Temples by the sea

Published : Mar 29, 2017 12:30 IST

The Shore Temple complex consists of three structural temples and a few rock-cut sculptures, all eroded by the sea air and sand.

The Shore Temple complex consists of three structural temples and a few rock-cut sculptures, all eroded by the sea air and sand.

THE Mahabalipuram, or Mamallapuram, group of monuments lies along the Coromandel Coast (facing the Bay of Bengal) around 60 kilometres from Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu. The monuments were declared a World Heritage Site in 1984 and are some of the finest specimens of stone architecture in south India. The coastal town had commercial antecedents even before it came into prominence, and Roman coins and pottery have been found in the adjoining regions. Scholars trying to establish its long history and wider connections have identified it variously as the seaport Sopatma mentioned in Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (c. 50 C.E.); the commercial port Melange Ptolemy cited in Geographia (150 C.E.); or the port of Nirpeyar—which had a lighthouse and is believed to be located not far from Kancheepuram—discussed in the Sangam poem “Perumpanarruppatai” (100 BCE-100 C.E.). Since the time of Marco Polo, mariners and travellers from Europe have referred to this port town as the “Land of Seven Pagodas”.

It is believed that the name Mamallapuram, meaning “the Land of the Great Warrior”, comes from King Narasimhavarman I (regnal years 625-670 C.E.) of the Pallava dynasty, who was titled “Mamalla”, or “great warrior”, and is credited with establishing the port town. The south Indian art expert R. Nagaswamy says that the name comes from the word “Mallal”, which means prosperity in Tamil. Mamallapuram was a commercially prosperous town whose backwaters facilitated a rich overseas trade. The name of the town was apparently changed to Mahabalipuram in the 16th century—probably after the demon king Mahabali, who was subdued by Vishnu’s three strides in his vamana (dwarf) avatar. Whatever may have been the origin of the name, the site is one of the most visited tourist destinations in Tamil Nadu and, together with Chennai and Kancheepuram, forms the “Golden Tourism Triangle” on the Coromandel Coast.

Mamallapuram came into historical prominence during the Pallava period, mostly around the seventh and eighth centuries. Coming to political ascendancy during the reign of Simhavishnu, in the last quarter of the sixth century C.E., the Pallavas, along with their contemporaries the Pandyas, the Cheras and the Cholas, dominated the political map of south India. The Pallavas have been associated with the territory called Tondaimandalam, the land between the north Penner and north Vellar rivers. Simhavishnu’s son Mahendravarman I (600-625 C.E.) was a great patron of the arts besides being a poet and musician. His successors Narasimhavarman I and Rajasimha, or Narasimhavarman II (700-728 C.E.), are also known for their generous patronage of the arts and architecture.

Emergence of port town

Most scholars agree that Maamalai, or “great hill”, located along the coast, was first developed as a port town by Narasimhavarman I. He seems to have widened and deepened the inlet to accommodate larger military and trading vessels. From his seat, he also sent two ships to Sri Lanka to help his friend Prince Manavarman regain his throne. A poem written by the eighth century Vaishnava saint Tirumangai Alvar speaks of a port where “ships rode at anchor, bent to the point of breaking, laden as they were with wealth, with big-trunked elephants, and with mountains of gems of nine varieties”. This coastal town’s connection with the Pallava capital Kancheepuram (located around 65 km from the site) also enhanced its prosperity. It was connected to the capital mainly through two routes: one inland (via Thirumukkudal and Thirukazhukundram) and the other a waterway through the river Palar, which reached the Bay of Bengal at Vayalur, around 10 km south of Mamallapuram. Both these routes are dotted with Pallava monuments.

Probably around the fifth or sixth century, Bhoothathalvar, considered to be one of the three early Vaishnava saints (Mudal Alvar Moovar), was born in the port town. Nagaswamy points out that the saint’s presence changed the character of the place from a predominantly commercial town to a centre of pilgrimage, though it continued to remain important commercially.

