Mahabalipuram - Sculpture by the Sea

Mahabalipuram, a jewel of classical temple architecture from India

The group of monuments at Mahabalipuram occupy an important place amongst the classical monuments of India. Most of the complex was built in the 7th Century C.E., during the reign of Narasimhavarman I of Pallava dynasty that was prevalent in Southern India from the third and fourth till the ninth century. Situated close to the sea, the monolithic and cave temples offer an incomparable experience of the ancient Indian architecture and sculpture. Mahabalipuram received World Heritage Site status in 1984, and attracts visitors from across the country and the world. The ancient tradition of stone carving is still alive in the region, and rhythmic sounds of hammer and chisel on stone afford a glimpse of how these monuments, rock-cut caves and sculptures came into being, almost fifteen hundred years ago.

Modern light house and Shore Temple at a distance (1958)Archaeological Survey of India

Mahabalipuram's many names through history

Mahabalipuram has been famous as a sea-port from even before the beginning of the Common Era. The 'Periplus of the Erythraean Sea', an account by an innamed Greek navigator of the first century CE refers to it along with Poduke - current day Pondicherry - as a port north of the Kaveri. Claudius Ptolemy, the second century Greek geographer, referred to it as Malange. Its importance as a trading centre in the ancient world is reaffirmed by occasional finds of Roman coins and pottery in the area. Another prominent occurrence is in the writings of Hiuen Tsang, the 7th Century Chinese traveller, who mentions it as the sea port of the Pallava rulers (though calling it Kanchi was an error, as that city - the empire's capital - was situated inland.) Since then, it has been various named "Mamallapuram" (i.e. the city of Mamalla, the title of Narasimhavarman I, the Pallava ruler responsible for most of the rock-cut temples and carvings there) and also 'Kadalmallai', by the Vaishnava saint Tirumangaialvar, who gave a graphic description of the harbour with its anchored ships laden with treasure and elephants.

Shore Temple (1959)Archaeological Survey of India

The name, however, is in no way connected with Mahabali, the mythical demon suppressed by the god Vishnu, nor with the Mahabali dynasty which rose to prominence in South India in about the ninth-tenth centuries.

Of the early European travellers, the first to be attracted by these monuments was Manucci, an Italian of the seventeenth century.

The present popular name of ‘Seven Pagodas' is due to the early Europeans in India and was originally applied to the Shore temple and the other temples a little inland, the spires of which could be seen from the sea.

Local lore would have us believe that there were more temples on the shore itself that have gone under the sea within the past few centuries.

The monuments at Mahabalipuram can be grouped according to their mode of construction:

i. Monoliths - free-standing temples cut out of solid rock, most of which are locally styled rathas or chariots. An example would be the complex of Five Monoliths, also known as the Pancha Rathas.

ii. Caves, excavated in hill-scarps and used as temples, and which are in some cases called mandapas or canopies. Very prominent examples of these are the Tiger Cave and the Mahishamardini Rock Cut Mandapa.

iii. Temples, the term being used here to denote built-up masonry-temples. The Shore Temple is an example of this type.

iv. Sculptured scenes, carved on the hill-edges. They illustrate all the styles of Pallava architecture and plastic art, and the majority belong to the period of Narasimhavarrman.

The Pallavas: Narasimhavarman I (630 - 668 CE)

The monuments at Mahabalipuram owe their origin to the Pallava rulers of south India, who came into existence in the third-fourth century and ruled from their capital at Kanchi.

The Pallavas were serious seafarers, and the traces of their extensive travels across the region include inscriptions in the Pallava-Grantha script, and sculptures show unmistakable affinity with south Indian Pallava culture. Mahabalipuram, the port of the Pallavas, must have played a great part in the propagation of Pallava culture beyond India.

This panel, from the northeastern corner of the Dharmaraja Ratha, shows a statue of Narasimhavarman I. Most of the monuments of Mahabalipuram belong to his reign.

The Pallavas: Mahendravarman (600-630 CE)

Mahendravarman was Narasimhavarman I's father, and a pioneer of south Indian temple architecture and painting, and also renowned as a poet, dramatist and musician.

Originally a Jaina, Mahendravarman executed the cave temple at Sittannavasal (the panorama pictured here). Later in his life, Mahendravarman was converted to Saivism by the saint Appar, and proceeded to create rock-cut Shiva temples across his kingdom.

