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 area.
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'.
Location and Access58-Km From Chennai, Tamil Nadu
How to get there
Air: 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.
Rail: The nearest railway stations are Chengalpattu
(29-km) and Chennai (58-km). From these stations one has to
take road to reach the Mahabalipuram.
Road: Buses are available from Pondicherry,
Kanchipuram, Chengalpattu and Chennai to Mahabalipuram daily.
The East Coast Road to Mahabalipuram is one of the most scenic
drives in the country. Tourists can also hire a taxi from Chennai.
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 Lion 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.
Perched 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 layout. 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 sanctum.
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
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
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 village shrine.
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.