Mamallapuram is known especially for its ratha s (monolithic rock-cut temples in the form of chariots), mandapa s (cave sanctuaries/temples), giant open-air bas-reliefs such as the famous “Arjuna’s Penance”, and structural temples, including the Shore Temple. In general, most temples were made of brick and mortar (sometimes wood), while the images were made of stucco, though some Siva linga s in stone have also been found. In terms of evolution in architecture, the art of carving sculptures on brick walls and then covering them with lime plaster and paint was transferred to stone carving from around the mid sixth century C.E. With the introduction of cave temples, in which rocks were scooped out to provide wall surfaces, sculptures came to dominate the scene. However, whether the sculptures were carved out of sandstone or granite or brick, all of them were plastered and painted at the end.

When Mahendravarman I carved his first cave temple at Mandagapattu (in Villupuram district), he marvelled at the novel technique of carving stone that dispensed with the use of brick, wood, metal and stucco. The late Sri Lankan historian and philosopher Ananda Coomaraswamy had suggested this might have been inspired by the Telugu region of Krishna valley, which had a long tradition of sculptural art such as those at Amaravathi and Nagarjunakonda.

Nagaswamy highlights some unique features that characterise the monuments at Mamallapuram. First, it is the only place where the concept of art forms assumes primary importance and religious and legendary themes play a subsidiary role. Second, the sculptors chose rocks on the basis of their natural formations as in Arjuna’s Penance. Finally, and very importantly, animal studies in Mamallapuram remain unparalleled in Indian art.


The Pallava caves are simpler than the Ajanta or Ellora caves. The historian Upinder Singh says that they have massive pillars that are square at the bottom and the top and chamfered into octagonal shapes in between. The cave facades are generally plain. She points out that the columns at Mamallapuram are comparatively slender with multifaceted shafts (sometimes fluted or round), cushion-shaped capitals and seated lions at the base. Some caves, such as the Adivaraha cave, have a tank in front of them.

Further, the caves contain striking mythological scenes carved in relief, including Vishnu rescuing the earth, Vishnu taking three strides, Gajalakshmi and Durga (in the Adivaraha cave), Mahishasuramardini (“slayer of the buffalo demon”) in the Durga cave and Krishna lifting the Govardhan mountain.

The Adivaraha cave is the only one at Mamallapuram to have a ceiling carved with floral designs; some traces of paint can still be seen. One wall depicts Vishnu in his Varaha (boar) avatar where he holds up Mother Earth, whom he has rescued from the depths of the cosmic ocean. The wall opposite shows him in the gigantic Trivikrama form. After being granted three strides of land, Vishnu covered the earth in one stride and the heavens in the second. He put the third stride on Mahabali’s head. The rear walls are sculpted with images of the goddess Lakshmi being lustrated by elephants, and Durga as the heroic war goddess.

The Mahishasuramardini cave is dedicated to Siva. Its rear wall contains a Somaskanda (representation of Siva along with his consort, Uma, and child Skanda) panel. The left wall features Vishnu reclining in slumber upon the milky ocean before the creation of the world, while the right presents the great battle between Durga and the buffalo demon.

The Yali (or Tiger) cave is located around 4 km to the north of Mamallapuram and contains the heads of yali s, or mythical lion-like creatures, framing a shallow niche in the rock face. The niche is flanked by lion pilasters. The facade carries carvings of two elephants with howdahs on their backs, possibly carrying images of deities. Like many other structures at Mamallapuram, the cave has a waterbody in front of it.

The art historian Percy Brown traces the Pallava mandapa s to similar rock-cut caves in Ajanta and Ellora. He says that Narsimhavarman I may have brought the sculptors and artisans to Mamallapuram and Kancheepuram as “spoils of war” following his victory over the Chalukya King Pulakesin II.


