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Thursday, August 26, 2010


Mahabalipuram (Source: Archeological Survey of India, Wikipedia)

Mahabalipuram,derived from 'Mamallapuram' is a town in Kancheepuram district in theIndian state of Tamil Nadu. It has an average elevation of 12 metres (39 feet).
Mahabalipuram was a 7th century port city of the South Indian dynasty of the Pallavas around 60 km south from the city of Chennai in Tamil Nadu. The name Mamallapuram is believed to have been given after the Pallava king Narasimhavarman I, who took on the epithet Maha-malla (great wrestler), as the favourite sport of the Pallavas was wrestling.

Mahabalipuram (or Mamallapuram) was a celebrated port city of the Pallavas. It has been identified as the port Melange mentioned in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea by an unknown Greek navigator of the first century A.D.

The monuments at Mahabalipuram are of different types like the rock-cut cave temples, monolithic temples, bas-relief sculptures and structural temples besides excavated remains of temples. The Pallava dynasty, which ruled this area between 6th-9th centuries A.D., patronised the creation of these wonderful edifices. Among them, Mahendravarman (AD 580-630), his son Narasimhavarman I Mamalla (AD 630-668), Paramesvaravarman (A.D. 672-700) and Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha (A.D. 700-728) contributed the most in developing Mahabalipuram as a centre of art and architecture. Many monuments remain unfinished.

Cave temples

Varaha cave

General view of Varaha Cave

The mandapa in the front has two lion- pillars and two pilasters, and beyond this in the centre, the cell is guarded by two dwarapalas. There are four panels on the walls of front mandaparepresenting Varaha raising goddess earth from the ocean. (Bhuvaraha panel), Gajalakshmi seated on lotus and bathed by elephants, Durga with four arms and Trivikrama overcoming the demon king Bali. The delineation and modelling of the figures are remarkable.

Bhuvaraha Panel, Varaha Cave

Gajalakshmi Panel, Varaha Cave

Four armed Durga, Varaha Cave

Trivikrama Panel, Varaha Cave

Mahishamardini cave

The cave has a front mandapa with a triple cell with four pillars and two pilasters. On either side of this mandapa two large panels one representing Seshasayi Vishnu and other Mahishamardhini. The central cell is intended for a Siva Linga; on the wall behind is the representation of Somaskanda.

Seshasayi Vishnu Panel, Mahishamardini Cave

Mahishamardini Panel, Mahishamardini Cave

Close up details of Mahishamardini Panel

Dharmaraja Mandapa

The triple celled cave temple with massive pillars belongs to Mahendravarman’s time. The cave temple contains inscription in Pallava grantha which gives the name of the temple asAtyantakama Pallavesvara -griham

Panchapandava mandapa

A large cave temple of which only six lion pillars and similar pilasters at either end are finished. The brackets above the capitals of these pillars are decorated with lions and griffins with human riders. The pillars and Pilasters with vyala base mounted on square pitha

Kotikal Mandapa is a small primitive rock cut temple of Mahendra style devoted to Durga. The fa├žade shows two massive pillars and pilasters at either side end. In the centre of the back wall a cell has been cut and is guarded by female door keepers on either side of the entrance. There is an inscription with 7th century letters-Sri Vamankusa.

Koneri Mandapa

An unfinished five celled rock cut temple with four pillars supported by couchant lions and flanked by pilasters and with a central cell.

Trimurthi cave

A Triple celled temple with superstructure is believed to be dedicated to Brahma, Vishnu and Siva, the three gods of the Hindu pantheon. The entrance of each cell is flanked by dvarapalas in narrow panels.

The Monolothic temples

There are about nine monolithic temples at Mahabalipuram. They are the unique contribution of the Pallavas to Indian Art. The monolithic temples are called locally as Ratha (Chariot) as they resemble the processional chariots of a temple. The Five rathas, the best of all monolithic temples, are hewn out of a huge boulder. Temples of different plan and elevation have been carved and the left over portions were intelligently used to carve animals in a natural way. The naming of these ratha, after Pandavas and their wife, the heroes of epic Mahabharata, is simply a local tradition.

