Mahabalipuram: The Abode of Ancient Monoliths

The city of Mamalla is named after the title of great Pallava ruler Narasimhavarman-I (AD 630-668). Famous for its ancient rock carvings, especially the Shore Temple, it was once the second capital and seaport of the Pallava kings of Kanchipuram. It was a sea-port during the time of periplus (first century AD) and Ptolemy (AD 140) and many Indian colonists sailed to South-East Asia through this port town. While there is some evidence of architectural activity going back to the period of Mahendravarman-I (AD 600-630), the father of Mamalla, most of the monuments like rock-cut rathas, sculptured scenes on open rocks like Arjuna’s penance, the caves of Govardhanadhari and Mahishasurmardini, the Jala-Sayana Perumal temple (the sleeping Mahavishnu or Chakrin at the rear part of the Shore temple complex) are attributed to the period of Narasimhavarman-I Mamalla.

Today, the village of Mamallapuram is listed as a World Heritage site and remains a renowned centre for stone carving.


The Five Rathas:

A fine example of Pallava architecture is the five Rathas, rock-cut temples resembling chariots. Just 300m from the sea, they were hidden in the sand until excavated by the British 200 years ago.

The Five Rathas derive their names from the champions of the Mahabharata; the Pandavas and their collective wife, Draupadi.

The first ratha, Draupadi Ratha is dedicated to the goddess Durga. Within, the goddess stands on a lotus, her devotees on their knees in worship. Outside, the huge sculpted lion stands proudly in front of her temple.

Behind the goddess shrine, a huge Nandi (Shiva’s bull vehicle) heralds the next chariot, the Arjuna Ratha, dedicated to Shiva. Numerous deities, including Indra, the rain god, are depicted on the outer walls.

The next temple chariot, Bhima Ratha, honours Vishnu. Within its walls a large sculpture of this deity lies in repose.

The outside walls of Dharmaraja Ratha, the tallest of the chariots, portray many deities, including the sun god, Surya, and rain god, Indra. The final ratha, Nakula-Sahadeva Ratha, is dedicated to Indra. The fine sculptured elephant standing next to the temple represents his mount. Since the elephant’s back faces the entrance hence its name gajaprishthakara, meaning elephant’s back-side. This life-sized image is regarded as one of the most perfectly sculptured elephants in India.

Architecturally, the monolithic Dharmaraja, Arjuna and Draupadi rathas are square on plan, whereas, the Bhima and Ganesha rathas are rectangular and Sahadeva ratha apsidal. Though monolithic sculpturing, both cut-in and cut-out, continued even during later periods (Atiranachanda cave, Pidari rathas and Tiger-cave), the structural architecture was introduced on a grand scale by Pallava king Rajasimha (AD 700-728), culminating in erection of the world famous Shore temple. The later period witnessed a few additions during the late-Pallava and Chola times. The grandiose Vijayanagara phase here is represented by the Raja Gopurams and the Sthala-Sayana temple, juxtaposed to the carved boulder of Arjuna’s penance.

Arjuna’s Penance:

This relief carving on the face of a huge rock depicts animals, deities and other semi-divine creatures as well as fables from the Hindu Panchatantra books. The panel (30m by 12m) is divided by a huge perpendicular fissure that is skillfully encompassed into the sculpture; originally, water, representing the  Ganges, flowed down it.

It’s one of the most convincing and unpretentious rock carvings in India, with the main relief showing Shiva standing with a wizened Arjuna, balanced on one leg in a state of penance.

Ganesha ratha:

This ratha lies in the northwest of Arjuna’s Penance. Once a Shiva temple, it became a shrine to Ganesh (the elephant-headed god) after the original lingam was removed. Just north of the ratha is a huge boulder known as Krishna’s Butter Ball. Immovable, but apparently balancing precariously. The nearby Kotikal Mandapa is dedicated to Durga.

Nearby, the Trimurti cave temple honours the Hindu trinity – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva -with a separate section dedicated to each deity


Many mandapas, featuring fine internal sculptures, are scattered over the main hill. Among them is Krishna Mandapa, one of the earliest rock-cut temples and predating the penance relief. Its carvings of a pastoral scene show Krishna lifting up the mythical Govardhana mountain to protect his kinsfolk from the wrath of Indra. Others include Mahishasurmardini Mandapa, just a few metres southwest of the lighthouse. Scenes from the Puranas (Sanskrit stories dating from the 5th century AD) are depicted on the mandapa with the sculpture of the goddess Durga considered one of the finest. Above the mandapa are the remains of the 8th-century Olakkannesvara Temple, and spectacular views of Mamallapuram.

The rock carvings of Mamallapuram:

The images carved into the rocks around Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram) are like no other in Tamil Nadu. Much religious stonework in the state is alive with complex depictions of gods and goddesses, and images of ordinary folk are conspicuous because of their absence. Yet the splendid carvings at Mamallapuram are distinctive for the simplicity of their folk-art origins. The sculptures show scenes of everyday life – women milking buffaloes, pompous city dignitaries, young girls primping and posing on street corners or swinging their hips in artful come-ons. Another fine carving depicts Gajalakshmi, shown holding lotuses in both her hands, surrounded by her attendants. On both sides of the goddess are two elephants, one shown pouring water on her, performing abhishekam and the other elephant shown filling water from a pot held by an attendant.  Most of the temples and rock carvings here were completed during the reigns of Narasimha Varman I (AD 630-68) and Narasimha Varman II (AD 700-28). But this is not an art form con-signed to history. Approximately 200 sculptors line the streets and chisel their stone from dawn to dusk. Indeed Mamallapuram’s historical reputation for skilled carvers remains sufficiently intact – the town’s craftsmen are frequently commissioned to create sculptures for new temples around the world.