Mahabalipuram Lighthouse

Before we head back to Bangalore, we decided to stop at Mahabalipuram’s old lighthouse. Also known as Olakkanesvara Temple, it is India’s oldest lighthouse, built around 640 CE during the reign of Pallava king Rajasimha.

This lighthouse/temple is categorised as one of the “Group of Monuments” at Mahabalipuram that were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984. Currently, the Pallava era lighthouse is a protected monument, maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India.

Olakkanesvara Temple

The blue gated entrance to the lighthouse is situated a few meters away from the main Mahabalipuram hillock entrance. However one can also visit the lighthouse from the hillock through connected internal paths.

Just outside the entrance one can find a huge wall relief almost similar in stature to the the popular relief known as “Descent of the Ganges.”

Interestingly, this wall relief contains a clone of the depiction of Arjuna’s penance that can also be seen on the edge of the “Descent of the Ganges” relief. For some reason this wall gets a step brotherly treatment as it lies unprotected along the road with fumes from vehicles causing continuous damage to this heritage artifact.

There was no visible parking area nearby. So, I parked my car along the road on the durt road near the entrance.

History of Olakkanesvara Temple

Written records mention that Mahabalipuram was a busy port under the Pallavas as early as the 7th century AD. Bonfires were lit on Mahabalipuram hillock, it being the highest point near the shore, to aid the mariners in the dark. This protected site had warning fires lit on its roof from the 7th century until the 20th century.

Like the Shore Temple, the Olakkannesvara Temple is a structural temple. Its name translates to “flame eye.” It is situated directly above the Mahishasuramardini mandapa on a hillock which provides scenic views of the town. Prior to the construction of the new lighthouse at this site in 1900, the roof of the Olakkannesvara Temple served as the lighthouse.

The climb is not too steep. Stone steps have been chiseled out of the rocky hill to assist visitors.

The structure is built of grey-white granite and faces East. The shikhara or tower of the temple is interpreted to have been built originally to the same style as the Shore Temple tower in Dravidian architectural style. This temple was dedicated to lord Shiva. One can walk around the temp along a narrow circular path. But with no barriers at the edge of the hillock, people with vertigo might feel a flutter. I did.

On each of the four walls are chiseled different avatars of Shiva. On the exterior walls, there are two sculpted images in the niches of the ardha-mandapa. Enclosed within pilasters, these images of Shiva as Kalari killing “Kaala” (Yama) are later additions, not attributable to the Pallavas.

On external walls of the main shrine, there are other niches or devkoshtas; on the south wall the sculpture is of Shiva as Dakshinamurthi under a tree in seated posture, on the west face an image of Shiva and Parvati seated on Kailash Mountain with Ravana trying to shake the mountain.

There is another image on the north wall is of Shiva in the posture of Nataraja. I hear hat sometime towards the end of the eighteenth century, the sivalinga was stolen from the temple.

Just a few meters away lies the new lighthouse.

Climbing down from the old lighthouse we walked towards the new lighthouse for a closer view.

New Lighthouse

The new Lighthouse was built at the turn of the 20th century to keep ships away from the rocky Mahabalipuram headland. The first light was commissioned here in 1887. With a circular masonry tower made of stone, it became fully functional in 1904. Its source of light comes from dis-chargeable lamps, which rotate in bowls of mercury.

Thanks for reading. Please leave me a comment if you liked the post or follow my journey as I visit the ancient monkey kingdom of Kishkindha.

Tiger Cave

Today we drive to Saluvankuppam, to explore the excavated remains of a first-of-its type Yali mandapa or Vyala mandapa. The cave temple is widely known as the Tiger cave.

Well, let me begin by clearing the air first that 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 near the coastal village of Saluvankuppam near Mahabalipuram. These rock-cut structures with tiger-head-like shapes are believed to have been constructed in the 7th century CE during the Pallava reign.

Among the many sculpted wonders of Mahabalipuram, the Tiger cave is one of the lesser-visited monuments. Located at about a 5km drive from the Shore Temple also makes it somewhat inaccessible. I guess auto rides should be available to this place but I had my car around so that was a big help.

This park is also maintained by ASI, but it doesn’t require any tickets. There was a lone coconut seller near the gate waiting for tourists to come in.

In my earlier articles, I have tried to pen down the numerous caves, excavated in hill-scarps and used as temples around the Mahabalipuram hillock. The Tiger Cave is a prominent example of this form. Just like its counterparts, it was commissioned in the early 8th century by Pallava King Narasimha Varman II also known as Rajshimha.

The gate led us into a big park surrounded by casuarina trees. The Tiger cave is the first structure just after the gate on the right.

Tiger Cave Mahabalipuram

The cave gets its name because of the crown of the carved heads of Yali (mythical creatures with the head of a tiger). Because the Yali head resembles a tiger, that is how I believe the site got its name from. This rock also has a relief sculpture dedicated to Narasimha Varman II.

The structure is more of a rock-cut pavilion than a temple. It is an oblong boulder cut on three sides facing the sea. The floor level of the mandapa is about 6 ft from ground level. A flight of four rock-cut steps projects in front with parapets on either side. The parapets are in the shape of rough-cut forms of lions. At either side of the adisthana, there are two large pillars, also unfinished, showing rampant lions leaping forwards with riders on their backs. The depth of the mandapa would be about 4ft and its height about 6ft.

The facade looks like a stage more than a temple, conveying perhaps it was used as a place for performances. The cave is below ground level and buried to some extent in the sand. The monolithic rock out of which the tiger cave has been chiseled out is in the shape of a sitting tiger. There is a school of thought that this pavilion could have been dedicated to the goddess Durga. The main deity has most possibly been stolen.

A few steps lead up to the cell at the center. Two pilasters on either side and rampant tiger heads surround the sides of the cell. Two other smaller cells on the left have elephant heads chiseled beneath them. At the top, there are eleven heads carved forming an incomplete elliptical arch all around the mandapa. It is important to point out that these heads are not of tigers but of Yali, mythical creatures. Judging from the general style of the vyalas, this site has been attributed to King Rajasimha.

A few paces from the Tiger cave lies a precariously standing boulder. This rocky outcrop close to Tiger Cave contains some very old inscriptions, one of which led to the excavation of the Subrahmanya Temple close by.

The first thing that comes to mind is how in the hell is it standing like that. It’s like it’s molded at the base in that angle. No other reasoning is possible. While standing below I felt an adrenalin rush. It felt it could at any moment just fall and smash me into tomato sauce.