His rule was far from uneventful. In 617-618 CE, the Pallavas suffered a reverse at the hands of the Chalukya monarch Pulakesin II (609-642), who wrested the northern provinces away. Mahendravarman lost much territory, and the defeat was only avenged twenty five years later by his son, Narasimhavarman I, in 642 CE.

The Sittannavasal Caves are embellished with paintings, which are the best examples of Pallava brushwork.

Pallava architecture and sculpture

'Mahendra Style'

Three broad movements have been identified in the development of Pallava forms. The first, widely referred to as 'Mahendra Style', was rock-cut. The pillars of these temples are massive and divided into three parts - the upper and lower being square in section and the middle octagonal. The doorkeepers (dvarapala) on either side of the doorway of the sanctum are huge and hefty, carry a heavy club, are sometimes horned and have the sacred thread (yajnopavila) running over the right arm; but they are not fierce-looking and have, unlike their later counterparts, only one pair of arms.

A pillar inscription from Kanchipuram, however, does point to the existence of masonry temples in his time, though no such examples remain today.

The cave in this panorama is the Kotikal Mandapa. Beyond its massive pillars and past the hall, is a cell that is guarded by female door-keepers at either side of the entrance.

'Mamalla Style'

Cave temples continue in this period, and free-standing monolithic temples also come into existence. The pillars are more slender, slightly more ornamented and are supported by squatting lions. The kudu - a large horseshoe-shaped window in the prayer hall ('chaitya') - is still simple and has the spade-head finial. The pavilion-ornament is like a thatched hut with a simulated railing below. The niche is decorated with a torana-arch on top, and the two makaras with riders at either end of the torana have floriated tails.

In this form, the dvarapalas are much the same as in the earlier caves. The figures, though still heavy, have a definitely slimmer contour. On the whole, the general features of the earlier period continue.

The Varaha Cave Temple in this panorama conforms to the Mamalla Style, and has a large hall with a front row of four pillars and two pilasters supported by squatting lions. The back row of two pillars does not have lions, and a cell is cut in the centre of the back wall. In this cell is a representation of Varaha raising the earth from the ocean.

'Mamalla Style' - The Varaha Cave Temple

In this cave, on either side of the cell are four panels, with a Gaja-Lakshmi seated on a lotus and bathed by elephants and attended by nymphs, an eight-armed Mahishamardini towards the extreme end and two representations of Vishnu, one beside each of these two.

On the side walls of the verandah are again two panels, one showing a seated king with queens and the other a standing king leading his two queens. The panel of Gaja-Lakshmi is similar to that in the other Varaha cave.

Mahishamardini is represented standing on the cut head of the demon Mahisha. Vishnu in both the panels is adored by two kneeling devotees at his feet and is flanked by dwarapalas, one of whom has snake-hoods above his head-gear suggesting Sesha, the lord of serpents, always associated with the Varaha incarnation of Vishnu.

Two other panels here represent Gangadhara and Brahma, the former receiving Ganga on his locks, the strands of which he is supporting with his right upper arm.

In the interesting group of royal portraits, one represents a king seated on a throne flanked by his two standing queens and the other shows a king dressed in royal robes leading his senior queen followed by the second and pointing his right forefinger towards the image in the central shrine.

'Rajasimha Style'

In this period, the practice of excavating rock-cut temples fell into disuse. The pillars of the masonry-temples are slender and are supported by rampant and not squatting lions.

Additionally, the dvarapalas are more ornamented, their figures conceived and executed with greater delicacy; and there is a greater exuberance and larger grouping of figures.

The Shore Temple is featured in this panorama. It is close to the sea shore, so as almost to allow the spray of the waves to dash against its walls, and is an example of the masonry temple of Rajasimha's time.

'Rajasimha Style' - The Shore Temple

The entrance to the temple is approached by steps, and beyond the porch is the main cell which enshrines a broken-fluted shiva linga.

There are also rampant lions at intervals dividing the carved panels of the outer walls of the temple, of which many are almost obliterated by the destructive agency of the continuous spray of sea-water.

The Somaskanda (shiva with Uma and Skanda) panel is on the back wall inside, behind the Siva linga.

Near the enclosure and in the vicinity of the shrine facing west is a large sculpture of Durga’s lion, with the goddess seated on the right hind leg of the animal.

