Monuments of Mahabalipuram

After a refreshing tour of the Shore Temple, we made our way towards the hillock at Mahabalipuram. The hill is said to contain numerous heritage monuments from the 7th century CE onwards. These groups of monuments consist of rock-cut caves, monolithic shrines, cave sanctuaries, and structural temples from different eras. These precious historical constructions were accorded the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the year 1984.

As we walked towards the hill, the cool breeze of the morning was gone. The Sun was shining brilliantly. It was harsh but bearable. I wonder if December is so hot in these parts, how terrible would the summers be.

The legend of Mahabali

Mythologically, Mahabalipuram is said to have been founded by Mahabali, a daitya (demon) king who was the grandson of Prahalad (the same one because of whom Hindus started the practice of Holi) and a descendant of sage Kashyapa.

According to the local legend, King Mahabali was once a benevolent and able king and ardently devoted to the Hindu god, Vishnu. Bali was also as powerful as he was kind. After conquering the lands on Earth, he defeated Indra, the king of the devas (celestial beings), and took over the heavens. Bali not only defeated him but also showed the world, how a great ruler should behave. His popularity made many jealous of him especially Indra.

Indra had lost control of svarga-lok (heavenly kingdom) to Mahabali, and he desperately wanted his celestial kingdom back.

As time passed, Mahabali became arrogant and vain. Shukracharya his teacher, once called him, “Bali, You have now conquered the three worlds but if you wish to always be the Lord of the three worlds, you have to perform 100 Ashwamedha Yagnas. Doing so, you will always be the king of the 3 worlds.” Bali who respected his teacher accepted in an instance and announced that he would perform the Yagna. Taking advantage of that moment, Indra conspired to bring about his demise at the hands of Vamana, considered to be the fifth avatar of Vishnu.

People came from far and near to witness the great sacrifice and to benefit from his generosity. Just when the final Ashwamedha Yagna was about to be completed, there arrived a young brahmana of unusually short stature. In Hindu mythology, he is referred to as Vamana which in Sanskrit means dwarf or “small in stature”. As per custom, Mahabali asks the boy to wish for anything he wanted. The Vamana held an umbrella made of palm leaves over his head. According to the legend, he only asks for land that he could cover in three strides. In his haughtiness, Mahabali accedes to his demand and asks the Vamana to measure his 3 paces of land and take it.

The dwarf Vamana suddenly starts to grow and becomes huge, taking the form of Trivikrama. With his colossal legs, he covers the whole of Earth in his first step. With the second he covers the heavens. By then Mahabali realized that his guest was none other than Vishnu. 

On completion of his first two strides, the Vamana asks Mahabali, where should he put his third step. Mahabali says: “In my arrogance, I thought everything in the three worlds was mine to give. You’ve shown me my rightful place. Place your foot on my head.” And with the third step, Vishnu gently placed his foot on Bali’s bowed head.

The benevolent king surrenders himself to Vamana, and requests to be sent back to live with his ancestors in the patal-lok (netherworld). This day of the great sacrifice by Mahabali is celebrated even today as Bali Padyami, during the Diwali festival. I understand logic fails with these mythological stories but then the truth too has many a time shocked us from our beliefs.

The ancient sea-port of Mahabalipuram

Although the ancient history of Mahabalipuram is shrouded in myths, some scattered evidence suggests that it was a significant location even before the monuments were built.

The “Periplus of the Erythraean Sea“, an account by an anonymous Greek navigator of the first century CE refers to the harbor along with Poduke – current day Pondicherry – as a port north of the Kaveri river.

On the western side of Mahabalipuram is a hill region called Mallar. Mallar was a flourishing seaport during ancient times around 200 BCE. But natural geographical changes over the years resulted in the seaport moved to Mahabalipuram.

Of the numerous temples of Mahabalipuram, the credit mostly goes to the Pallava kings. They claimed authority over the surrounding Tamil-speaking region from the sixth to ninth centuries CE. The founder of the Pallava dynasty was Simhavishnu, also known as Avanisimha. He was the first Pallava sovereign, who extended his influence beyond Kanchipuram and ruled between 550 to 580 CE.

Mahabalipuram gained prominence during his reign, a period of political competition with the Chalukyas of Badami and the Pandyas of Madurai. By the end of the 6th century, it had become a principal port from where voyages to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia were started.

While the Pallavas reigned, artisans carved the site’s natural granite outcroppings into elegant sculptures and many architectural forms. The Pallavas made Mahabalipuram their second capital, after Kanchipuram and brought new artistic styles to the prevailing culture.

Mahabalipuram’s architecture is linked to Simhavishnu’s son, Mahendra Varman I (580-630 CE), who was a patron of the arts. From his reign onwards that stone inscriptions begin to appear. Even though his reign is marked by multiple feuds with the Chalukya and the Pandyas, we also see a rise in the realm of religious and literary activities.

Mahendra Varman’s son, Narsimha Varman I, built on his father’s efforts and scholars attribute most of the monuments to him. It is believed that Mahabalipuram was renamed Mamallapuram after him who went by the name Mamallan because of his great wrestling skills. After a brief hiatus, when Mahendraverman II reigned for about 5 years, temple and monument construction continued during the reign of Rajasimha or Narasimha Varman II (690-728 CE).

The earliest Pallava temples were rock-cut cave shrines. These soon gave way to monolithic temples carved out of giant boulders, resembling chariots or “rathas” during the reign of Mamallan Narasimha Varman. It was during the rule of Narasimha Varman II or Rajasimha (700-728 CE), that the tradition of building structural temples began.

The Monuments of Mahabalipuram

Despite several debates among historians for over a century, the dates of these monuments are still not quite agreed upon, but all agree that there had been foreigners in Mahabalipuram in the first centuries of the Christian era. These exchanges did have their influences in the architecture of some of the structures on the hillock.

Some evidence like the Mandagapattu inscription from the time of Mahendravarman I, date some of the Mahabalipuram monuments to the early 7th century. The inscription reads that he “brought into existence a temple without utilizing either timber or lime (mortar) or brick or metal”, and the temple was dedicated to “Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva”. This was the first Pallava rock-built Hindu temple, and Mahendra Varman I and his descendants probably constructed others.

The monuments at Mahabalipuram can be grouped into four styles based on their mode of construction:

1. Monoliths – free-standing temples cut out of solid rock, most of which are locally styled rathas or chariots. An example would be the Dharmaraj Ratha.

2. Caves, excavated in the hill and used as temples, and which are called mandaps. Very prominent examples of these are the Varaha Cave and the Mahisamardini Temple.

3. Sculptured scenes, carved on the hill-edges. They illustrate all the styles of Pallava architecture. These belong to the period of Narasimha Varman I.

4. Structural temples are the ones built stone by stone, and not excavated out of a rock. The Shore Temple is an example of this type of construction. These mostly belong to the period of Narasimha Varman II.

As we made our way towards the hillock, a few boulder engravings can be seen right on the roadside. This is an example of a sculptured scene.

I few strides away we started with the exploration of a cave that depicts an immortal moment in the life of Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu.