The tiger cave is unique in the way it was sculpted. The combination of the yali and elephant heds left me even more mystified. I have never seen such a combination in any of my explorations.

From the tiger cave, we drove to one of the oldest surviving lighthouses in South India. Thanks for reading. Please leave me a comment if you liked the post or follow my story as I visit the old lighthouse in Mahabalipuram.

What are the visiting timings for Tiger cave?

There are no specific times for visits

What is the price for admission to Tiger cave?

Entry to the Tiger cave site is free

The monolithic Pancha Rathas

The Pancha Rathas complex is arguably the most crowded place in Mahabalipuram. The Five Chariots or Panch Rathas are five monolithic temple structures were built by the Pallavas in early 7th century AD. These structures are a part of the Monuments of Mahabalipuram which I have covered in a separate article.

The buildings displaying exquisite carvings have been named individually after Draupadi and the five Pandava brothers though there is no historical basis for it whatsoever. What is even more strange that the Ganesh Ratha found on the Mahabalipuram hill was earlier known as the Arjuna Ratha and the one now called with that name used to be Nakula Ratha.

Moving on…

I tried visiting this place a couple of times before and it was busy as hell, so today I made time in the early morning and drove down to this place. Thankfully it was devoid of the jeering tourists and I could take some nice pictures in the peaceful surrounding.

This compact group of monuments is hewn out of a single rock to form five free-standing monolithic temples. Each of the five structures are chiselled in the shape of rathas or chariots out of large block of stone. They were commissioned during the reign of Narasimha Varman I and are the only monuments of their kind in India. The monuments are a source of many 7th- and 8th-century Sanskrit inscriptions, providing insight into medieval South Indian history, culture, government and religion.

The five rathas have been named as ‘Dharmaraja Ratha’, ‘Bhima Ratha’, ‘Arjuna Ratha’, ‘Nakula Sahadeva Ratha’, and ‘Draupadi Ratha’ after the five Pandava brothers and their common spouse Draupadi from the epic tale of Mahabharata.

History of the Pancha Rathas

The construction of these five rathas is traced back to the 7th century during the reign of King Mahendra Varman I from 600–630 CE and his son Narasimha Varman I from 630–668 AD of the Pallava dynasty. Before their time, wood was generally the first choice for building temples. The concept of carving the rocks in the shape of chariots or rathas was started during the the reign of King Narasimha Varman I. Work on these structures stopped after his demise in 668 AD. Because of its riches, the Pallava kingdom was an obsession with the Chalukya monarchs. After Narasimha Varman I’s death, a series of Chalukya rulers attacked the kingdom and these structures were gradually forgotten over time.

The reason for linking these rathas to the Pandavas is not very clear. Although there is no connection between the structures and the Pandavas, their names have incessantly remained linked with the structures. In 1984 UNESCO granted the entire area the status of a World Heritage Site which included the monuments on Mahabalipuram hill and the Shore Temple.

The five-ratha group is on a north-south axis with the Dharmaraja Ratha on the south, followed by the Bhima, Arjuna and Draupadi Rathas; the latter two share a common platform. Now let’s go over each structure one by one:

Dharmaraja Ratha

The most imposing and architecturally superior structure is the Dharmaraja Ratha. It is also the highest among the five rathas, revealing that the rock utilized for the purpose of making these temples sloped from south to north. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, this elaborately sculptured tri-tala or three-storied vimana stands at the end of the complex, facing west. The name of this structure is attributed to Yudhishthira, the eldest of the Pandava brothers. I will not delve any deeper into the story of the Pandavas here, because I see no connection whatsoever between them and these amazing structures standing in Mahabalipuram.

Sticking to the facts, the temple is a pyramidal structure with a square base, measuring a square of 8.5 m with a height of 11 m. It has an open porch supported by pillars. The temple’s tower consists of a vimana of shrinking squares, capped by an octagonal shikhara. The progressively smaller storeys give the structure the shape of a pyramidal tower. The top of the structure is almost a clone of the Shore Temple, but there is a big difference – the Shore Temple is not a monolithic structure, it was constructed out of blocks of granite.

There are three corner-blocks, each with two panels containing standing figures, between which are two pillars and pilasters supported on squatting lions. The walls have carvings and inscriptions, one mentioning Narasimhavarman I.

The corners of the sanctum contain eight sculptured panels, each representing Harihara, Brahma and Skanda and Shiva. The last image, at the back and facing east, is an Ardhanarishvara – a composite androgynous form of the Hindu God Shiva and his consort Parvati. Ardhanarishvara is depicted as half male and half female, split down the middle. The upper-mid level has carvings of aspects of Shiva and Vishnu, suggesting that the artists revered both Hindu traditions.

A closer look at the pillars reveals some nice detailing near the lions. The Somaskanda panel inside this monument is significant because it dates the temple to the early 7th century. It differs from those created in the Rajasimha period, and resembles those created during the early Pallava era.

Moving on towards the Bhima ratha:

Bhima Ratha

The next temple with a roof, shaped like the hood of a Roman cart-wagon is the Bhima Ratha. You might be wondering how did this design get incorporated into a temple of the 7th century. I can take a guess it was due to the ample trade between the Pallavas and the Romans. The wall panels around Mahabalipuram are another example of Roman influence on the architecture during those times.

Bhima was the next younger sibling of Yudhishthira. He was the muscle of the Pandavas, said to have immense body strength. This structure stands on an elongated rectangular base and is supported lengthwise by four pillars and two pilasters. Its incomplete interior was probably intended to house a reclining Vishnu.

This ek-tala or single stored vimana is the second highest of all the structures here. The north and south sides each have two square, massive pillars. The roof has developed crack lines, possibly caused by structural elements or centuries of weathering.

Dedicated to Lord Vishnu, the ornamentation and pavilion are similar to that of the Dharmaraja Ratha but the detailing is lacking. The lower floor of the vimana, although incomplete indicates the plan was to hollow out the rock, creating a pillar-rested circumambulatory passage.

In my opinion, the Bhima Ratha is the most interesting of all the monuments inside the complex.

Arjuna Ratha

The Arjuna Ratha is almost a smaller replica of the Dharmaraja Ratha except for shape of the dome being hexagonal. This dvi-tala or two tiered vimana also facing west was carved out of a live rock with a height of 6 m. It shares the same platform with the Draupadi Ratha and is dedicated to Shiva. This monument looks to have been fully completed. As I mentioned the Arjuna Ratha was earlier known as Nakula Ratha, but later renamed to Arjuna Ratha.

