Mahabalipuram : The Elegantly Beautiful Shore Temple

The two-towered Shore Temple of Mahabalipuram stands elegantly overlooking the Bay of Bengal. This shining symbol of the glorious Pallava architecture, surrounded by a great open area and some ruined courts.

Mahabalipuram Shore Temple

The tiny town of Mahabalipuram, situated on the Coromandel Coast facing the Bay of Bengal—in Kancheepuram district of Tamil Nadu—is known by several names including Mahabalipuram and Mamallapuram. ‘Mamalla’ means ‘great wrestler’ and refers to the 7th-century king Narasimha Varman I. Historic texts mentions few other names, such as Mamallapattana, Mavellipore, Mavalipuram, Mavalivaram, Mahabalipur, Mauvellipooram etc. Interestingly all these names literally means ‘city of a great wrestler’ or ‘city of Mahabali’. Mahabali is the mythical demon king defeated by the Vishnu avatar dwarf Vamana. In an 8th-century Tamil text by poet Thirumangai Alvar the town is called as ‘Kadal Mallai’. One of the many meanings of ‘kadal’ is sea and ‘mallai’ in Tamil means prosperity, indicating that the town was an important trade centre and a flourishing sea-port. It is also claimed that the Shore temple—which the town is world famous—acted as a landmark for the navigation of ships.
The golden period of Mahabalipuram was between the 3rd century CE and 7th century CE during the reign of the Pallava dynasty, when it became an important centre of art, architecture and literature. Mahabalipuram symbolized the confluence of Indian history, geography and ancient Indian economy.

Vishnu and Shava
Durga sits on her lion-vehicle’s knee on the temple’s south side

If you have seen the Sun temple at Konarak, you may not be much impressed with your first look of Mahabalipuram Shore Temple. It is much smaller in size and far less decorated. But it is also important to keep in mind that the Mahabalipuram temple is at least few centuries older than the Konarak temple. Shore temple was built during 700-728 AD, whereas Konark Sun temple was built in 13th-century CE. The Shore temple is an important testimony to our illustrious past.
This beautiful structure is an architectural marvel, and depicts the ancient finesse of art. The temple, built in early eighth century, has stood the test of time, the constant sea-erosion and the fury of Tsunami. Mahabalipuram is one of 36 UNESCO recognized World Heritage Sites in India, signifying its importance to the collective interests of humanity.
The Mahabalipuram Shore temple is built with the finely chiseled granite stones. It is one of the oldest stone temples in South India. It has stood strong against the ravaging sea wind and silently witnessed many historical events.
The temple was built by Pallava ruler Narasimhavarman II (also popularly known as Rajasimha Pallava or Rajamalla). Historians recognize his reign as a period of great literary and architectural advancements. According to some historians the construction of Shore Temple started during the rule of king Narasimhavarman II. Later, Chola rulars built the additional parts of the temple after invading the Mamallapuram.
The temple is also acknowledged for being the first stone structure constructed by Pallavas. Before this, the monuments used to be carved out of the rocks or stones. Perched on a 50 feet square plinth, the pyramidal structure rises to the extent of 60 feet; it presents a typical specimen of Dravidian temple architecture.

A miniature shrine to the north of Shore Temple

Shore temple is a five-storied temple. In southern India, this is probably the earliest and most important example of such structural temple design. It’s spire is extensively decorated with carvings. The temple was designed to grasp the first rays of the rising sun and to spotlight the waters after sunset.
Historian Percy Brown opines that the temple served as ‘a landmark by day and a beacon by night’.
Shore temple is a complex of 3 temples, one big temple and two smaller ones. In that two temples have pyramid shaped gopura (temple tower). Two shrines in the Shore temple are dedicated to Lord Shiva. The 3rd and the small temple is the Vishnu temple. Rows of Nandi bull (Shiva’s vehicle) statues frame the temple courtyard. A boulder-carved Durga sits on her lion-vehicle’s knee on the temple’s south side.
The temple was also named as ‘Jalashayana’ (lying in the water) because it is situated at the sea level. Local legend is there were some other temples nearby, now submerged in Bay of Bengal due to natural calamity. The devastating Tsunami of December 2004 exposed some of submerged structures. We should not be surprised if further archaeological research on this coast discovers new facts.
The main shrine of the temple is sea facing towards east. The temple comprises three shrines, where the prominent ones are dedicated to Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu. In the garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum), an image of Shivalinga embraces the site. At the rear end, one can find two shrines facing each other. Here, one shrine is dedicated to Ksatriyasimnesvara and other to Lord Vishnu. In the shrine, Lord Vishnu is imaged reclining on the ‘Seshanag’, which is a symbol of consciousness in Hinduism.

