Mamallapuram, also known as Mahabalipuram, was the major seaport of the ancient Pallava kingdom, located about an hour south of Chennai. It is famous for its stone carvings, mostly carved directly out of granite and are some of the oldest examples of South Indian art and architecture. With the inclusion of the group of monuments at Mamallapuram, such as the Shore Temple and the Five Rathas, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the whole town is slowly being cleaned up.
Shore Temple was built in 700 to 728 AD on the shore of the Bay of Bengal. It is one of the oldest structural temples (not rock-cut) in South India. Shore temple is made up of three temples, one large and two small. The main temple is shaped like a pyramid at 60 feet high and sits on a 50 feet platform. The temple has three shrines, with two devoted to Shiva and a small third one devoted to Vishnu. Shore temple is no longer a living temple and there is speculation that it was built purely as a work of art.
Another Unesco site in Mamallapuram is the Five Rathas or Pancha Rathas, made up of five monuments where each monument is carved from a single granite rock dating from the late 7th century. These monuments are in the shape of chariots (rathas in Indo-Iranian) and because they were never consecrated, they are not temples. They are named after the Pandavas who are the five sons of Pandu and their one shared wife, Draupadi, though they are believed to have no relation to the Indian epic. Among the rathas are three large animal sculptures also carved from the same granite rock. These three animals are linked to the deities they are placed nearby. The Nandi bull, being the mount of Shiva, is placed near the Arjuna Ratha devoted to Shiva. The lion is placed in front of Draupadi Ratha and lions are usually placed in temples devoted to Durga as they are her mount. The elephant sculpture is next to Nakula Sahedeva Ratha which is devoted to Indra who is often depicted riding a white elephant.
Also in Mamallapuram is Arjuna’s Penance, also referred to as Descent of Ganga. It is a giant bas-relief dating back to the 7th century. The monolith is carved on the face of two adjoining boulders with a length of about 96 feet and a height of 43 feet. The reason this bas-relief is known by two names is because experts disagree on the stories depicted by the carvings on it. One camp believes that it depicts the instance from the epic Mahabharata when Arjuna obtained Shiva’s weapon and destroyed his enemies. The other camp believes that it shows the story of King Bhagiratha doing penance to bring the River Ganges down from heaven to purify the souls of his ancestors. There are more than 100 figures of gods and other celestial creatures, animals such as birds and elephants, as well as saints and humans.
Not far away from Arjuna’s Penance and Pancha Pandava is Krishna’s Butterball. It is a giant granite boulder weighing 250 tons that is said to have been resting on a short incline for the past 1,200 years. Several attempts have been made to move the boulder including using seven elephants but the boulder did not budge.
On the other side of Krishna’s Butterball is Varaha Cave Temple which is part of the Group of Unesco Monuments at Mamallapuram. This cave temple is believed to be the earliest known monument in Mamallapuram. It has the distinctive Pallava style lion bases decorating the columns at the temple entrance and the roof is decorated with shrine models similar to those found on the Five Rathas. Inside the temple is the sculpture of Vishnu in the form of a boar lifting Bhudevi, the mother earth goddess from the sea.
Our last stop in Mamallapuram is the Mahishasuramardini Cave Temple located on a hill. This is a rock-cut temple from the 7th century and is one of the finest examples of ancient Vishwakarm sculpture. It is dedicated to the goddess Mahishasuramardini who is an incarnation of the goddess Durga. The Cave Temple is famous for its exquisitely carved reliefs. One is of a reclining Vishnu on the seven hooded serpent. Another is of Durga slaying the buffalo headed demon Mahishasura.
Next up is Kanchipuram, the City of 1000 Temples. Stayed tuned!
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