The walls of the ratha are carved into panels with fourteen sculptures. Four are dvarapalas (Vishnu, a rishi with a student, Kartikeya—or Indra—and Shiva with Nandi), and the rest are humans at various stages of life.

The garbhagriha or sanctum sanctorum has a pillared Mukhamandapa or inner porch. The entrance of the Ratha rests on two pillars and two lions carved pilasters. In-between the exquisitely carved pillars lies chiseled figures of several deities like Siva-Vrishabhantika, Skanda on an elephant, Vishnu, a Siddha, Parthiharas, a Chowri bearer and an Amaras. Alternating elephants and lions are carved at the base of this monument all around as supports.

A statue of Shiva’s mount, Nandi the bull, is housed on the rear of the Arjun Ratha.

Nakula-Sahadeva Ratha

This Ratha, dedicated to the celestial king Indra, was named after the twins Nakula and Sahadeva, the youngest of the Pandava brothers. It is the only ratha among the five that faces south. Its front extends slightly forward to form a porch supported by two pillars.

A monolithic sculpture of an elephant also finds place beside the Ratha. All these monuments were constructed on the same base as that of the Dharmaraja Ratha. Although the ratha is devoid of any idol for worship, carved figures of gods and demigods adorn its interior walls. The outer walls of this Ratha have been left blank.

A monolithic elephant sits beside this structure, which I can only guess to be Airavat, the vehicle of Indra.

Draupadi Ratha

Named after the common wife of the Pancha Pandavas, this ratha which lies at the northern end of the five rathas is dedicated to Goddess Durga. Constructed in the form of pre-historic huts from ancient Bengal, it is the smallest of the five rathas with a height of 5.5 m. It is supported by four corner-pilasters and contains two dvarapalikas (female guards) flanking either side of the doorway.

The curvilinear roof is devoid of any sculptures. The corners are decorated with alpana markings. The high-rise platform leading to the entrance door of the west-facing ratha is decorated with sculptures of lion and elephant heads chiselled alternately. The rear part of the Ratha display a lone figure of Durga.

In the cell inside there is another four-armed standing Durga, adored by two male worshipers kneeling at her feet, one of them brandishing his sword.

Best time to visit Mahabalipuram

Best time to visit the Mahabalipuram Rathas is from December to February. Mahabalipuram is unbearably hot for the rest of the year. It is also advisable to come as early as possible. With every passing hour the crowd keeps growing and it becomes almost a carnival by evening. You wont even get any parking space in that crowd.

Although unfinished and never consecrated, these Rathas are part of the monument complex that is marked as ‘Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram’ by UNESCO. After a last glimpse of the Panch rathas, I made my way towards the parking lot.

Maintained under the patronage of the Archaeological Survey of India, this complex has remained one of the popular tourist destinations of south India that became laid the foundation of the temple architecture of South India.

Thanks for reading. Please leave me a comment if you liked the post or follow my story as I drive to the Tiger Cave in Mahabalipuram.

The curious case of Krishna’s Butterball

Today I went to explore one of the most mysterious ancient artifacts found in South India. Krishna’s Butterball is a gigantic granite boulder resting on an extremely small and slippery area of a hill in the historical town of Mahabalipuram.

The boulder is approximately 6 meters high and 5 meters wide and should be easily weighing around 250 tons. This precariously balanced boulder is believed to be a bolus of butter the young Krishna would steal as told in mythological stories. The rock continues to defy gravity and has been sitting on this 45-degree slope for 3 billion years or even more.

The quaint town of Mahabalipuram slept as I drove at the break of dawn to explore the mystery behind this spherical rock. Daytime is a huge deal breaker if you want any quiet time anywhere in India. These tourist places are buzzing with selfie-takers.

History behind the Krishna’s Butter Ball

Being an ASI-protected monument, the area is protected. The gate doesn’t open till 6.00 am, so I waited. One of the guards was having a vigorous discussion with someone on the other line of his mobile phone. I could make out he was speaking in Oriya, the language of Orissa Prefecture. The other guard lay under a rock pedestal near the gate. We both waited on either side of the gate in the darkness until the time to tick over.

When they open the gates at 6.00 am, I was really glad that there was no other soul around and I could have my 15 minutes with the curious stone in absolute solace.

The original name of the rock is “Vaan Irai Kal” which translates to “Stone of the Sky God” But just like the historians have been a confused group with regard to naming the ancient monuments in Mahabalipuram, the locals today just refer to this enigmatic giant stone as Krishna’s Butter Ball.

According to Hindu mythology, when Krishna was just a baby, he was fond of stealing butter. He would steal butter from wherever he could, especially the butter that his mother would keep in a pot. He would steal a handful of butter and run away to relish it in the woods. Now someone came up with the thought that this boulder at Mahabalipuram looks very much like a butter dollop and hence, the name was given as Krishna Butter Ball. This rock which looks like a bolus of butter is said to have fallen from the heavens and turned to rock. Religious people tend to have insane levels of creativity 😉

Unfortunately, tripods are not allowed inside ASI-protected monuments. In the dim light, my camera was screaming at 5000 ISO. Fingers crossed…

Some attribute this phenomenon to friction and the center of gravity. Friction prevents the rock from sliding down, conceptually similar to how we are able to stand on sloping ground and the center of gravity allows it to stay balanced on the smallest of the contact area. However, I did try to walk down the slope and it was not possible. I had to slide down to come back to the base of the hill.

So I am inclined to go with the other opinion that when these boulders cooled off about 3.5 billion years ago the connected parts got fused together and that is holding the rock sturdily for all these centuries.

Attempts to move the Krishna Butter Ball

In the cool breeze, I could feel the rough granite brush against my palms. I am never going to die wondering, so I gave the rock a push with all my strength. Nothing…

Several attempts have been made to remove the rock from its original position but have proven futile. One of the local stories going around is when the Pallava king Narasimha Varman I was working on building the lovely monuments on this hillock, he wanted to move this rock which looked like an obstacle amidst the lush greenery. His commanders tried to pull down the ball using horses and elephants but failed to do so.

More recently in 1908 the then Governor of Madras(Chennai), Arthur Lawley decided the boulder to be too dangerous to nearby homes and wanted it removed. Seven elephants were employed to push the rock, but the rock didn’t budge an inch and the task was eventually abandoned.

If you have traveled parts of Karnataka specially Hampi, you will realize that there are hundreds of such precariously places boulders strewn across the Deccan plateau that defy common sense.

I am just going to categorize this as a curious phenomenon that defies the laws of science, in particular physics. People do tend to get attracted to these and so this rock will, in all probability, keep the interest alive for centuries to come.