Row of Nandi bulls that frame the temple courtyard

The exterior wall of the shrine is dedicated to Lord Vishnu and the internal side of the boundary wall are elaborately carved and sculptured. The images on the sculpted panels are artistically decorated with scenes from everyday life. The most innovative design element of the entire temple is the ‘Shikhara’ or spine of the temple that is built in a soaring, tiered style, tapering towards the top and is totally different from the usual dome structures found in most Hindu structures. All the elements of Dravidian architecture like the ‘Shikhara’, ‘Vimaana’, ‘Gopuram’ and the carvings of animals can be found here at the shore temple.
According to a stone inscription in the temple, the three temples are named as ‘Kshatriyasimha Pallaveshwara-griham’, ‘Rajasimha Pallaveshwar-griham’ and ‘Pllikondaruliya-devar’.
An interconnected chain of cisterns around the temple is also there. This meant that the sea could be let in to transform the temple into a water shrine. Presently ASI has erected a stone wall to protect the temple from the rising seas and further erosion.

A corner decoration

British architectural historian Sir Banister Fletcher wrote, ‘‘The five-storey Shore temples at Mamallapuram . . . are built in stone masonry, not carved from the solid, and date from the first quarter of the eighth century. Each has a garbhagriha in which the Sivalinga is housed, and a small mandapa, the whole surrounded by a heavy outer wall with little space between for circulation. At the rear are two shrines facing opposite directions. The inner shrine of Ksatriyasimnesvara is reached from the ambulatory passage while the other, dedicated to Vishnu, faces the outside. The outer wall of the shrine to Vishnu and the inner side of the boundary wall are extensively sculptured.’’ (A History of Architecture, p. 744)

The Family of Lord Shiva, Shore temple

A report published in the Hindu, Chennai on July 12, 2005 says that the remains of a Subrahmanya temple belonging to the Pallava period (circa 8th century AD) have been found on the beach close to the Tiger Cave (or Atiranachandesvara cave-temple), a few kilometers off Mamallapuram. This has renewed the debate whether the temple was one among the Seven Pagodas that reportedly existed on Mamallapuram’s shores.
Mr T. Satyamuthy, Superintendent Archaeologist, ASI, Chennai Circle, noted, ‘‘this temple may belong to an earlier period than the temple discovered close to the Shore temple because it has a brick foundation. These bricks belong to the Pallava period.’’ He also noted that the remains of this 1,200-year-old temple include two granite pillars. One pillar bears the inscription of the Pallava king Dantivarman, and is dated to 813 AD; the other pillar has an inscription of Pallava king, Nandivarman III, and is dated to 858 AD. Both the inscriptions are in Tamil and speak about the gold donations to the Subrahmanya temple, at a place called Thiruvizhchil (present-day Salavankuppam). The pillar belonging to Nandivarman III’s reign has a typical Pallava symbol ‘trishul’ engraved on top. Large number of bricks and potsherds, a copper coin of the Chola period was also found.

A statue of Pallava king Narasimhavarman II : The right hand with sword is broken

The plinth of a temple made of sliced granite slabs has also been discovered. The temple could have had a square plan and it had an inner core, made of brick and rock. A small outer wall, made of brick, has also been found. This could be one of the earliest Subrahmanya temples found in Tamil Nadu, since the bricks found belonged to the early medieval period.
The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has also unearthed massive remains of a Pallava temple a few hundred metres from the Shore temple.

‘‘Man’s dream here has a very sharp edge:
teeth-marks of the hungry dead
pit the flanks of domesticated beasts.
Staggering badly, a thirteen-hundred-year-old wind
passes between a sow’s sagging dugs
and yesterday’s sculptors’ rough fingers,
straining to sink inside, are tugged
into the spotted feathers of hens, purposelessly alive.
Chameleons slumber at ease in the belly of rubbish
slime-covered frogs poke obscene fun at God
who sits exhausted on the steps;
p`eeping through a cypress’s dry skin
giggle like fish,
and there, fallen like a raw black rock
on a clump of tender wild flowers,
idle Satan yawns and writhes awake.’’
Mahabalipuram’, a poem by Gujarati poet Gulam Mohammed Sheikh (1960), Translated by the author and Adil Jussawalla

Further readings:
Mahabalipuram: Poetry in stone
The Shore Temple of Mahabalipuram

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