Krishna Mandapa

This cave gallery is cut on the side of a boulder and shows a remarkable scene from Krishna’s life – of him lifting Mount Govardhan. The Krishna mandapa has a length of 29 feet and a height of about 12 feet. The monolithic pillars in the front were added later to support the roof of the cave.

For context, I am going to lay down as shortly as possible the story for the inspiration of this wall art. It is written that when Krishna was a young boy, the celestial king Indra brought a severe storm over his village. It rained for days and to save the people from his village, Krishna supposedly lifts up a mountain called Govardhan, using it as an umbrella. People and animals took shelter under the mountain and they were saved from the harassment.

This rock cut scene depicts that moment when Krishna lifts the Govardhan mountain to protect the villagers from the storm raised by celestial king Indra. For explaining the panel better, I have divided it into four sections. On the furthermost right, Krishna, himself is shown supporting the mountain on his left palm. Close to him are some love-struck gopika’s (female cowherds) standing and gazing at him in astonishment.

To Krishna’s right is Balarama, his elder brother. Balarama is standing with his left hand resting on the shoulder of a cowherd. To his right is a charming scene of a cowherd milking the cow. Behind Balarama, over his shoulder, you can see another representation of Krishna playing the flute with cows gathered around him.

Towards the far left, we see more animal and human figures taking shelter under the mountain.

Right next to the Krishna mandapa, we can find the Panch Pandavas Cave.

Panch Pandavas Cave

The Panch Pandavas Cave is a large cave temple with decorative lion pillars. The cave is mostly empty and undecorated. The design if completed would have consisted of a central rock-cut shrine, surrounded by pillared mandapa all-around permitting perambulation. The original rock face has been cut to a depth of one foot on the northern side and 5 feet at the base to create an adisthana. Over this platform, set back about half a foot from its edge, lies a facade of six pillars and two pilasters.

The pillars and the pilasters are mounted on square pithas with sejant vyalas adorning the lower part. The shaft issuing from the top of the vyalas is octagonal in shape. Behind the facade, is a second row of four pillars and two pilasters that are not vyala-based. The cavern of the temple is about 50 feet long with two lateral sides cut into till the back wall of the mandapa is reached.

The cutting of rock towards the back part of the shrine was never commenced. This plan of excavation with a central monolithic shrine surrounded by a double pillared cloister is a unique style that I have yet to see in a cave temple. The construction of this temple was most possibly started in the period of Paramesvara, if not his successor Rajasimha.

Yali or Vyala very similar to Gargoyle in European architecture. They usually have the stylized body of a lion and the head of some other mythical beast.

Descent of the Ganges

Just beside the Panch Pandavas Cave is the most dramatic of Mahabalipuram sculptures, an entire cliff sculpted with dozens of colossal yet graceful figures of humans, animals, and deities. This is a massive piece of art is the largest open-air sculpture I have witnessed to date. The Great Penance relief looks similar to the preliminary version that we saw earlier about three hundred meters away.

The monument is about 25 meters in length from south to north and 12 meters in height, carved on the side of a huge rock. This huge Mahabalipuram relief is considered a visual counterpart of the celebratory lineage recitations (prasasti) that begin various inscriptions left by the Pallavas at other sites. The Pallavas in simple terms tried to depict their lineage coming from the Gods. It is not uncommon for successful dynasties to depict themselves as Gods. many Egyptian kings had also tried to create a similar narration during the height of their reign. Of all the richly embellished cave temples, free-standing monoliths and open-air carvings during the quarter-century following Mahamalla’s great triumph of 642, none is more overtly charged with commemorative content than the Great Penance relief.

A mid-century artist named Mandhatar has been credited with the creation of this amazing masterpiece. Mandhatar flourished during the reign of Mahamalla Narasimha. He headed the Pallava atelier when victory monuments like the Great Penance Relief were being executed. The most defining part of the sculpture, in my opinion, is the descent of the Ganges. Right in the middle of the wall, dividing it vertically into 2 halves one can see a narrow fissure. It is believed to be depicting the holy Ganges river, which originates from the Himalayas. The rock-cut channels and footing immediately above this rock, suggests that there was a masonry water cistern to store water.

The design is such that water could flow from that fissure and stay collected in the tank below. It was also meant to depict the flow of time till at the base it reaches the Pallava Kings. It can be safely said that the Pallavas took the descent of Ganga as an important event and included it in their prasastis (epigraphs). The relief panel at Mamallapuram, therefore, depicts this important event. The presence of the three nagas in the central crevice is of utmost importance as one of them is supposed to be Nagini, the mother of Pallavas.

This part of the wall art focuses on Shiva, suggesting his key role in the episode depicted here. He is shown holding a trishula (trident), parashu (axe) and a snake in his three hands. His fourth hand is in varada mudra, suggesting granting a boon to the ascetic nearby. Five pairs of ganas are found, three of the left and two on the right. They are shown seated wearing a peculiar cap. A standing gana, with a tiger/lion carved on its belly, is part of Shiva’s retinue.

On the left, one can see a withered man in penance. It is believed to be Baghirath, praying for the Ganga to come to earth. He is said to have prayed to Brahma for a thousand years, requesting him to permit Ganga to come down to earth from heaven because only Ganga could release his ancestors’ souls and allow them to go to heaven. The myth of Bhagiratha’s penance, and resultant descent of Ganga from her celestial course through the valley. It does seem to accord better with certain aspects of the reliefs’ iconography.

The Gana with a lion’s head carved in his belly is known as Kumbandhas in the Ramayana. However, there is a big debate among scholars about the main narrative of the panel. At least since the eighteenth-century local tradition has maintained that Arjuna is the chief human protagonist, performing the penance called suryopasthana tapas on one leg. It is to be understood that this pose was not unique and many more characters have been written about that have used the same. On either side of Shiva, on the left and the right of the cleft, are shown Chandra and Surya respectively.

We find a variety of animals on this panel. The carvings at the bottom right are some of the finest elephant sculptures in India. The larger elephant exhibits a bifurcated tusk. It points towards an attribute of Airavata, the mount of Indra, who was a pure white elephant depicted with four tusks. The group contains two adults and six child elephants. Ten deer and antelopes, mountain goats, four monkeys, a hare, an iguana, one boar, a tortoise are among the other animals on this panel.

In front of the majestic elephants is a cat doing penance, with some mice surrounding it. The story of this hypocrite cat can be found in Hitopadesha and Mahabharata (Uluka Dutagamana Parva). It goes like this: A wicked cat once on a time took up his abode on the banks of the Ganga, abandoning all work and with his hands upraised (in the manner of a devotee). Pretending to have purified his heart, and for inspiring confidence in them, he told all resident creatures that it was now practicing a life of virtue. After some time, all the animals gave up their natural instinct and reposed trust in him. They surrounded it and applauded the cat. It was all of course a trap and the mice later realized it. The cat was not really in penance but just looking for the opportune time to grab the mice.