Arjuna’s Penance, also called Descent of the Ganga, is the most dramatic of all the carved reliefs at Mamallapuram. Carved across two boulders, around 15 metres high and 30 m long, it brings together a panoramic profusion of figures, people and animals, including elephants, Nagas and Naginis, ascetics, cats and shrines. On special occasions, such as visits of royal guests or overseas merchants, water probably flowed down from a cistern on the summit into the natural cleft between the two rocks, making the relief come alive. The central part of the relief is perhaps the one showing Siva granting a boon to an ascetic. Some historians have interpreted this as the Pandava hero Arjuna performing penance to receive the Pasupata Astra (the god-slayer weapon) from Siva to defeat Kauravas. Others, including Nagaswamy, argue that the ascetic is the sage Bhagiratha performing penance to seek Siva’s help to bring the Ganga to earth.

Facing the ocean, this dramatic tableau could have been intended for a multivalent significance, as the art historian Vidya Dehejia argues. It may have portrayed in more universal terms the evolving karma through a depiction of hierarchy of beings—from the lower level of elephants, monkeys and other animals through a level of human experience to an upper level of celestial beings. It is intriguing that there is a similar unfinished relief, depicting the same theme, close to this one.

Next to Arjuna’s Penance is the Krishna mandapa . It has a relief with scenes showing a long row of men and women, shepherds and cowherds, and Krishna lifting the Govardhan hill with one hand. All these are beautifully sculpted on a rock that was originally lying in the open. The Vaishnavas built the mandapa in the 16th century to celebrate festivals.

Rock-cut temples

There are nine rock-cut temples at Mamallapuram, including an isolated cluster of five collectively known as the Five Rathas. Found at the southern end of the village, it was not dedicated to the five legendary Pandava heroes featured in the Mahabharata as is popularly believed. Upinder Singh points out that the name of Narasimhavarman I was later misunderstood as referring to the five Pandavas, and the temples came to be known after them and their common wife, Draupadi. Nagaswamy says the Mahabharata and its heroes have dominated the public imagination for so long that anything grouped into five used to be named after the Pandavas. So these temples also became known as the Five Rathas. ( Ratha s symbolise the celestial chariots of deities.) They are located close to each other but differ from each other architecturally. The outer walls of the temples are decorated with scenes from Hindu mythology.

The Draupadi ratha is a small stone structure dedicated to Durga, whose image is carved on the rear wall. It looks like a wooden hut with a curvilinear thatched roof. There is a carved structure of a lion, her mount, in front of the shrine. The mount points in a direction that seems to indicate that the structure was not used for sacred purposes.

The Bhima ratha is longitudinal in shape with a barrel-vaulted roof. The partially cut stone in the interior was probably meant to house the image of the reclining Vishnu.

The Arjuna ratha is incomplete and is a good example of a sizable Dravida or south Indian temple. The presence of a rock-cut bull close to the shrine suggests it may have been a Siva temple. However, as in the case of the Draupadi ratha , Siva’s mount is not in a ritually correct position. The shikhara of the temple is crowned by a rounded stupi, miniature versions of which are present beside the various temples at the ground level. Vidya Dehejia suggests that the place may have been more a workshop than a site of worship.

The Dharmaraja ratha is a better example of a Dravidian temple. It is square in plan with open porches and a pyramidal tower and its pillars have seated lions at the base. The southern wall of this temple has a portrait that an inscription identifies as being of Narasimhavarman I. The architecture of the ratha also reveals the technique the rock cutters used to convert a rock into a shrine—working from top downwards. The upper two levels have a shrine chamber each, while the lowest is solid. Further, the second and third levels are connected with carved stone stairs, while the first and second are not.

The Nakula-Sahadeva ratha , built on an apsidal plan, is also incomplete. It has an elephant carved beside it. Vidya Dehejia points out that the ratha may have been dedicated to either Indra or Aiyanar, both of whom are connected with elephants, but, in this case again, the animal, if the ratha was intended for sacred purposes, is wrongly placed.

