After a refreshing tour of the Shore Temple, we made our way towards the hillock at Mahabalipuram, said to contain numerous heritage monuments. These group of monuments are compiled of rock-cut caves, monolithic shrines, cave sanctuaries and structural temples from different eras. These precious historical gems were accorded the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the year 1984.
The cool breeze of the morning was gone. The Sun was harsh but bearable as we reached the hillock. I wonder if December is so hot in these parts, how terrible would the summers be…
The legend of Mahabali
Mythologically, Mahabalipuram is said to have been founded by Mahabali, grandson Prahalad. According to this legend, King Mahabali who was once a benevolent and able king. His success as a loved king, lead even Indra, the king of the celestial beings to be jealous of him. But he slowly became arrogant and haughty. The jealous Indra conspired to bring about his demise at the hands of Vamana, the fifth avatar of Vishnu.
According to the legend, Vamana comes to the Mahabali in the form of a dwarf and asks for three paces of land. The king in his haughtiness acceded to his demand and ask the Vamana to measure his 3 paces of land and take it. The dwarf Vamana, suddenly starts to grow and becomes huge taking the form of Trivikrama. With one pace he covers the Earth and with the second the heavens and with the third step he pushed Mahabali to the netherworld. After he failed to fulfill his promise to provide three paces of land for the Vamana, the benevolent king surrendered himself to Vamana, following which he is said to have attained enlightenment.
The ancient sea-port of Mahabalipuram
Although the ancient history of Mahabalipuram is unclear, some scattered evidence suggest that it was a significant location even before the monuments were built. On the western side of Mahabalipuram is a hill region called Mallar. Mallar was a flourishing sea-port during ancient time around 200 B.C. But natural geographical changes over the years resulted in the sea port moved to Mahabalipuram.
Mahabalipuram became prominent during the Pallava-era reign of Simhavishnu during the late 6th century, a period of political competition with the Pandyas, the Cheras and the Cholas. By the 6th Century it became a principal port during the Pallava rule from where voyages to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia were started. The ‘Periplus of the Erythraean Sea‘, an account by an anonymous Greek navigator of the first century CE refers the harbor along with Poduke – current day Pondicherry – as a port north of the Kaveri.
It was during this reign of the Pallava rulers when most of these monuments and the temples of Mahabalipuram were commissioned. Pallava kings made Mahabalipuram their second capital, after Kanchipuram and brought new artistic styles to the culture.
Mamallapuram’s architecture is linked to Simhavishnu’s son, Mahendra Varman I (580-630 CE), who was a patron of the arts. Mahendra Varman‘s son, Narsimha Varman I, built on his father’s efforts and most scholars attribute most of the monuments to him. It is believed that Mahabalipuram was renamed to Mamallapuram after the Pallava King Narasimha Varman I who went by the name Mamallan because of his great wrestling skills. After a brief hiatus, temple and monument construction continued during the reign of Rajasimha or Narasimha Varman II (690-728).
The earliest Pallava temples were rock-cut cave shrines. These soon gave way to monolithic temples carved out of giant boulders, resembling chariots or ‘rathas’ during the reign of Mamallan Narashimha Varman. It was during the rule of Narasimha Varman II or Rajasimha (700-728 AD), that the tradition of building structural temples began.
The Monuments of Mahabalipuram
Despite several among the historians for over a century, the dates of these monuments is still not quite agreed upon, but all agree that there had been foreigners in Mahabalipuram in the first centuries of the Christian era. These exchanges did have their influences in the architecture of some of the structures on the hillock.
Some evidence like the Mandagapattu inscription from the time of Mahendravarman I, date some of the Mamallapuram monuments to the early 7th century. The inscription reads that he “brought into existence a temple without utilizing either timber or lime (mortar) or brick or metal”, and the temple was dedicated to “Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva”. This was the first Pallava rock-built Hindu temple, and Mahendra Varman I and his descendants probably constructed others.