On the lower right, you can see an entire hermitage scene around a Vishnu temple. This is believed to be the Badari hermitage nestled in the Himalayas where all animals would live in peace and harmony. The three decapitated figures are said to represent the reigning Pallava, Narasimha Varman I, and his two immediate predecessors. Though none of the other reliefs exhibit such damage, the headless statues confirm the theory that Pallavas tried to portray themselves as descendants of Shiva and were desecrated by later rulers. Apart from a few broken noses scarcely any signs of deliberate defacing can be found anywhere else in the composition. Most probably, therefore, the vandalism was prompted more out of political considerations than anything else.

Looking at the masterpiece in its entirety, I could not find a specific theme. In my opinion, the panel was constructed entirely to suggest the ancestry of the Pallavas to be flowing down from the Gods. That might be the reason why various bubbles from history are depicted here and it eventually ends at the bottom center of the panel with the depiction of the first of the Pallava rulers.

Ganesh Ratha

While the ones I have written till now lie alongside a road, in the open area, we now move into a protected section, what is known as the Hill area. This age-old granite hill contains many monuments hidden within. This hillock formed of wooded rocks and boulders lies about a kilometer from the sea-shore.

The Ganesh Ratha is the first monument we encounter. It is a monolithic temple built during the reign of Parameshwara Varman in the latter half of the 7th century that resembles a chariot pulled during the Rath yatra.

Ratha Yatra or Chariot festival is a Hindu festival celebrated for Jagannath and associated Hindu deities

This west-facing temple is decorated with dvarpals (gatekeepers), lion pillars, and pilasters. It was once dedicated to Shiva and known as Aruna’s Rath. Some historians argue that because of Arjuna Ratha here, the huge wall relief also contains Arjuna’s penance. My knowledge on the subject is quite limited, but I would like to ask them – then why does the same exact relief appear again near the Mahabalipuram lighthouse.

At some point between 1799 CE and 1803 CE, the linga inside this temple was stolen by a Britisher. When the original linga was removed, an image of Ganesha was placed there and the temple came to be known as the temple of Ganesh. This presents us with another fact that names of monuments at Mahabalipuram were not fixed, and that the meaning behind Hindu temples, even when they are carved out of solid stone, can always be reinterpreted. This temple is still active and we paid our respects before moving on.

Varaha Mandap

We took a left turn from the Ganesh Ratha to reach the Varaha Mandap. This 7th-century temple was constructed during the reign of Narasimha Varman I.

The Varaha Cave Temple conforms to the Mamalla style, and has a large hall with a front row of four pillars and four pilasters supported by squatting lions. This excavation facing west is cut from a large whale-back boulder. It consists of a front mandapa with a shrine behind it.

The facade consists of a row of two pillars and two pilasters with Oma and a molded adisthana cut at the base. Projecting from the center of the adisthana is a rock-cut sopana with three steps. The two pillars and the two pilasters are placed a little behind the edge of the pattika and have well-defined lotus pedestals or padma-pithas.

In the pillars, the shafts are octagonal in section and are decorated immediately over the head by a broad malasthana and padma-bandha. The dvarapals flanking the entrance on either side are almost identical, stately in bearing and wearing yajnopavitas.

The cell in the center, where the deity once stood, is guarded by two dvarapals or guards in stone. Inside the cave there are four magnificent wall panels.

Varaha Panel

Carved on the northern end panel of the mandapa is the group of Varaha uplifting Prithvi from patala. In this group, the main figure is Vishnu as Varaha or the man-boar incarnation. Vishnu has four arms, two of which hold the chakra and the sankha, and the other two arms are thrown around the Bhu-devi, seated on the god’s uplifted and bent right knee.

Varaha is the third incarnation of Vishnu. It is said that when the asura Hiranyaksha dragged the Earth to the bottom of the sea, Vishnu took the form of a boar to rescue it. They fought for a thousand years after which the asura was slain. Thereafter Varaha, who is in charge of the law of gravity made the Earth very light and gently placed her on the surface of the sea where she floated like a turquoise ball. This is a representational story of how Earth was once a mass of water from where lands gradually rose, but these ancients had this knowledge beyond me. Sometimes I do feel the Greeks and the Hindus had extraterrestrial help and then they abandoned us for whatever reason.

His own right leg is placed on the serpent hood of the crouching Seshnaga below. Behind him, to his left is Brahma with three heads (fourth not shown in the bas relief) standing in tribhanga. Behind him comes a sage-like figure carrying a vina, perhaps Narada. Over Brahma and Narada at the top corner is a flying form of Chandra, shown as if emerging from the clouds with his hands in anjali.

Trivikrama Panel

Even though this cave temple is called Varaha Mandap, it also features a breathtaking relief of Vishnu in the form of Trivikrama, the giant form of Vishnu. Vishnu took the form of Trivikrama in order to subdue the asura king Mahabali as explained in the first part of this article.

In the Trivikrama panel, Vishnu is shown standing with his right leg firmly planted on the ground and left raised above his forehead. This shows that Trivikarma has already paced twice transcending measures that bounds of the Earth and the svarga-lok. He is eight-armed, three of his right arms carry the chakra, gada, and the khada while the fourth is held up with the palm up as required in the Vaikhanasagama, Three of his left arms carry the sankha, ketaka, and dhanus. The fourth arm is stretched straight towards his uplifted leg, the fore-finger pointing towards the foot.

Near his uplifted leg is shown Brahma, four-armed, seated on a padmasana offering puja. In the corresponding position at the other end of the panel, to the right of Trivikrama, is a four-armed Shiva, also seated in a padmasana. Both Shiva and Bhrama are shown at the level of the forehead of Trivikarma indicating their position in svarga. Between Trivikarma’s head and Bhrama on the left, shown in the attitude of flying is Jambavan with a bear’s face beating on the bheri(drum). On either side of Trivikarma at the level of his navel are shown Surya and Chandra in the posture of flight. Surya is placed below Shiva and Chandra below Brahma.

Gaja Lakshmi Panel

In the Gaja-Lakshmi panel, Lakshmi is seated on a full-blown lotus, her legs resting on a spread-out lotus leaf. The other lotus leaves shown vertically with their stalks, suggest the location to be a lotus tank.

On either side of her, are standing four celestial nymphs. The two nearest to her are carrying water pitchers in the palm of their hands. The other two nymphs follow holding on to the leading water carrier by the girdle. Over them are shown the heads of two elephants. The elephant on the right of Lakshmi is holding an inverted pitcher by its trunk.

Durga Panel

In the Durga panel, Durga stands four-armed on a padma-pitha. The lower right hand is in abhaya and left in kati, while the upper arms hold the chakra and sankha. Kneeling on her right is a devotee offering his own head, held up by the tuft with his left hand, while with his right hand, he is hacking it off with a long sword at the neck. On the left is another devotee seated on his knees in adoration. On either side of Durga are four dwarf ganas with pot bellies. On top is the head of a rearing lion emerging from the background, while on the left emerge the head of an antelope,

Such an association of lion and antelope with Durga is also found in an almost identical panel near the Shore Temple where a little form of Durga is enshrined in a niche cut into the chest of a squatting lion, while below, curled on the rocks lies an antelope in a sleeping position.

Roya Gopuram

After taking some pictures we followed the trail going up the hill. The trail led us up to Roya Gopuram. This structure does not belong to the Pallava time. It was added centuries later by the Vijayanagar rulers. The entrance was designed with steps and tall pillars.

