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Mahabalipuram or Mamallapuram (in Tamil language) is an ancient historic town in Kanchipuram district of Tamil Nadu on coast of Bay of Bengal. It is 60 kilometers or 37 miles south of the Tamil Nadu capital city of Chennai. It was a bustling sea-port during the time of Periplus (1st century CE) and Ptolemy (140 CE). Some ancient Indians who colonized the countries of South East Asia sailed from the seaport of Mahabalipuram.
The city was named Mamallapuram after the Pallava ruler, Narasimha Varman I who was a great and valiant warrior ruling during the period between 630 to 668 CE. He received the title of Mamalla (the great wrestler) because of his extraordinary achievements in solidifying and expanding the Pallava Kingdom. The city was established between 7th and 9th centuries CE. After the decline of the Gupta Dynasty, the Pallava rulers rose to power in southern India in the 3rd century CE and their influence continued until the end of 9th century CE. The period from 650 to 750 CE is generally considered their prime era of their political and military power. Consequently this was also the period when these rulers could patronize great projects in architecture, sculpture, poetry and literature.
Recently the Mahabalipuram Shore Temples Complex has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is world famous for its shore temples that are huge rock cut and monolithic structures, which have beautiful relief carvings and sculptures depicting scenes from the Hindu epic Mahabharata. The architectural style is early Dravidian from Pallava Dynasty period mostly but some Buddhist influence is also quite conspicuous.
Some scholars believe that this area was used to train young upcoming sculptors. Most of the sculptures have been either washed away or eroded by the waters of the Bay of Bengal. The remaining structures give a glimpse of what the area must have had in its prime period. Some of the remaining structures are unfinished suggesting that this place was used by the sculpting instructors and their students for practicing their art using elements of various styles. Panch Rathas or the five chariots are a perfect example to prove this point because each Ratha (chariot) is in a different sculptural style. There is some evidence that Mahendra Varman I (600 to 630 CE), father of Mamalla, could have patronized at least some of the architectural construction of the Shore Temples. Most of the construction at Mamallapuram including the Rock-cut Rathas, sculpted relief scenes on open rocks like the Penance of Arjuna, the Caves of Govardhanadhari and the Mahisasuramardini, the Jala-Sayana Perumal Temple (sleeping Mahavishnu or the Chakrin) in the rear area of the Shore Temple complex, are all attributed to the period of Narasimha Varman I (Mamalla). Among the nine mono-lithic temples excavated in Mahabalipuram, the most important from the artistic point of view are the five Rathas named after the five Pandav brothers from the Hindu epic Mahabharath. Each of these monuments is sculpted out of a single rock incorporating a variety of plans and elevations. The Dharmaraj, Arjun & Draupadi Rathas are square in plan. The Bhim and Ganesh Rathas are rectangular. The Sahadeva Rath is apsidal. Draupadi Rath is Kutagar or hut like shrine and the Arjun Rath is a Dvital Viman (2-storied) with a Mukhamandapa (front hall). The Bhim Rath is also rectangular in plan with a Salakar or wagon vaulted roof. The Dharmaraj Rath is Trital Viman (3-storied) having functional shrines at all the talas (levels). The Nakul-Sahadev Rath with an apsidal plan and elevation shows evidence of experimental sculpture probably done by students. Monolithic sculpting of both the cut-in and cut-out type continued during later periods, the examples of which can be seen in Atiranachand Cave, Pidari Rath and Tiger Cave. The structural architecture was sculpted on a grand scale by Pallava Rajasimha (700 to 728 CE) and reached its prime in the rendering of Shore Temples of Mahabalipuram during his reign.
The Shore Temple complex is comprised of three distinct temples:
1) Rajasimhesvar (a small Trital Viman facing west),
2) Kshatriyasimhesvar (larger east facing Viman) and
3) Nripatisimha Pallava Vishnugriha (an east facing, oblong, flat-roofed Mandapa shrine) that houses the idol of reclining Vishnu. Two Prakara walls (surrounding walls) that were added to the complex subsequently enclose these shrines. The inner surface of Prakara walls once contained panel sculptures, which have eroded. The interesting cave temples in this complex are Varaha Mandapa (Boar-headed reincarnation of Lord Vishnu), Mahisasurmardini Mandapa (the killer of Mahisasur demon) and the Paramesvara Mahavaraha Vishnugriha also known as Adivaraha (almighty or ancient Boar-headed Vishnu reincarnation).
All of these are in the Mamalla artistic style where as the Adiranchanda Cave Temples are stylistically very different and certainly belong to the earlier Mahendra Varman period. There are some indications still left to suggest that the caves in this complex were originally plastered and painted. There seems to be a period of reduced artistic architectural activity after the Rajasimha period. The exceptions to these are a few additions and alterations undertaken during late Pallava and Chola Dynasty periods. Raja Gopurams and the Sthala-Sayana Temple, juxtaposed against the relief sculptures on the boulder of Penance of Arjun, are two examples of the grand Vijayanagar Dynasty phase here. Excavations in the north and south of the Shore Temples have unearthed rock-cut figures representing themes of a period earlier than the construction of the Shore Temples. The artifacts recovered in these excavations include Bhuvaraha, a reclining image of Vishnu, the base of a shrine of Godess Durga with a figure of a deer and a square socket that was possibly used to place a Mahastambha or a large temple flag post. In southern area a Ghat with stone steps leading into the Bay of Bengal has been exposed.
The Underwater Archaeological Wing (UAW) of Archaeological Survey of India carried out its first offshore exploration in Bay of Bengal, off Mahabalipuram in November 2001. The coastal areas between Saluvankuppam in the north to Sadrungpattnam in the south were explored. The underwater exploration was carried out in the area east of famous Shore temple and submerged rocks about 500 meters or 1640 feet off Mahabalipuram were also examined.
The Tsunami that was caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake washed massive chunks of sand and unearthed a port city and fragments of a temple constructed in the 7th century CE. The receding waves removed sand deposits that had covered rocky structures and revealed sculptures of animals including an elaborately carved head of an elephant and a horse in flight. A square shaped niche with a carved statue of a deity could be seen above the elephant head. Another sculpture unearthed was of a reclining lion. The use of such animal sculptures as decorations is consistent with other wall and temple decorations from Pallava period from 7th and 8th century CE. The Archaeological Survey of India undertook underwater excavations in this area on February 17, 2005.
3 to 4-star Hotels:
Radisson Blu Resort Temple Bay – 144 deluxe air-conditioned cottages with free WiFi
Ideal Beach Resort - 68 rooms & cottages (free WiFi)
Mamalla Heritage Hotel – 42 rooms
Grand Bay Resort & Spa - 43 rooms (free WiFi)
Distance from Mahabalipuram in Kilometers and Miles:
Chidambaram: 146 Kilometers or 91 Miles
Pondicherry: 85 Kilometers or 53 Miles
Thanjavur: 233 Kilometers or 145 Miles
Chennai: 60 Kilometers or 37 Miles
Tiruchchirapalli: 259 Kilometers or 161 Miles
Madurai: 454 Kilometers or 282 Miles