Once the hub of commercial and political activities in ancient India, Mahabalipuram is now a buzzing tourist hub, owing to the UNESCO Group of Monuments that bring in many foreign tourists. Beyond these monuments, the town, which is more a village, retains its sleepy and laid back attitude, with pretty green paddy fields stretching out far and wide. Historically different archaeological, epigraphical, and numismatic finds suggest that the place was once a thriving sea port. A 1st century Greek book on navigation known as the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea refers to Mahabalipuram and Poduke (Pondicherry) as thriving ports situated north of the Kaveri river. In the 2nd century CE, Ptolemy mentions Mahabalipuram, referring to it as Malange. Then we find that in the 7th c. CE, Hiuen Tsang talks of Mahabalipuram as a Pallava sea-port. He however mistakenly calls it Kanchi; but Kanchipuram being situated inland cannot be a seaport.
The word Mahabalipuram is likely to have been a derivative of the word Mamallapuram, which means the city of Mamalla, the warrior. Mamalla was a title given to the Pallava king Narasimhavarman I (630-70 CE), during whose reign most of the rock-cut temples and sculptures were made. However, it must also be kept in mind that the term Mamallai/Mallai was of significance from an earlier period for the Vaishnava saints. Mahabalipuram was referred to as Kadal Mallai (Sea Rock) by the Vaishnava saint Tirumangai Alwar in his work Nalayiraprabandha (8th century), who gave a detailed description of the busy port and the anchored ships waiting at the harbour.
Marco Polo, while travelling back to Venice, in his travel book mentioned the Seven Pagodas of Mamallapuram, even though he did not visit the place. The name Seven Pagodas, however, got stuck to the cluster of Shore temples in Mahabalipuram, and we find the place mentioned as such in many later European trade related publications. Mahabalipuram entered the medieval era European maps 51 years after Polo died, through the Catalan Atlas (1375), where Abraham Cresques mentioned it as Setemelti (derived from Sette Templi ,which in Italian means the seven pagodas). Two centuries later in 1582, a trader in jewels named Gasparo Balbi referred to the “Seven Chinese Pagodas” and “Eight Pleasant Hillocks” of Mamallapuram. Niccolai Manucci who lived in Madras but never visited the site, also spoke of the 7 ‘China-men’ built pagodas. Both Balbi and Manucci had seen the temples from a distance while travelling on a ship, and the tall spires of the temples from far must have appeared to them as Chinese built monuments.
The medieval European travellers had all talked of seven shore temples in Mahabalipuram, of which now only two remain. This had led to many speculations and debates over the veracity of these old travellers’ accounts. However, during the 2004 tsunami there were briefly exposed many rock cut temples, inscriptions, the “elaborately sculpted head of an elephant and a horse in flight… a small niche with a statue of a deity… another rock with a reclining lion” which appeared out of the water (Holden, 2005). Post 2004, archaeologists with underwater diving teams have explored a site 700 m east of Shore temple (at 6 metre water depth), and found ruined walls, sculptures, blocks of rectangular stones laid parallel to the shoreline, and the remains of forty other monuments (Sundaresh et al, 2014, 1167-1176). From these findings there is now a line of thought that believes the old city of Mahabalipuram is now partially under the sea.
The Pallavas’ playground: Mahabalipuram or Mamallapuram became an important hub under the rule of SimhaVishnu of the Pallava dynasty in the late 6th century. This was a time of great political and religious churning that saw Pallavas competing for supremacy with Cholas, Cheras, and Pandyas, and a rising religious fervour
with the coming of the Bhakti movement. The Bhakti movement here comprised of many poet-scholars taking part in it and they are broadly classified into two groups: the Alvars (Vaishnava sect) and the Nayanars (Shaiva). The architectural style of Mahabalipuram started mainly under the patronage of Mahendravarman I (600-630 CE, son of Simhavishnu). This patronage was continued by his son, NarsimhaVarman I, and most of the monuments that we now see in Mahabalipuram are attributed to him. After a short break of few decades, temple construction was resumed during the rule of Rajasimha/Narasimhavarman II (700-728 CE).
The Shore Temple (old name: Talasayana/Stahalasayana temple)
The Shore Temple at Mamallapuram was built during the reign of King Rajasimha/Narasimhavarman II (700 – 728 CE) and can be considered as the oldest structural temple of importance in South India. The two temples have three sanctums dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu. The aspects that first catch one’s eyes while viewing this temple are the low prakara (wall) with Nandis sitting on it in a line, and the tall pyramidal shikharas with octagonal domes on top. The Shore Temple stands facing the Bay of Bengal, and owing to this it has faced considerable erosion of sculptures and the superstructure over the centuries.
The mukh mandapa of the temple can be reached by climbing a few steps and beyond it
is the main sanctum, which has the typical Pallavan feature: the Somaskanda panel behind the broken fluted Shiva linga. There are simha-yalis at intervals on the outer walls of the temple, but most of them are weathered beyond recognition, owing to the corrosive sea winds and water. Behind the main sanctum, connected with it is a small porch and a sanctum without a vimana, which holds the Seshasayi (Stalasayana) Vishnu. At its side and facing west is another smaller sanctum dedicated to Shiva. The Somaskanda panel is also seen in the smaller Shiva sanctum, while the door jambs of the sanctums hold dwarapalas on either side.
Facing west is a large monolithic lion. Known as the Durga’s lion, and we find the devi sitting with a bow in hand on the lion’s right hind leg. On its chest is a deep square niche, inside which we can again see the devi as Mahisasurmardini. Near the pedestal is a headless, but a beautifully carved figure of a resting deer. The smaller sanctum facing west, holds the Somskanda panel (Shiva, Uma, and baby Skanda between them); while the lingam is no longer there, though the hole stands as an evidence of its earlier presence (photo courtesy: Zehra)
The Shore temple complex was found buried under the sand until some years back. While the sand has been removed, the extreme nearness of the sea and the salt laden winds and water spray, still remain a constant danger to the temples. It is for this reason the ASI has built a break-water wall to save the temples from further erosion. Lines of Casuarina trees have also been planted to give more protection to the temples from the corrosive waters of the sea.