I immediately recognized the carvings of the dancing-girls, a common occurrence in every temple, from my visit to Hampi – the base of the Vijayanagar empire.

We sat there looking over the town of Mahabalipuram, munching on the goodies Mani always has stored in her bag.

From the looks of it, this structure was abandoned midway. It was supposed to be a large tower but only the base was constructed.

From this structure, there are three trails going in different directions. We chose to go along the middle one. The trail gradually ascended to a higher point on the hill.

This structure was carved out of a rock. It is still functional and contains stored rain water. I am not exactly sure about the purpose of this tank like structure.

Pulipudar Mandapa

This excavation of a five-celled cave temple with an oblong mandapa in front is located at the highest point on the western side of the hill overlooking the Konerippalam tank. The facade line consists of four pillars and two pilasters. Both the pillars and the pilasters have their bases carved out into squatting vyalas in different degrees of finish. The shafts above the vyalas as well as other components have not been finished in their details even though the initial shaping has been completed.

Cut into the back wall of the mandapa behind the facade are five oblong shrine-entrances. While the excavation of four of them had progressed to a certain extent, the excavation of the fifth had just started when it was abandoned.

This was a dead-end, so we back-tracked from here back to the Roya Gopuram from where another two trails went in different directions. We climbed down the hill and hurried towards the south section of the hill. The trail leads to a whale-shaped boulder, superposed by another of about the same height. Steps carved in the stone led to the top of the boulder but I couldn’t find anything interesting up there.

Ramanujan Mandap

The path led us to the Ramanujan Mandap. This cave is not listed on the map. A banner near the cave refers to it as a Shiva Temple created in the Mammalan style during 640-674 CE.

In its original condition, it seems it was one of the finished cave temples in the whole series at Mahabalipuram. It is carved on the eastern scarp of a long whale-back boulder on top of the Mahabalipuram hill, almost at its center.

The temple consists of a large rectangular ardha-mandapa with one row of pillars on its facade and with three shrines behind it. At either extreme, beyond the pilaster, the vertical face of the rock affords space for two large dvarpala bas reliefs, which were totally chiseled off by later occupants, obliterating totally the original sculptures as well as the three inner shrines.

The two pillars and pilasters are vyala based. While the vyalas of the pillars face front, those of the pilasters in antis face each other. The vyalas are typical with three divaricating horn-like projections over the heads, sitting upright on their haunches.

For some reason, the reliefs on the side of this temple were destroyed. It is likely that the reliefs were in some way linked to the Pallava dynasty and just like the beheaded statues on the Descent of Ganges were removed by later kings.

Mahisamardini Cave

A few paces to the south of the Roya gopuram lies the Mahisamardini Cave. This area of Mahabalipuram was locally known as Yamapuri. This cave was also commissioned during the reign of Narasimha Varman I. The cave temple is built higher from the ground and a series of steps took us to the cave platform. The caves are all fronted with fine columns resting on seated lions, typical of the Pallava style. On the top of the same boulder is the Pallava structural temple Olakkannesvara, on top of which formed the lighthouse before the present one was built.

The cave temple consists of a long verandah with fluted columns and three shrines. Of the four pillars, one has been totally removed leaving only the bracket hanging down from the beam. The lost pillar is now replaced with a plain stone-cut column. The facade is divided into five bays. The floor and the ceiling of the mandapa behind the facade lie unfinished.

On top of the projecting adisthanas, are two lion-based pillars with circular shafts. The two pillars in the front row of the porch have vyalis sitting on their haunches. Placed inside the two pilasters of the portico on either side of the central shrine-entrances are double-armed dvarpalas. At a height of 3½ feet above the floor level of the mandapa, cut into the back wall are three shrine cells.

The shrine chamber is oblong and on its back wall, filling it totally is a large bas-relief of a unique form of the Somaskanda seated on a simhasana. Shiva is four-armed, the upper right holding what appears to be a roll of cloth. Shiva is in the sukhasana pose. Parvati is two-armed with the tiny Skanda on her right lap. While her left hand is resting on the top of the seat, her right hand is gently holding Skanda from behind. It is to be noted here that this Somaskanda panel is the only one that shows a Nandi and in addition to a devotee below.

The entrance to the southern cell is devoid of pilasters. The shrine cell is empty except for a very shallow socket. The entrance to the northern shrine resembles that to the southern shrine in having no pilasters. The cell is empty and there is not even a faint trace of any socket on the floor. At the base of the back wall are three rough cubicle projecting blocks.

Mahisamardini Panel

Occupying the whole of the northern end of the wall of the mandapa and filling the space between the adhisthana below and the uttira above is a large and finished panel showing Durga as Mahishamardini. Mahisamardini is depicted with her eight arms, riding her lion, and equipped with all her weapons provided by the celestial beings. She is shown riding astride a lion, holding the bow with her outstretched lower left hand, while her lower right is bent behind her ears as if drawing the taut bowstring to the full. The three other right hands hold a khadga, ghanta, and chakra and the other three other left hands hold a dagger, pasa, and a sankha. While the front pair of hands are shown as engaged in shooting with the bow. the pair of hands just behind are shown as if thrusting and stabbing simultaneously with the sword and the dagger.

She is attended by hosts of ganas and yoginis, and is in the war-like posture using a giant club. Below the Durga, is one of her yoginis also striking with a sword. Below the darting lion is another gana holding a shield and sword. Three other ganas behind the Durga, hold fight with shield and sword, while two more hold a parasol and chamara respectively for the goddess. An eigth gana is flying, carrying offerings on a plate.

On the other side in the ferocious battle is the buffalo-shaped Mahisasur surrounded by his demon warriors. Mahisasura is depicted in an equally powerful pose wielding defiantly a club in his hands. The merging of the buffalo-head with the human trunk is marvelous as also the depiction of his body-line from the tip of the crown between the horns through the snout down to the straight right leg suggesting defiance.

Vishnu Panel

Likewise in a panel of similar size on the southern wall, is a finished and deep relief of Vishnu as Anantsayi. He is yogasayana-murti reclining on the couch formed by Adisesha with its five hoods providing shade over the recumbent god’s head. Vishnu is two armed and at his foot are two asuras, Madhu and Kaitabha. They seem to be conspiring with each other as to how to strike at Vishnu. Below the feet of Vishnu is Bhu-devi kneeling down in prayer with her hands in anjali, while in front of her are what are believed to be two of the four ayudha-purushas, Sudarshana and Nandaka depicted as handsome youths, The other two ayudha-purushas are depicted as flying above Vishnu. The reclining figure of Vishnu is a picture of peace and calm in contrast to the virility and movement of Durga on the opposite panel.

This cave was probably dedicated to Shiva, perhaps the three forms of Shiva were to be installed in the three shrines.

By this time, we were out of breath. The heat had taken its toll. We walked back to the park near the Krishna butterball. It was surrounded by dozens of people wanting to take selfies.

The queue for selfies just kept getting bigger, so we decided to leave for an early lunch.

