The Informal Summit at Mamallapuram, Links with China and Its Monuments

By Sarkaritel January 10, 2020 06:31

Ramakrishna. PhD

The first Informal Summit between Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi and President of China, Xi Jinping was held on 27 and 28 April 2018 in Wuhan, China.  As a sequel, the second informal meeting was held on 11 and 12 October 2019, in Mamallapuram, an ancient temple town that lies along the shores of the Bay of Bengal, 37 miles South of Chennai, earlier Madras.

The President of China arrived at the Chennai Airport on Friday, 11 October 2019 to a warm welcome.  A large number of proficient folk artists gave their best.“Thappatta”, is a form dance rendered to the beat of a percussion instrument called ‘Thappu’ or Parai’ in Tamil. ‘Oyilattam’, is a dance of grace, performed with ankles bells. “Kombattam”, is a martial art dance wearing deer antlers. “Poikaal Kuthirai aatam” is a form folk dance of dummy horses. “Silambattam”, is also a martial art but performed employing a bamboo staff.

A group of women elegantly attired displayed Bharatnatyam to the musical sounds and tunes of “Thavil”, a barrel-shaped percussion instrument and “Nadhaswara, a double-reed wind instrument.  Swarms of people waving the national flags of India and China, cheered the President on either side of the road leading to  Mamallapuram, the site of the ancient Tamil Pallava Dynasty, personifying “Athidhi Devo Bhava” a verse from the Taithriya Upanishad meaning the “ Guest is God”.

Wearing a Tamil traditional dress, veshti or lungi, white shirt, and angavasthram or folded shawl, Prime Minister, Modi received the President of China near Arjuna’s Penance (crowing rock relief) at Mamallapuram., He showed the Chinese leader, Krishna’s Butter Ball, Panch Rathas and Shore Temple before commencing the first day’s meeting on the evening of 11, October 2019.  Enjoying delightful traditional Tamil dinner, the leaders took stock of the impending issues-increasing menace of terrorism and the rapid radicalization of communities. They felt these evil forces are a serious threat to the cohesiveness of their multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies. The international community was requested to tighten its grip on training and financing  the terrorist outfits. The talks on extended dinner enabled the leaders to perceive their national interest in the light fast-emerging geopolitical world. India’s ever-growing trade deficient with china was also considered. The president while appreciating India’s concerns, assured that the best possible measures would be taken to address India’s trade worry. The concluding informal meeting was held on 12 October 2019 at Kovalam, 30 km of Chennai, at Taj Fisherman’s Cove, a luxury beachside resort facing the blue waters of the sea. Prime Minister, Modi presented President Xi Jinping the specially weaved  red and gold special portrait shawl embossing the image of the President. The summit ended with a formal meeting of delegation-level talks.

Recalling the first Informal summit talks, Prime Minister Modi, informed that it had provided stability and fresh momentum to bilateral relations. He felt it is time to settle all the problematic matters. He was optimistic that the “Chinese Connect” would herald an era of constructive bilateral co-operation.  President Xi Jinping said that the Wuhan summit ushered China-India relations into a new stage of appreciable growth. In a year the summit continues to produce visible progress. “We have deeper strategic communication, more effective practical co-operation, more diverse people to people’s cultural exchanges.  What has happened reaffirmed that we have made the right decision to have this kind of informal summit”, the President said.

The significant issue discussed in the meeting is India’s increasing trade imbalance with China. Today, China is India’s second-largest trading partner in goods. In 2018, the value of bilateral trade was the US $ 95.54 billion. Sadly enough, this meant a trade deficit of US$ 53 billion for India, the biggest it has with any country. This seriously injures the domestic industry. Viewing this appalling the position, the leaders decided to improve the volume of bilateral trade and search for new areas for investment.  It was decided to establish a High-Level Economic and Trade Dialogue Mechanism. Its objectives are to accomplish increased trade and beef up commercial relations. The Mechanism will be headed by India’s Finance Minister and China’s Vice-Premier. This becomes feasible when India exports more than what it imports from China. A look current scenario of India – China trade tells us whether the envisaged mechanism could bear fruits.

China has been exporting goods to several countries including India at a price far below its domestic price. In trade circles, it is called dumping. It causes serious harm to the domestic industry’s trade. As a measure of protecting the affected Indian industry, tariff barriers are being invoked among other countries on China. This is through the levy of anti-dumping duties and safeguards duties. But there is no respite. The Chinese goods still rule the roost. The alternative is to restrict the import of goods into the Indian market at lower rates is to consider imposing non-tariff barriers with means drawing trade policy measures controlling imports via fixation of the import floor price.

