|Globally renown for its shore
temples, Mahabalipuram was the second capital of the Pallava kings of
Kanchipuram. 58 kilometres from Madras on the Bay of Bengal, this tiny sea -
side village of Mahabalipuram, is set in a boulder - strewn landscape.
Tourists are drawn to this place by its miles of unspoiled beach and
rock-cut art. The sculpture, here, is particularly interesting because it
shows scenes of day-to- day life, in contrast with the rest of the state of
Tamil Nadu, where the carvings generally depict gods and goddesses
Mahabalipuram art can be divided into four categories : open air bas -
relief, structured temples, man-made caves and rathas ('chariots' carved
from single boulders, to resemble temples or chariots used in temple
processions). The famous Arjuna's Penance and the Krishna Mandapa, adorn
massive rocks near the centre of the village. The beautiful Shore Temple
towers over the waves, behind a protective breakwater. Sixteen man-made
caves in different stages of completion are also seen, scattered through the
The temples of Mamallapuram, built largely during the reigns of
Narasimhavarman and his successor Rajasimhavarman, showcase the movement
from rock-cut architecture to structural building. The mandapas or pavilions
and the rathas or shrines shaped as temple chariots are hewn from the
granite rock face, while the famed Shore Temple, erected half a century
later, is built from dressed what makes Mamallapuram so culturally resonant
are the influences it absorbs and disseminates.
All but one of the rathas from the first phase of Pallava architecture are
modelled on the Budhist viharas or monasteries and chaitya halls with
several cells arranged around a courtyard. Art historian Percy Brown, in
fact, traces the possible roots of the Pallavan Mandapas to the similar
rock-cut caves of Ajanta and Ellora. Referring to Narasimhavarman's victory
in AD 642 over the Chalukyan king Pulakesin II, Brown says the Pallavan king
may have brought the sculptors and artisans back to Kanchi and Mamallapuram
as 'spoils of war'.
Temples in Mahabalipuram
There are, or rather were, two low hills in Mahabalipuram, about 400m from
the sea. In the larger one, on both sides, there are eleven excavated
temples, called Mandapas, two "open air bas reliefs", one of which
is unfinished, and a third enclosed one. Out of a big rock standing free
nearby there is a "cut out" temple, called a "Ratha".
This type is unique to Mahabalipuram.
Out of the other hill, much smaller and standing about 200m to the south,
are fashioned five more rathas, and three big sculptures of a Nandi, a Loin
and an Elephant. On the top of the bigger hill there is a structural temple,
and a little distance the magnificent beginnings of a Vijayanagar Gopura and
also survivals of what is believed to be a palace.
- Shore Temple
on a rocky outcrop, it presides over the shoreline, serving, as
Percy Brown puts its, 'a landmark by day and a beacon by night'.
Designed to catch the first rays of the rising sun and to illuminate
the waters after dark, the temple ended up with an unusual lay-out.
As the main shrine faces the sea on the east, the gateway, the fore
count and the assembly hall of the Shore Temple all lie behind the
Unusual, too, is the fact that the temple has shrine to both Shiva
and Vishnu. The main sanctum and one of the two lesser ones on the
west are dedicated to Shiva. The enclosing wall has a series of
Nandi bulls on it.
Interconnected cisterns around the temple meant that the sea could
be let in to transform the temple into a water shrine. But, in
recent times, a stone wall as been added to protect the shrine from
the rising seas and further erosion.
The main hill at Mamallapuram is dotted with pillared halls carved
into the rock face. These mandapas, with their graceful columns and
intricate figure sculptures bear witness to the artistry of the
Pallavan rock cutter. The ten pavilions at Mamallapuram, of which
two are unfinished, were designed as shrine, with a sanctum and on
outer hall. The shallow porticoes are adorned with exquisite
sculptures of gods, goddesses and mythological figures.
The Ganesh mandapa is an active shrine even today, with the idol of
the elephant-god being revered by the faithful, fourteen centuries
after it was first consecrated.
Beyond the circular rock called Krishna's Butterball is the Varaha
mandapa dedicated to the two avatars of Vishnu as Varaha the boar
and Vamana the dwarf. The pillars of this pavilion are perhaps the
earliest to display a motif that became the signature of southern
architecture-the lion pilaster, where a heraldic lion support
ornamental pillar. The Mahishasuramardini mandapa has the goddess
Durga in bas relief, slaying a buffalo-headed demon, and the Vishnu
Sayana Mandapa shows Lord Vishnu lying under the protective hood of
the seven-headed serpent Adishesha.
Of the other mandapas, the Panch Pandava mandapa, that is
unfinished, has a more elaborate facade. Its pillars are adorned
with rearing lions springing from the capital, and the shrine is the
only one surrounded by a passage which allows circumvolutions.
The eight rathas are monolithic temples fashioned as chariots. They
remain an architectural mystery, for each is apparently a faithful
reproduction of a structure built of wood. In fact, even the grain
of the timber beams and rafters has been simulated in stone.
Of the eight rathas, five have been named for the Pandava brothers,
the heroes of the epic Mahabharata, and their shared wife, Draupadi.
The largest is the Dharmaraja ratha and it sets the tone for the
others. Modelled on a Buddhist vihara or monastery, it sports a
square hall topped by a vaulting roof. The Bhima, Arjuna and
Nakula-Sahdeva rathas are lesser copies of the Dharmaraja ratha.
The Draupadi ratha is the smallest and the quaintest. It is simple
structure, fashioned as a thatched hut borned on the backs of
elephants and lions. It was probably the fascimile of a portable
The fact that many of the temples and sculptures of Mamallapuram
are unfinished, points to the sudden withdrawal of patronage from
rock-cut temples when King Rajasimhavarman came to power.
How to get
Chennai (58-km) is the nearest airport with both domestic and
international terminus. Chennai is connected with all the major
places in India through the numerous domestic flights. International
flights operate from various parts of the world to Chennai.
The nearest railway stations are Chengalpattu (29-km) and Chennai
(58-km). From these stations one has to take road to reach the
Buses are available from Pondicherry, Kanchipuram, Chengalpattu and
Chennai to Mahabalipuram daily. The road to Mahabalipuram is good.
Tourists can also hire a taxi from Chennai.