Other deserving mentions

I have made a small list of a few other boulders that have left me scratching my head.

Thanks for reading. Please leave me a comment if you liked the post or follow my story as I visit the Five Chariot monuments in Mahabalipuram

Monuments of Mahabalipuram

After a refreshing tour of the Shore Temple, we made our way towards the hillock at Mahabalipuram. The hill is said to contain numerous heritage monuments from the 7th century CE onwards. These groups of monuments consist of rock-cut caves, monolithic shrines, cave sanctuaries, and structural temples from different eras. These precious historical constructions were accorded the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the year 1984.

As we walked towards the hill, the cool breeze of the morning was gone. The Sun was shining brilliantly. It was harsh but bearable. 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, a daitya (demon) king who was the grandson of Prahalad (the same one because of whom Hindus started the practice of Holi) and a descendant of sage Kashyapa.

According to the local legend, King Mahabali was once a benevolent and able king and ardently devoted to the Hindu god, Vishnu. Bali was also as powerful as he was kind. After conquering the lands on Earth, he defeated Indra, the king of the devas (celestial beings), and took over the heavens. Bali not only defeated him but also showed the world, how a great ruler should behave. His popularity made many jealous of him especially Indra.

Indra had lost control of svarga-lok (heavenly kingdom) to Mahabali, and he desperately wanted his celestial kingdom back.

As time passed, Mahabali became arrogant and vain. Shukracharya his teacher, once called him, “Bali, You have now conquered the three worlds but if you wish to always be the Lord of the three worlds, you have to perform 100 Ashwamedha Yagnas. Doing so, you will always be the king of the 3 worlds.” Bali who respected his teacher accepted in an instance and announced that he would perform the Yagna. Taking advantage of that moment, Indra conspired to bring about his demise at the hands of Vamana, considered to be the fifth avatar of Vishnu.

People came from far and near to witness the great sacrifice and to benefit from his generosity. Just when the final Ashwamedha Yagna was about to be completed, there arrived a young brahmana of unusually short stature. In Hindu mythology, he is referred to as Vamana which in Sanskrit means dwarf or “small in stature”. As per custom, Mahabali asks the boy to wish for anything he wanted. The Vamana held an umbrella made of palm leaves over his head. According to the legend, he only asks for land that he could cover in three strides. In his haughtiness, Mahabali accedes to his demand and asks 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 his colossal legs, he covers the whole of Earth in his first step. With the second he covers the heavens. By then Mahabali realized that his guest was none other than Vishnu. 

On completion of his first two strides, the Vamana asks Mahabali, where should he put his third step. Mahabali says: “In my arrogance, I thought everything in the three worlds was mine to give. You’ve shown me my rightful place. Place your foot on my head.” And with the third step, Vishnu gently placed his foot on Bali’s bowed head.

The benevolent king surrenders himself to Vamana, and requests to be sent back to live with his ancestors in the patal-lok (netherworld). This day of the great sacrifice by Mahabali is celebrated even today as Bali Padyami, during the Diwali festival. I understand logic fails with these mythological stories but then the truth too has many a time shocked us from our beliefs.

The ancient sea-port of Mahabalipuram

Although the ancient history of Mahabalipuram is shrouded in myths, some scattered evidence suggests that it was a significant location even before the monuments were built.

The “Periplus of the Erythraean Sea“, an account by an anonymous Greek navigator of the first century CE refers to the harbor along with Poduke – current day Pondicherry – as a port north of the Kaveri river.

On the western side of Mahabalipuram is a hill region called Mallar. Mallar was a flourishing seaport during ancient times around 200 BCE. But natural geographical changes over the years resulted in the seaport moved to Mahabalipuram.

Of the numerous temples of Mahabalipuram, the credit mostly goes to the Pallava kings. They claimed authority over the surrounding Tamil-speaking region from the sixth to ninth centuries CE. The founder of the Pallava dynasty was Simhavishnu, also known as Avanisimha. He was the first Pallava sovereign, who extended his influence beyond Kanchipuram and ruled between 550 to 580 CE.

Mahabalipuram gained prominence during his reign, a period of political competition with the Chalukyas of Badami and the Pandyas of Madurai. By the end of the 6th century, it had become a principal port from where voyages to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia were started.

While the Pallavas reigned, artisans carved the site’s natural granite outcroppings into elegant sculptures and many architectural forms. The Pallavas made Mahabalipuram their second capital, after Kanchipuram and brought new artistic styles to the prevailing culture.

Mahabalipuram’s architecture is linked to Simhavishnu’s son, Mahendra Varman I (580-630 CE), who was a patron of the arts. From his reign onwards that stone inscriptions begin to appear. Even though his reign is marked by multiple feuds with the Chalukya and the Pandyas, we also see a rise in the realm of religious and literary activities.

Mahendra Varman’s son, Narsimha Varman I, built on his father’s efforts and scholars attribute most of the monuments to him. It is believed that Mahabalipuram was renamed Mamallapuram after him who went by the name Mamallan because of his great wrestling skills. After a brief hiatus, when Mahendraverman II reigned for about 5 years, temple and monument construction continued during the reign of Rajasimha or Narasimha Varman II (690-728 CE).

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 Narasimha Varman. It was during the rule of Narasimha Varman II or Rajasimha (700-728 CE), that the tradition of building structural temples began.

The Monuments of Mahabalipuram

Despite several debates among historians for over a century, the dates of these monuments are 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 Mahabalipuram 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.

As we made our way towards the hillock, a few boulder engravings can be seen right on the roadside. This is an example of a sculptured scene.

I few strides away we started with the exploration of a cave that depicts an immortal moment in the life of Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu.

Krishna Mandapa

This cave gallery is cut on the side of a boulder and shows a remarkable scene from Krishna’s life – of him lifting Mount Govardhan. The Krishna mandapa has a length of 29 feet and a height of about 12 feet. The monolithic pillars in the front were added later to support the roof of the cave.

For context, I am going to lay down as shortly as possible the story for the inspiration of this wall art. It is written that when Krishna 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 as an umbrella. People and animals took shelter under the mountain and they were saved from the harassment.

This rock cut scene depicts that moment when Krishna lifts the Govardhan mountain to protect the villagers from the storm raised by celestial king Indra. For explaining the panel better, I have divided it into four sections. On the furthermost right, Krishna, himself is shown supporting the mountain on his left palm. Close to him are some love-struck gopika’s (female cowherds) standing and gazing at him in astonishment.