Sri Stahala Sayana Perumal temple
Sthalasayana Perumal Temple, also known as Thirukadalmallai, is one of the 108 Divyadesas for the Vaishanites, and is glorified in the Divya Prabandha, an early medieval text of the Alvar saints (6th–9th c. CE). Here Vishnu is seen as Sthalasayana Perumal and Sri Thayar (Lakshmi) as Nilamangai Thayar. The temple is said to be the birthplace of Bhoothathalvar, a famous Vashnavite saint. Built in the Dravidian style, the temple was first said to have been built by the Pallavas near the shore, and later Cholas, Nayakas, and Vijayanagara kings made further additions to it. However, in the 14th century, the Vijayanagara king seeing future possibilities of the sea swallowing up the temple, built a new one within the walled city of Mamallapuram and installed Perumal in it, and it is this temple that we see now. Here Perumal holds his hand on his chest in the Upadesa or jyana mudra. The temple has two major shrines for Perumal and Nilamangai, and smaller separate shrines for Narsimha, Rama, and a room for the alvar saints, among others.
The Famous Rock Relief
The Mahabalipuram rock relief is unique in its size, magnificence, and detailed carvings
within the ambit of Indian art. Here we see two huge boulders with a cleft in between that displays a series of figures, which include gods and goddesses, gandharvas, siddhas, kinnaras, among many more, who are seemingly moving towards the cleft where a rishi like figure is standing on his left foot and performing penance. Shiva (four armed and carrying trisula) stands on his right along with his ganas. Besides the celestials, we can find many wild animals, hunters, rishis, and disciples that add to the beauty of this piece of sculptural wonder. The elephant herd at the bottom is quite realistically depicted, showing the young ones snuggling close to the legs of their parents, and playing with their trunks. The cleft has beautifully carved figures of the Nagas. Near the Nagas is a temple dedicated to Vishnu, where we find one rishi reading a book, and a number of other rishis performing meditation wearing yoga-patta. Below them one disciple is seen carrying a water-pot on his shoulder, while another disciple is seen wringing water from a cloth. Another disciple seems to be performing the suryopasthana, where the fingers form a circle and the sun is looked through it (checking the time, the ancient way). Amidst these activities, a deer is seen resting peacefully near a lion. The humour is not missing here, when we find a cat pretending to meditate too, but is more likely eyeing the mice that are playing around it. The depiction of Nagas denotes presence of water in the cleft, thus indicating that some stream water once fell over the fissure, or the fissure itself represents a river coming down from the mountains.
This scene has been at the centre of many heated debates over whether the rock art depicts the Ganga’s Descent or it shows Arjuna’s Penance. Some scholars believe that it tells the story from the Mahabharata, where Arjuna performs a penance to please Shiva and receive his Pashupata astra. However, the absence of an important part of the story where there is a fight between Shiva (disguised as hunter) and Arjuna, has led to some scholars expressing doubt on whether this really represents Arjuna’s penance. The other line of thought, which has recently gained more support, claims that the story depicts Bhagiratha’s penance, where Shiva gives him blessings and a boon that Ganga will descend on earth. The scene, therefore, represents the descent of the Ganga from the Himalaya, amidst universal joy and happiness.
However, while reading through the interpretations, I felt that perhaps the story can be seen from both sides. It can be a representation of both the stories, instead of being an either/or. Perhaps the sculptor merged both the stories (the scenario suits both), and left it to the viewers to interpret it in their own ways.
Interestingly there is another boulder in the vicinity, which depicts unfinished carvings of a similar scene. Maybe the sculptor had practiced and experimented on this boulder first, before creating his masterpiece.
When to go: Mahabalipuram can be visited only during the winter season (November to January), when the weather turns relatively pleasant. The Shore temple remains open from 6:00 AM – 6:00 PM, and is a ticketed monument. All the three monuments mentioned here are close to the main bus stand and are within walking distance from it.
One important thing to note is that all functional temples in Tamil Nadu close down between 12 pm to 4 pm, so it is best to avoid these hours for a temple visit, unless one wants to walk around (without entering the temple sanctums) on scorching stones. The best time to visit these temples would be early morning when the light is also perfect for photography; or after 4 pm.
How to go: buses and cars ply from Chennai to Mahabalipuram regularly, and it is a pleasant drive down the East Coast road. There are many hotels where once can stay in Mahabalipuram for 2-3 days, as there are many monuments to see here.
Post script: Mahabalipuram archaeological finds include temples and Roman era pottery, epigraphical finds include inscriptions that mention the connections of Pallavas with Sri Lanka, China, and other South East Asian countries, and numismatic finds include Roman coins of Theodosius of 4th century CE.
Sundaresh, A. S. Gaur, Sila Tripati and K. H. Vora (2004), Underwater investigations off Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, India, Current Science, Vol. 86, No. 9, pages 1231-1237.
Sundaresh, et al (July 2014). Shoreline changes along Tamil Nadu Coast. Indian Journal of Geo-Marine Sciences, Vol 43(7) 1167-1176.
Ayyar, P. V. Jagadisa (1982). South Indian Shrines: Illustrated. Asian Educational Services, Madras.
N. S. Ramaswami (1971). Indian Monuments. Abhinav Publications, New Delhi.
George Michell (1988). The Hindu Temple: An Introduction to Its Meaning and Forms. University of Chicago Press.