Located 58 km from Chennai, Mahabalipuram is an ancient city dating back to two thousand years, and contains nearly forty monuments of different types. There are, or rather were two low hills in Mahabalipuram, about 400 m from the sea. In the larger hill, on both sides, are eleven excavated temples, two open-air bas-reliefs (the largest in the world), and unique rock-cut temples, called a ‘Pancha Rathas’.
Mahabalipuram is one of the sixteen UNESCO World Heritage Sites (1984) in India, being protected and developed by the Archaeological Survey of India, and Central Tourism Department. The visitor to this sought-after tourist destination never fails to experience the rare symphony on the rocks created by the Pallavas. The tourist’s discovery of the resort takes them through a series of wonderful monuments, now getting a fresh lease of life.
How to see? Sequence of Items
The monuments are broadly in the form of Monoliths, most of which are called i) Rathas or Chariots, ii) Rock-cut Caves excavated from hillocks, iii) Structural Temples, and iv) Bas-reliefs carved on the hill edges. It is ideal for visitors to explore the resort beginning with the Five Rathas on the southern side, move towards the hillside to see the Caves, Mandapas, the Sthalasayi Perumal Temple, and proceed towards the Shore Temple.
The Five Rathas
The five Rathas resemble Pagodas, and are mini-shrines chiselled out of huge boulders in the form of Temple Chariots, but in different styles. They are known as ‘Pancha Pandava Rathas’. Four of them have been named after four of the five Mahabharata heroes, while the fifth Ratha has been named after their common spouse, Draupadi. The five Rathas are in one place.
The five Rathas are also the architectural prototypes of all subsequent Dravidian temples, demonstrating the imposing gopurams and vimänas, pillared halls (as in Madurai, Rameswaram, Srirangam), and sculptured walls (Shore Temple, Kailashanath at Kanchi, and Brhadiswara) which dominate the landscape of Tamil Nadu. The Rathas are named after the five Pandavas, the heroes of the Mahabharata epic, and are full-sized models of different kinds of temples known to the Dravidian builders of the 7th century CE. With one exception (Draupadi Ratha, which is rather plain devoid of any elaborate sculpture), the Rathas depict structural types, which recall the earliest architecture of the Buddhist temples and monasteries. Though they are popularly known as the five Rathas, there are actually eight of them (perhaps including the Elephant, the Nandi and the Lion).
This is the biggest and the best of the Five Rathas. This lofty structure is a gallery of art. In the entire group of Rathas, this is the southernmost, and the tallest. This pyramidal structure sits on a square base (as compared to the rectangular Bhima Ratha). Beautifully carved pavilions, and rows of artistic chaitya windows and carved figures decorate this Ratha. Guarding the entrance are two sculptures of Dvärapälas.
The outer wall of the Ratha has separate panels, each having beautifully carved sculptures of Lord Vishnu, Brahmä, and Siva in different forms, and Kärtikeya also. In a separate niche, King Narasimha Varman I, who built these shrines, stands majestically. Another eye-catching sculpture is that of Ardhanariswara. The pyramidal tiers, in separate niches, portray Siva as Gangädhara, Nataräja, Rshabharudra, Vinädhäri Dakshinämurti, and in several other forms. There is Vishnu on Garuda holding Sankha, Chakra, and Krshna in Kaliyamardana posture. On the topmost tier are carvings of Sürya, Siva with matted hair, and Siva as Somaskanda, seated with Pärvati, and son Subramaniam, along with Brahmä and Vishnu.
Bhima Ratha is rectangular in base. Except for the roof, which is shaped like the hood of a conventional covered cart; this Ratha looks more or less like the Dharmaraja Ratha. Though the outer walls are bereft of sculptures, the decorative chaitya windows are carved with dexterity.
Arjuna Ratha resembles the Dharmaraja Ratha, but is smaller in size. A few steps lead one to a portico-shaped Mandapam guarded by two Dvärapälas on either side. There are sculptures of Vishnu on Garuda, Siva leaning on Nandi, and Indra with elephant Airävata. Beautifully carved sculptures of royal couples on the outer panels arrest the visitor’s attention. In between, a row of chaitya windows, there are panels of comical figures of Bhuta Ganas (dwarfs) carved on the lower tier, and figures of geese on the upper tier.
Draupadi Ratha stands next to Arjuna Ratha. The roof carving is like that of a thatched hut. The entrance is decorated by carvings of Makara Torana. The Ratha is dedicated to Devé Durgä. There is standing form of the Devé inside the cell flanked by four flying Vidyädharas on the wall, and two devotees near her feet. Some forms are carved on the outside wall. A monolithic Lion, the mount of Devé stands outside the Ratha.
Nakula-Sahadeva Ratha is the smallest of the five Rathas. Its upper part is shaped differently – more like Gaja-prshtha – back of an elephant. There is a small porch in the front portion, propped up by lion pillars. There are no elaborate carvings in this Ratha. A monolithic elephant stands majestically near this Ratha.
