Ancient architecture of Simhachalam inspires artistic sketches

The Simhachalam temple is one of the most revered religious sites in Visakhapatnam today. In addition to its sanctity, the place stands out for its architectural wonder, fascinating historians like Colin Mackenzie. During his time in India, one of his prime projects included capturing the shapes and structures of the Simhachalam temple in 1815 AD through heritage sketches. Take a look at some exclusive sketches of the ancient architecture of the Simhachalam temple from his collection, while reading an account of Mackenzie’s ventures in India:

The earliest mention of Simhachalam is from the Kalinga Empire in the 8th century AD. The word ‘Simhachalam’ etymologically means ‘the hill of the lion’. It is the hill of the Great Man-Lion, Nara-Simha, the fourth incarnation of Lord Vishnu. As hills and dens are generally conceived to be the abodes of lions, temples dedicated to Lord Narasimha are generally located on hilltops. 

The temple at Simhachalam has its origins in antiquity. Carvings on its pillars, walkways and choultry give a chronological history of the land, its rulers, their customs, religious deities and social life of the times. The presiding Deity of the temple is Varaha Narasimha, this image is one of the many forms of Narasimha, seen all over the country. At Simhachalam, the image of Narasimha is a combination of the Man-Lion (Nara-Simha) and Boar (Varaha). The first English history of the temple spells the locality interchangeably as Simbachellum, Simhachelum, Somachellum, Semachullam.

Birds-eye view of Simhachalam Temple in the 1920’s

The hill range on which the temple is located was known as Kailasa, with the range running from east to west – from Lawson’s Bay on the coast near Visakhapatnam to Simhachalam – forming a natural boundary to Visakhapatnam. Near Pendurti, 8 km west of the Simhachalam range, the rocks used for building the temple are still quarried on a large scale. The ancient architecture of the main temple of Simhachalam was built with granite rock, while the carved pillars in the assembly hall (Asthana Mandapa

) and the marriage hall (Kalyana Mandapa) of the temple are made up of fine-grained dark-coloured charnockite rock, which is available in plenty within a radius of 16 km of Simhachalam.

The Simhachalam temple was well-known to devotees and pilgrims in the region for centuries. However, the temple was unknown to the Western world until 1815 when a group from the Madras Survey Department, led by Colonel Colin Mackenzie (1754-1821), was mapping the region. Notably, Mackenzie was no ordinary military surveyor. Mackenzie made the first accurate map of South India’s geography and was the first Surveyor General of India. His topographical survey of over 40,000 square miles was unprecedented.

A Scottish army officer in the British East India Company, Colin Mackenzie spent four decades in India, during which time he recorded local histories, rulers, topographies and an endless array of data – manuscripts, maps, coins, sketches, paintings and artefacts. It was a treasure trove for later historians and anthropologists. This was the largest volume of historical data ever collected about India and there was nothing typical about Mackenzie, who almost single-handedly changed the way people viewed India due to his mapping of the country, his writing of the history of the Asian sub-continent, the discoveries he made in India and elsewhere, and the massive collection of antiquities that he found or traced across the vastness of India. Through the Mackenzie Collection, the Western world was introduced to the architectural, cultural and religious marvels of Konarak, Amarvathi (Amaravati), Mahabalpuram (Mahabalipuram) and Simhachalam. It was during the period between 5 May and 30 July 1815 that Mackenzie’s team produced detailed sketches of the many stone pillars at Simhachalam temple.

Simhachalam Stone Carved Pillars from the Mackenzie Collection, 1815

Mackenzie was a participant in the Madras School of Orientalism, whose aim was to understand these monuments through years of dedicated research. He is credited with discovering much of the history of the Indian religion of Jainism and certainly was the first Western expert to find and describe the magnificent statue of Gommateshwara, the tallest monolithic statue in the world carved out of a single block of granite. Buddhism, during its golden age, inspired several unique contributions to art and architecture in India. But by the 13th century, there was almost no trace of the religion left in the country, and many of the grand art and architectural creations inspired by Buddhism too had vanished, buried deep under layers of earth, where they lay forgotten for centuries…. until one man named Colin Mackenzie made a spectacular discovery – the relics of Amaravati. 

Utkarshini, in 1815 and Now

But Mackenzie did not manage all this on his own. A key factor in Mackenzie’s success was that he involved bright Indian assistants and directed them well. Early in his career, he recruited Cavelly Venkata Boraiah, a Telugu pundit, and later his brother, Cavelly Lakshmaiah. They were fine researchers with a knack for getting inside information from the locals. Mackenzie’s team had at least 17 other Indian scholars. 