Structural temples

The Shore temple complex consists of three structural temples and a few rock-cut sculptures, all eroded by the sea air and sand. Currently, two temple shikhara s, both terraced and slender, are visible. The taller one is east facing (that is, it faces the sea) and has a sharp pyramidal tower with a pointed stupi. The other is a west facing smaller tower. Sandwiched between these two square-plan Siva temples, which Rajasimha built, is a temple built dedicated to Vishu’s reclining, or Anantasayana, form. It was built with a rectangular plan. Dandin, a court poet of Rajasimha, mentions how the reclining Vishnu was once the prime attraction of the place. The taller Siva temple has a 16-faceted Siva linga in the centre of the sanctum while the smaller west facing temple has a Somaskanda image on the rear of the sanctum. The side walls of the Vishnu temple have sculptures relating to the life of Krishna.

The enclosure walls originally had a row of Nandis on the top. However, these walls have now disintegrated, and the Nandis were rearranged during the restoration work that took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The inner enclosure has scenes depicting the history of the Pallavas, which, Nagaswamy says, marks the beginning of the tradition of portraying the history of a dynasty in a sculptural sequence. Two other structures have come to light as a result of recent excavations the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) undertook: a small tank-like structure possibly containing a miniature structural temple and the Diving Varaha. The Varaha represents the legend behind one of the incarnations of Vishnu when he dived into the ocean to rescue Mother Earth. Nagaswamy says this is perhaps the only representation of Varaha in India with the head pointing downwards (indicating it is ready to dive) as opposed to the others that show the head pointing upwards (indicating that Vishnu had already lifted the earth).

The Seven Pagodas

The expression Seven Pagodas has been used in two ways: either to refer to the hill at Mamallapuram and its excavations—as seen in the accounts of mariners such as Gasparo Balbi (1582) and Alexander Hamilton (1727)—or to refer to the Shore Temple and other submerged temples, first mentioned by William Chambers in 1772. Chambers never saw the pagodas himself but was told about them by some elderly people who had apparently seen the tops of several pagodas covered with copper gilt in the sea. In 1776, Jacob Hefner wrote about having seen seven temples stretching in a straight line “like a reef of rocks, deep into the sea”. No other person claims to have seen the pagodas in person. Later, James Goldingham wrote about an elderly Brahmin who told him that his grandfather had seen the gilt tops of five pagodas in the sea. Other than these references to it, the theory of Seven Pagodas does not find a mention in any literary or epigraphic source. They are not seen in any earlier sketch or photograph of the site. Further, even the figure seven comes across as notional. Recent ASI excavations near the Shore Temple have yielded evidence of a long rock-cut wall, something like a prakara , along the seashore, which may have been a little further away in the past. Excavations at another site, at Saluvankuppam, brought to light a brick basement with different phases of construction activities. In recent times, some studies have also been done on the rate of erosion and submergence of structures. However, so far no conclusive evidence has been found to establish that there were more temples at Mamallapuram that were later submerged.

Authorship debate

Who was the author of the monuments at Mamallapuram? Definitely the Pallavas, but who among them? This is one of the most complicated questions surrounding the site. Was a single individual behind the construction or more than one? Or, did the monuments gradually evolve between 630 C.E. and 728 C.E.? Scholars are divided on such questions. Certain things make it difficult to get definite responses to them. First, the wide variation in architectural styles of the monuments. Second, as Vidya Dehejia says, the inscriptions that exist at the site are mostly in the nature of titles ( biruda s)—such as Narsimha (not only the name of two Pallava rulers but also the man-lion incarnation of Vishnu), Kamalalita (playful with love), Nayanamanohara (pleasing to the eyes), Ranajaya (victorious in battle) and Niruttara (without superior)—that could be assigned to various kings. Third, only the last king, Rajasimha, left behind actual foundation records.