To Krishna’s right is Balarama, his elder brother. Balarama is standing with his left hand resting on the shoulder of a cowherd. To his right is a charming scene of a cowherd milking the cow. Behind Balarama, over his shoulder, you can see another representation of Krishna playing the flute with cows gathered around him.

Towards the far left, we see more animal and human figures taking shelter under the mountain.

Right next to the Krishna mandapa, we can find the Panch Pandavas Cave.

Panch Pandavas Cave

The Panch Pandavas Cave is a large cave temple with decorative lion pillars. The cave is mostly empty and undecorated. The design if completed would have consisted of a central rock-cut shrine, surrounded by pillared mandapa all-around permitting perambulation. The original rock face has been cut to a depth of one foot on the northern side and 5 feet at the base to create an adisthana. Over this platform, set back about half a foot from its edge, lies a facade of six pillars and two pilasters.

The pillars and the pilasters are mounted on square pithas with sejant vyalas adorning the lower part. The shaft issuing from the top of the vyalas is octagonal in shape. Behind the facade, is a second row of four pillars and two pilasters that are not vyala-based. The cavern of the temple is about 50 feet long with two lateral sides cut into till the back wall of the mandapa is reached.

The cutting of rock towards the back part of the shrine was never commenced. This plan of excavation with a central monolithic shrine surrounded by a double pillared cloister is a unique style that I have yet to see in a cave temple. The construction of this temple was most possibly started in the period of Paramesvara, if not his successor Rajasimha.

Yali or Vyala very similar to Gargoyle in European architecture. They usually have the stylized body of a lion and the head of some other mythical beast.

Descent of the Ganges

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 sculpture I have witnessed to date. The Great Penance relief looks similar to the preliminary version that we saw earlier about three hundred meters away.

The monument is about 25 meters in length from south to north and 12 meters in height, carved on the side of a huge rock. This huge Mahabalipuram 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. many Egyptian kings had also tried to create a similar narration during the height of their reign. Of all the richly embellished cave temples, free-standing monoliths and open-air carvings during the quarter-century following Mahamalla’s great triumph of 642, none is more overtly charged with commemorative content than the Great Penance relief.

A mid-century artist named Mandhatar has been credited with the creation of this amazing masterpiece. Mandhatar flourished during the reign of Mahamalla Narasimha. He headed the Pallava atelier when victory monuments like the Great Penance Relief were being executed. The most defining part of the sculpture, in my opinion, is the descent of the Ganges. Right in the middle of the wall, 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 rock-cut channels and footing immediately above this rock, suggests that there was a masonry water cistern to store water.

The design is such that water could flow from that fissure and stay collected in the tank below. It was also meant to depict the flow of time till at the base it reaches the Pallava Kings. It can be safely said that the Pallavas took the descent of Ganga as an important event and included it in their prasastis (epigraphs). The relief panel at Mamallapuram, therefore, depicts this important event. The presence of the three nagas in the central crevice is of utmost importance as one of them is supposed to be Nagini, the mother of Pallavas.

This part of the wall art focuses on Shiva, suggesting his key role in the episode depicted here. He is shown holding a trishula (trident), parashu (axe) and a snake in his three hands. His fourth hand is in varada mudra, suggesting granting a boon to the ascetic nearby. Five pairs of ganas are found, three of the left and two on the right. They are shown seated wearing a peculiar cap. A standing gana, with a tiger/lion carved on its belly, is part of Shiva’s retinue.

On the left, one can see a withered man in penance. It is believed to be Baghirath, praying for the Ganga to come to earth. He is said to have prayed to Brahma for a thousand years, requesting him to permit Ganga to come down to earth from heaven because only Ganga could release his ancestors’ souls and allow them to go to heaven. The myth of Bhagiratha’s penance, and resultant descent of Ganga from her celestial course through the valley. It does seem to accord better with certain aspects of the reliefs’ iconography.

The Gana with a lion’s head carved in his belly is known as Kumbandhas in the Ramayana. However, there is a big debate among scholars about the main narrative of the panel. At least since the eighteenth-century local tradition has maintained that Arjuna is the chief human protagonist, performing the penance called suryopasthana tapas on one leg. It is to be understood that this pose was not unique and many more characters have been written about that have used the same. On either side of Shiva, on the left and the right of the cleft, are shown Chandra and Surya respectively.

We find a variety of animals on this panel. The carvings at the bottom right are some 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. The group contains two adults and six child elephants. Ten deer and antelopes, mountain goats, four monkeys, a hare, an iguana, one boar, a tortoise are among the other animals on this panel.

In front of the majestic elephants is a cat doing penance, with some mice surrounding it. The story of this hypocrite cat can be found in Hitopadesha and Mahabharata (Uluka Dutagamana Parva). It goes like this: A wicked cat once on a time took up his abode on the banks of the Ganga, abandoning all work and with his hands upraised (in the manner of a devotee). Pretending to have purified his heart, and for inspiring confidence in them, he told all resident creatures that it was now practicing a life of virtue. After some time, all the animals gave up their natural instinct and reposed trust in him. They surrounded it and applauded the cat. It was all of course a trap and the mice later realized it. The cat was not really in 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 are 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 Shiva and were desecrated by later rulers. Apart from a few broken noses scarcely any signs of deliberate defacing can be found anywhere else in the composition. Most probably, therefore, the vandalism was prompted more out of political considerations than anything else.

Looking at the masterpiece in its entirety, I could not find a specific theme. In my opinion, the panel was constructed entirely to suggest the ancestry of the Pallavas to be flowing down from the Gods. That might be the reason why various bubbles from history are depicted here and it eventually ends at the bottom center of the panel with the depiction of the first of the Pallava rulers.

Ganesh Ratha

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 lies 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 latter half of the 7th century that resembles a chariot pulled during the Rath yatra.

Ratha Yatra or Chariot festival is a Hindu festival celebrated for Jagannath and associated Hindu deities

This west-facing temple is decorated with dvarpals (gatekeepers), 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 CE and 1803 CE, 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

We took a left turn from the Ganesh Ratha to reach the Varaha Mandap. This 7th-century temple was constructed during the reign of Narasimha 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. This excavation facing west is cut from a large whale-back boulder. It consists of a front mandapa with a shrine behind it.

The facade consists of a row of two pillars and two pilasters with Oma and a molded adisthana cut at the base. Projecting from the center of the adisthana is a rock-cut sopana with three steps. The two pillars and the two pilasters are placed a little behind the edge of the pattika and have well-defined lotus pedestals or padma-pithas.

