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  • Addition, Erasure, and Adaptation:Interventions in the Rock-Cut Monuments of Māmallapuram
  • Vidya Dehejia and Richard Davis

The magnificent set of excavated caves, rock-cut monoliths, sculpted stone tableaux, and structural temples at the Pallava-period (ca. 575–728) port town of Māmallapuram (in present-day Tamil Nadu) has attracted the attention of a wide range of scholars. The fascination exerted by this unique site is demonstrated by the existence of two annotated bibliographies, one published in 1966 and a second barely fifteen years later in order to bring the scholarship into the year 1980.1 Although scholars agree that the monuments at Māmallapuram date between the late sixth and early eighth centuries, during the reign of the Pallava rulers of the Siṁhaviṣṇu line, unresolved questions proliferate regarding their precise authorship, exact date, and intent; the incompleteness of many of the monuments adds complexity to the conundrum they pose.

Most studies of Māmallapuram have focused on the dominant monuments of the Pallava period, and for good reason. But the structures commissioned by the Pallava patrons continued in existence, and through the following centuries they attracted later visitors who sometimes imposed themselves upon the site through their own material practices. These might include anything from the addition of small graffiti-like markings onto existing monuments to the creation of larger new structures that overshadowed the previous ones. Things might be added, or sometimes subtracted, as in the deliberate erasure of the identifying features of sculpted images. Surprisingly little attention has been paid to the matter of physical change at Māmallapuram. Numerous clear signs of adaptation and elimination of imagery appear upon and within the rock-cut structures at the site, but with the sole exception of Michael Lockwood's studies, art historians have shown a sort of benign neglect toward these changes.2 In this essay we propose to attend more closely to the structures that show signs of alteration, erasure, and adaptation, as a preliminary inquiry into change at this important site.

Material Changes and Religious Competition

The purpose of this study is to identify some of the marks of later intervention on the fabric of the stone art and architecture at Māmallapuram, and to account for these as intentional activities. Through this effort we hope to learn from these acts something about the long-term history of Māmallapuram as a continuing site of religious art.

It is not always easy to locate the times when these interventions took place. After all, iconoclasts do not usually sign their works of erasure.3 South Indian discussions of later changes to early medieval sites often refer to "the Muslims" and their alleged rampages of the fourteenth century as an all-purpose explanation for all destructive alterations to Hindu religious structures. But this reflexive narrative is clearly inadequate, as well as politically nefarious.4 In this study we shall see that the most relevant religious conflict was not between Hinduism and Islam, but between votaries of Śiva and those of Viṣṇu. That long-running competition between followers of two primary Hindu deities, with the balance of support and power shifting over time, accounts for subtle and not-so-subtle acts of material intervention at Māmallapuram. In this study we have not sought to explore another striking aspect of religious competition in medieval South India, namely, that between the Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava devotees and those Jains and Buddhists they defined as Others. This is a striking theme in the songs of the south Indian poet-saints, the Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava saints, known respectively as the nāyaṉmārs and āḻvārs, but we do not see material evidence of this conflict in the monuments of Māmallapuram.5

The fourteenth century saw a resurgence of Vaiṣṇavism across south India, and the building at Māmallapuram of the Sthala-śayana Temple to enshrine a stucco image of Viṣṇu reclining (śayana) on the ground (sthala). [End Page 1] This temple was erected directly in front of the Great Penance relief of the earlier Pallava monarchs, partly obstructing the view of the cliff face with this great sculpted tableau, which until...


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