General view of the Monolithic temples, known as Five Rathas, From left to right: Draupadi, Nakula-Sahadeva, Bhima and Dharmaraja Rathas

Dharma raja ratha

Dharma raja ratha

Among the Five rathas, Dharmaraja ratha is the most impressive and sculpturally rich. The tritala (three storeyed) vimana, square in its talas but octagonal in the griva sikhara region, faces west.The sculptures around the sanctum in the corner blocks depict simple forms of Siva, Harihara, Brahma-Sasta, Brahma, a delicately balanced representation of Ardhanarisvara besides a portrait of a king, possibly Narasimhavarman I himself above which his titles Sri Meghaand Trailokiya vardhana-vidhi are inscribed. The upper floors, a veritable gallery of images, have excellently modelled images of Siva as Gangadara, the earliest representation of Siva as Natesa in the Tamil country, Vrishbantika, Kankalamurti, Vishnu resting on Garuda, and Kaliyamardhana. An inscription gives the name of the sanctum in the uppermost tier as Atyantakama Pallavesvaram, Atyantakama being a title of Paramesvaravarman I.

Bhima Ratha

This monolithic ratha is oblong in plan and having an ekatala vimana possibly intended to be dedicated to the reclining form of Vishnu. Only the impressive Sala -Sikhara is fully finished and there is a hara above the ground storey and has high griva wall. The Sala roof carries boldnasikas to carry a row of Stupis and Astradeva trident-finials at the apexes of gable ends. The gable ends is brilliantly relieved with decorative motifs and at the centre is a miniature model of a square, ekatala shrine with circular and crowning stupi.

Bhima Ratha

Arjuna Ratha

This monolithic Vimana is one among five that carved out of a live rock. This small dvi-tala (two tiered) vimana consists, on plan a garbhagriha with a pillared Mukhamandapa. It shares an Upa Pitha with Draupathi ratha. The adhisthana is of simple Padabandha type. The pada portion has slit-niches between elegantly carved pillars carrying very handsome figures of Parthiharas,Amaras, a Siddha, a Chowri bearer, apsaras, and various deities like Vishnu, Skanda on elephant and Siva-Vrishabhantika. The upper tala (Storey) carries a hara with octagonal sikhara. There is a stupi carved out of the live rock but not detached from it, possibly to crown the Sikhara of the Vimana.

Arjuna Ratha

Draupathi Ratha

This is the smallest and the northern most of five monolithic rathas. It illustrates a simple hut-likeKutagara-Vimana. It shares an upapitha with Arjuna ratha. In elevation, the vimana has a simple padabandha adhisthana. The pada portion has devakoshtas containing images of Durga. The usual kapota is not to be seen. The roof, shaped like a hut with decorative motif in the joints. There is stupi carved out of the bedrock in a corner of the upapitha but yet to be detached from it. The sanctum bears an excellent depiction of Durga, possibly of later period.

Draupadi Ratha

Sahdeva Ratha

This monolithic ratha has an apsidal (Gajapriishta) plan from base to sikhara, recalling the earlierchaitya models. It is carried out of an independent boulder, stands near the Arjuna ratha and faces south. It has a dvitala vimana (two storeyed). The adhistana of this vimana is not defined. The pada is simple punctuated by pilasters. There is a mukha- mandapa in the front.

Sahadeva Ratha

The other monolithic temples worth mentioning are Ganesha ratha and Pidari ratha.

Ganesha Ratha

Arjuna Penance

Arjuna’s penance is an impressive bas-relief, datable to Narasimhavarman I’s period, suggestively depicts the story of Kiratarjuniya, wherein Arjuna, the great warrior hero of the Mahabharata, obtained the all-pervading Pasupatha weapon from Siva after a gruelling fight and severe penance. Siva and an emaciated Arjuna, doing penance, are shown prominently at the centre. The artist has excelled in imagination by placing the scene by the side of a river, judiciously suggesting the natural cleft as a river by depicting a naga and nagini. The peace and calm of the situation further enhanced by the presence of Chandra, Surya, Kinnaras, Ghandarvas, Apsaras etc., hunters carrying the hunt, host of animals, sages doing penance in front of a temple and Brahmins doing the mid-day rituals. The deer resting at ease by the side of a lion and the rats frolicking around the wily cat doing penance on hind legs have only enhances the mood. Depicting the animals in the most natural form and in right proportion is a testimony to the skilful execution by the artist.

Arjuna's Penance Panel

Govardhanadhari Panal

Govardhanadhari Panel

The huge bas-relief with a hall (mandapa) of 16th century added in front depicts the story of Krishna lifting the Govardhana hill to protect the cowherds and the cattle from the storm raised by Indra. The central figure of Krishna, with Balarama by his side, is shown lifting the hill with his little finger. Enjoying the divine protection, the rest are carrying on their business as usual. The artist suggests this by depicting a gopa (cowherd) milking a cow while the cow itself is fondly licking its calf. Another cowherd is seen playing a flute while the gopis carry a pile of pots. A woodcutter strolls with an axe. While one child enjoys the warmth of her mother, another takes a ride over the shoulder of an old man. The hill itself is a habitat for lions, griffins and sphinxes. This is the best representation of this story in the art of India.