In the pillars, the shafts are octagonal in section and are decorated immediately over the head by a broad malasthana and padma-bandha. The dvarapals flanking the entrance on either side are almost identical, stately in bearing and wearing yajnopavitas.

The cell in the center, where the deity once stood, is guarded by two dvarapals or guards in stone. Inside the cave there are four magnificent wall panels.

Varaha Panel

Carved on the northern end panel of the mandapa is the group of Varaha uplifting Prithvi from patala. In this group, the main figure is Vishnu as Varaha or the man-boar incarnation. Vishnu has four arms, two of which hold the chakra and the sankha, and the other two arms are thrown around the Bhu-devi, seated on the god’s uplifted and bent right knee.

Varaha is the third incarnation of Vishnu. It is said that 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 Varaha, who is in charge of the law of gravity made the Earth very light and gently placed her on the surface of the sea where she floated like a turquoise ball. This is a representational story of how Earth was once a mass of water from where lands gradually rose, but these ancients had this knowledge beyond me. Sometimes I do feel the Greeks and the Hindus had extraterrestrial help and then they abandoned us for whatever reason.

His own right leg is placed on the serpent hood of the crouching Seshnaga below. Behind him, to his left is Brahma with three heads (fourth not shown in the bas relief) standing in tribhanga. Behind him comes a sage-like figure carrying a vina, perhaps Narada. Over Brahma and Narada at the top corner is a flying form of Chandra, shown as if emerging from the clouds with his hands in anjali.

Trivikrama Panel

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.

In the Trivikrama panel, Vishnu is shown standing with his right leg firmly planted on the ground and left raised above his forehead. This shows that Trivikarma has already paced twice transcending measures that bounds of the Earth and the svarga-lok. He is eight-armed, three of his right arms carry the chakra, gada, and the khada while the fourth is held up with the palm up as required in the Vaikhanasagama, Three of his left arms carry the sankha, ketaka, and dhanus. The fourth arm is stretched straight towards his uplifted leg, the fore-finger pointing towards the foot.

Near his uplifted leg is shown Brahma, four-armed, seated on a padmasana offering puja. In the corresponding position at the other end of the panel, to the right of Trivikrama, is a four-armed Shiva, also seated in a padmasana. Both Shiva and Bhrama are shown at the level of the forehead of Trivikarma indicating their position in svarga. Between Trivikarma’s head and Bhrama on the left, shown in the attitude of flying is Jambavan with a bear’s face beating on the bheri(drum). On either side of Trivikarma at the level of his navel are shown Surya and Chandra in the posture of flight. Surya is placed below Shiva and Chandra below Brahma.

Gaja Lakshmi Panel

In the Gaja-Lakshmi panel, Lakshmi is seated on a full-blown lotus, her legs resting on a spread-out lotus leaf. The other lotus leaves shown vertically with their stalks, suggest the location to be a lotus tank.

On either side of her, are standing four celestial nymphs. The two nearest to her are carrying water pitchers in the palm of their hands. The other two nymphs follow holding on to the leading water carrier by the girdle. Over them are shown the heads of two elephants. The elephant on the right of Lakshmi is holding an inverted pitcher by its trunk.

Durga Panel

In the Durga panel, Durga stands four-armed on a padma-pitha. The lower right hand is in abhaya and left in kati, while the upper arms hold the chakra and sankha. Kneeling on her right is a devotee offering his own head, held up by the tuft with his left hand, while with his right hand, he is hacking it off with a long sword at the neck. On the left is another devotee seated on his knees in adoration. On either side of Durga are four dwarf ganas with pot bellies. On top is the head of a rearing lion emerging from the background, while on the left emerge the head of an antelope,

Such an association of lion and antelope with Durga is also found in an almost identical panel near the Shore Temple where a little form of Durga is enshrined in a niche cut into the chest of a squatting lion, while below, curled on the rocks lies an antelope in a sleeping position.

Roya Gopuram

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. 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.

Pulipudar Mandapa

This excavation of a five-celled cave temple with an oblong mandapa in front is located at the highest point on the western side of the hill overlooking the Konerippalam tank. The facade line consists of four pillars and two pilasters. Both the pillars and the pilasters have their bases carved out into squatting vyalas in different degrees of finish. The shafts above the vyalas as well as other components have not been finished in their details even though the initial shaping has been completed.

Cut into the back wall of the mandapa behind the facade are five oblong shrine-entrances. While the excavation of four of them had progressed to a certain extent, the excavation of the fifth had just started when it was abandoned.

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. We climbed down the hill and hurried towards the south section of the hill. The trail leads to a whale-shaped boulder, superposed by another of about the same height. Steps carved in the stone led to the top of the boulder but I couldn’t find anything interesting up there.

Ramanujan Mandap

The path led us to the Ramanujan Mandap. This cave is not listed on the map. A banner near the cave refers to it as a Shiva Temple created in the Mammalan style during 640-674 CE.

In its original condition, it seems it was one of the finished cave temples in the whole series at Mahabalipuram. It is carved on the eastern scarp of a long whale-back boulder on top of the Mahabalipuram hill, almost at its center.

The temple consists of a large rectangular ardha-mandapa with one row of pillars on its facade and with three shrines behind it. At either extreme, beyond the pilaster, the vertical face of the rock affords space for two large dvarpala bas reliefs, which were totally chiseled off by later occupants, obliterating totally the original sculptures as well as the three inner shrines.

The two pillars and pilasters are vyala based. While the vyalas of the pillars face front, those of the pilasters in antis face each other. The vyalas are typical with three divaricating horn-like projections over the heads, sitting upright on their haunches.

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

A few paces to the south of the Roya gopuram lies the Mahisamardini Cave. This area of Mahabalipuram was locally known as Yamapuri. This cave was also commissioned during the reign of Narasimha Varman I. The cave temple is built higher from the ground and a series of steps took us to the cave platform. The caves are all fronted with fine columns resting on seated lions, typical of the Pallava style. On the top of the same boulder is the Pallava structural temple Olakkannesvara, on top of which formed the lighthouse before the present one was built.

The cave temple consists of a long verandah with fluted columns and three shrines. Of the four pillars, one has been totally removed leaving only the bracket hanging down from the beam. The lost pillar is now replaced with a plain stone-cut column. The facade is divided into five bays. The floor and the ceiling of the mandapa behind the facade lie unfinished.

On top of the projecting adisthanas, are two lion-based pillars with circular shafts. The two pillars in the front row of the porch have vyalis sitting on their haunches. Placed inside the two pilasters of the portico on either side of the central shrine-entrances are double-armed dvarpalas. At a height of 3½ feet above the floor level of the mandapa, cut into the back wall are three shrine cells.