On its chest is cut a small square niche wherein also is a representation of Durga. At the foot of the pedestal on which the lion is seated is a headless but skillfully executed couchant deer.

Shore Temple - image of lion carrying Durga (1958)Archaeological Survey of India

The stone lion, a picture from 1958.

The Five Monoliths

This compact group is hewn out of solid rock to form five free-standing monolithic temples. Like many monuments all over the land, they are associated - without any historical basis whatsoever - with the five Pandavas of the Mahabharat. They were excavated during the reign of Narasimhavarman I and are the earliest monuments of their kind in India.

The Five Monoliths - Dharmaraja Ratha

The southernmost temple of the group is also the highest, revealing that the rock utilized for the purpose of making these temples sloped from south to north.

The temple is a pyramidal structure with a square base; the upper part consists of a series of diminishing storeys, each having a row of pavilions above a row of kudus (chaitya-windows) arranged immediately above brackets of pilasters which divide the actual portion of the temple into niches with carved images.

The images in the niches in the central tier bear features which become very frequent in later iconography.

Yudhishthir Ratha (1959)Archaeological Survey of India

The Five Monoliths - Dharmaraja Ratha

There are four corner-blocks, each with two panels containing standing figures, between which are two pillars and pilasters supported on squatting lions on all sides except one which has only four pillars.

Among the eight sculptured panels on the four corner-blocks, one each represents Harihara, Brahmā and Skanda as Gurumürti; and three show four-armed figures of Śiva, one of them with elaborate matted hair.

One of these corner blocks portrays Narasimhavarman I himself.

The Five Monoliths - Dharmaraja Ratha

The last image, at the back and facing east, is an Ardhanarisvara, a combination of Siva and Pārvati.

The perfect balancing of the masculine features and weapons of the Siva-half and the graceful anatomical details and the sportive lotus in the half-figure of Pârvati makes it a most delightful sculpture of the early Pallava age.

The Five Monoliths - Bhima's Ratha

The next temple with a roof, shaped like the hood of a country-wagon, is elongated on a rectangular base and is supported lengthwise by four pillars and two pilasters.

The other ornamentations, false chaitya-windows (kudu) and pavilion are similar to that of the Dharmaraja Ratha.

Bhima Ratha (1959)Archaeological Survey of India

Another view of the Bhima Ratha

The Five Monoliths - Arjuna Ratha

The Arjuna Ratha is almost a replica of the Dharmaraja-ratha. There are carved panels between pilasters on the four sides of its main body on the ground floor and first storey. Three sides of the main body of the ratha contain five panels each, the central and corner ones being narrower but more prominent. In the corner-panels there are standing figures of dvarapalas.

One of the panels to the east shows a sage carrying a staff followed by his disciple.

The Five Monoliths - Arjuna Ratha

In the central panels are Siva leaning on Nandi (on the south), Indra on Airãvata (on the east) and a Vishnu leaning on Garuda (on the north.) In the other panels are royal couples. (The panel pictured here is to the south.) The attempt of the sculptor to represent these figures in full and three-quarters profile shows a mastery of skill.

Similar royal couples are also portrayed in the panels of the upper storey. Alternating elephants and lions are carved at the base of this monument all around as supports. The scheme of decoration by means of kudus and pavilions is the same as in the Dharmaraja Ratha.

Arjuna Ratha with Draupadi Ratha (1959)Archaeological Survey of India

The Arjuna Ratha with the Draupadi Ratha in the background - a photo from 1959.

Nandi near Arjun Ratha (1959)Archaeological Survey of India

Nandi near Arjuna Ratha - this photo is from 1959.

The Five Monoliths - Draupadi Ratha

The next temple, named after Draupadi, is probably the most elegant in this group. It is supported by four corner-pilasters and has a niche on three sides, while on the west it has two niches containing figures
of dvarapalikas which flank either side of the doorway.

The remaining niche contain a representation of standing Durga, the one on the east resting on the severed head of the buffalo demo.

In the cell inside there is another four-armed standing Durga, adored by two male worshippers kneeling at her feet, one of them brandishing his sword to cut off his head as an offering to the goddess.

Next to the Draupadi Ratha is a standing lion, and nearby, an elephant.

Lion from 5 Rathas (1959)Archaeological Survey of India

A 1959 photo of the lion.

