It was still pitch-dark as we drove towards the Shore Temple to explore the unique structure dating from the 8th century AD. Overlooking the shore of the Bay of Bengal, the Shore Temple is one of the oldest temples in south India. Constructed in the Dravidian style, the temple reflects the royal taste of the Pallava dynasty.
Every day it draws thousands of people from different parts of India – the reason why we were awake at the break of dawn on a vacation. Having my car around for the trip turned out to be quite helpful as we didn’t have to go hunting for public transport at these awkward timings.
So, let me start at the beginning:
History of Mahabalipuram
According to ancient scriptures, Mahabalipuram was already a thriving sea port in the Bay of Bengal during the Sangam Age in south India – 200 B.C. to 300 A.D. Coins and other artifacts excavated from this region indicate to a pre-existing trade relation with the Romans long before the town became part of the Pallava Empire. The Romans came shopping for spices, precious stones, sandalwood and even exotic birds like peacocks. Excavation in the neighborhood has yielded amphora jars in which the Romans used to store wine and other food items.
The town’s name, Mahabalipuram, according to some, was meant to honor the benevolent King Bali, also known as Mahabali. The ancient Indian scripture of Vishnu Puran documents the interesting story of Vamana, an incarnation of Vishnu and Bali.
Now you might be wondering who is this Bali:
According to the medieval scripture of Vishnu Puran, one of the eighteen Mahapuranas, Mahabali was the great great-grandson of sage Kashyapa, great-grandson of Hiranyakshipu, the grandson of Prahlada. The time under his rule was considered one of great prosperity and happiness. His success as a loved king, lead even the gods to be jealous of him, who conspired to bring about his demise at the hands of Vamana, the fifth avatar of Vishnu.
According to the legend, after he failed to fulfill his promise to provide three paces of land for the Vamana. Vamana sends Mahabali to live in netherworld. The benevolent king surrendered himself to Vamana, following which he is said to have attained enlightenment.
The town is also known as Mamallapuram in some quarters, read on to know why:
Even though Mahabalipuram was already a popular sea port, it was during the rule of Mahendra Varman I (600 CE – 630 CE) that the town started to flourish as a center of art and culture. The Pallava kings who ruled along the seashore, with Kanchipuram as their capital, were great patrons of art and music. Their patronage facilitated the creation of a number of the town’s most iconic landmarks. This period of artistic excellence was duly continued by his son Narasimha Varman I (630 CE – 668 CE). The town is said to have got this name of Mamallapuram from king Narasimha Varman I, after his bestowed title ‘Mamallan’ which means the ‘great warrior’. The Shore Temple however was commissioned quite later in the 8th century during the reign of Narasimha Varman II(695 CE – 722 CE) who was also known as Rajshimha.
Puram, the second part of the town’s name is a Sanskrit term for a city or urban dwelling.
Shore Temple in Mahabalipuram
We reached the Shore temple gates at 6.20 am. The ASI ticket office had just opened. The tickets cost a measly Rs 30 per head for Indians. The officer at the ticket counter insisted that I leave my tripod at the ticket office, since its not allowed inside the temple garden. As we walked down the long path amidst the green lawns, two temples with elegant towers emerged in the distance, with pines trees surrounding it, swaying in the strong breeze of the Bay of Bengal.
Shore temple is the most iconic structure of the group of monuments at Mahabalipuram. It appears quite different in terms of design compared to the popular temples of Kanchipuram, more like a pagoda. In terms of design, it is more closer to Kailasanathar temple that I visited in Kanchipuram. Probably because both were constructed during the reign of Narasimha Varman II.
Ancient mariners have referred to this sea-port as the land of the Seven Pagodas. Locals tell tales of the Shore temple that was once part of a much larger temple structure featuring seven pagodas. When Marco Polo arrived in India on his way back to Venice from Southeast Asia, he mentions “Seven Pagodas” in his journals. In fact as recent as the 19th century, European explorers have left written records that locals had witnessed glinting copper tops believed to be the submerged pagodas out at sea.