The monuments at Mahabalipuram can be grouped into four styles based on their mode of construction:
1. Monoliths – free-standing temples cut out of solid rock, most of which are locally styled rathas or chariots. An example would be the Dharmaraj Ratha.
2. Caves, excavated in the hill and used as temples, and which are called mandaps. Very prominent examples of these are the Varaha Cave and the Mahisamardini Temple.
3. Sculptured scenes, carved on the hill-edges. They illustrate all the styles of Pallava architecture. These belong to the period of Narasimha Varman I.
4. Structural temples are the ones built stone by stone, and not excavated out of a rock. The Shore Temple is an example of this type of construction. These mostly belong to the period of Narasimha Varman II.
Krishna Mandapa in Mahabalipuram
Our journey through the monuments started from the Krishna Mandapa. This cave is cut on the side of a boulder, and shows a remarkable scene from Krishna’s life – of him lifting Mount Govardhan.
It is written that when Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu was a young boy, the celestial king Indra brought a severe storm over his village. It rained for days and to save the people from his village, Krishna supposedly lifts up a mountain called Govardhan, using it like an umbrella. People and animals took shelter under the mountain and they were saved from the harassment.
The scene shows Krishna lifting Govardhan mountain to protect the villagers from the storm raised by celestial king Indra. Krishna is shown here supporting the mountain on his left palm. Close to him are love-struck gopika’s (female cowherd) standing and gazing at him in astonishment.
To his right is Balarama, his brother, with his left hand resting on the shoulder of a cowherd. To his right is a charming scene of a cowherd milking the cow.
The monolithic pillars in the front were added later to support the roof of the cave.
Panch Pandavas Cave in Mahabalipuram
The Panch Pandavas Cave is a large cave temple with decorative lion pillars. The cave is mostly empty and undecorated.
This cave was also created by scooping out the hard granite rocks and it appears that work remain unfinished.
Descent of the Ganges in Mahabalipuram
Just beside the Panch Pandavas Cave is the most dramatic of Mahabalipuram sculptures, an entire cliff sculpted with dozens of colossal yet graceful figures of humans, animals, and deities. This is a massive piece of art is the largest open air caring I have witnessed till date.
The monument is about 25 meter in length and 12 meter in height, carved on the side of a huge rock. This huge Mamallapuram relief is considered a visual counterpart of the celebratory lineage recitations (prasasti) that begin various inscriptions left by the Pallavas at other sites. The Pallavas in simple terms tried to depict their lineage coming from the Gods. It is not uncommon for successful dynasties to depict themselves as Gods. The Egyptians were the first ones to come to my mind.
Mandhatar has been credited with the creation of this amazing masterpiece. Right in the middle of this monument, dividing it vertically into 2 halves one can see a narrow fissure. It is believed to be depicting the holy Ganges river, which originates from the Himalayas.
The design is such that water could flow from that fissure and stay collected in the tank below. On the left, one can see a withered man in penance. It is Baghirath, praying for the Ganges to come to earth. Some misconstrue this as Arjuna’s penance, but my logic begs to differ.
The carvings at the bottom right are one of the finest elephant sculptures in India. the larger elephant exhibits a bifurcated tusk. It points towards an attribute of Airavata, the mount of Indra, who was a pure white elephant depicted with four tusks.
In front of the majestic elephants is a cat doing penance, with some mice surrounding it. This I believe is a representation of the Panchatantra, the ancient Indian stories of tact and wisdom. The cat is not really in a penance but just looking for the opportune time to grab the mice.
On the lower right, you can see an entire hermitage scene around a Vishnu temple. This is believed to be the Badari hermitage nestled in the Himalayas where all animals would live in peace and harmony. The three decapitated figures is said to represent the reigning Pallava, Narasimha Varman I and his two immediate predecessors. Though none of the other reliefs exhibit such damage, the headless statues confirm the theory that Pallavas tried to portray themselves as descendants of Gods and were desecrated by later rulers.
