Living stone

May 25th, 2008

Five Rathas

This morning we visited a series of stone temples along the coast at Mahabalipuram with a world-class expert on temple architecture and Hindu history. While others will write about the cultural and artistic things we learned, I can’t, of course, resist talking about the wonderful rock itself.

These ancient structures are made of the local granite, which is exposed in bare rounded mounds along the coast. This rock type is made of coarse crystals of clear quartz, yellowish feldspars, and black mafic minerals. The feldspars are especially vulnerable to dissolution in the humid climate, so this granite erodes relatively rapidly. The carvings thus appear to survive best on the local granite varieties which have the lowest percentage of feldspar in them. Paradoxically, the more feldspar in the rock the easier it is to carve.

Granite close-up

The Five Rathas produced in the 7th Century were the most interesting structures to me. They are unconsecrated temples carved directly into the bedrock and never separated from it. Artists and geologists say, then, that these are sculpted from “living stone”. This was especially appropriate for these temples as they are covered by delightfully detailed images of men, women and deities, and one of the structures is a free-standing, life-size elephant. Next to the complex the artisans left a set of the original granite mounds in their natural condition as a testament to their skill in carving living stone.


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