State : Tamil Nadu
Globally renown for its shore temples, Mahabalipuram was the second
Pallava kings of Kanchipuram. 58 kilometres from Madras on the Bay
of Bengal, this tiny sea - side village of Mahabalipuram, is set
in a boulder - strewn landscape. Tourists are drawn to this place
by its miles of unspoiled beach and rock-cut art. The sculpture,
here, is particularly interesting because it shows scenes of day-to-
day life, in contrast with the rest of the state of Tamil Nadu,
where the carvings generally depict gods and goddesses
Mahabalipuram art can be divided into four categories : open
air bas - relief, structured temples, man-made caves and rathas
('chariots' carved from single boulders, to resemble temples or
chariots used in temple processions). The famous Arjuna's Penance
and the Krishna Mandapa, adorn massive rocks near the centre of
the village. The beautiful Shore Temple towers over the waves,
behind a protective breakwater. Sixteen man-made caves in different
stages of completion are also seen, scattered through the area.
Temples in Mahabalipuram
There are, or rather were, two low hills in Mahabalipuram,
about 400m from the sea. In the larger one, on both sides, there
are eleven excavated temples, called Mandapas, two "open
air bas reliefs", one of which is unfinished, and a third
enclosed one. Out of a big rock standing free nearby there is
a "cut out" temple, called a "Ratha". This
type is unique to Mahabalipuram.
Out of the other hill, much smaller and standing about 200m to
the south, are fashioned five more rathas, and three big sculptures
of a Nandi, a Loin and an Elephant. On the top of the bigger hill
there is a structural temple, and a little distance the magnificent
beginnings of a Vijayanagar Gopura and also survivals of what
is believed to be a palace.
Perched on a rocky outcrop, it presides over the shoreline, serving,
as Percy Brown puts its, 'a landmark by day and a beacon by night'.
Designed to catch the first rays of the rising sun and to illuminate
the waters after dark, the temple ended up with an unusual lay-out.
As the main shrine faces the sea on the east, the gateway, the fore
count and the assembly hall of the Shore Temple all lie behind the
sanctum. Unusual, too, is the fact that the temple has shrine to
both Shiva and Vishnu. The main sanctum and one of the two lesser
ones on the west are dedicated to Shiva. The enclosing wall has
a series of Nandi bulls on it.
Interconnected cisterns around the temple meant that the sea could
be let in to transform the temple into a water shrine. But, in recent
times, a stone wall as been added to protect the shrine from the
rising seas and further erosion.
The main hill at Mamallapuram is dotted with pillared halls carved
into the rock face. These mandapas, with their graceful columns
and intricate figure sculptures bear witness to the artistry of
the Pallavan rock cutter. The ten pavilions at Mamallapuram, of
which two are unfinished, were designed as shrine, with a sanctum
and on outer hall. The shallow porticoes are adorned with exquisite
sculptures of gods, goddesses and mythological figures.
The Ganesh mandapa is an active shrine even today, with the idol
of the elephant-god being revered by the faithful, fourteen centuries
after it was first consecrated.
Beyond the circular rock called Krishna's Butterball is the Varaha
mandapa dedicated to the two avatars of Vishnu as Varaha the boar
and Vamana the dwarf. The pillars of this pavilion are perhaps the
earliest to display a motif that became the signature of southern
architecture-the lion pilaster, where a heraldic lion support ornamental
pillar. The Mahishasuramardini mandapa has the goddess Durga in
bas relief, slaying a buffalo-headed demon, and the Vishnu Sayana
Mandapa shows Lord Vishnu lying under the protective hood of the
seven-headed serpent Adishesha.
Of the other mandapas, the Panch Pandava mandapa, that is unfinished,
has a more elaborate facade. Its pillars are adorned with rearing
lions springing from the capital, and the shrine is the only one
surrounded by a passage which allows circumvolutions.
The eight rathas are monolithic temples fashioned as chariots. They
remain an architectural mystery, for each is apparently a faithful
reproduction of a structure built of wood. In fact, even the grain
of the timber beams and rafters has been simulated in stone. Of
the eight rathas, five have been named for the Pandava brothers,
the heroes of the epic Mahabharata, and their shared wife, Draupadi.
The largest is the Dharmaraja ratha and it sets the tone for the
others. Modelled on a Buddhist vihara or monastery, it sports a
square hall topped by a vaulting roof. The Bhima, Arjuna and Nakula-Sahdeva
rathas are lesser copies of the Dharmaraja ratha.
The Draupadi ratha is the smallest and the quaintest. It is simple
structure, fashioned as a thatched hut borned on the backs of elephants
and lions. It was probably the fascimile of a portable village shrine.
The fact that many of the temples and sculptures of Mamallapuram
are unfinished, points to the sudden withdrawal of patronage from
rock-cut temples when King Rajasimhavarman came to power.
How to Reach
Chennai (58-km) is the nearest airport with both domestic
and international terminus. Chennai is connected with all the major
places in India through the numerous domestic flights. International
flights operate from various parts of the world to Chennai.
The nearest railway stations are Chengalpattu (29-km)
and Chennai (58-km). From these stations one has to take road to
reach the Mahabalipuram.
Buses are available from Pondicherry, Kanchipuram,
Chengalpattu and Chennai to Mahabalipuram daily. The road to Mahabalipuram
is good. Tourists can also hire a taxi from Chennai