The Five Monoliths - Nakula-Sahadeva Ratha

This temple is named after the twin heroes. It has ornamental features as in the Dharmaraja, Arjuna and other rathas. It extends slightly forward to form a porch supported by two ੇ pillars. There are no figure-carvings on this temple.

Close to the Nakula-Sahadeva Ratha is the monolithic elephant.

Nakula Sehdeva Ratha (1959)Archaeological Survey of India

A photo from 1959.

Mahabalipuram: Way up to the Caves (1959)Archaeological Survey of India

The Hill Areas

Mahabalipuram has numerous caves, excavated in hill-scarps and used as temples, and which are in some cases called mandapas or canopies. The Tiger Cave and the Mahishamardini Rock Cut Mandapa are prominent examples of this form.

Mahishamardini Cave

About 200 metres from the Five Monoliths is the Mahishamardini Rock Cut Mandapa. It the either end of its large hall are two panels, one representing Seshasayi Vishnu and the other Mahisharmadini. The central cell is intended for a Siva-linga, and on the wall behind is the usual representation of Somaskanda.

The cave has one of the most remarkable representations of Mahishamardini in a group, of which another is at Ellora. This, along with the Seshayi Vishnu opposite, Gajalakshmi in the Varaha Cave and Arjuna's Penance are probably the best representations of plastic art at Mahabalipuram.

Mahishasuramardini Cave - close up of Devi (1959)Archaeological Survey of India

Mahishamardini is shown eight-armed, riding her lion, equipped with all weapons and using the bow with its string pulled up to her ear.

She is attended by hosts of ganas and amazon yoginis, and is in the war-like alidha posture using a giant club.

Mahishamardini is shown eight-armed, riding her lion, equipped with all weapons and using the bow with its string pulled up to her ear. She is attended by hosts of ganas and amazon yoginis, and is in the war-like alidha posture using a giant club.

The umbrellas held over the vanquished and the victor are very suggestive. The contours of the Mahisha-demon have been powerfully delineated, and the battle scene is full of animation, the enthusiasm of the ganas and the dispirited attitude of the Asuras being delightfully contrasted.

Vishnu on his serpent-couch is represented in yoga-nidra, and the great calm of this figure is expressly heightened by the fury of Madhu and Kaitabha shown brandishing their weapons.

Several figures are all shown first taking permission of Vishnu and then proceeding against the demons.

Mahishasuramardini Cave (1959)Archaeological Survey of India

Mahishamardini Cave, in a photo from 1959.

Varaha Cave

This cave is amongst the highlights of Mahabalipuram.

On the wall of the verandah on either side of the cell are four panels. On the left of the cell is a Gajalakshmi seated on a lotus and bathed by elephants and attended by nymphs.

An eight-armed Mahishamardini is at the extreme end of the corridor.

There are also two representations of Vishnu, one in which a kneeling figure beside him has snake-hoods above his head-gear - suggesting Sesha, the lord of serpents, who is always associated with the Varāha incarnation of Vishnu.

Gajalakshmi seated on a lotus, being bathed by elephants and attended by nymphs.

The eight-armed Mahishamardini, represented standing on the cut head of the demon Mahisha.

Krishna Mandapa

This cave is cut on the side of a boulder, and shows a remarkable scene from Krishna’s life - of him lifting Mount Govardhana.

The principal scene shows Krishna lifting Govardhana mountain to protect the cowherds and cowherdesses (gopas and gopis) from the storm raised by Indra. Krishna is shown supporting the mountain on his left palm, the other hand in boon-giving (varada) form. Close to him are gopis standing and gazing at him in astonishment.

Krishna Mandapa

To his right is Balarāma with his left hand resting on the shoulder of a gopa and the right on the hip. To his right is a charming scene of a cowherd milking the cow, the animal licking the calf in a very natural manner. Close by stands a gopi holding a pile of milk-pots in a rope-sling and balancing a bundle of fodder on her head. Beside her stands a wood-cutter with his axe idly resting on his shoulder. Behind the cow that is being milked is a little child in the arms of its mother, and further up a cowherd playing a flute.

All round there is a herd of cows even beyond Krishna to the left, where a little boy in naive curiosity stands in front of a woman with a pile of pots containing milk poised on her head, and an old man carries a baby on his shoulder.

Everything realistically depicts the lack of concern of the cowherds at the fury of Indra, who, as the story goes, sent a storm to chastise the gopis but could not injure them in any way, as they were protected by Mount Govardhana held aloft by Krishna.

