The lovely location of sandy beaches of Mahabalipuram is from where story
of southern Indian stone architecture begins. It attains the incredible
heights in Kanchipuram, Thanjavur, and Madurai. All evidence suggests that
Mahabalipuram was an ancient port. It grew to such stature and importance
that by the seventh to eighth centuries the Pallava rulers of the region
invested in large-scale temple construction. The great Pallava ruler Mamalla
(c.630-68) gave his name to this historic place and it was called Mamallapuram
(the city of Mamalla, which evolved into Mahabalipuram). Today the place
is world famous for its rock carved shore temples.
Arjuna's Penance is an enormous relief (27 meters by 9 meters) sculpted
on two huge boulders. Rainwater cascades down the rift, simulating the descent
of the mighty river Ganga. The other depictions from mythology are of Bhagirath
doing the tapas to request Ganga to descent the earth to wash away the sins
of the dead. Shiva offering assistance in the cause.
Further south is a constructed open mandap, believed
to have been added during the Vijayanager period, to protect a huge bas
relief on the back wall. Here Krishna, the divine cowherd, shelters his
cattle under Govardhana mountain (which he lifted with one finger) to protect
from the storm sent down by the jealous Indra, the lord of the skies.
Up the hill one can see rock-cut Mandapams of Adivaraha and Mahishamardini.One
depicts Vishnu as a gigantic boar and varaha rescuing the earth. In the
other goddess astride her ferocious lion vahana is attacking a buffalo-headed
demon called Mahisha.
Pancha Rathas (chariots) is rock-cut shrines are in honour of heroes of
Mahabharata. There are appreciable sculptural examples in rock cutting.
Shore Temple is a structural temple built block by block. The temple has
several shrines. Seated Nandis, lyingVishnu, etc.
North-east of the Rathas and east of the great bas relief of the Descent
of the Ganges is the Shore Temple. This is a structural temple, built block
by block rather than cut out of stone as in the case of the Rathas. The
temple was built so close to the shore that its entrance is from the back,
i.e. the west. The shrine was possibly built during the reign of the Pallava
ruler Rajasimha (the king lion), which is possibly why it (and all Pallava
architecture) have a profusion of rampant lions rearing their smiling heads
from the base of the pillars. The temple has a compound wall with a charming
line of seated Nandis, for this is a monument to Shiva. The temple actually
has several shrines. The first has a figure of the lying Vishnu in the garbha
griha. The east (the correct direction) to the garbha griha and its linga
that looks out on to the rising sun each morning.
There are several local legends about six other temples (pagodas), and indeed
about the entire city of Mamallapuram, which was said to have been consumed
by the waves leaving treasures and beautiful temples at the bottom of the
sea. But this seems unlikely; especially since the architects went to such
pains to build the Shore Temple at the water's edge and worked the sanctum
plans around it to suit the location.
The tower of the Shore Temple breaks free from its bondage with the Pancha
Rathas and soars into the sky, its pyramidal shape no longer fat and dumpy,
but elongated and elegant: a perfect blend of the parts and the whole. The
next step in the evolution of temple architecture is to be found in the
beautiful, very special Kailashnatha Temple at Kanchipuram, built by the
Pallavas in their holy capital, and it is here that every experiment worked
out at Mahabalipuram finds fruition.