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The temples of Mahabalipuram

temples mahabalipuram
Mahabalipuram Arjuna Penance
Mahabalipuram Shore Temple

The coastal city was first a port founded in the 8th century, about 60 km south of Chennai, to allow Kanchipuram, then capital of the kingdom, to trade with the kingdoms of south-east Asia. It takes its name from King Pallava Narasimhavarman I (630-668 AD), known as Mahamalla or Mamalla "the great warrior".

Mahabalipuram temples are of three types for three eras.

These are mandapa (sanctuaries in caves), rathas (temples in the form of chariots) and rock bas-reliefs, structural temples in carved stones. The earliest sanctuaries of the Pallava dynasty were rock-cut temples. Gradually, they evolved into monolithic sanctuaries carved out of huge rocks, eventually culminating in "structural temples" built stone by stone. Examples of each of these phases are gathered and visible in Mahabalipuram.

History enthusiasts and art lovers will be dazzled by this remarkable ensemble of monuments, an open book on the art and architecture of the Pallavas. It is logical that the site was listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1984.

temples and sanctuaries mahabalipuram

The rock-cut shrines of Mahabalipuram

The Pallava cave temples in the region, including those at Mahabalipuram, are among the earliest examples of Dravidian architecture. They date back to the reign of the ruler Pallava Mahendravarman I, the father of Mamalla, at the very beginning of the 7th century. Inspired by Buddhist rock-cut shrines, they consist of cave-like verandahs and mandapas with rows of pillars, most of the latter adorned with carved lions at their bases, a hallmark of Pallava architecture.

The walls bear very detailed panels illustrating episodes from the Hindu mythology and the niches inside the caves often house different carved deities.

Mahabalipuram Pancha Rathas

Monolithic temples and bas-reliefs

The next phase, during the reign of Narasimhavarman I or Mamalla, sees the shape of the temples changed from rock-cut shrines to monolithic temples carved out of huge boulders. One to three storeys high, they are designed as rathas (or wheelless chariots) on which temple deities are carried in processions.

Also beginning at this time was the practice of carving elaborate bas-reliefs on rock faces. The most famous of these is the exceptionally beautiful 'Descent of the Ganges' or 'Arjuna's Penance', in which a natural crack in the cliff has been cleverly incorporated into the panel to represent the river.

Mahabalipuram Shore Temple Durga Lion

The structural temples

The third phase of Pallava architecture, at its height, saw the introduction of structural temples during the reign of Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha from 695 to 722. These temples were built according to elaborate plans using stones quarried and transported on the temple site. The Temple du Rivage, facing the ocean, is one of the most astonishing of this style.

It consists of two sanctuaries with pyramidal towers each dedicated to Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu. While many medieval travelers reported seeing as many as seven temples dotting the coastline, only one stands here today.

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