Krishna Mandapa

The mountain itself contains at one end a group of lions, griffins and sphinxes in their lairs and a couchant bull at the other.

This representation of the Govardhana scene is probably the best in India, even the one at Ellora coming nowhere near this.

These griffins and sphinxes remind us of similar earlier representations at Amaravati and Sanchi and show the persistence of earlier tradition.

Arjuna's Penance

Arjuna's Penance

This incomparable set of carvings and sculptures is unique in the range of Indian art.

The scene is generally taken to represent a story from the Mahabharata in which Arjuna, the epic-hero, performed penance to please Siva and thus to obtain the Pasupata weapon from him.

This story was very popular about the time when the sculpture was executed. Bharavi, a Sanskrit poet of the sixth century, adapted it for the theme of his Kiratarjuniya.

Two large boulders with a narrow fissure in between have been chosen to represent a series of rows of gods and goddesses like Chandra, Surya, pairs of Kinnaras and Siddhas, Gandharvas, Apsaras and others, who are rushing towards a central point near the cleft where a sage stands on his left foot deeply engaged in penance involving physical mortification.

Apart from the celestials there are hunters, sages, disciples and wild animals like the lion, tiger, elephant and boar.

A little away to the south of Arjuna's Penance, in front of the lighthouse, is another boulder on which there is an unfinished representation of a similar scene. The sculptor of the finished work might have experimented here before undertaking his main task.

Panel of Flying Gandharvas (1958)Archaeological Survey of India

Pairs of Kinnaras and Siddhas, Gandharvas, Apsaras and others, rushing towards a central point.

Arjuna's Penance - Siva and Arjuna (1958)Archaeological Survey of India

The central point of Arjuna's Penance is where a sage stands on his left foot, deeply engaged in penance involving physical mortification.

Next to the sage is a four-armed Siva of majestic bearing, carrying a trident in one of his hands and attended by dwarf ganas.

Left hand upper portion of Arjuna's Penance panel (1958)Archaeological Survey of India

The sage (on the right), in this photo from 1958.

The sage (on the right), in this photo from 1958.

The cleft is occupied by gracefully-carved figures of Nagas and Naginis with hands in adoration.

In the vicinity is a temple of Vishnu where a number of sages are depicted in yoga-attitude in deep meditation, some with their legs fixed in paryanka-granthi or yoga-patta, to ensure proper yogic posture.

Below them are the disciples, one of them carrying water in a pot on his shoulder, another wringing out water from a wet cloth, a third engaged in suryopasthana, i.e., with the fingers of both hands bent to form a kind of telescope to look at the sun avoiding the fierce rays (as is usual after the madhyandina-sandhya), thereby indicating the position of the sun and the hour of the day.

Nagini from Arjuna's Penance panel (1958)Archaeological Survey of India

A Nagini, from the Arjuna's Penance panel.

An ascetic from the panel of Arjuna's Penance (1958)Archaeological Survey of India

An ascetic, from the Arjuna's Penance panel.

The vicinity of the hermitages of the sages is suggested by the presence of the deer fearlessly resting at ease near a lion.

The radiation of peace and calm by the sages is reflected in a meditating cat, around which a number of rats are frolicking about.

The portrayal of Nagas, usually associated with water, in the cleft, the temple, the sages, the suggestion of their dwellings and the disciples performing rituals possible only near water - all these devices have been adopted by the sculptor to indicate that the cleft is intended to represent a river descending from the hills.

A little away to the south of Arjuna's Penance, in front of the lighthouse, is another boulder on which there is an unfinished representation of a similar scene. The sculptor of the finished work might have experimented here before undertaking his main task.

Arjuna's Penance - Close up of the deer (1959)Archaeological Survey of India

The deer, fearlessly resting at ease near a lion.

The group of elephants, so faithfully true to nature, are masterpieces that enhance the charm of this incomparable carving.

The young ones nestling in the space between the legs of the parent animal and playing with trunks show a delightful delineation of life.

Right half of Arjuna's Penance panel (1958)Archaeological Survey of India

The right half of Arjuna's Penance, in a photo from 1958.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
Wonders of India
A showcase of India's finest cultural treasures. Ancient monuments, spiritual healing, regional arts and crafts, myths and folklore: be inspired by the wonders of this incredible country.
View theme
Google apps