Perhaps, a more practical approach would be to encourage Chinese companies to set up manufacturing facilities in India. Today, there are about 1000 Chinese companies doing business in India with an investment of US$ 8 billion. These are all hardware companies. The companies producing industrial raw materials for the pharmaceutical industry, engineering, steel may have to be invited to India. This would obviate the import of inputs from China for export production. A situation envisaged like this would surely reduce imports from China. This, in the long run, is likely to swing the balance of trade with China in favor of India.

The leaders exchanged views on the age-old commercial connections and people-people between India and China past two millennia including maritime linkages. Moving in this direction, it was agreed on the establishment of sister-state relations between Mamallapuram and Fujian Province, China.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations of India with China. It is proposed to celebrate the event involving the legislatures, political parties, militaries, youth, and cultural organizations from both countries. It is also envisaged to have a symposium on a Chinese ship that would voyage along ancient maritime routes to Mamallapuram.

The outcome of the Informal summit held in Mamallapuram was fruitful. The single most important thing is China’s willingness to help India to reduce the trade imbalance. The informal meeting brought leaders of India and China personally close to each other. They developed rapport than ever before.  The summit gave new energy to bilateral relations. It was decided to have the next informal summit in China this year. The date venue would be decided through diplomatic channels.

Selection of Mamallapuram as a venue for meeting

Mamallapuram as a venue for the Informal Summit was preferred for its treasured history, culture and its ancient contacts with China. The coastal town owes its name to  great Pallava king Narasimhavaraman I(638-666 AD). As one of the most striking Pallava potentates, he said to have lost no war. The epigraph at Vatapi informs that he bore the epithet of Mahamalla or the Great Warrior. NarasimhavarmanI, Mahamalla founded the town of Mahamamallapuram. He gave his name to its port of Mamallapuram. He commissioned most of the monuments which were shown to China President.

The Brahmanandapurana of 4th century BC gives an account Mamallavaram (present Mamallapuram) as a city of virtuous men, full of riches and not inferior to the heavens of Indra. Ludo Rocher (1926-2016), an American Sanskrit scholar believes that Brahamanadapurana attained its current form in 10th century AD.

Chinese Connection:

Available literature reveals that Pallava kings held a trade and defense pact with China.  In his four-part Tamil historical novel on Pallava Dynasty “BodiDharma”, Kayal Barabhavan writes that in the early 8th century Narasimhavarman-II and a Chinese ruler concluded an agreement. Its details are printed on silk cloth sent by the Chinese king to the Pallava king. The former declared the latter as the General of South China to assist him to restrain the belligerent Tibet which was a significant power of the times. The learned K.A.Neelakanta Sastry, also opined that  Narasimhavarman-II assured of his support to Chinese rulers to check on the assertive Tibetan and Arabian rulers.

Thirumangal Alvar, the last of 12 Vaishnava saints of 8th century AD in vernacular calls Mamallapuram a prosperous seaport “ Kadal Mallai” or “Sea Mountain.  He tells that the ships laden with deferent gems and stones frequently anchored at the port. Recent archeological excavations at Mamallapuram unearthed inscriptions of coins with Chinese symbols, Chinese pottery, and fishing nets. Silk Road or Silk Route connecting Rome and China in its enroute touched Mamallapuram.

The celebrated historian K.A.Neelakanta Sastry in his  A History of South India: From Prehistoric Times to the Fall of Vijayanagar  writes that Buddhist monk, Bodi Dharma and an icon in China was the third prince of a Pallava king.  He traveled from Kancheepuram through Mamallapuram to China in 527 AD and became the 28th patriarch of Buddhism succeeding in Prajnatara.


Yi-Jing, a monk from China who was romanticized in history as I-tsing visited India in 673 AD says DA MO (Bodhidharma) was from Kang-Zhi ( present Kanchipuram).  Generations of Chinese venerated him as a great master of Mahayana Buddhism ( a sect of Buddhism that worships Buddha as God). He practiced Kung-Fu, martial art and meditated at Shaolin Temple in Henan Province of China.

Shi Yan Lin, monk and executive director of Shaolin Temple proposes to develop a memorial center at the birthplace of BodiDharman as a major center of Buddhist learning on the lines of Bodh Gaya in Bihar.  A wooden statue of Bodi Dharman made from Songshan mountain in China where he meditated for 9 years, is planned for installation. A recent  Tamil cinema “7 aum Arium” portrays the life of Bodi Dharman.