As I walked towards the heritage structure, I could recall faint memories from when I was here in my childhood. The place has changed so much, but for the better. The temple is now surrounded by fences. A manicured lawn adds to the beauty of the heritage building. The rows of pine trees along the shore stand as a first wall, stopping the strong sea breeze from hitting the temple directly.
A 4 ft granite wall surrounds the temple, enclosing all its shrines. A wide stone staircase led us down into the temple complex, implying that the ground level has risen since the time when the temple was first created. A narrow gate from here leads into the Ardha Mandapa. The gate is designed with relief sculptures of Brahma and Vishnu on either side. On the walls, I can only assume are the carvings of the Bhootganas, disciples of Shiva.
Rajasimha Pallaveshwara Griham
The shore temple stands as an architectural marvel in the once port city of Mahabalipuram, the second capital of Pallavas. Unlike the contemporary temples, the Shore temple complex is enclosed in a wall consisting of three temples. Two of them are Shiva temple with a Vishnu temple in between them. All three structures here have been sculpted from granite stones hauled from a nearby quarry.
The temple has two opposite entrances. Walking around the ardha mandapa, we reached the first temple also known as Rajasimheswara. It is the smaller of the two Shiva temples, facing the west. The pilasters on the wall have rearing lion bases making it a characteristic feature of temples built in during the reign of Narasimha Varman II. A miniature Nandi bull sits just above the doorway of the temple.
Its towering roof or the Vimana goes up to three storeys. The tower (sikhara) has four bhootganas (disciples of Shiva) seated on the four corners blowing conches. A rounded stupa sits on the top (sikhara) made out of basalt. The pyramidal towers have become black and gloomy from the continuous attack of the moist salt winds.
Inside the doorway in a dim-lit room, lies a bas-relief of Shiva with his consort Uma and young Skanda at their side. In the same carving, Brahma and Vishnu are seen towards the top giving them blessings.
Under the smaller Shiva temple, one can see two inscriptions depicting Rajaraja Chola I dated 1010 CE. These inscriptions mention the names of all the three temples as ‘Rajasimha Pallaveshwara Griham – Kshatriyasimha Pallaveshwara Griham – Pallikondaruliya Devar’. The first two names refer to the two Shiva temples. Pallikondaruliya devar, refers to the ‘the god who is pleased to sleep’ namely Vishnu who is generally depicted in a sleeping position with the seven-headed serpent providing shade over his head.
To the south of the Rajasimha Pallaveshwara Griham is a large rock-cut lion. On its right legs sits goddess Durga. Mahishasura was a shape-shifting demon in Hindu mythology, known for deception and who pursued his evil ways by shape shifting into different forms. He was ultimately killed by Durga in her Mahishasura Mardini form.
Ah.. these Hindu mythology stories are so interesting.
A carved socket inside the lions heart serves as the sanctum of Mahishasura Mardini (Durga). It is truly surprising, how the craftsmen carved this detailed statue inside the socket.
Below the big lion is a carved headless deer, as if to suggest a sacrifice to the goddess Durga. This is, in my opinion, one of the most unfortunate aspects of Hinduism – the sacrifice of animals. What gives us humans the right to decide whether the Gods we created ourselves, desire animal sacrifice or not.
Kshatriyasimha Pallaveshwara Griham
The path to the two other temples had been blocked, so I have no photos of those sections. We walked around the temple to its backside. The reliefs on the outer walls have been worn away and even the granite walls have been hollowed out by the waves and spray that for centuries during storms have washed over them and invaded the innermost parts of the structure.
The five-story edifice towards the back is also known as the Somaskanda Temple. It is the highest structure in the complex and designed in a way that the first rays of the rising sun fall on the presiding deity of the temple, Shiva. Unfortunately the section was blocked off. Visitors were earlier allowed to enter the premises through the gate here. It was possibly under repairs.