Ganesh Ratha in Mahabalipuram
While the ones I have written till now lie alongside a road, in the open area, we now move into a protected section, what is known as the Hill area. This age-old granite hill contains many monuments hidden within. This hillock formed of wooded rocks and boulders lie about a kilometer from the sea-shore.
The Ganesh Ratha is the first monument we encounter. It is a monolithic temple built during the reign of Parameshwara Varman in the later half of the 7th century that resembles a chariot.
This west-facing temple is decorate with dvarpals (gate keepers), lion pillars and pilasters. It was once dedicated to Shiva and known as Aruna’s Rath. Some historians argue that because of Arjuna Ratha here, the huge wall relief also contains Arjuna’s penance. My knowledge on the subject is quite limited, but I would like to ask them – then why does the same exact relief appear again near the Mahabalipuram lighthouse.
At some point between 1799 and 1803, the linga inside this temple was stolen by a Britisher. When the original linga was removed, an image of Ganesha was placed there and the temple came to be known as the temple of Ganesh. This presents us with another fact that names of monuments at Mahabalipuram were not fixed, and that the meaning behind Hindu temples, even when they are carved out of solid stone, can always be reinterpreted. This temple is still active and we paid our respects before moving on.
Varaha Mandap in Mahabalipuram
We took a left from the Ganesh Ratha towards the Varaha Mandap. This 7th century temple was constructed during the reign of Narashimha Varman I.
The Varaha Cave Temple conforms to the Mamalla style, and has a large hall with a front row of four pillars and four pilasters supported by squatting lions. The pillars are decorated at the base with two meticulously carved lions.
The cell in the center, where the deity once stood, is guarded by two dvarapals or guards in stone. inside the cave there are two magnificent wall panels. the panel on the left represents Varaha, the third incarnation of Vishnu. In this cell on the left, is a representation of Varaha raising the earth from the ocean.
Varaha is the third incarnation of Vishnu. When the asura Hiranyaksha dragged the earth to the bottom of the sea, Vishnu took the form of a boar to rescue it. They fought for a thousand years after which the asura was slain. Thereafter the boar lifted Earth out of the ocean. This is a representational story of how Earth, that was once a mass of water from where lands gradually rose, but these ancients had this knowledge is beyond me. Sometimes I do feel the Greeks and the Indians had extraterrestrial help and then they abandoned us for what we have become.
Here Varaha is seen as placing mother Earth on his lap. The foot of Varaha is seen resting on the head of the serpent king Seesha.
Just like the Ganesh Rath above, even though this cave temple is called Varaha Mandap, it also features a breathtaking relief of Vishnu in the form of Trivikrama, the giant form of Vishnu. Vishnu took the form of Trivikrama in order to subdue the asura king Mahabali as explained in the first part of this article.
Roya Gopuram in Mahabalipuram
After taking some pictures we followed the trail going up the hill. The trail led us up to Roya Gopuram. This structure does not belong to the Pallava time. It was added centuries later by the Vijayanagar rulers. The entrance was designed with steps and tall pillars.
I immediately recognized the carvings of the dancing-girls, a common occurrence in every temple, from my visit to Hampi – the base of the Vijayanagar empire.
We sat there looking over the town of Mahabalipuram, munching on the goodies Mani always has stored in her bag.
From the looks of it, this structure was abandoned midway. It was supposed to be a large tower but only the base was constructed.
From this structure, there are three trails going in different directions. We chose to go along the middle one.
Unknown Cave in Mahabalipuram
This cave also created in the style of Mammalan style is not identified by a name.
The pillars here are decorated at the base with lions but apart from that it does not hint to any identifying marks.
This was a dead end, so we back-tracked from here back to the Roya Gopuram from where another two trails went in different directions.
Lions Throne in Mahabalipuram
The trail gradually ascended to a higher point on the hill.
This structure was carved out of a rock. It is still functional and contains stored rain water. I am not exactly sure about the purpose of this tank like structure.
We climbed down the hill towards the south section of the hill.