A monlithic Lion stands outside the Draupadi Ratha, perhaps belonging to Devé inside.
Outside Arjuna Ratha, there is a monolithic Nandi, indicating the shrine must have been intended for Siva.
Mahishasuramardini CaveThis beautiful cave is known for carved panels portraying Puranic scenes. Here the Pallava artisans have scaled the summit of glory by depicting, with amazing aesthetic perfection, Devé Durgä’s battle with the buffalo-headed demon Mahishäsura, and his final destruction.
On the opposite panel, there is an excellent representation is of Lord Vishnu reclining on His serpent Ädisesha. He is Seshasayi in Yoganidrä posture. As the two Asuras - Madhu and Kaitabha brandish their arms, the Lord’s weapons sankha, chakra, gadä, säranga and sword, which are remarkably personified/sculpted, appear to rush to take on the demons.
Inside the sanctum, the wall displays a carving of Somaskanda, and Nandi.
On top of the Mahishäsuramardini Cave is a temple-like carved structure, which used to be the Lighthouse in olden days.
Varaha Cave is one of the best-finished gems of Pallava art. It portrays two incarnations of Lord Vishnu. The Varäha panel depicts the story of Vishnu taking the form of mighty boar, and plunging into ocean to rescue Bhudevé, the Mother Earth during Mahäpralaya. The Lord emerges from the ocean triumphantly, holding Bhudevé, who is seated on His knee. Vishnu as Trivikrama overcoming Asura King Bali is portrayed on another wall of this cave. There are beautiful panels depicting Gajalakshmi seated on a Lotus, and showered by two elephants. Mahishäsuramardini standing on the severed head of demon Mahisha, Siva as Gangädhara, Brahma, and carvings of King Simhavishnu with his queens are striking.
Krshna Mandapam creates one of the episodes from the life of Krshna, an idyll from His boyhood. The pastoral scene carved on the Mandapam’s walls depicts the Lord lifting the mountain to protect the shepherd community of Gokula from the wrath of Indra, the rain god. The poetic grace that abounds in the even tenor of pastoral life is presented here with a vividness, and charm, which mere words cannot convey.
The Shore Temple
World famous for its Shore Temple, Mahabalipuram was the second capital and seaport of the Pallava Kings of Kanchipuram, the first Tamil dynasty of any real consequence to emerge after the fall of the Gupta Empire.
The Pallava Dynasty
Though the dynasty’s origin are lost in the mists of legend, it was the height of its political power and artistic creativity between the 5th and 8th centuries CE, during which period, the Pallava Kings established themselves as the arbiters and patrons of early Tamil culture. Most of the temples and rock carvings here were completed during the reigns of Narasimha Varman I (630-668 CE), and Narasimha Varman II (700-728 CE). They are notable for the delightful freshness and simplicity of their folk-art origins, in contrast to the more grandiose monuments built by the later large empires such as the Cholas (10th century). The Shore Temple in particular, strikes a very romantic theme and is one of the most photographed monuments in India. Along with all other places of interest in Mahabalipuram, the Shore Temple is also floodlit every night.
The wealth of the Pallava Kingdom was based on the encouragement of agriculture, as opposed to pastoralism, the increased taxation revenue, and surplus produce, which could be raised through this settled lifestyle. The early Pallava Kings were followers of the Jain religion, but the conversion of Mahendra Varman (600-630 CE) to Saivism by the Saint Appar was to have disastrous effect on the future of Jainism in Tamil Nadu, and explains why most of the temples at Mahabalipuram (and Kanchipuram) are dedicated to either Siva or Vishnu.
The sculpture in Mahabalipuram is particularly interesting because, it shows scenes of day-to-day life – women milking buffaloes (Gopi Cave), pompous city dignitaries, and young girls primping and posing at street corners, or swinging their hips in artful come-ons. In contrast, other carvings throughout the state depict gods and goddesses, with images of ordinary folk conspicuous by their absence. Stone carving is still very much a continuing living craft in Mahabalipuram, which can be testified by the presence of hundreds of sculpture workshops and shops in and around the town.
Period & BuilderBuilt by Narasimha Varman II (700-728 CE) alias Rajasimha, the maker of the Kailasanatha Temple in Kanchipuram in the 8th century, the Shore Temple is one of the earliest structural temples in Tamil Naduto be continued.
This majestic monument is situated in an enviable location – on the shore washed constantly by the waves. From Arjuna’s Penance, a straight path towards the sea leads one to this structural temple. It was built by Narasimha Varman II (700-728 CE), who was popularly known as Rajasimha. He is the same ruler who built the Kailashanath temple at Kanchipuram. But the Vimäna of the Shore Temple is narrower than the Kailashanath shrine at Kanchi. The Shore Temple, with its paved forecourts, is the lone survivor out of seven such temples, the rest having fallen to the ravages of the sea.
