By Monidipa Dey
Once the hub of trade and commerce in ancient and early medieval India, Mahabalipuram is now a well-known tourist destination, owing to its many heritage structures that fall under the UNESCO Group of Monuments. The word Mahabalipuram is believed to have been a derivate of the original name Mamallapuram, which means the city of Mamalla – the warrior. Mamalla was a title of the Pallava king Narasimhavarman I (630-70 CE). It was during his reign that the majority of the heritage structures that we see today in Mamallapuram were made. Mamallapuram became an important commercial centre in the 6th century CE, during the rule of Pallava king SimhaVishnu. This was an era of great political churnings that saw Pallavas competing for power with Pandyas, Cheras, and Cholas; coupled with increasing religious fervour as part of the Bhakti movement under the Alwars (Vaishnava) and Nayanar (Shaiva) saints.
A study of the historical findings from Mamallapuram, which include different archaeological, numismatic (example: Roman coins of Theodosius – 4th century CE), and epigraphical finds, show that the town was once a thriving seaport with connections to Sri Lanka, China, and other South-East Asian countries. Among the textual references are – Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (1st century CE), a Greek navigation book, that mentions Mamallapuram, calling it a thriving port; while Ptolemy (2nd century CE), refers to Mahabalipuram as Malange.
Hiuen Tsang (7th century CE) in his travel records also talks of Mamallapuram, terming it as a Pallava sea-port. The Vaishnava saint Tirumangai Alwar in his work Nalayiraprabandha (8th century CE), described the bustling port town and wrote of the numerous ships anchored in the harbour.
Among the most famous landmarks of this once-thriving port, is the Shore temple. Marco Polo in his travel book mentioned the temple, referring to it as the Seven Pagodas of Mamallapuram, a name which stuck to the cluster of the Shore temples among the European traders and cartographers. In 1375 in the Catalan Atlas Abraham Cresques referred to the temple cluster as Setemelti (from Sette Templi, which means seven pagodas in Italian). In 1582, a jewellery merchant named Gasparo Balbi referred also referred to the temple cluster as “Seven Chinese Pagodas” of Mamallapuram. Niccolai Manucci wrote of the 7 ‘China-men’ built pagodas. As Polo, Balbi, and Manucci had not set their feet in the town and had only seen the temples from a distant ship, the tall pyramidal temple spires had appeared to them as Chinese built pagodas.
Interestingly, all medieval European travellers had described seven shore temples in Mamallapuram, while only two are now seen. This had led to many speculations over whether these old travellers’ accounts were factually correct. However, during the 2004 tsunami many rock-cut temples, inscriptions, and sculptures were briefly exposed as the waters receded (Holden, 2005).
Later, archaeologists with diving teams explored an underwater site 700 m east of the Shore temple and found ruined walls, sculptures, blocks of rectangular stones laid parallel to the shoreline, and remains of forty other monuments (Sundaresh et al, 2014, 1167-1176). From these findings, a new line of thought has developed that believes a part of old Mamallapuram is now under the sea.
The Shore Temple of Mamallapuram was built during the reign of the Pallavan king Rajasimha/Narasimhavarman II, and it is the oldest structural temple of significance in South India. The two temples hold three sanctums, of which two are dedicated to Shiva and one to Vishnu. The first thing that catches one’s eyes as he or she views the temple from a distance is the low prakara (wall) with couchant Nandis on it, and the tall pyramidal shikharas with their top octagonal domes. These two tall shikharas/vimanas have eroded ornamentation that shows similarities with the Pancha Rathas; however, unlike the Pancha Rathas, these spires have finials on top marking them as functional temples.
The shallow temple mandapas (entry porches) are reached by climbing few stairs, and right beyond the doorway that holds weathered dwarapalas, are the two main sanctums. These sanctums show the typical Pallavan feature: a Somskanda panel and a fluted Shiva linga (the smaller sanctum facing west has the linga missing, while the main sanctum facing east has a broken fluted linga). Behind the two main sanctums stands the third sanctum that has no vimana and holds a small mandapa or porch. In this sanctum can be seen the Seshasayi (Sthalasayana) Vishnu. The five-storeyed temples have been positioned in such a manner that the first rays of the sun fall on the main east-facing fluted lingam.
Simha-yalis are a regular feature on the outer walls of the temple, though owing to the corrosive salt-laden winds, they are mostly weathered beyond recognition. At the northern side of the temple is a small kund that holds an east-facing miniature shrine. This shrine is dedicated to Shiva, while there is a separate sculpture of a partly damaged Bhu-Varaha at its side. The Bhu-Varaha has an inscription plate at its base that gives us the titles of the Pallava king Rajasimha.
On the southern side of the temple facing west is a large monolithic lion, often termed as the Durga’s lion, as the devi is seen sitting on its right hind leg holding a bow in her hand. The lion’s chest has been cut to form a deep square niche, inside which we see devi Durga as Mahisasuramardini. Near the pedestal is a beautifully carved figure of couchant deer, which is now headless.
The entrance walls of the temple hold many carved panels, some of which show scenes from the Pallavan history, while others depict Shiva in his various forms, such as the Tripurantaka, Kiritarjuna, Dakshinamurti, etc. The outer walls have inscriptions from the Pallava and Chola eras that praise king Narasimhavarman II, and names the deities inside.
The Shore temple remained buried under the sand until recently. While the sand has been removed, the presence of the sea right beside it and the constant salt-laden winds and water spray still pose a threat to the temple. To tackle this, the ASI has built a breakwater wall and planted Casuarina trees to prevent further erosion.
Travel tips: Mahabalipuram is close to Chennai and can be easily visited, preferably during the winters. The Shore temple is a ticketed monument and remains open from 6:00 AM – 6:00 PM.
(The author is a well-known travel writer. All images provided by the author. Views expressed are personal.)