Secrets of Mahabalipuram

Much of history is debatable. It is said history is written by the victors. The knowledge I have gathered is mostly from guides and some historical books. I have tried my best, but it is quite possible that my interpretations might not be correct.

As we walked back to my car, the local shops had opened. The town is lined with these shops selling beautiful life-sized stone statues. Along with local delicacies, one can also find bakeries. Sunbathing is one of the must-do activities at Mamallapuram beach. Mamallapuram beach offers visitors a rare combination of historical significance and natural splendor.

From one of the shops, I purchased a wooden idol of Radha & Krishna, that would fit nicely with the other souvenirs that I have procured from over the world.

The ancient tradition of stone carving is still alive in the region, and rhythmic sounds of hammer and chisel on stone afford a glimpse of how these monuments, rock-cut caves, and sculptures came into being, almost fifteen centuries ago.

Thanks for reading. Please leave me a comment if you liked the post or follow my story as I try to explain the curious case of Krishna’s Butterball.

The forgotten tombs of Chattardi

On our autumn break, we were heading to the Rann of Kutch. The Great Rann of Kutch is a salt marsh located in the Thar Desert in the Kutch District of Gujarat. Kutch derives its name from its resemblance to a tortoise which is pronounced as “Kachabo” in the local Gujarati dialect. Kutch used to be a desert sporadically populated with small tribes. The first known mention of Kutch occurs around 300 BC. when a holy man, lost in the forests of the north-western Kutch, cleared the wildlands using celestial fire so that he could find his way home. It is said – from those ashes sprang crops of grass so rich that large numbers of pastoral tribes from neighboring areas moved in making it their new home.

Bangalore to Bhuj

There are many convenient ways to get to Bhuj but to save time I choose to take the flight from Bangalore with a break of a few hours at the Mumbai airport. This choice, however, was largely forced because my waitlist queue on the inbound train to Bhuj never moved a place in over a month.

As we landed in Bhuj, the flight intercom alerted us to abstain from taking photos of the airfield, on account of it being near the army base. The International border is not very far away and we don’t really have cordial relations with the Pakistanis.

Bhuj is the principal town of Kutch in Gujarat. The Kingdom of Kutch was founded around 1147 CE by Lakho Jadani of the Samma tribe who had arrived from Sindh. The walled city is built around a lake dominated by a fortified hill. As we stepped out of the Jet Airways plane, an army fighter took off from a nearby field. No wonder, the military doesn’t want tourists posting pictures of this area.

We had reservations at the Click Hotel in Bhuj. Taxis, few in numbers were asking for an astronomical amount of Rs. 500 for a three-kilometer ride to the hotel. With a little bargaining, I was able to convince an auto driver to drop us off at the hotel for Rs 200.

Click Hotel is one of the most lavish hotels in the city. It also helps immensely that they are located right next to the Bhuj railway station. The room and facilities at the hotel were beyond expectation. I would really recommend this hotel just on the basis of its amazing location.

After a shower, we dropped into the hotel restaurant on the ground floor. In Gujarat, come prepared to eat vegetarian. After lunch, we hopped into an auto-rickshaw also known as the Tuktuk, towards the local market. We were searching for some ethnic costumes to wear on our days at the Rann festival.

The Waniyawad market is about 15 minutes away from the hotel and it didn’t take us long to find a decent store that sells local handicraft items.

After obtaining a lovely Ghagra/ choli with lovely mirror work for my wife and a Kurta in Rabari embroidery for yours truly, we hired another auto-rickshaw to take us to the ruins of Royal Chhatardis of Bhuj. The “Chhatris” complex is a popular cenotaphs complex in the outskirts of Bhuj, not more than a 15 minutes ride from the town center. It preserves the tombstones belonging to the Jadeja rulers of Kutch.

The ruins of Chattardi of Bhuj

The sun was already saying its goodbyes by the time we reached the Chattri ruins. As the tuktuk dropped us off, you can tell there is no massive gate announcing an important heritage site. The entrance is so narrow that one can easily miss it. The “Chhatris” complex in Bhuj was constructed sometime in the 18th century to glorify the cenotaphs of the Rao’s of Kutch.

Most of the buildings have almost disappeared into rubble piles as a result of the earthquake of 2001. Still, the remaining pieces of history were enchanting enough for me. A few local visitors were sitting on the broken pedestals, enjoying the beautiful sunset. It was getting dark fast, so I decided to come down the next day at sunrise.

Reaching Chattardis of Bhuj

Even though I was exhausted from the two flights of the day before, I was also bubbling with excitement, to visit the final resting place of the kings of Kutch. I woke up at 5 am when the stars were still illuminating the sky. Bhuj being one the westernmost towns, the sun rises quite late in these parts at around 6.30 am.

It was still dark as I went around the back of the hotel towards the auto-rickshaws parked near the railway station. The Chattardi complex is located at a distance of about 5 km from Bhuj Railway Station, situated to the southwest of Hamirsar Lake. By the time the auto driver dropped me off in front of Chattardi complex, a soft glow of dawn had already appeared over the horizon.

History of Chattardis of Bhuj

I still had a half-an-hour lead over the sunrise. The revolving gate at the entrance was unmanned and I quickly made my way towards the damaged ruins. The Chhatris in Bhuj were commissioned sometime in the 18th century by Jadeja ruler Rao Lakhpatji.

Kutch was ruled by the Jadeja Rajput dynasty of the Samma tribe from its formation in 1147. The rulers had migrated from Sindh into Kutch in the late 12th century. The Jadejas in all probability could have been one of the Sindh tribes who, in the tenth century, were converted to the tenets of the Karmatians. When the leading branch of the Sammas adopted the orthodox form of Islam, the Jadejas kept to their Hindu faith. Some historians point to 1185 when Jam Jadaji became king of Sama Nagar, Sindh. He had no sons. So he adopted two sons of his Younger brother Veraji; Lakhaji and Lakhiyarji. So The names of Lakhaji and Lakhiyarji were changed to Lakhaji ‘Jadeja’, which means son of Jadaji. Thereafter all descendants were named ‘Jadeja’, which means sons of Jadaji.

Interestingly, the genealogy of the Jadejas is still maintained today by the respective Jadeja branches and every single person in their clan can trace their ancestry through to Rato Rayadhan.

The pure Jadeja rule started sometime near 1365 CE. Though considered a new name, they rose into prominence after the conversion to Islam of the Samma rule, that immediately precedes them.

The name Jadeja means “Belonging to Jada” in the Sindhi and Kutchi language, and is pronounced as “Jaa day jaa”.

The construction of cenotaphs or chhatris by the Royal families of erstwhile kingdoms in Gujarat and nearby regions had been in vogue for many centuries. These umbrella-shaped dome structures, built in memory of royals can also be found all over the nearby regions of Rajasthan and also in some parts of Madhya Pradesh which were connected to the Rajput lineage. Kutch was ruled by the Jadeja Rajput dynasty until 1948 when it acceded to the newly formed Republic of India.

The cenotaph complex was deserted at this early hour and I went about taking shots of these collapsed masterpieces. There are no official markings and it is impossible to assign any of these to a particular ruler.

