It was the kind of blue that sparkles and lights up as the sun’s rays dance over it. The blue waves of the ocean dazzled and compelled one to walk barefoot on the sand. This was my introduction to the shore temple at Mahabalipuram where Vishnu and Shiva unite.

Mahabalipuram was an unexpected treasure journey. I was on my way back from Chennai when we decided to see this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Everyone in the south of India talks about the sculptured rocks and the five rathas, but it’s difficult to describe what it feels to see them in person. The sculptures leave one breathless; the work of unknown hands living on for generations is mind-boggling.

Group of Monuments

Mahabalipuram Montage; Image Credit: Yoga Balaji.

The rock carvings of Mahabalipuram date to the Pallava reign. Our guide went on to tell that the vicinity has villages where sculptors work on stone. The famous group here includes the rathas (chariot temples), mandapas (cave sanctuaries), giant open-air reliefs such as the famous ‘Descent of the Ganges’, Shore Temple, thousands of Shiva sculptures.

History

Locally known as Mamallapuram, the town of Mahabalipuram is located in the Kancheepuram district in Tamil Nadu. Famed for its temple architecture, this was a bustling seaport during the times of Periplus (1st century CE) and Ptolemy (140 CE). And over a period of time, during the reign of the Pallavas in the 7th century, it evolved into a port city. But it was the Britishers who established the modern city in 1827. Mahabalipuram has also been called the ‘Seven Pagodas’, as it had seven pagodas, out of which only the Shore Temple survives.

The Shore Temple

The Sleeping Vishnu at Mahabalipuram; Image Credit: cogitoerigosum

Struck by the beauty of the place, we had to pay a small fee for seeing the shore temple. Carved out of dressed stone, it stands amidst well maintained sprawling green lawns. Most works here happened during the reigns of Pallava kings Narasimhavarman and his successor Rajasimhavarman. Walking through the shrines of Vishnu and Shiva, the guide told us that this was a time of sangam or union and the worship of Vedic gods Soma and Indra was fast fading. The one 100 ft. long and 45 ft. high granite bas relief in the Shore Temple leaves one speechless. Eternity lives on here. It’s the Jala-Sayana Perumal temple (the sleeping Mahavishnu or Chakrin at the rear part of the Shore Temple complex) that pulls one and all.

The Rathas

Mamallapuram Five Rathas; Image Credit: Venu62

The rathas are cut on a single rock—monolithic sculpturing. The chariot shape has been carved from granite. All rathas, except one, are modeled on Buddhist monasteries. It was the five rathas of the five Pandavas that showed the influence of the Mahabharata. The shrines are different, but carved from one stone–Draupadi ratha is a hut like kutagara shrine; Arjuna ratha is a dvitala vimana with a mukhamandapa; Bhima ratha is rectangular on plan with a salakara wagon-vaulted roof; Dharmaraja ratha is a tritala vimana having functional shrines at all the talas; Nakula-Sahadeva ratha has an apsidal plan and elevation.

Cave Sanctuaries

Though we didn’t get to see the caves, the guide told us that the famous ones in the area are Govardhanadhari, Mahishasuramardini, Varaha mandapa, Paramesvara Mahavaraha Vishnugriha (Adivaraha cave).

A cliff has a bas relief of Shiva. And some boulders have scenes of Arjuna’s penance.

More Excavations

Recently archaeologists discovered rock-cut figures, dating to the religious rituals of period prior to the construction to the temple. These include a monolithic Bhuvaraha, a reclining image of Vishnu, the base of Durga shrine with deer and a square socket to accommodate mahastambha. And there is a stepped ghat facing the sea on the south of this group of monuments.

As the sun settled over the oceaan, the rock sculptures imprinted forever in our minds, it was time to ride back to Chennai.