Hiuen Tsang

He came to Pallava Kingdom in 646 AD during the reign of its greatest ruler Narasimhavarman I. In his Buddhist travelogue “ The Da Tang Je xi Yuji ( Ta-Tang-His-Yu-Choir), “Records of the Western Regions of the Great Tang Dynasty”, Hiuen Tsang tells us that Narasimhavarman I dispatched two naval expeditions to Ceylon. He restored its kingdom to the exile Sinhalese king Manavavarma in recognization of the support he received from Manavavarma in his efforts to subdue the Chalukyan king Pulakesin II.

Hiuen Tsang informs that soil in the Pallava kingdom is fertile and regularly cultivated. It produced an abundance of grain, flowers and fruits and precious gems. There are a few hundreds of Sanghaaramas (Buddhist Monasteries ) and 10,000 priests. There are also 80 Deva temples and many heretics called Nirganthas. King Ashoka built stupas to commemorate sacred sites.

He returned to China in 643 AD taking long several  Buddhist manuscripts.  According to Thomas Watters(1840- 1901), a respected oriental scholar, T.W.Rhys Davids (1843-1922), an English scholar of the Pali language and S.W.Bushell (1844-1908), an English Physician and an amateur orientalist in their well-researched book “ On Yuan Chwang’s Travels in India (629-645 AD)”, the total number of texts brought by Hiuen Tsang from India to China is 657 including 224 items of Mahayanist sutras and 192 Mahayanist Sastras.


The history of architecture and sculpture in South India begins with Pallava kings. For the first time, one meets with Dravidian style chiefly known by “Shikara”(Tower). Narasimhavarman I to his credit constructed many monuments. The structures showcased to China leaders are discussed.              

Arjuna’s Penance:   

It is a fine sculptural creation original to the country. It has sculptured crowing rock relief found no were in the country. It infuses two large granite boulders.  The rock relief shows celestial beings and many animals. The most prominent sculptured rock images are  Nagas or Snakes in Worship, the Descend of the Ganges and the Arjuna’s Penance. There is no unanimity among historians, archaeologists on what exactly these rock images are.

While the rock image of Nagas or Snakes in Worship is not considered an amazing rock representation, the Descend of the Ganges has generated some interested, maybe, because of its much-loved Hindus religious story. It tells the Hindu gods requested the river Ganga to come down from heaven to reward Bhagiratha who had penanced long years for a boon. The river Ganga descended upon earth to offer its water to purify the ashes of Bhagiratha’s deceased ancestors

Art Historian Dr. S.Balaswamy of Madras Christian College provides new insights into the nature of rock-relief. He writes in his Tamil book “ Arjunan Tapasu” that the image Lord Shiva blessing an ascetic represents penancing Arjuna. The scene reminds the verses from VanaParvam in Mahabharathama. They describe the VedariAshram in the Himalayas that Pandavas visited during their “Vanavas” or sojourn to the forest.  Devaganas, hunters of jack fruit, honey buzzard, bharal, blue sheep, hog deers, two types of monkeys, langur and Assamese macaque which are found the Himalayas has thoroughly depicted on Arjuna’s  Penance.

The Arjuna’s Penance has a scriptural scene. It brilliantly portrays what five Pandava brothers saw or accomplished in the Himalayas during their Vanavas – exile to the forest.   A bas-relief image shows Arjuna standing on one foot deeply engaged in penancing and appeasing  Goddess Kali and Lord Shiva for obtaining the PashupataAstra, an irresistibly the most destructive personal weapon.

Maria Graham (1785-1842 AD) in her historical accounts  “ Journal of a Residence in India”. well captures the beauty of the Arjuna’s Penance.  She writes “The face of the large rock carved into above a hundred figures of men and animals, most of the natural size  representing the Tapas of Arjoon, or sacred austerities practiced by that hero, in order to obtain a celestial weapon which was to give power over all his enemies.”

Shore Temple :

The majestic shore temple stands on the shores of the Bay of Bengal.  The temple which in vernacular called “Alaivay-k-kovil” had three shrines dedicated Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu.  The Shiva temples are two. The king Narasimhavarman I built them.  His son Narasimhavarman II constructed the Vishnu temple.  Two shrines are consecrated to Lord Shiva and the third to Lord Vishnu.

