabali), the governments here made sure that the original name in the memory of a Tamil king was restored,” Swaminathan laughed.
BEYOND MAMALLAN LEGACY
While Narasimhavarman I is credited with excavating the stone caves of Mamallapuram, it was Mahendravarman I, Narasimhavarman’s father who ruled from 600 AD to 630 AD, who was the pioneer of Pallava rock-cut architecture. The successors of Narasimhavarman I, especially his grandson Parameswaravarman I (670-695 AD) and his great grandson Narasimhavarman II (700-728 AD), continued to build in Mamallapuram. Narasimhavarman II, also known as Rajasimha Pallava, built the magnificent Shore Temple among others in Mamallapuram, as well as grand temples at several other places, including the famous Kailasanathar Temple at Kancheepuram.