T.N. Ramachandran and Marilyn Hirsh argue that Mahendravarman played a prominent role in the development of Mamallapuram. Marilyn Hirsh even suggests that the inscriptions bearing titles or names of various later kings that appear either on the floor or walls of the monuments indicate they were put up later. It is true that Mahendravarman started the tradition of cave temples in Tamil Nadu. However, to assign to him the authorship of all monuments is not a point scholars are agreed upon. Some have ascribed the authorship, or at least a part of it, to Mahendravarman I’s successor, Narasimhavarman. He bore the title “Mamalla” and established the town. So, he also authored the monuments, goes the argument. K.R. Srinivasan has put forward an interesting theory relating to the pillar styles used in various monuments. He says that during the Mahendravarman period, the style was an octagonal section between two cubical sections. This changed to a seated lion, or vyala , at the base of the pillar and a slender and tapering shaft during the Narasimhavarman I period. Finally, during the time of Rajasimha, the seated lion was replaced with a rampant lion. What complicates such a theory is the occurrence of just one pillar style in some cave temples and all three styles in others.

Because of the presence of imprecatory verses in various cave temples, including the Adivaraha cave, the Dharmaraja ratha and the Ganesha ratha , some scholars have suggested that Parameshvarman was the author of some monuments. However, they are hugely divided on the authorship of the verses, with some of them such as T.V. Mahalingam, K.R. Srinivasan and C. Sivaramamurti suggesting that Parameshvarman used this device and others such as James Fergusson, Nagaswamy and Vidya Dehejia attributing it to Rajasimha.

Nagaswamy argues that all monuments at Mamallapuram were authored by Rajasimha, who was more popularly known among his subjects as “Mamalla” as shown by his inscription at Vayalur. Further, most monuments bear two of his significant titles “Atyantakama” (one who has endless desires or fascination) or “Kala Samudra” (Ocean of Arts). Further, these titles appear specifically in foundation inscriptions, which declare that they were his creations. Nagaswamy lists some unique features of the monuments that reflect the personality of a great art lover and his fascination for natural environments—on the top of the hill at Panamalai, among the plain fields at Kancheepuram, and on the seashore at Mamallapuram. On the question whether it was possible for an individual to build so many monuments of different kinds and styles within a period of 28 years, Nagaswamy says Chola kings such as Rajaraja Chola and the Vijayanagara King Krishnadevaraya constructed far more temples during their respective reigns. Further, the technique of construction of cave temples did not require labour to quarry, transport and polish stones. So work could happen on multiple sites simultaneously and be completed within a short time.

Regarding the variations in sculptural styles, Vidya Dehejia argues that the monuments were created gradually between 630 C.E. and 728 C.E. She also points out that the sculptural material is granite and must have taken a long time to carve. Such arguments continue to contribute to the rich legacy of the site, and the differences between scholars highlight several lesser-known aspects of architecture, sculptural style and building activity.

Sudden decline

Mamallapuram’s sudden disappearance in the eighth century C.E. has had archaeologists and historians grappling with unanswered questions. Why was Mamallapuram suddenly abandoned? How does one account for the several unfinished structures? It seems that the place was suddenly abandoned after the death of Rajasimha. During the Chola and Vijayanagara periods, some rebuilding and beautification happened and some smaller structures were added to existing ones, but there was no major new construction. Work on several monuments, some of which had been initiated simultaneously by the Pallavas, remained unfinished. The collateral branch of Pallavas that came to power after Rajasimha chose Kancheepuram as the site for the further development of art and culture. Mamallapuram’s artistic splendour and glory started dwindling, and the final collapse came around 730 C.E. What happened to the later rulers of the Simhavishnu branch? Why did half-finished monuments never get completed? Did the place serve as a workshop for training artists? History awaits answer to these questions.

Shashank Shekhar Sinha has taught history in undergraduate colleges at the University of Delhi. He does independent research on tribes, gender, violence, culture and heritage.

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