The little spray-swept village of Mahabalipuram, 60km south of Chennai, is a delight, although very touristy. The Pallava kings left architectural masterpieces, Unesco World Heritage, whose distinctive style spread as far as the Far East.
The Pallava kings ruled Tamil Nadu for 400 years, from the 6th century to the 9th. Kanchipuram was their capital and Mamallapuram their seaport. Long before the Pallavas took power, Mamallapuram (or Mahabalipuram) was known for its flourishing seaport where ships from Greece and elsewhere came to trade.
The Mamallapuram monuments were built between the 7th and 8th centuries under the reigns of the Pallava kings Mahendravarman I (600–630), his son Narasimhavarman I (630–668), Mahendravarman II (668–672), Paramesvaravarman I (670–695) and Narasimhavarman II (695–722).
Most of the monuments were built under Narasimhavarman I, the “great warrior” or “Mamallan”, after whom the place is named. They are said to have been built as a kind of memorial to the Pallava victory over king Chalukya Pulakesin II. The fortune Mamallan acquired through conquest was invested in embellishing the town with splendid buildings.
There are four different types of monument in the Mahabalipuram complex: rathas, which are temples shaped like chariots and carved from a standing block; mandapas, which are temples carved into a rock face; temples built from stone blocks; and relief carvings on rocks.
Festival not to miss
Mamallapuram Dance Festival
The Mamallapuram Dance Festival is held every year during Dec-Jan in Mamallapuram. This festival of indian classical dances is organised by Department of Tourism, Govt. of Tamil Nadu. Exponents of Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Kathak, Odissi, Mohini Attam and Kathakali perform against this magnificent backdrop of the Arjuna penance’s rock sculptures (see below).
It is a huge relief sculpture carved on two adjacent rocks. At 25m long and 12m high it is perhaps one of the largest relief carvings in the world.
It measures 29m by 13m and is carved on the surface of two huge rocks.
There are different interpretations of its meaning:
One interpretation is that one of the figures, shown standing on one leg, is Arjuna performing a tapa (austerity) so as to gain Shiva’s help in the Mahabharata war. In the story, Arjuna receives the Pasupata, Shiva’s most powerful weapon.
The other interpretation is that the figures in the depression between the two rocks are Ganga and Shiva. The figure on one leg is the sage Bhagiratha practicing austerities so as to bring Ganga (the Ganges) to Earth to wash the ashes of his ascendants and cleanse them of their sins. Shiva had to break Ganga’s fall, letting the water flow though his hair: otherwise its force would have been too great for the earth to withstand.
Some theoreticians also think the carving tells two narratives simultaneously: the stories of Arjuna and of Bhagiratha.
It is the site’s largest cave temple but it was never finished. It is empty inside; only the outside pillars are decorated, with carvings of lions (the Pallava kings’ emblems).
On either side are superb bas-reliefs. One of the friezes tells the story of Krishna lifting Mount Govardhan.
It was originally dedicated to Shiva, but the lingam has been replaced by a statue of the elephant-headed god Ganesha, decked with gems and coated in sandalwood paste. It is the only temple on the entire hill that is still in operation.
According to legend, as a child Lord Krishna had an insatiable appetite for butter and was forever taking handfuls from his mother’s butter jar. He dropped a ball of it here!
It consists of three distinct chambers, each dedicated to one member of the trimurti or Hindu trinity: Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer.
The entrance to each chamber is flanked by dvarapalas, temple guardians, on narrow panels. At the right-hand end of the temple is Shiva’s consort in the form of eight-armed Durga overcoming the buffalo-demon Manisha.
Some guides will tell you that this panel was used for training apprentice stone-carvers but some theorists think the sculptures describe Buddhist myths from the Jataka, a collection of tales about the Buddha’s previous lives.
It is supported by four pillars carved with graceful lions. Inside, the walls of the mandapa feature four striking bas-reliefs
– The north panel represents the wild boar Varaha, Vishnu’s third incarnation. He has one foot on the serpent king Naga and on his right thigh he holds up Bhudevi the Earth Goddess, saving her from the primordial ocean. Symbolically, this signifies the elimination of human ignorance.