Inside the complex, there are many different types of Chhatris. I really loved the detailing on this tombstone. It is the most detailed surviving structure. Floral designs are the most common patterns found on these tombstones. Apart from floral patterns, hexagons, octagons, and stripe patterns can also be seen across the walls of the structure.

This was in all probability another tombstone of a Rajput king, but it is impossible to say who is depicted on the tablet. Over the years these ancient Chattris – the tombstones of fallen heroes, and stones erected in memory of their heroism and chivalry became their recognition. The person on the horse is supposed to depict the king surrounded by his wives.

Further up, I found another similar tablet. It was much simpler compared to the other ones. This one didn’t have the depiction of the king’s wives surrounding it.

As I moved from one cenotaph to another I found myself in front of the largest and the finest tombstone, that of Rao Lakha built in 1770 CE. This cenotaph is particularly famous as it was shown in a Hindu movie. The movie was released years back and at that point in time the heritage structure still had its roof.

The story of Rao Lakhpatji

Maharao Lakhpatji, born in 1717, was probably the most influential of all the rulers of Kutch. Also known as Lakhaji, he was the Rao of Cutch, who ruled the princely state of Cutch (Kutch) as a regent from 1741 to 1752. He later succeeded his father Deshalji I in 1752 and ruled until his own death in 1760.

Rao Lakhpatji was a pivotal figure in the development of Kutch and his reign which started in 1741 saw the arts of Kutch introduced to the rest of India.

Please be careful while exploring these structures as you can see the main gate is just about hanging somehow.

Unlike Maharashtra, which is almost entirely covered by the basaltic lava flows of the Deccan Trap, the Bhuj landscape comprises sandstone and shale. Built of these red sandstones, the Chhatri of Rao Lakhpatji is situated on the northern side of the Chattardi complex. The main Chhatri used to be supported by decorative pillars, a fine specimen of Kutch architecture. Once you enter Rao Lakhpatji’s cenotaph you will be amazed by the semi-damaged beautiful sculptures of the deities and people in local costumes.

Designed by Ram Singh Malam, an architect and craftsman from the 18th century Kutch region, the cenotaph is polygonal in shape with balconies. There used to be a blue dome with jeweled work strongly influenced by Turkish architecture. His technique of enamel work is now known as ‘Kutch work’. The depictions in stone of Rao Lakhpatji chhatri suggest that 15 of his wives gave up their lives at his funeral pyre.

Ram Singh Malam is celebrated as a maritime folk hero and songs written on him are still sung in coastal regions of Gujarat.

Constructed in 1770, this cenotaph had many individual balconies. The structure used to be covered with a roof with intricate carvings but currently they lie scattered around the tombstone. In the center of all these lavish constructions sits the tablet of the king himself with 15 of his consorts. The tablets used to sit under the central dome, where it is also said, lies the ashes of Rao Lakha.

Raujputana history is rich in historical romance and chivalry. During my research, I read there are other tombstones dedicated to Rao Rayadhan, Rao Desai, and Rao Pragmal, but without any proper guide, it is hard to tell which one is which.

After taking a few shots in the early twilight, I waited for the Sun to show up, reading up on a bit of history behind the most influential ruler of Kutch – Rao Lakhpatji.

Sunrise at Chatteri

The sun took its time showing itself. The sky was already bright all around by the time I saw it peeking from behind the forests. I took my tripod to the opposite side of the sunrise so I could catch the silhouettes of the tombstones in an artistic way.

I was soon basking in the golden rays of the winter Sun. The square pavilion below was a standout among all other dome-shaped tombstones

In some articles, I have read that the Chattri with a blue dome with jeweled work strongly influenced by Turkish architecture is also dedicated to Rao Lakhpatji. Mind you, with some exceptions, Chhatris are basically tombstones that do not contain the mortal remains of that person and they were built as a tribute to their greatness.

The Chattris of different clans display variations of the umbrella form, in a way conveying its extra-ordinariness. The earlier cenotaphs memorialized their ancestors with Chhatris that took forms appropriated from temples built in the region. During the times of the Raos of Kutch, diplomatic relations with the Mughals imparted their own unique flavor to this structure.

By this time, a couple of local residents had made their way to the complex for their morning exercises. The golden light was perfect to capture the details of these tombstones so I went back around the structures that were comparatively less damaged to capture closely the details in these walls.

A distant view of these structures is very pleasing and yet a closer examination of the designs and intricate carvings engraved on the tombstones reveals a wealth of data about the social history of the region. Some walls bear floral patterns while others bear figurative depictions of equestrians and weaponry such as shields and spears.

On the southern side of the compound, there is, what seems like an active temple where people still come to say their prayers. The Jadejas, themselves were followers of Hinduism and worshiped Ashapura Mata, who is the kuldevi of the Jadeja clan and also the State deity. The main temple of the goddess is located at Mata no Madh.

Just in front of the temple, the square pavilion was lit up beautifully in the soft golden rays of the Sun. This tombstone is the only square-shaped tombstone on the premises and appears to be tilted towards the chaukhandi type of architecture, much more prevalent in Sindh, now in Pakistan. Well, let us just say not everyone loves circular domes.

Restoration of Chattardi

It was 8 am already and I had to go back to the hotel to get ready for my ride to the Rann Utsav. The structures have been severely damaged by the Bhuj earthquake of 2001 and some are currently being renovated though at a very slow pace.

The Kutch region is underlain by a Mesozoic rift system. Faults within such rift systems are known to have the potential to generate large earthquakes. Earthquakes have visited this district of Kutch repeatedly over the centuries. The last great earthquake of 2001 has taken a huge toll on the enigmatic buildings from the 18th century. The area is so rich with cultural heritage, and the earthquake was particularly cruel to many of these architectural relics that embody that heritage. 

Walking through the boulders I found stone tablets depicting royalty as well gods and goddesses, some of them exquisitely carved. With no security around the compound, I wonder how difficult it would be for someone to just pick up one of these extremely valuable decorative slabs, either to sell in the gray markets or simply in order to decorate their own drawing rooms. I greatly appreciate the restoration work already done, but the concerned authorities must arrest this decay and destruction of these valuable pieces of our heritage and restore them to their original splendor.

Best time to visit Bhuj

Thanks for reading. Please leave me a comment if you liked the post or follow my story as I visit the White Rann.

What is the best time to visit Bhuj?

The best time to visit Bhuj is between November and February. These are the only times when the harsh sun isn’t beating down on the desert district.

What are the admission timings for Chattris in Bhuj?

It is open 24×7. I didn’t see any guards and morning joggers use the place freely.

What are the admission fees for Chattris of Bhuj?

admission is free

Ruins of Sannai-Maruyama

Today I visit the ruins of Sannai Maruyama in Aomori. Discovered in 1992, the Sannai Maruyama Archaeological Site is the largest and one of the most complete and best-preserved Jōmon Period (13000-300 BC) village in Japan. 

Morioka to Aomori

I and my wife, Mani were on a short tour of Tohoku region. We were thoroughly refreshed from our previous day at Jōdogahama beach in Iwate. The day was bright and sunny as we checked out of our hotel and walked down to Morioka Station to catch the train to Aomori. As we entered the JR Station, we were quite pleased to see it was still decorated, in lieu of the just-passed Tanabata celebrations.