Ramanujan Mandap in Mahabalipuram
This cave is also not listed on the map. A banner near the cave refers to it as a Shiva Temple created on the Mammalan style during 640-674 CE.
For some reason the reliefs on the side of this temple were destroyed. It is likely that the reliefs were in some way linked to the Pallava dynasty and just like the beheaded statues on the Descent of Ganges were removed by later kings.
Mahisamardini Cave in Mahabalipuram
A few paces to the south of the Roya gopuram lies the Mahisamardini Cave. This cave was also commissioned during the reign of Narashimha Varman I. The cave temple is built a higher from the ground and a series of steps took us to the cave platform. The pillars here too are decorated with lions.
The central cell is intended for a Siva-linga, and on the wall behind is the usual representation of Somaskanda.
On the northern side wall, there is a large wall panel of Durga also known as Mahisamardini, in battle with Mahisha – a shape-shifting asura (demon).
Mahisamardini is depicted with her eight arms, riding her lion and equipped with all her weapons provided by the celestial beings. Mahisamardini is shown eight-armed, riding her lion, equipped with all weapons and using the bow with its string pulled up to her ear. On the other side in the ferocious battle is the buffalo shaped Mahisasur surrounded by his demon warriors. She is attended by hosts of ganas and yoginis, and is in the war-like alidha posture using a giant club.
On the opposite wall is a relief of Shesasayi Vishnu. He is lying on the couch of a five headed serpent. It is strange that this relief finds a place in this cave. Vishnu on his serpent-couch is represented in yoga-nidra, and the great calm of this figure is expressly heightened by the fury of Madhu and Kaitabha shown brandishing their weapons.
Krishna’s butterball in Mahabalipuram
We were out of breadth. The heat had taken its toll. We walked back to the park near the Krishna butterball. It was surrounded by dozens of people wanting to take selfies.
The queue for selfies just kept getting bigger, so we decided to come back another day.
The Shore Temple in Mahabalipuram
Overlooking the shore of the Bay of Bengal, it is one of the oldest temples in Southern India. Constructed in the Dravidian style that reflects the royal taste of the Pallava dynasty, its sanctuaries are dedicated to Vishnu and Shiva.
Panch Rathas in Mahabalipuram
One of the most crowded places in Mahabalipuram, the Five Rathas or Panch Rathas are five monolithic temple structures built by the Pallavas in early 7th century AD. The buildings displaying exquisite carvings are named individually after Draupadi and the five Pandava brothers.
Tiger Cave in Mahabalipuram
The Tiger Cave is not really a cave and tigers do not live here either. It is a rock-cut Hindu temple complex with carvings of tiger heads around the structure, located in the hamlet of Saluvankuppam near Mahabalipuram. These rock-cut structures with tiger-head like shapes are believed to have been constructed in 7th century by Pallavas.
Old lighthouse in Mahabalipuram
This is a masonry temple from the 8th century during the period of Rajashimha Pallava. It is known as the Olakkanatha temple. It used to double up as a lighthouse in ancient times. The fire from here used to guide ships at sea. Shiva is depicted here in various poses.
Read about my hike to the Mahabalipuram Lighthouse.
Secrets of Mahabalipuram
Much of history is debatable. It is said history is written by the victors. The knowledge I have gathered is mostly from guides and some historical books. I have tried my best, but it is quite possible that my interpretations might not be correct.
As we walked back to my car, the local shops had opened. The town is lined with these shops selling beautiful life-sized stone statues. Along with local delicacies, one can also find bakeries. I purchased a souvenir, smaller in size, that would fit with my other souvenirs that I have procured from over the world.
The ancient tradition of stone carving is still alive in the region, and rhythmic sounds of hammer and chisel on stone afford a glimpse of how these monuments, rock-cut caves and sculptures came into being, almost fifteen centuries ago.
Thanks for reading. Please leave me a comment if you liked the post or follow my story as I try to explain the curious case of Krishna’s Butterball.