Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram

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Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram
Mahabalipuram shore temple.JPG
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Location India Edit this on Wikidata
Includes Pancha Rathas Edit this on Wikidata
Criteria (i), (ii), (iii), (vi) Edit this on Wikidata[1]
Reference 249
Coordinates 12°37′00″N 80°11′30″E / 12.6167°N 80.1917°E / 12.6167; 80.1917
Inscription 1984 (8th Session)
Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram is located in India
Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram
Location of Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram

Group of monuments at Mahabalipuram is a monument complex on the Coromandel Coast of the Bay of Bengal, in Kancheepuram district, Tamil Nadu, India. It is located near Chennai. With approximately 40 sanctuaries, including the largest open-air rock relief in the world, Mahabalipuram gained UNESCO World Heritage site distinction in 1984.[2] These Pallava Period sites include: the Pancha Rathas of Dharmaraja Ratha, Arjuna Ratha, Bhima Ratha, Draupadi Ratha, Nakula Sahadeva Ratha, and also Ganesha Ratha; several Cave Temples of Mahabalipuram including Varaha Cave Temple, Krishna Cave Temple, Mahishasuramardini Mandapa, Panchapandava Cave Temple; structural temples including the Shore Temple and the Olakkannesvara Temple; and the Descent of the Ganges, one of the largest open-air bas-reliefs in the world.[2][3] Mahabalipuram is known for its architectural grandeur.


Mahabalipuram is known by several other names, Mallapuram, Mahamallapuram, Mavalipuram, and Mahabalipuram; the last name is the most recent and official as per census reports. It was nicknamed the "land of seven pagodas" by European sailors who landed on this coast after they saw seven pinnacles or stupas of Hindu temples.[4]


Records attest that the site was a seaport during the time of Periplus (1st century AD) and Ptolemy (AD 140). It was established as a town in the 7th century by the Pallava kings who ruled south of Madras (now known as Chennai). It became a famous harbour town used for trading with many kingdoms of Southeast Asian countries like Kambuja (present-day Cambodia) and Shrivijaya (present-day islands of Malaysia, Sumatra and Java), and also with the Champa Empire (known as Annam). In subsequent periods it became famous more for its rock-cut temples and caves and also structural temples built between 630 and 728 AD.[2][5]

Mahabalipuram is named after the King Mamalla (meaning the great warrior) also known as Narasimhavarman I (c. 630 – 670), who ruled during the 7th century at the head of the Pallava Dynasty.[6] However, Mahendravarman I (AD 600-30), father of Mamalla I, is also given credit to some of the architectural edifices here during his reign. During the 7th century the temple-building activity marked the beginning of rock-cut architecture in South India as part of Dravidian architectural monuments. Some of the monuments built during this period are: Rock-cut rathas (Five Rathas) or chariots, the open air bas-reliefs known as the Descent of the Ganges, the rock-cut decorated caves like the Govardhanadhari, Mahishasuramardini, and the Jala-Sayana Perumal Temple, all attributed to Mamalla.[5]

In the 8th century, as building of the rock-cut monolithic temples became less important, structural temples became popular during the reign of another Pallava king, Rajasimha[disambiguation needed] (AD 700-28). His contribution to the structural architecture was monumental, as he built one of the grandest temples known at the time, the Shore Temple. This temple complex comprises three temples: the Rajasimhesvara, a west-facing structure which has a small tritala vimana; the Kshatriyasimhesvara, an east-facing structure which has the largest vimana; and Nripatisimha Pallava Vishnugriha, another east-facing structure which is a flat-roofed mandapa in oblong shape, and which enshrines the reclining Vishnu. The two prakara walls surrounding the temples in this complex are dated to a later period.[5] The Pallava dynasty reigned from 4th to 9th century until it was defeated by the Chola dynasty in 897 AD. Mahabalipuram's historical importance diminished after that. For some time it was known only as a port, but eventually was deserted.