Mackenzie spent nearly 40 busy years in India, passionately assembling around 1,568 literary manuscripts, 8,076 inscriptions, 79 plans, 2,630 drawings, 6,218 coins and many other antiquities – the largest collection of Indian artefacts owned by any European. He never returned home and died in his adopted country in 1821. He left 5 per cent of his estate to his dear surviving colleague Lakshmiah and the rest to his wife.

Today, most of Mackenzie’s collection is in the British Museum or is owned by the British Library. His discoveries from Amaravati, however, were moved to Madras (Chennai) some years after his death. You can see some of these beautiful treasures in the form of limestone carvings at the Amaravati Gallery of the Egmore Museum in Chennai. We now know that these artefacts are nearly 2000 years old, and this is the oldest Buddhist art collection in the world! They are called the Amaravati Marbles.

Simhachalam Naga Pillar, in 1815 and Now

The group of men Mackenzie employed at Simhachalam were draftsmen, copyists, and surveyors. Most of them were the ‘Indian-born’ children of European soldiers, who were educated at the Madras Orphans’ Asylum. Established in 1789, students at about the age of fifteen who exhibited an aptitude for mathematics and drawing were selected by the East India Company to become military surveyors and were placed into apprenticeships with the Madras Survey Department. For example, John Newman, judging from the number of extant drawings bearing his signature, was Mackenzie’s most prolific draftsman worked with Mackenzie. John Newman drew the pillars at Simhachalam, made line drawings of some inscriptions, and drew the Pir Masjid in Vizag and Panoramic Views of Vizagapatam in 1815.

Inscribed Simhachalam Banda Pillars, in 1815 and Now

Laksmiah gathered the written accounts that deal specifically with descriptions and interpretations of the monuments, and the site’s history as described by the locals. Laksmiah received a letter from Mackenzie outlining how to go about his enquiries and what to ask the locals.’You should make yourself however acquainted at first with the most respectable people of the place and of the Pagodas….  endeavour with civility to get their good will and carefully avoid to give offence by any indiscreet interference beyond your own business. You may then at your leisure proceed to enquire into the different points I wish to be informed of everything from the naming of monuments and circumstances of their construction to the local history and types of festivals celebrated in the area..’

Like many South Indian temples, the ancient architecture of Simhachalam temple is characterised by its prakaras and towering gopuram. More importantly, it stands out as a monument of imperial grandeur because it contains inscriptions which clearly identify the patrons responsible for their construction.

Wall carving on Simhachalam Front Porch, 1815 and Now

The earliest inscription at Simhachalam can be traced to the 16th century when

Krishna Raya, the illustrious Rajah of Vizayanagar whose memory is still venerated in the south as one of the most beneficent and intellectual of Hindu princes, invaded Orissa and penetrated as far as Cuttack, where he wedded the daughter of the Rajah, as a bond of the peace which he demanded. He had captured Kondapilli; and Rajahmundry. This event is commemorated in an inscription at  Simhachalam, in which it is recorded that ‘the illustrious Maharajah Krishna Deva, who filled the throne of Vizayanagar, had set out to conquer the eastern country, and had subdued Udayagiri, Kondavidu, Kondapilli, Rajamahndravaram, and other fortresses; and had come to Simhadri, where, on the 12th of Chaitra Bahula of the year Dhata, being 1438 of the Salivahana era (or AD 1516), he had presented a benefaction to the temple.’

Monuments are more than just ruins, or lessons in architecture. Monuments are time machines that let us step into another world and connect us with our past. So it is with Vizag’s iconic Simhachalam temple and its ancient architecture – from its imposing stone columns to its carvings and inscriptions. You can access high-resolution images of these Simhachalam column sketches from the British Library online. 

Written by John Castellas whose family belonged to Vizag for 5 generations. Educated at St Aloysius, migrated to Melbourne, Australia in 1966, former General Manager Engineering at Boeing & Qantas Airways, in retirement Lecturers in Aviation Management at Swinburne University and is a Vizag aficionado. John authors heritage articles for YoVizag, Waltair Times and has contributed to Coffee Table Books for Waltair Club and Andhra Medical College. The author can be contacted at jcastell@ozemail.com.au

Read also: Vizag Shook the Pagoda Tree for Yale University

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This post was last modified on 20/05/2024 4:10 pm

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