Structural temples

Among the structural temples, the Shore temple consisting of two graceful Siva temples –Kshatryasimhesvaram (east) and Rajasimhesvaram (west), built by Pallava King Rajasimha (AD 700-728), mark the culmination of the architectural efforts begun with the carving of monolithicrathas. The western shrine has an outer wall (prakara) and a simple entrance tower (gopura). The elevation is gracefully proportioned. Located in between is an earlier shrine for reclining Vishnu (Narapatisimha Pallavagriham). It has no superstructure.

Shore Temple

All the names of these shrines represent Rajasimha’s various titles. The outer enclosure withnandis is of later period. Fully aware of inherent problems of this scenic location, the architects built the temple on a rock outcrop jutting from the sea. The use of hard stones like granite and leptinite, could not stop the erosion by abrasive wind and salty surroundings. The groyne wall, the plantation and periodic extraction of salt in recent times have checked this effect. The outcrop itself was utilized for carving several masterpieces like the excavated miniature shrine, Bhuvaraha image, Vishnu shrine, and the Mahishamardhini shrine with the beautifully carved deer.

Other structural temples worth mentioning are the Mukundanayanar and Olakkanesvara temples.

Excavated Remains

Sustained removal of the sand in the last century brought to light several buried structures around the Shore temple. Unique among them is the early Pallava stepped structure, approximately 200 m long. This structure is running north to south parallel to the sea. The exact purpose of this massive edifice is still uncertain. The steps are built of interlocking granite slabs over a laterite core. The intelligent interlocking method used here prevented the slabs from collapsing and recalls the megalithic traditions.

Stepped structure in front of Shore Temple

Accidentally discovered in 1990, the Bhuvaraha image, the miniature shrine and the well belongs to Pallava King Narasimhavarman Mamalla’s (AD 638-660) reign, but enclosed by an elliptical enclosure of Rajasimha’s (AD 700-728) period. These remains are carved on the live bedrock containing the reclining Vishnu.

Miniature Shrine to the north of Shore Temple

Close up details of Miniature Shrine and Varaha

The miniature shrine, dedicated to Siva, has its sixteen-side base carved out of the bedrock while the circular wall and superstructure are structural. Its form is unique and differs from all other single tier temples of Pallava period. The Bhuvaraha is shown retrieving the Mother Earth symbolically from the deep ocean. It was intentionally broken for unknown reasons. The base is inscribed with titles of the Pallava king Rajasimha. The enclosure wall built possibly to arrest sand from covering the remains contains an inscription in Pallava-Grantha script on the topmost course equating the king in pun with Arjuna.

Recently, remains of two temples were excavated, one to the south of Shore temple and another massive brick temple of Subrahmanya near the Tiger Cave at Saluvankuppam, a hamlet about 7 km from here.

Subrahmanya Temple, Saluvankuppam, view from north

Subrahmanya Temple, Saluvankuppam, view from south

Ticket Rates:

  • For Shore temple and Five rathas: Rs. 10 for Indian citizens and Rs.250/- or US $ 5 for others. Admission is free for all below the age of 15

  • A ticket purchased at one monument is valid at the other

  • Admission to the rest of the monuments located in the hillock area and other places is free as of now

  • No fee for still photography with handheld cameras.

  • Rs. 25/- for videography with handheld cameras. A simple form may be filled at the counter to get permission

  • For all other types of photography and videography, the Superintending Archaeologist, A.S.I ,Chennai Circle, Chennai-9 may be contacted (Ph. 044- 25670396/25670397)

Hours of opening:

0600 hrs to 1800 hrs on all days. Sale of admission tickets will be closed at 1730 hrs.


Mahabalipuram is about 58 km from Chennai on the East Coast Road and well connected by public and private transport. The nearest airport is located at Chennai.

Photo Gallery


Surya, monument known as Dharmaraja ratha, east wall, 7th century A.D.


Monkey group, Arjuna's penance, 7th century A.D.


Seshasayi Vishnu, Mahishamardini cave, 7th century A.D


Devi killing Mahisha, Mahishamardini cave, 7th century A.D.

Map : Mahabalipuram

Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram


reshma M said...
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Hai Baji said...
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