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Shore Temple, Mahabalipuram

The Shore Temple, Mahabalipuram is a popular tourist attraction. It has both religious and archaeological significance. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984. This temple is located in picturesque surroundings on the seashore near Chennai in Tamilnadu, South India.

The Shore Temple is a part of a complex of other temples and shrines in Mamallapuram.
Its name Shore Temple is obviously because it sits on the seashore. The group of monuments here are a testimony to the artistic and architectural skills of the Pallavas. They showcase the different types of design that were prevalent at the time. The carvings also depict many stories and scenes from Hindu mythology as well. The artistry of the sculptures here is hard to capture on camera. 

The Shore Temple
The Shore Temple

The drive to Mamallapuram from Chennai as well as the scenic beauty of the area is another attraction for visitors. The beaches and the vegetation make for a beautiful and soothing getaway or day trip from Chennai.

History

The Shore Temple is located in Mahabalipuram or Mamallapuram that was a very important and busy seaport in the times of the Pallavas. Mahabalipuram flourished as a centre of culture and the arts during the reign of the King Mahendravarman I between 600 CE and 630 CE. As he was a poet, playwright and speaker, he patronised the arts and the creation of many of the monuments and landmarks of the city. His son Narasimhavarman I who ruled from 630 CE to 680 CE continued this support of arts and culture. The subsequent Pallava kings also continued the same.

The temple is thought to have been built in 700–728 AD during the reign of the Pallava King Narasimhavarman I. The king was a warrior of great renown. He was given the tile of Mahamalla which means the great wrestler. The name of the city changed to reflect his name. The Pallavas ruled this region between the 3rd century CE and 7th century CE.

The port city was not only a commercial centre but also a centre of architecture, art and literature. Mamallapuram was the second capital of the kingdom after Kanchipuram. During the Golden Age of the Pallava rule, the arts and literature flourished. There are records of many noteworthy artists, artisans, writers, poets, dramatists and saints at the time. They encouraged experimentation and new innovation in architecture and innovation. Mamallapuram stands as a testimony to the imagination and artistic execution of the designs of the time. 

Seven Pagodas

Archaeological investigations have recovered coins and artefacts that point to trade with the Roman Empire dating back to even before the reign of the Pallavas. Other findings show that there were also links with China, Srilanka and other south-east Asian countries. The Greek book Periplus of the Erythraean Sea from the 1st Century CE and writings by Ptolemy from the 2nd century CE mentions Mamallapuram. Hiuen Tsang in the 7th century CE mentioned this port. Tirumangai Alwar a saint mentions it in Nalayira Prabandham in the 8th century CE. 

Marcopolo and other ancient explorers mention it in their records. However, most of the ancient material that refers to the place call it the land of the seven pagodas. Pagoda might refer to the temple spire. Today there is only one big spire. Diving expeditions earlier had pointed to the existence of more structures under the sea. The tsunami of 2004 that caused the waters to briefly recede revealed more monuments and structures. The force of the receding waves also successfully removed sandy deposits that had obscured many of them. Further diving expeditions are being conducted since then to give more details about the nature of the submerged monuments. There is also a theory that the ancient structures were submerged by flooding between 10,000 and 13,000 BCE.

Devi's Lion Sculpture
Devi’s Lion Sculpture

Some Interesting Facts About Mahabalipuram

  • It took a period of 200 years to plan the entire site
  • Most of the structures are carved out of single pieces of rock (monolithic) but the Shore Temple is made of cut rock
  • The Shore Temple is in the Dravidian style that looked to the European traveller like Pagodas
  • The style of the Rathas is different from the Shore Temple. They are in the Buddhist Viharas and Chaitya style
  • A pair of deer carved in the Arjuna’s penance bas relief feature on the INR 10 note. This was as per the wishes of the then PM Indira Gandhi in 1980

About The Deities

The temple is in the Dravidian style and is made of pieces of cut rock. The main temple has an inner Sanctum Sanctorum that has a Shiv Linga. The Linga is a Dharalinga that has sixteen faces. There are two other shrines that are dedicated to Vishnu and Ksatriyasimnesvara. A sculpture of Durga on a lion is also present. There is also a bas relief that depicts the family of Shiva, Parvati and Murugan in a small shrine which is called the Somaskanda panel. The smaller Shiva temple has two carved panels that depict the one-legged or Ekapada form of Shiva and the second has the Nagaraja. 

The smaller shrine has Vishnu in the reclining form. There are also panels of Krishna dancing on Kalia as well as that of the saving of Gajendra. There are also other sculptures in the temple complex. 

Bhagiratha's Story
Bhagiratha’s Story

How To Reach The Temple

The Shore Temple is about 29 kilometres from Chennai. It can be reached by public transport or cab. Chennai has an international airport and has excellent road and rail connectivity to the rest of the country. 

Other Attractions

The other attractions are the monuments in the town. 

The oldest Pallava structure in the area is the Adi Varaha Perumal Cave Temple. It has a beautiful and grand Mandapa that has been hidden by a later day structure. The original structure dated to the times before the reign of Mahendravarman I. The temple has beautiful relief sculptures. It is dedicated to the Varaha Avatar of Lord Vishnu. The sculptures also depict the Pallava kings, Simhavishnu who ruled from 537 CE to 570 CE and Mahendravarman I accompanied by their respective queens.

There is a cave that is dedicated to the Trimurti or trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara (Shiva). They represent creation, sustenance and destruction. There are also carvings of devotees. 

Pandava’s Rathas

The Ratha temples were carved out for each of the five Pandavas. They are Dharmaraja Ratha, Arjuna Ratha, Bhima Ratha, Draupadi Ratha and Nakul Sahadev Ratha. The Dharmaraja Ratha is unfinished but the largest. 

Arjuna's Penance
Arjuna’s Penance

The Arjuna’s Penance carving is 43 feet high. It depicts the austerities that Arjuna performed to get a boon from Lord Shiva. It also depicts the story of Bhagiratha who brought the Ganges down to the Earth. The carving is one among the largest bas relief carvings in the world. It has many depictions of the Gods, Devas, birds and animals that are a delight to behold. The Ganges has been cleverly depicted within a natural cleft in the rock. The Mahishamardini Mandapam depicts the story of Durga killing Mahishasura. It is partially finished. It also has Lord Shiva as well as Lord Vishnu depicted.

Draupadi
Draupadi

The complex also has shallow Mandapams. They are basically monolithic rock porticos with decorative pillars and embellishments. Some of the Mandapams are unfinished.

The Ulaganatheshwara Temple nearby dates back to the same period as the Shore Temple. It is on a hill atop the Mahishasuramardini cave. This temple might have also functioned as a lighthouse in olden times. 

Lord Krishna’s Butterball

Lord Krishna’s Butterball is a natural round rock. It quite amazingly stands firm and stable on a very small base. Even Kings and elephants who had attempted to move this rock had failed.  There is also an old lighthouse and a modern one that has been constructed nearby.

The Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram) Dance Festival is organised by the Tamilnadu Tourism Department every December/January. It is a celebration of the Indian dance forms and lasts four weeks.

An open air museum displaying ancient sculptures and artefacts is an attraction nearby. Most of the sculptures are carved from granite and there are over 200 items on display. It is very close to the Shore Temple.

The India Seashell Museum houses a collection of 40,000 different kinds of shells. It also gives details about them.

Best Hotels To Stay In

There are many hotels in every budget range available in and around Mahabalipuram. As it is a local and international tourist destination there are also good dining choices. It is also ideal for a day trip with accommodation in Chennai.