Tanabata originated from a romantic legend about two lovers that are only able to meet each other once a year. This festival is held across Japan on July 7 or August 7 depending on the region. It’s said that your wishes will come true if you write them down on strips of paper called the tanzaku and hang them on bamboo branches. We left a tanzaku wish note praying for a happy future at one of the booths.

The Shinkansen takes only an hour for the journey from Morioka to Aomori, however, Mani didn’t posses a JR Pass and in order to save some money, we used the limited express train. It was a long 3-hour journey but felt rather shortened by the animated chats about the places we were yet to explore around these parts. 

We reached Shin Aomori at 11 am. The Nebuta festival had just got over in Aomori, the previous day and the station was still adorned with many Nebuta floats all over the place. The Nebuta festival is one of the most popular festivals in Aomori and if you miss it you can always drop down to the Nebuta Museum to witness the amazing floats from the last held festival.

It was almost mid-day and the sun was burning bright, and although Aomori was cooler than Iwate, the strong Sun made it a tad uncomfortable. We left our luggage at one of the station lockers and waited for the bus for Sannai Maruyama site.

The sightseeing bus called Shuttle de Route Bus Nebutan-go arrived in a few minutes. The bus route keeps running in a loop all day, and to reach the Sannai-Maruyama site one has to get down at the Sannai-Maruyama-Iseki-mae bus stop. The ride cost us 310 Yen each.

Jōmon Jiyukan

As we entered the giant hall in Jōmon Jiyukan, the volunteers at the reception helped us out with the information about the heritage site. They provided us with a guided map of the area. Beside the reception, one can also find replicas of dresses from the Jamon period. Visitors are free to try on these Jōmon period clothing. I tried out a fisherman’s dress and I presume, I would have fit right in, into this traditional society 🙂

Once we had gathered all the information, we decided to first take our lunch and then proceed to investigate the huge site. The Gosennen-no Hoshi restaurant inside the campus serves delicious meals using prominent Jōmon ingredients. One can find a variety of set menus made of fish, vegetables and nuts that people during the Jōmon period used to consume.

I am generally a bit circumspect to try new food, but I decided to give it a try anyway. I ordered the “Shiokatsukune Udon.” The dish basically comprised of soft “Chicken meatballs” with bonitos (fish) and kelp soup. I did end up enjoying it and as I write this journal I can feel myself salivating just thinking about it. After the fulfilling meal at the Gosennen-no Hoshi restaurant, we slowly walked down to the Sanmaru Museum.

Sanmaru Museum

The Sanmaru museum exhibits objects excavated from the excavation site and lists many facts about the people who lived during the Jōmon Period. The Jōmon period encompasses a large expanse of time, constituting Japan’s Neolithic period and the museum exhibits approximately 1,700 artifacts excavated from the Sannai-Maruyama site. 

A dimly lit path led us towards a life-sized figure of a young boy with his Inu (dog), pointing us towards the glass encased cases of historical findings from the Jōmon period.

Jōmon no Kokoro

The first section of the Sanmaru Museum is called the Jōmon no Kokoro (heart of the Jōmon Period). This area displays various excavated items including a large number of pottery, stone artifacts, personal ornaments, clay figures, earthenware, wooden utensils, bone tools and small knitted baskets called “Jōmon pochette” from the Jōmon period.

Shown below is one of the stone tools from the site. This grinding stone was particularly used as a food processing tool. Nuts, such as chestnuts, walnuts, and Japanese horse chestnuts were an important source of food for the people at the time. These were used to crush these hard nuts. 

Below you can see some stone spearheads used by the hunters during that period. These hunting tools are characterized by a carefully formed leaf shape and evenly beveled edges that required great skill and patience to create. These tools were created by a process called knapping, where one stone is used to strike another to create a desired shape. If you are a student of history, you will notice that these stone tools, which were somewhat roughly created in the Paleolithic era, were by the Jōmon period meticulously chipped and smoothly polished. 

We moved forward to a large board-shaped clay figurine on display. The Sannai Maruyama village site turned up a huge number of human shaped figurines. From middle to late Jōmon periods, the Jōmon people made large numbers of human figures from clay. However these Jōmon figurines do not look like real people. They have distorted forms with large faces, small arms and hands. Some of the figurines look like humans wearing goggles. This is not new for many cultures who have depicted humans in exaggerated shapes like the Egyptians, but it does make one think if the Jōmon actually had some kind of extra-terrestrial contact.

The pottery vessels crafted in ancient Japan during the Jōmon period are generally accepted to be the oldest pottery in Japan and also among the oldest in the world. The word Jômon literally means “straw-rope pattern,” and it typically describes the style of pottery of the earliest Japanese period. The Jōmon period was named after this style of pottery.

All Jōmon pots were made by hand, without the aid of a wheel. As in all other Neolithic cultures, generally women created these early potteries. Clay was mixed with a variety of adhesive materials, including mica, lead, fibers, and crushed shells. After the vessel was formed, tools were employed to smooth both the outer and interior surfaces. When completely dry, these were baked in an outdoor bonfire.

Pottery found at this site is called Ento (cylindrical) style pottery. A typical Ento style pottery is characterized by an elongated bucket shape with a wide opening and is decorated with cord marks.

Below you can see different sized needles created from bones. In those times, animal bones were used to create harpoon heads, fish hooks, needles and even hairpins. Their varying length, thickness and the eye indicate that the Jōmon people developed them for specialized purposes. Most of the bone needles shown here are made of mammal ribs.

The image below is a cross-section of a mound. Many ritual associated implements were found from these mounds, suggesting the significance of these mounds as a ground for ceremonial activities

Most artifacts used in daily life such as pottery were made at the site using locally available materials. Ornaments include pendants and earrings made of clay, stone, and animal bones.  However certain items came from far away. Jade was favored by the Jōmon people and especially valued in north Honshu where Sannai Maruyama is located. In addition to complete artifacts such as large beads, raw stones have also been discovered here. 

If you want a guided explanation while looking at the exhibits, a volunteer from the Sannai-Maruyama volunteers will gladly guide you round the exhibits.

The Jōmon people of Sannai Maruyama

As we moved further, we were in the Jōmon-jin no Kurashi wo Himotoku (Lifestyle of the Jōmon Period people) section. Here life-sized figurines are used to reproduce the Jōmon daily life, based on excavated objects. The people in the early Jōmon period frequently traveled from one place to the next while engaged in camping and nomadic life. The Jōmon people primarily belonged to a hunter-gatherer culture. 

Over time the sedentary settlements appeared and certain communities engaged in cultivating plants. They gradually moved to a semi-sedentary lifestyle and descended from a mixture of the ancient hunter-gatherer Jōmon and the Yayoi rice agriculturalists. Their features can also be seen in the Ainu and Ryukyuan people. In fact, the Ainu have often been considered to be descendants resulting from a mix of the cultures of the Jōmon people and the Okhotsk. I have written a detailed report on the history of Ainu people.