The Shore Temple, which occupies a most extraordinary site, by the very margin of the Bay of Bengal, has three shrines, two for Lord Siva, and one for Lord Vishnu, which includes an image of Lord Vishnu in Anantasayana posture made of live rock.
As in the other temples, one finds here the essential elements like the Balipitham, Dhvajastambha, Gopura, Dvärapälas etc. In the Siva shrine, behind the Linga, Somaskanda is portrayed on the wall. Rows of Nandi surrounding the enclosure arrest the visitor’s attention.
The main temple, which faces east, can be approached by steps. It is two-spire structure, designed after the monolithic Dharmaraja Ratha, but with much modifications. Adjoining the shrine, one can see a large sculpture of Devé Durgä seated on the right hind leg of a lion. The temple is approached through the paved forecourts, with weathered perimeter walls supporting long lines of bulls, and entrances guarded by mythical deities. Although most of the detail of the carvings has disappeared over the centuries, a remarkable amount remains, especially inside the shrines.
The Shore Temple along with other monments in Mahabalipuram was given ‘World Heritage’ listing in 1984. Following that, a huge rock wall was constructed on the ocean side, to minimize further erosion. It is hardly the most sensitive of structures, but at least the temple is no longer in danger of being engulfed by the ocean. In August 2012, I could see that the Shore Temple was being restored by ASI scientifically.
In front of the eastern shrine, there is a stone dhvajastambha, frequently under the waves. The dhvajastambha and the balipitha, which should normally stand in front of the main shrine, are here located to the west of the shrine (Yes). There is a prakara here, with small Nandis on its walls. Some of the Nandis still stand on the walls. What is notable is the fact that the Temple has survived all these centuries.
Arjuna’s Penance – Big Panel
Carved on the face of a huge rock, this brilliant bas-relief, hailed as one of the major glories of Indian art, and the largest in the world, is a huge rock canvas (96 feet long and 43 feet high, or 27 metres by 9 metres) with chiseled sketches of the denizens of the triple world of gods, demi-gods, Nagas and Nymphs, human beings, birds and animals. All fit harmoniously into the theme of Arjuna’s penance; the hero of the Mahabharata. One must take a close look at this marvelous carving to find Chandra, Sürya, Kinnaras and Siddhas, Gandharvas and Apsaras – all speeding towards a cleft in the rock. Seen around, among others, are - a sage doing penance standing on one foot, reminding of Arjuna’s (or Bhagiratha’s) penance, Siva carrying a trident with His Ganas in attendance, a shrine for Vishnu, sages in meditation, and their disciples carrying on their routine. Other wonderful sculptural creations include two huge elephants, deer, lions, boar, a standing cat, monkeys, lizard/s, rats, deities and other celestials (Vidyädharas), fables from the Panchatantra, all full of life. Briefly, the bas-relief represents everything, the figures numbering nearly a thousand. It is one of the freshest, most realistic and unpretentious rock carvings in India. A foreign traveler had this to say, ‘what we have before us here is a vast picture, a regular fresco in stone. This relief is a master-piece of classic art in the breadth of its composition, the sincerity of the impulse, which draws all creatures together round the beneficent waters, and its deep, fresh love of nature.’
Arjuna or Bhagiratha?
There are two schools of opinion about this event of Puranic significance. One school holds that Arjuna undertook a penance to secure from Lord Siva, the Pasupata Astra from to destroy his enemies. Siva granted the boon, and to witness this miracle, visitors rushed from the Heaven, the Earth, and the mid-regions.
Another school holds that the scene depicts the penance of Bhagiratha, an ancestor of Rama. Bagiratha performed severe penance to bring Ganga from the Heaven, to redeem the souls of his ancestors whose ashes lay in the Netherland because of a curse. The gods agreed to send Gangä to the Earth. Bhagiratha invoked Lord Siva to tame the fury of Gangä. Lord Siva received Gangä descending from Heaven on His matted locks, and allowed the water to trickle down on the Earth. The cleft in the rock depicts Ganga descending into the Earth. Hence, the bas-relief is also called ‘The Descend of Ganga’.
Arjuna’s Penance – Small Panel
I had missed to see this in my 2009 visit. This time I made it a point to see it, after Mahabalipuram visit and study. Around 4.5 km to the north of Mahabalipuram, off the Chennai Road is Tiger’s cave, in a village called Saluvankuppam. It is a Räjasimha style rock-cut shrine dedicated to Devé Durgä. It had rained the previous night, hence the water logging in front of the cave, reflecting the cave.
I visited the shore temple and the five Rathas on 8th August 2009. It was a planned visit. The experience was overwhelming. I had seen nothing anywhere like this in the whole of Western Europe. I had no literature to study before the visit, and bought all the books and postcards that were available there. I photographed profusely, but almost stood in front of all, so cannot use here. One has to finish all in a day, and it can be very tiring. The more I studied about the Mahabalipuram temples and its history and significance, more I feel overwhelmed. This write-up is for my recollection and revision and better understanding in Indian History and Culture.