The shrine chamber is oblong and on its back wall, filling it totally is a large bas-relief of a unique form of the Somaskanda seated on a simhasana. Shiva is four-armed, the upper right holding what appears to be a roll of cloth. Shiva is in the sukhasana pose. Parvati is two-armed with the tiny Skanda on her right lap. While her left hand is resting on the top of the seat, her right hand is gently holding Skanda from behind. It is to be noted here that this Somaskanda panel is the only one that shows a Nandi and in addition to a devotee below.

The entrance to the southern cell is devoid of pilasters. The shrine cell is empty except for a very shallow socket. The entrance to the northern shrine resembles that to the southern shrine in having no pilasters. The cell is empty and there is not even a faint trace of any socket on the floor. At the base of the back wall are three rough cubicle projecting blocks.

Mahisamardini Panel

Occupying the whole of the northern end of the wall of the mandapa and filling the space between the adhisthana below and the uttira above is a large and finished panel showing Durga as Mahishamardini. Mahisamardini is depicted with her eight arms, riding her lion, and equipped with all her weapons provided by the celestial beings. She is shown riding astride a lion, holding the bow with her outstretched lower left hand, while her lower right is bent behind her ears as if drawing the taut bowstring to the full. The three other right hands hold a khadga, ghanta, and chakra and the other three other left hands hold a dagger, pasa, and a sankha. While the front pair of hands are shown as engaged in shooting with the bow. the pair of hands just behind are shown as if thrusting and stabbing simultaneously with the sword and the dagger.

She is attended by hosts of ganas and yoginis, and is in the war-like posture using a giant club. Below the Durga, is one of her yoginis also striking with a sword. Below the darting lion is another gana holding a shield and sword. Three other ganas behind the Durga, hold fight with shield and sword, while two more hold a parasol and chamara respectively for the goddess. An eigth gana is flying, carrying offerings on a plate.

On the other side in the ferocious battle is the buffalo-shaped Mahisasur surrounded by his demon warriors. Mahisasura is depicted in an equally powerful pose wielding defiantly a club in his hands. The merging of the buffalo-head with the human trunk is marvelous as also the depiction of his body-line from the tip of the crown between the horns through the snout down to the straight right leg suggesting defiance.

Vishnu Panel

Likewise in a panel of similar size on the southern wall, is a finished and deep relief of Vishnu as Anantsayi. He is yogasayana-murti reclining on the couch formed by Adisesha with its five hoods providing shade over the recumbent god’s head. Vishnu is two armed and at his foot are two asuras, Madhu and Kaitabha. They seem to be conspiring with each other as to how to strike at Vishnu. Below the feet of Vishnu is Bhu-devi kneeling down in prayer with her hands in anjali, while in front of her are what are believed to be two of the four ayudha-purushas, Sudarshana and Nandaka depicted as handsome youths, The other two ayudha-purushas are depicted as flying above Vishnu. The reclining figure of Vishnu is a picture of peace and calm in contrast to the virility and movement of Durga on the opposite panel.

This cave was probably dedicated to Shiva, perhaps the three forms of Shiva were to be installed in the three shrines.

By this time, we were out of breath. 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 leave for an early lunch.

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. Sunbathing is one of the must-do activities at Mamallapuram beach. Mamallapuram beach offers visitors a rare combination of historical significance and natural splendor.

From one of the shops, I purchased a wooden idol of Radha & Krishna, that would fit nicely with the 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.

The last Pagoda of Shore Temple

It was still pitch-dark as we drove towards the Shore Temple in Mahabalipuram – one of South India’s most celebrated monuments. About 60 kilometers from the metropolitan city of Chennai, overlooking the southeastern coast of India, Shore Temple is one of the oldest temples in south India. Constructed sometime in the 8th century CE, the Dravidian-style temple reflects the royal taste of the Pallava dynasty.

Every day, the temple draws thousands of people from different parts of India. It is impossible to explore the mesmerizing monument in peace and 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

Mahabalipuram landscape is dominated by huge granite boulders. Along with these pre-historic rocks, the sandy beaches create a unique surrounding. The whistling winds at the seaside bring a vivid aliveness to the natural beauty.

According to ancient scriptures, Mahabalipuram was already a thriving seaport on the coromandel coast of the Bay of Bengal during the Sangam Age (200 BCE to 300 CE). Ancient Tamil literature does not mention Mahabalipuram, but the poem Perumpanarrupadai, dedicated to Tindaiman Ilamtiraiyan, a king of Kanchipuram, describes a port called Nirppeyarvu, that could be either identified with Mahabalipuram. The harbor town was used by many for trading with south-eastern countries like Kambuja (present-day Cambodia) and Shrivijaya (present-day islands of Malaysia, Sumatra and Java).

Coins of Theodosius (4th century CE) 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 have been believed to have come 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.

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 seaport, 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 the initial name of Mamallapuram from king Narasimha Varman I (630 CE – 670 CE), after his bestowed title ‘Mamallan’ which means the ‘great warrior’. It was during his reign that most of the rock-cut temples and carvings were commissioned. 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 ₹30 per head for Indians. The officer at the ticket counter insisted that I leave my tripod at the ticket office since it is 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 pine trees surrounding them, 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 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.

The Shore Temple is in asymmetrical alignment in plan, having two temples in front and back. Between these two, one more hall type of a temple without the superstructure of vimāna also dedicated to Vishnu as Anandasayana Murti.

Vishnu is known as Anantasayana when he is recumbent on the king of nagas (serpents), Anantashesha.

Ardha Mandapa

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. All three structures here have been sculpted from granite stones hauled from a nearby quarry.

The temple comprises of:

  • Rajasimha Pallaveshwara Griham, a west-facing structure that has a small tritala vimana (3 storeyed)
  • Kshatriyasimha Pallaveshwara Griham, an east-facing structure that has the largest vimana and,
  • Pallikondaruliya Devar, another east-facing structure that is a flat-roofed mandapa in an oblong shape, and which enshrines the reclining Vishnu.

The temple has two opposite entrances. Walking around the Ardha mandapa, we reached the first temple also known as Rajasimha Pallaveshwara Griham. 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 small 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. Skanda is said to be the god of war. He was the firstborn son of Shiva but he was reared by the Krittikas. Hence, Skanda is also called Karttikeya (Son of Krittikas). In the same carving, Brahma and Vishnu are seen towards the top giving them blessings. I noticed multiple instances of this relief at Kanchi Kailashantar Temple.