Archaeologists of antiquarian art rediscovered the monuments in the 19th century. In the 20th century it became a major tourist attraction and was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984, under four categories under criteria of i, ii, iii and iv.[2][3] Immediately before the tsunami of 2004 struck the Indian Ocean, including the Bay of Bengal, the ocean water off Mahabalipuram’s coast pulled back approximately 500 metres (1,600 ft). Tourists and residents who witnessed this event from the beach recalled seeing a long, straight row of large rocks emerge from the water. As the tsunami rushed to shore, these stones were covered again by water. However, centuries worth of sediment that had covered them was gone. The tsunami also made some immediate, lasting changes to the coastline, which left a few previously covered statues and small structures uncovered on the shore.[7]


The unique monuments in Mahabalipuram present a fusion of religion, culture, and legends, all related to the Hindu religious pantheon.[8] All these monuments located on the shores of the Bay of Bengal are in the exclusive Dravidian style of architecture, imbibing the art and culture of Tamil Nadu. The monuments are: Mandapas, also called Cave Temples; Rathas, or chariots; the open air bas-relief depicting Arjuna's penance to Lord Shiva to obtain the Pashupata weapon; and structural temples.[9] The architecture of the rock-cut temples, particularly the rathas, became models for south Indian temple architectural style in subsequent periods.[10] The architectural features, particularly of the sculptures, were widely adopted in South India and also in the building of temples in Cambodia, Annam and Java.[2] Descendants of the sculptors of these shrines are active and involved artisans in Mahabalipuram's contemporary town culture.[8]

Notable landmarks[edit]

Bhima and Dharma Raja Rathas

Ratha temples[edit]

Ratha Temples are temples carved in the shape of chariots. These are five monolithic structures carved in diorite or granite rocks which project above the sandy beach and appear like chariots on a tableau or procession.[2] The five Rathas, also known as the Pandava Rathas (Pandavas were five brothers and their common wife Draupadi of the epic Mahabharata) dated to the 7th century reign of the Pallava Dynasty are the Dharmaraja Ratha, the Bhima Ratha, the Arjuna Ratha, the Nakula and Sahadeva Ratha, and the Draupadi Ratha. They are carved from a single rock but with different layouts. They were not fully completed and hence no worship is offered in any of these temples.[5][10] Apart from these five rathas there is also another ratha which was built in the late 7th century known as the Ganesha Ratha. The dating of this ratha is based on an inscription of the name of Parameshvaravarman I, who was the grandson of Mahamalla.[11][12]


Bas reliefs in the walls of the Varaha Cave Temple.

Mandapas or rock-cut Caves are sanctuaries or temples covered with bas-reliefs. The earliest period of use of caves as sanctuaries is traced to the Buddhist and Jain periods when these were excavated, the rocks cut and then carved using chisel and iron mallet. Of the eleven mandapas or caves seen in Mahabalipuram, the most notable are the Varaha Cave Temple, Krishna Cave Temple, Panchapandava Cave Temple, and the Mahishasuramardini Mandapa;[2][13] cut and decorated with panels in the Mamalla style during the Pallava period in the 7th century, where as the Adiranchanda caves temples are dated to the Mahendraverman period of the 8th century. Remnants seen in the caves also indicate that they were plastered and painted when built.[5] One of the most impressive bas-reliefs, carved on the walls in the caves, is that of the goddess Durga (a form of goddess Shakti), who killed Mahishasura, the buffalo-headed demon. This bas-relief panel in the Mahsisuramardhini Cave Temple is considered a masterpiece of Indian art.[14] Many of the caves of the Pallava period have remained incomplete.

Rock relief[edit]

Rock reliefs of the Descent of the Ganges

Rock reliefs are carved on rocks or on independent boulders. The most famous rock relief or bas-relief work seen in Mahablipuram is titled the Descent of the Ganges (also known as Arjuna's Penance or Bhagiratha's Penance), the largest open-air rock relief. It is also reported as the largest bas-relief work in the world.[2][5] This bas-relief is carved on two huge boulders of 27 metres (89 ft) length and 9 metres (30 ft) height with innumerable depictions eulogizing through mythological episodes from the Hindu religious beliefs.[15] These are of the early or middle 7th century creations on granite boulders and are considered by The Hindu to be "one of the marvels of the sculptural art of India."[16]

Structural temples[edit]

Left Full view of the Shore Temple complex. Right: Ananthshayana Vishnu in the Shore Temple complex.