Below you can see a typical Jōmon family gathering. The historical Ainu culture originated in a merger of the Okhotsk culture with the Satsumon, one of the ancient archaeological cultures that are considered to have derived from the Jōmon period cultures of the Japanese Archipelago. The origin myths of Japanese civilization extend back to periods now regarded as part of the Jōmon period, though they show little or no relation to what we know archaeologically of Jōmon culture, one of the reasons why the Japanese deny Ainu as the aborigines.

After about an hour of adoring the prehistoric artifacts, we moved on towards the excavation site. The Jiyu tunnel led us into the the largest ruins of a traditional village, dating from 4,000 to 5,500 years ago. Stepping into this region is like taking a step back in time.

A brief history of Jōmon People of Sannai-Maruyama

The Jōmon period experienced a large-scale climate change since it extended for a long period of 10,000 years. The Sannai-Maruyama Ruins are the largest ruins of a Jōmon-period (about 10,500-300 BC) village in Japan, and are estimated to date from 4,000 to 5,500 years ago. The Japanese archipelago is extremely elongated from north to south and its topography varies considerably; therefore, regional differences in the climate and vegetation were large during the Jōmon period as is today. As a result, the cultural style of the Jomon period is not uniform both historically and regionally and it came to take many different forms.

There have been previous excavations around the Sannai-Maruyama site between 1953 to 1967. These excavations involved teams from Keio University and the Board of Education of Aomori City. In 1976 and 1987, the Board of Education of Aomori Prefecture and Aomori City also conducted further excavations on the southern part of the site.

However, the major breakthrough for the site came in 1992 while excavating during a pre-construction phase for a baseball stadium. This excavation uncovered how large Sannai Maruyama was as well as a large amount of artifacts. 

After the excavation and study of the site, the village was reburied with earth and a number of reconstructed pit dwellings, long houses and a large tower were built on top. Visitors can enter the reconstructions, some of which are quite large, as well as see a few of the original excavation sites around the grounds.

A large number of pot shards and stone implements, clay figurines, jade beads, etc. were disposed together with the soil and formed a mound for over 1000 years. You can see its cross-section here. X-ray analysis shows that the jade excavated at ‘Sannai-Maruyama Site’ in Aomori Prefecture is from Itoigawa and therefore, it is assumed that the Jōmon people also traded among themselves over the wide area.

These findings demonstrate a change in the structure of the community, architecture, and organizational behaviors of these people. Because of the extensive information and importance, this site was designated as a Special National Historical Site of Japan in 2000.

Sannai Maruyama

Sannai Maruyama was first settled around 3900 BCE. At that time it was inhabited by hunters and gatherers only. Over this period of time, the site changed from a seasonal camp, to the home of a more mobile society, and finally to a settled village. Evidence of this sedentary lifestyle can be found in the the changes in their storage facilities.

Pit Dwellings

The earliest pit dwellings at Sannai Maruyama were during the Early Jōmon period, built between 5900 and 5400 years ago. At that time, Sannai was comparatively small and simple, a collection of pit dwellings. The first settlers on the site lived in pit houses. These dwellings typically were about 10 feet in diameter. The floor was dug below the ground level. A hearth was located in its center. At least 550 pit-dwellings have been discovered so far and 15 have been reconstructed. Some of the pit houses seen at Sannai Maruyama were simple thatched-roof semi-subterranean houses, like this reconstruction. To make this bark-thatched pit dwelling, a pit was excavated into the ground and bark or wood branches were assembled over the top forming a cone-like structure.

Over time the thatched pit dwelling was replaced with a sturdier structure as shown below. Like the thatched huts, the floor of a pit dwelling was dug into the ground. Supporting posts were placed at the corners and the walls and roof were built and roofed with thatch. The average size of these pit dwelling is between three and four meters in diameter.

Store Houses

Initially they used to store food in underground pits, which allowed them to hide it when they left the site since the occupants were not yet living a sedentary lifestyle.  With time, the storage features changed from these underground pits to elevated granaries around 2900 BC. These buildings were built higher than the ground level and were specifically used as storage facilities.

Long House

As the community became sedentary, long houses began showing up around this time. Long houses were large, oval-shaped structures. The longest one found at the site was 32 meters (105 feet) long. Scholars believe long houses were used for meeting places, workshops, or living space. Pit houses were still being inhabited for individual dwelling  at the same time that long houses started to come up on the landscape.

Till now eleven long houses have been excavated at Sannai Maruyama. They were large, oval-shaped semi-subterranean pit dwellings. The reconstruction  shown below is the longest, measuring 32 meters in length. This huge structure displays a coordinated labor force that would have required cooperation of several people to make. This displays the gradual shift from an individual to a social community in this time period.


With a stable living style, also, there appeared one of Sannai Maruyama’s most famous structures, the large six-pillared building, was built around 2,600 BC.  This structure consisted of six large pillars that are believed to have held up platforms. Each one of these pillars was around 1 meter in diameter and was placed exactly 14 ft apart.  This large post like platform was certainly used as a watchtower. 

Burial Pits

Burials at Sannai Maruyama took three forms: jar burials, pit burials, and stone circle burials. Large jars have been discovered near the pit dwelling clusters. These are assumed to be burials, although human bones have not been preserved within them, on the basis of similar burials found in later Jōmon sites such as Yoshinogari. Jar burials have been dated to the Middle Jōmon period, from 5400-4300 years ago. The second form of burial was of adults aligned in rows along the sides of long roadways extending from the center of the settlement towards the outside. Finally as shown below, stone circle arrangements have also been found at Sannai Maruyama, which included adult burials. 

The settlement of Sannai Maruyama ended around 2300 BC.

By now we were extremely dehydrated. The harsh sun had taken its toll and we dragged ourselves to the safety of the Jōmon Jiyukan.

The vending machine at that moment was “gold” for us, as we gulped on the chilled sugary drinks.

The Sannai Maruyama site was designated as a special historical site by the Japanese government in November 2000. Today the public can visit this site and explore its many reconstructions. The site also features a Theater, a workshop and a gift shop. If you are in love with history do not miss this site. Even though at present, most of the excavated items have been reburied for preservation, the excavation sites and artifacts on display will giving you a feel of life in those ancient times.

Thanks for reading. Please leave me a comment if you liked the post or follow my story as we go for a stroll along the lovely Aomori Bay to witness a most alluring sunset.

Open Hours:

9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Closed days:

December 30 – January 1
The center is also closed on the fourth Monday of each month. If that day is a holiday, the center will be closed the next day

Admission Fees:

410 Yen

Are baggage lockers available at the site?

Lockers are available for free. You need a 100 yen coin to lock them, but it will be returned when you retrieve your belongings.

Are all objects exhibited in the museum excavated in the Sannai-Maruyama site?

Yes. Sanmaru Museum exhibits approximately 1,700 artifacts excavated from this very this site.

Are there any restaurants at the site?

Yes, you can find a fine restaurant on the premises named Gosennen-no Hoshi, which offers specialty food prepared with Jōmon period recipes and also a kiosk called Hokusaikan.

Do you sell any books about the site?

Yes, many informative books are available at the museum shop as well as the kiosk.