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 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.

Mahishasura Mardini

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 from 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 mythology stories are so interesting.

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 any religion – the sacrifice of animals. What gives us humans the right to decide whether the Gods, we created in our image, desire animal sacrifice or not.

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.

Kshatriyasimha Pallaveshwara Griham

The path to the two other temples had been blocked, so I have no photos of these 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 both the shrines resembles a pyramidal structure with a stupa, which can be only seen at the Kanchi Kailashantar Temple. 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 the two Shiva temples lies a Vishnu temple where one can see Vishnu as ‘Anantashayana’. Vishnu is seen in different contexts and moods when he is reclining on Anantasesha (Seven-headed Serpent). He is called yogasayana when he is meditative and the sages Bhrigu and Markandeya are with him.

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 a stone carving of Vishnu. In this photo, you will notice how different quality of stone has degraded differently. The brownish one is all but disintegrated but the whiter stones have maintained most of its carvings.

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.

Bali Peethas

Not to be confused with “Bali” pronounced “baali” which means strength, Bali means sacrifice. 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. Mannuci a European sailor who was visited Mamallapuram during the period of the 17th century and given a name to this historic site as “The Seven Pagodas.” 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, 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.

The 2003 underwater explorations by National Institute of Oceanography had revealed the presence of many structural remains including a fallen wall, scattered dressed stone blocks, a few steps leading to a platform and remains of many more fallen wall sections in 5 – 8 m water depth which is believed to be man-made. Their research done in five various place in a stretch of 500 to 700 meters distance from the Shore Temple at the depth of 5 – 8 meters. The interesting one of these findings is a lion sculpture that ensures their belonging probably of Pallava.

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. Among many submerged structures, a big structure was found about 700 m east of the Shore Temple, under 6 m of water. The structures were covered in marine growth. Huge rectangular blocks were also noticed on the upper portion of the structure. About 200 m towards NNE of this lies another structure at about 5-8 m in depth. This site has remains of a wall, dressed stone blocks and natural boulders. Apart from these many more structures were found believed to be fallen walls and stone steps leading to a square platform.

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. A couple of local guides were already harassing us to employ them. It was time for me to leave.

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.

Tourism in Mahabalipuram has grown substantially over the years which contribute to the growing number of tourist arrival. Initially, tourists were small in numbers and treated as guests but now hospitality has become commercialized. The bars, discos and other entertainment spots have led to a spurt in disturbing public behaviour, drunkenness and vandalism. If you are looking for a peaceful exploration, I would suggest you lodge up at one of the hotels with a private beach. Make the rounds of the heritage monuments during weekdays and if possible towards early mornings. The sites open up at 6.30 am and the crowds only start to gather around 8 am.

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.

Musical Waves of Mahabalipuram Beach

I can hear the sound of waves crashing on the shore. The moist, salty air flays my hair into the air as I walk towards the lovely beach in Mahabalipuram…

Drive to Mahabalipuram 

In the morning, a couple of hours drive is all it took for us to reach the quaint town of Mahabalipuram. The roads from Kanchipuram are a pleasure to drive.

It was easy to find the Chariot Beach Resort, where we would be staying for the duration of our trip in Mahabalipuram. A huge signboard announces the resort to the passersby. The entrance gate leads into a long driveway and unto the resort building where a lady received us with garlands made of seashells.

Once we were finished with the formalities of checking in, we had our lunch and headed right away towards the windy beach. Please be aware that I am not talking about the public beach, that experience would be a lot different.

The little town of Mahabalipuram is blessed with a glistening coastline with clean private beaches on the one hand and a plethora of UNESCO World Heritage sites and medieval temples on the other.

Mahabalipuram Beach

Mahabalipuram is a very ancient town, seeped in history & mythology. The town was largely developed by the Pallava king Narasimhavarman I in the 7th century AD. The history of the town however, goes much beyond the Pallava dynasty when it used to be a popular seaport since the 1st century. The town flourished and was brought into limelight in the 7th to 9th century during the Pallava rule which gave them the heritage sites, the primary reason I was there.

The resort is clean and well maintained. Apart from a bar and two restaurants, it also features an inviting swimming pool.

Buggy rides to the beach were available from the reception area, but we chose to walk. As we strolled towards the beach, I realized that the resort also serves independent cottages for visitors looking for more privacy.

We were at the beach in no time. The beach heightens my senses. The music of the waves of the ocean make me forget myself. Mani watched me reluctantly as I was drawn into the cold blue waters. As the waves hit me, I could feel the rough texture of the sand as it deposited itself on my feet.

Once my initial excitement petered out, we found a nice place to sit on the sand. It is hard in such a mystical surrounding to stay in the present. With each wave hitting the shore my mind was already starting to slip away into nothingness.

We lay down on the sand, next to the water’s edge, making a head stand of my camera backpack. Looking at the vast blue sky, I felt so connected to the earth as my body settled into the ground.

As we sat there, gazing out into the horizon, taking in the vastness of the seascape, a young boy in his teens came along looking for casual tourists if they wanted to ride a horse. We didn’t ride it but we did made friends with the handsome creature.

Music of the Waves

Looking for prospective clients, the boy rode off with the horse and we were back on our makeshift mattress on the sandy beach. I closed my eyes, listening to the consistent ebbing and flowing of the waves crashing on the shore. Just like the sharp sound of clanging bells at the temples, the sound of these waves hammered away, driving out all my tensed thoughts . I could hear nothing… nothingness was good.

On my left, far away into the horizon, I could see a faint silhouette of the pagoda of the Shore temple. We will go there tomorrow, but for now I let my mind wander.

We sat there for a long time, under magical skies, immersed in the music of the strong waves of the Bay of Bengal.

Sunset at Mahabalipuram Beach

Behind us, the Sun had quietly slipped away into oblivion. It was starting to get colder now. The few tourists that were, were starting to leave, leaving us alone with the raging sea.

As the evening drew to a close, we took a last walk along the water’s edge, letting the cool waves gently wash our feet. Mani’s jeans were fully drenched, my cargoes were too.

As evening turned into night, we walked back to the resort. The lights had come on and it looked lovely in the night.

The historical town of Mahabalipuram is an enchanting place to explore age-old stone carvings and century old temples, but in-between the sweaty hikes, one can immerse themselves at the peaceful beaches along the quite town.

Thanks for reading. Please leave me a comment if you liked the post or follow my story as I visit the last remaining pagoda on the shores of Mahabalipuram.