The structural temples were also built by the Pallava kings but during the early 8th century during the reign of Pallava king Rajasimha (AD 700-28). It is located right on the shores of the coast of the Indian Ocean and has sustained wave action and tsunamis. The most famous and prominent of this form of temples is the Shore Temple complex which has two small and one large temple enclosed within a two tier compound wall studded with images of Nandi, the vahana (vehicle) of Shiva. The main temple is tall (rising to a height of 60 feet (18 m) over a 50 feet (15 m) square base) and is a stepped pyramidal tower arranged in five tiers. It is decorated with thousands of sculptures dedicated to the worship of Lord Siva. There is also a small temple in the original forecourt of this temple. The other two temples in the same complex are behind this large main temple, face each other and are known as the Rajasimhesvara or Nripatisimha Pallava Vishnugriha and the Kshatriyasimhesvara. The latter temple is dedicated to Shiva while the former temple has an ancient reclining image of Anantashayana Vishnu carved in the bed of the river nearby.[5][17] The temple walls on the rear side are carved with bas-relief panels depicting Siva, Parvati and their son Skanda.[16] The mandapa in front of the Rajasimheshvara is extant up to the basement. The entire temple complex is covered by a prakara (compound wall) coped with Nandis.[18] As the Shore Temple is located next to the sea, it is affected by the rough sea and salt laden winds. The efforts undertaken by ASI such as construction of groynes, wall paper pulp treatment and Casuarina tree plantations on the shore line are mitigation methods which have been implemented.[18]


After being stalled for about 40 years, the master plan to beautify Mahabalipuram was initiated in 2003. The Union Ministry of Tourism and Culture is financing this multi-crore project called the "Integrated Development of Mamallapuram". Clean-up work covered the area around the monuments, including fencing, laying lawns and pathways, building parks, as well as removing hawkers and encroachments. During the Son et lumiere (light and sound show) the monuments are lit up at night.[19] While the ASI has laid the lawns and pathways around the monuments, the Housing and Urban Development Corporation (HUDCO) has designed the parks on both sides of the roads leading to the Shore Temple and the Five Rathas, two important monuments. There are other ambitious plans too, such as the laying of a pathway from behind the Shore Temple to the Five Rathas, and conserving more monuments.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h "Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram". Retrieved 23 October 2012. 
  3. ^ a b "Advisory body evaluation" (PDF). Retrieved 23 October 2012. 
  4. ^ Ayyar, P. V. Jagadisa (1982). South Indian Shrines: Illustrated. Asian Educational Services. pp. 157–. ISBN 978-81-206-0151-2. Retrieved 7 February 2013. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g "World Heritage Sites – Mahabalipuram, Group of Monuments Mahabalipuram (1984), Tamil Nadu". Archaeological Survey of India. Retrieved 23 October 2012. 
  6. ^ "Pancha Rathas, Mamallapuram". Archaeological Survey of India. Retrieved 23 October 2012. 
  7. ^ Maguire, Paddy (27 October 2005). "Tsunami Reveals Ancient Temple Sites". BBC News. Retrieved 9 September 2006. 
  8. ^ a b Bruyn, Pippa de; Bain, Keith; Allardice, David; Shonar Joshi (18 February 2010). Frommer's India. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 333–. ISBN 978-0-470-64580-2. Retrieved 7 February 2013. 
  9. ^ Nagaswamy, R. (1 October 2010). Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram). Oxford University Press India. ISBN 978-0-19-807127-3. Retrieved 7 February 2013. 
  10. ^ a b "The Rathas, monolithic [Mamallapuram]". Online Gallery of British Library. Retrieved 23 October 2012.  Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Brit" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  11. ^ "Ganesha ratha, Mamallapuram". Online Gallery of British Library. Retrieved 23 October 2012. 
  12. ^ "Ganesh Temple, monolith [Mamallapuram]". Online Gallery of British Library. Retrieved 23 October 2012. 
  13. ^ Michell, George (1977). The Hindu Temple: An Introduction to Its Meaning and Forms. University of Chicago Press. pp. 81–. ISBN 978-0-226-53230-1. Retrieved 7 February 2013. 
  14. ^ "Durga Temple [Mahishasuramardini Cave Temple, Mamallapuram]". Online Gallery of British Library. Retrieved 23 October 2012. 
  15. ^ "Animals crowding in to admire Arjuna performing Penance [Mamallapuram]". Online Gallery of British Library. Retrieved 23 October 2012. 
  16. ^ a b "Mamallapuram". Frontline: India’s national Magazine from the publishers of The Hindu. Retrieved 30 December 2012. 
  17. ^ "Shore Temple of the Seven Pagodas at Mahabalipuram. five story pyramid, 60 ft. high". Great Buildings. Retrieved 23 October 2012. 
  18. ^ a b "The Shore Temple stands its ground". The Hindu. 30 December 2004. Retrieved 30 January 2013. 
  19. ^ a b "A monumental effort". Front Line India's National Magazine from the publishers of The Hindu. 8 November 2003. Archived from the original on 10 April 2013. Retrieved 30 December 2012.