The Vishnu temple, the oldest of the three shrines is the smallest.  Lord Vishnu is seen reclining on the ground as Stala Sayana.  The temple walls have pictures of Lord Vishnu’s life and Lord Krishna, his incarnation.  The Shiva temples are the oldest structural temples in India.  The largest temple on its center has a prismatic lingam, the iconic form of Lord Shiva in the shape of a phallus.  It also shows Lord Shiva in anthropomorphic or human –like-form with his consort Parvathi and their son Skanda.

The shore temples represent a gradual development from rock-cut to free-standing temples signifying the matured Dravidian architecture.  The co-existence of Shiva and Vishnu temples in the shore temples indicates the religious harmony between two later day sets of Hinduism–Shaivism, and Vaishnavism. Sudha Shedri a passionate writer of culture and tradition pays her greatest tribute to the shore temples when she writes, “the Shore Temples at Mahabalipuram….is the first structural temple and has an unsurpassed elegance with lion pilasters, sculptured niches, and elegantly proportioned towers”. European travelers speak of seven pagodas or seven shore temples. But today there are only three shore temples.  The rest seemed to have got sunk in the deep sea.

Krishna’s Butterball:  

It is a larger rock- a boulder precariously standing on a delicate balance.  The huge rock derives its name from Lord Krishna’s search for butter and its scrumptious enjoyment on this steep perched rock, appears to be falling any time.   To the bewilderment of science, the rock refuses to cave in to gravity.  It appears that the giant boulder during the glacial period was stranded on a sliding position on a hill.  The actual name of the large stone is “Vaan Erai Kal” which translates to “Sky God’s Stone”.  This is a silly and funny name the local tourist guides gave it to the rock.  And the name remains to become popular.

Today Krishna’s Butterball remains a just tourist attraction.  Local children and the tourists try to push the slippery stone down the hill.   No human power, however, is able to budge the buttery boulder.  It is near the narrow rock base. It is interesting that the Pallava kings attempted to move it, but all the kings and their elephants were unable to move the giant rock even by an inch.

Panch Rathas:

Also known as  Pandava Rathas, they are five temples.  As their name suggests Rathas are not chariots but temples.  They are monolithic shrines.  Four are carved from a single rock and the fifth from a smaller rock. These temples were sculptured during the rule of Narasimhavarman I.  They have a hut-like roof that contains carved ridges. The splendid elephants and lions carved from the nearby rocks stand like guardians protecting the doors of the shrines.

The shrines bear the names of five Pandava brothers and their wife Draupadi. The biggest chariot shrine depicting eight exquisite sculptures is dedicated to the eldest Pandava – Yudhisthira and the smallest to Draupadi.  The five temples adore graceful figures of gods and mortals skillfully crafted by sculptors of high repute.  Some of the sculptured images of the deities which find a place in Pancha Ratha shrines are Goddess Durga, Lord Shiva, Lord Vishnu, Lord Indra.  Gracefully carved animal figures, a huge monolithic elephant and lion pillar also find a place at the shrines.

The rock-cut Rathas are incomplete structures. The death of Pallava monarch Narasimhavarman I in 668 AD halted their work.  It is significant that the architecture of Panch Rathas shows the rapid evolution of the Dravidian style.  Though it is still to be established, the Panch Rathas look similar to the Buddhist shrines and monasteries.

The Mamallapuram has about 40 sanctuaries.  They received the UNESCO Heritage label in 1984.  A site with world heritage status is recognized to get a new identity world over. A UNESCO Heritage site is protected under the Geneva Convention on world culture and heritage site 1972.

Today the magnificent monuments of Mamallapuram are a scene of neglect.  No historical research has been undertaken to explore their architectural and sculptural grandeur.  An archaeologist of great repute Cadambi Meenakshi was an inspiring authority on Pallava history. She was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. from the University of Madras in 1936.  She died at a young age of 35 in  1940.  Her thesis, “The Administration and Social Life under the Pallavas”  remains an authoritative and pioneering work on Pallava sculpture. Gabriel Jouveau Dubreuil (1885-1945), was a well known French archeologist. His work “The Pallavas”, still remains a seminal masterpiece on Dravidian architecture.

The author is on the senior management of a Pharmaceutical company.  He is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow. He holds a Master of Arts in History and an MBA. He dedicates the article to Seema in reminiscence of her hard work, who he saw  37 years ago.

By Sarkaritel January 10, 2020 06:31