Situated on the southeast coast of India, Mamallapuram, aka Mahabalipuram is a bustling tourist spot very close to Chennai city. The relics of the ancient town date back to the 7th century and stand out even today. Mamallapuram is recognised by UNESCO as a world heritage site.

Mamallapuram was a port of the Pallava Dynasty that ruled this region between the 6th and 9th centuries with Kanchipuram as its capital. This region is known for its rock-cut sculptures, cave temples, structural temples, and monoliths. The Pallava King Mahendravarman I, who was a connoisseur of arts began work here. He ruled from 600 – 630 CE. Later, the subsequent Pallava Kings continued the work in this town. Narasimhavarman I, son of Mahendravarman was a great wrestler. He was widely known as Mamalla (Malla meaning wrestler). The port was named after him.

The places of interest here are the bas-relief of Arjuna’s penance, Krishna’s butter ball, the shore temple, five rathas, Krishna mandapa, Varaha mandapa, Trimurthi mandapa, Mahishasura Mardini mandapa, and the seashore.

Arjuna’s Penance

Complete vie of the bas-relief Arjuna's Penance
Bas-relief depicting Arjuna’s Penance or the Descent of Ganges

A bas-relief carved on a monolithic rock known as the ‘Arjuna’s penance’ welcomes one to this historic site. This colossal wall is 30m long and15m high. The beauty of the rock or its complex carvings cannot be captured in a single photograph. The theme of the edifice is either ‘Arjuna’s penance’, or the story of the descent of the sacred river Ganga from heaven to earth. Both these themes are stories from Hindu mythology.

Butter Ball

Colossal stone on a slope
Krishna’s Butter Ball

Behind the bas-relief stands a gigantic rock known as ‘Krishna’s Butter Ball’. This rock is 6m high and 5m wide and is balanced on a 1m base on a slope. There is a local story that once Mr. Arthur Havelock, the then Governor of Madras (1896 – 1900) made a futile attempt using seven elephants to move the boulder due to its seemingly hazardous position.

Cave temples

Mahisasura Mardini battling with demon Mahisasuran
Mahishasura Mardini bas-relief

Quite a few mandapas or rock-cut cave temples with bas-reliefs are found in Mamallapuram. Notable examples of cave temples are the Krishna mandapa, Mahishasura Mardini mandapa, Trimurthi mandapa, and Varaha mandapa. These rock-cut caves are embellished with sculptures representing the stories of the respective Gods from Hindu mythology. The softness and suppleness of the sculptures here are unique from the kind of sculptures we see in other Dravidian temples. They resemble the Pallava style of architecture.

The Mahishasura Mardini cave carved out of a hill has fascinating reliefs in it. The north wall of the cave contains a relief depicting Goddess Durga with eight hands, sitting on a lion, fighting the buffalo-headed demon Mahishasura on a battlefield. More than the main warriors, the entire scene on a battlefield was depicted on the relief with such details. There is also an 8th-century temple called the Olakkannesvara Temple above the cave. The vantage location of the temple provides a scenic view of Mamallapuram along the seashore.

Royal emblems of Pallavas

The predominant animal sculptures found in Mamallapuram are that of a lion and a bull. This was because the Pallavas used both the lion and bull symbols as their royal emblems. King Narasimhavarman used the lion as his emblem (Simha means lion) and the Pallava King Nandivarman used the bull as his emblem (Nandi means bull).

Shore temple

A complete view of the shore temple in Mamallapuram
Shore Temple

The shore temple was built during the time of King Rajasimha (700 -728 A.D). It has the biggest enclosure at Mamallapuram.  The temple has both Shiva and Vishnu deities in the sanctum-sanctorum. The shore temple has a distinct Dravidian style vimana. It has both inner and outer praharas and stands resplendently on the seashore.

A miniature shrine with a Varaha (boar) sculpture can be seen in the shore temple. Though the entire temple structure was built at a later date, this shrine alone was dated to King Mamalla’s period (638 to 660 A.D). It stands enclosed inside an elliptical well. This structure was excavated by the Archaeological Survey of India, ASI in 1990.

Five Rathas

The five rathas or chariots
The Five Rathas

There are five chariot-like structures sculpted out of monolithic rocks (single rocks) dedicated to the five Pandava brothers and their wife Draupadi from the epic Mahabharata. These structures have no religious importance or deities in them. The chariots can be enjoyed for their sheer architectural beauty and embellishments. Some parts of the rathas (chariot) remain unfinished. The incomplete structures add a mystery to these monoliths. The enclosure also has a monolithic elephant and a lion facing each other at the centre. It is believed that the works on these rathas were stopped after the period of Mamalla.

Information to tourists

Mere words and photographs cannot explain the beauty of this sculpture town. One has to visit and experience the beauty of Mamallapuram with their own eyes. Kids will enjoy the place as it is close to the seashore and the spacious enclosures provide ample space for them to run around. The monuments are open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. There are entrance tickets to the Five Rathas and the Shore Temple enclosures. Visitors can also watch a 20-minute 7D movie on the history of the Pallavas and Mamallapuram. The 7D theatre is inside the Shore Temple enclosure and is managed by the Tamil Nadu Tourism Department.