Heritage Tamil Nadu: The magnificent rock-cuts of Mahabalipuram

The Pallava cave temples of the region, including those in Mahabalipuram are some of the oldest surviving specimens of Dravidian architecture.
Heritage Tamil Nadu: The magnificent rock-cuts of Mahabalipuram
Heritage Tamil Nadu: The magnificent rock-cuts of Mahabalipuram

The coastal town of Mahabalipuram or Mamallapuram, about 60km from Chennai, is named after the Pallava king Narasimhavarman I, who was known as Mahamalla or Mamalla, ‘the great warrior’. The Pallavas were a powerful ancient dynasty that ruled a huge part of Southern India, including present day Tamil Nadu, between the 6th and 9th centuries AD, with Kanchipuram as their capital. They are credited with introducing the Dravidian style of temple architecture. The first Pallava shrines were rock-cut cave temples. Gradually, these evolved to monolithic shrines carved out of huge rocks, and finally culminated in "structural temples" built from scratch. To see all of these stages together, Mahabalipuram is the place to head to.

Varaha Mandapa

The Pallava cave temples of the region, including those in Mahabalipuram are some of the oldest surviving specimens of Dravidian architecture. They date back to the reign of the Pallava ruler Mahendravarman I, the father of Mamalla. Resembling Buddhist rock cut shrines, they consist of cave-like verandahs or mandapas with rows of pillars. Most of the pillars are embellished with carved lions at their bases, a signature feature found in almost all of Pallava architecture. Detailed panels depict episodes from Hindu mythology, and niches inside the caves often house sculpted deities. The Varaha Mandapa in Mahabalipuram has stunning carvings that tell stories of Varaha, the avatar of Lord Vishnu in the form of a boar. The Mahishamardini Mandapa is dedicated to Mahishamardini, a form of Goddess Durga, and the Trimurti Mandapa to the trinity of Lord Brahma, Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva. The Krishna Mandapa is known for a magnificent panel called Govardhanadhari, portraying Lord Krishna holding up the mythical Govardhan hill to protect the people of his village from torrential rains.

A panel in Varaha Mandapa

Krishna Mandapa

During the reign of Narasimhavarman I or Mamalla, Pallava architecture evolved from rock cut shrines to monolithic temples carved out of enormous boulders. They range from single storeyed to three storeyed, and are designed like rathas or the chariots on which temple deities are taken out on processions. There are about 10 such rathas in Mahabalipuram, and the most magnificent of these are the Pancha Rathas, a cluster of shrines named after Arjun, Bhima, Dharmaraja (Yudhishtir), Draupadi and Sahdev. However, these are just local names, and the structures have nothing to do with the Pandavas.

Pancha Rathas

A monolithic ratha

Around the time the monolithic rathas were built, the practice of carving elaborate bas reliefs onto rock faces also began. The most famous of these is the exceptionally beautiful Descent of the Ganges, in which a natural fissure on the cliff has been cleverly incorporated into the panel, to represent the river. Legend has it that a king named Bhagiratha, performed a rigorous penance to Lord Shiva, to make him send the River Ganga to the earth. The relief is also called Arjuna’s Penance, as some scholars believe it actually depicts the Pandava prince Arjuna’s penance to obtain a powerful weapon called Pashupatastra from Lord Shiva.

Bas Relief

After all these years of experimentation, Pallava architecture reached its pinnacle with the introduction of structural temples under the rule of Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha. These temples were built according to elaborately drawn plans, using stone that was quarried and transported to the temple site. The Shore temple in Mahabalipuram is one of the most stunning Pallava temples of this style. It consists of two shrines with pyramidal towers dedicated to Lord Shiva, and one dedicated to Lord Vishnu, sandwiched between the two. It is surrounded by a wall with Nandi (bull) statues all along. This is the only temple that stands here today, although many medieval travelers have reported seeing 7 pagodas dotting the shoreline.

Shore temple

It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to call this remarkable group of monuments an “innovation park” for Pallava art and architecture. It was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. There’s something for everyone in Mahabalipuram - the history buffs, the art lovers, the beach bums or even those simply looking for a long drive along the coast.

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