Inside the east-facing temple, behind a broken Shiva Lingam on the wall lies a large Somaskanda. The Shiva Lingam inside is said to have sixteen faces.
The shikhara (roof) of the both the shrines resembles a pyramidal structure with a stupa, which is unlike of the other temples in South India However like some other remarkable structures at Mahabalipuram, this too is embellished with intricate bas-reliefs. This could in a way suggest an exchange of ideas during the design phase with other cultures.
According to our guide, sandwiched between two Shiva temples lies a Vishnu temple where one can see Vishnu as ‘Anantashayana’.
Monolithic sculptures of Nandi bull can be seen scattered all around the temple complex.
With the Sun up, there was better light to capture the carvings along the walls of the corridors. Near the Ardha Mandap, on the floor lay stone carving of Vishnu.
The stone wall surrounding the temple are lined with eroded carvings in granite. With so much corrosion, it is hard to identify the scenes that they depict.
Completing a full circle of the temple, we found ourselves back at the ardha mandap gate.
In the temple complex are also three Bali Peethas or temple altars where animal sacrifice was once practiced. The Bali peethas are said to have inscriptions in Sanskrit written in Pallava Grantha, praising the virtues of king Rajasimha.
Tank with Varaha statue
The Sun was by now shining bright in the sky. Beside the main temple is a small tank-like structure. In the middle of this tank is a miniature circular granite pillar.
The base of this miniature temple is a square with octagonal and circular paths one above the other. In the side of this little tank, beside the miniature temple is a sculpture of a rock-cut boar with the body of an elephant.
Mahabalipuram underwater city
Now you may think that’s it, but it gets better:
Remarkable as the Shore temple may seem, it is the six other submerged temples that had obviously piqued my interest. According to a local myth, the beauty of Mahabalipuram aroused the jealousy of Indra, the king of celestial beings. As a result, the king of devas, who is said to have control of the thunderstorms, is said to have submerged the entire town, including six of the seven temples, under the sea during a great storm. Only the Shore Temple survived above the water, an evidence that this beautiful city had once existed.
This myth also finds backing from some archaeologists, who believe that the majority of the temple complex was likely destroyed in a previous tsunami traced back to the 13th century. During the devastating December 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, it briefly exposed the beachfront near Saluvankuppam, north of Mahabalipuram, revealing inscriptions and structures. The tsunami also revealed large structures on the seabed about a kilometer offshore, which archaeologists speculate may be the ancient Mahabalipuram. When the waters returned, these features were submerged again. These artifacts include a large stone lion still found on Mahabalipuram’s beach and a half-completed rock relief of an elephant.
Want to know the best part?
As a result of these eye-witness reports, the Archaeological Survey of India along with the help of the Indian Navy conducted a survey of the site. The search revealed a large series of buildings, walls and platforms that have been interpreted as forming a large complex dating to the Pallava era.
These new discoveries have sparked renewed interest in the Mahabalipuram legend. Based on these new pieces of evidence, it has been speculated that the underwater structures off the coast of Mahabalipuram may have been part of a small seaport city. I hope with further investigations, a greater understanding of these submerged structures can be gained and the myth of the six submerged temples might one day be considered as a true historical fact.
It was almost 9 am and the sun was beating down upon us. Groups of tourists had begun surrounding the temple. It was time for us to get away.
Despite continuous erosive effects of the moist and salty sea air, the Shore Temple preserves its beauty in many parts. Of all the temples I have witnessed in South India, its unique design hides many secrets. Unfortunately it is the only temple remaining to tell the tales of a glorious past. The ASI continues its good work on the site, with the hope of identifying more structures and their purpose as well as better understanding the history of the submerged city as a whole. The myth of the Seven Pagodas may yet, in coming years, be excavated back to life before our very eyes.
Thanks for reading. Please leave me a comment if you liked the post or follow my story as I explore the ancient monuments of Mahabalipuram.