– The south panel shows Vishnu as the eight-armed giant Trivikrama holding a weapon in each hand. This panel tells the story of King Mahabali.
– The last panel, opposite the entrance, shows the goddess Durga standing on a lotus. She has four arms and stands under a royal parasol.
There is no idol inside the shrine.
In fact this structure, the Raya Gopuram, is considered unfinished. It is though that work on it stopped abruptly owing to wars between different dynasties.
The remaining pillars are delicately carved with the ten incarnations of Vishnu.
Mahabalipuram was the seaport of the Pallava kings. There must certainly have been a royal palace in the town, and archaeologists think there was one here.
The roaring lion is beautifully carved from a single block, its flat back making a seat. The lion is thought to have been the Pallavas’ throne.
It has six pillars in front and four more behind, decorated with the horned lions typical of the Mahabalipuram mandapas. Near the mandapa there are steps cut into the rock, leading to the top of the hillock where a ruined temple stands.
The mandapa was originally dedicated to Shiva and was one of the most exquisite temples in Mahabalipuram.
Later, in the reigns of the Vijayanagara kings, devotees of Vishnu (called Vaishnavas) destroyed the Shaivite symbols and rededicated the temple to Vishnu.
An inscription on the floor between two pillars says “May those whose hearts do not dwell on Rudra (Shiva), liberator from the path of suffering, be six times cursed.” It is not known whether the curse did fall on the Vishnu devotees, but although the original carvings were largely destroyed they were never replaced by new ones.
It is dedicated to the Hindu goddess Mahishasuramardini, a form of Durga, and contains some magnificent bas-reliefs. One shows Vishnu reclining on the serpent king Adisesha.
Another shows Durga overcoming the buffalo-headed demon Mahishasura. The shrine in the middle contains a Somaskanda panel depicting the god Skanda (also called Karttikeya, Kumara or Subrahmanya) as a child seated between his parents Shiva and Parvati.
The name means “temple to Shiva whose forehead contains the eye of wisdom”.
The Olakkannesvara temple was built in the reign of the king Rajasimha. Archaeologist A.H. Longhurst noted that long before the modern lighthouse was built on the site in 1900, the roof of the Olakkannesvara was used as a lighthouse, perhaps with a wooden structure on the roof. The temple was used for worship until the 19th century.
The shikara or temple tower no longer exists but is thought to have been built in the same Dravidian style as the tower of the Shore Temple.
On the outside walls there are devkoshtas (niches) with carvings of Shiva and Parvati.
The new lighthouse opposite the Mahishasuramardini temple can be visited, and offers an interesting view of the village and the archaeological site. Tickets cost 50 rupees.
The Pancha Rathas (meaning “five chariots”) are architectural gems dating from the 7th century and attributed to the reigns of King Mahendravarman I and his son Narasimhavarman.
These monuments, carved out of the rock, represent wheel-less chariots. They are named Yudhisthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva, after the Pancha Pandava, the five sons of Pandu in the Mahabharata epic. They appear never to have been finished.
It is one of the oldest stone-built temples in South India and was one of the first temples to be created at Mahabalipuram.
Unlike the other temples in Mahabalipuram it is not carved directly from the rock but was built of dressed stone blocks, though the stone is local granite.
The main shrine is dedicated to Shiva and houses a lingam. The second is also dedicated to Shiva but in his Ksatriyasimnesvara form. The third is dedicated to Vishnu; he is shown reclining on the divine snake Sesha.
Although worn by time and sea winds, the temple is still a magnificent sight.
This too was built by the Pallava kings. It has another name, Sthalasayana Perumal, and is one of the 108 holy places of Vishnu, the Divya Desams.
Athiranachanda Cave are 8th-century rock-cut Hindu temples in the hamlet of Saluvankuppam.
The Tiger Cave is so named because it is decorated with dozens of carved tiger heads. It is a temple to Durga, dating from the time of the Pallava king Rajasimla. It looks like a theatre set and in fact some historians think the royal court held festivities here.
It is very plain compared to the Tiger Cave. It is dedicated to Shiva in his Athiranachandeshwara form. Athiranachanda was also one of the epithets applied to the king Rajasimla.