Between 501 to 1000 CE, Pallavas, Tamilnadu

Mahabalipuram – The Workshop of Pallavas – Part V

Part V – Structural Temples

Now we have reached at one of the last part of Mahabalipuram article. In this part, being the last in series of ‘Monuments of Mahabalipuram’, we will talk about the latest examples of the temples constructed at this site. The earliest would have been the cave temples, followed by monoliths or rathas, bas-reliefs being contemporary of monoliths, and structural temples were the last additions. This is a well known and accepted fact that the temples in ancient India were mostly executed in wood or other perishable material. It is also said that stone was not supposed to be appropriate to construct a temple. No such wood temple has survived to prove this theory, however seeing the architecture and style of execution of these early stone/rock shrines, it can be easily inferred that the artists were pretty aware of the design and elements of construction. Their dexterity in the execution suggests that there were monuments in India, earlier than sixth century CE, however as none have been survived so this is also inferred that those were perhaps made of some perishable material such as wood. This theory is further strengthen by inscriptions of earlier times where reference to the temples are made.


In our earlier parts, it is said that Mahendravarman I started cave temples in Tamilnadu. His successor, Narasimhavarman I Mamalla, continued with the cave temple style however he perhaps introduced monolith rathas, carving a monument out of a monolith. These both styles were continued under his successor, Parameshvaravarman I. It was his successor, Rajasimha Narasimhavarman II, who first introduces structural temples. The advantage of the rock temples was that you need not to worry about the building material as the whole rock was there to carve out. But the disadvantage was that you need to be constrained within the dimensions of the rock. Also the shrines carved in the rock were robust that they survived till the present time. Structural temple style gave freedom to the artists in the dimensions, however it came with its own problems of procuring building material. Quarrying of stones out of rock and dress those accordingly was perhaps a tedious job. But what if royal patronage was provided and there were good modes of transports, quarrying can be taken up then. Perhaps transport would not been an issue here as Mahabalipuram is a sea-port and is connected with a canal to the inland parts of the country. Quarrying stone also perhaps would have not been an issue as there were ample rocks nearby where such an activity can be taken up. What would have prompted Rajasimha to adopt this style of construction? Perhaps his ambition to build the highest monument of that time, which can be seen far from distance. We will discuss three such temples of this site.

Shore Temple


 Shore Temple –  This is perhaps the monument which gave this town the name of ‘Seven Pagodas’ by earlier mariners. This high rising monument is located at the sea shore, hence the name Shore Temple, and is visible from quite a distance across the ocean. This monument would have acted as a landmark for the ships to get the right directions to safely dock at nearby shore. First look of the monument gives the feeling of a pagoda, which European mariners were quite familiar with hence they gave the name ‘Seven Pagodas’ to this town. It was indeed earlier thought as the work of Chinese or Egyptians, which was only later clarified with extensive study of various monuments of the town. The local villagers tells about stories of seven such monuments with gilded top crowns which they were able to see just above the water level, however all were submerged soon. ASI took up the task of underwater archaeology however nothing much was found to support the existence of those monuments. It is quite clear that the sea has encroached much of the ground of the temple, as ASI did a wonderful job to clear out the debris from 8 feet sand accumulated by continuous drift from the sea and constructed break-water wall all around the sea shore to save the temple from further damage.

North Side View


If you study the plan and architectural style of this temple, it is the copy of Dharmaraja Ratha style, but huge in dimensions in comparison. This temple complex consist three different temples, raised above the same platform. Towers of the two temples have survived, but of the one is missing. Temple with smaller tower faces west while temple with large tower faces east towards the sea. Both the towers are pyramidal stepped structure which is topped with an octagonal sikhara and stupid above this. The octagonal sikhara puts this into Dravidian style of temple architecture.

Somaskanda Panel


The large temple tower has three recessed storeys. The cornice of each storey has regular arrangement of kudus (horseshoe dormer windows). Above the cornice we see another regular arrangement of oblong and square shrines interconnected with parallel running cloister. These two arrangements, kudus and shrines, are seen in cave temples of Mamalla period as well. Octagonal sikhara is mounted over a circular griva. This sikhara is topped with a kalasa and finial. The inner cell, garbhagriha, is a square of 12 feet sides and 11 feet high. There is a somaskanda panel at the back wall of this cell, while two similar panels are there in the porch of the temple. The enshrined Shivalinga is of typical Rajasimha style, made of black basalt stone with multi-faceted sides, sixteen in this case, and slightly fluted at the top such as to form the crown above the top. The upper part of the linga is broken. The total height of the linga would have been six feet out of this one feet is buried in the ground to fit in the hole to support the vertical shaft. The garbhagriha is preceded by a ardha-mandapa, in which south wall is sculpted Brahma and north wall is depicting Vishnu. On outer northern wall of the sanctum, we find two sculptures of interest, Shiva as Tripurantaka and Durga. There is an open circumambulatory path around this shrine. Many of the sculptures on the external walls are in much ruined condition.

Anantashayi Vishnu

The middle shrine, without any tower, is sandwiched in between small and large Shiva temples. This is a rectangular shrine to enshrine Anantasayana (Sleeping posture of Vishnu over Sesha) image of Vishnu. Vishnu is depicted with four arms, resting over the coil of Ananta (Seshanaga). This image is very mush ruined and the attributes in his hands are beyond recognition. The tower of the temple is no more there, however from what is left it can be said that this would have been a rectangular tower, might be on similar theme as that of Bhima Ratha. The cornice depicts the regular theme of kudus and above the cornice are seen oblong and square shrines. On external walls of this shrine is seen Krishna slaying demon Kesi, Krishna dancing over Kaliya and Vishnu riding over Garuda in the act of rescuing Gajendra (elephant) from the mouth of a crocodile. There is an inscription in Pallava Grantha script on its lintel which suggests that this is perhaps the earliest shrine of the complex.

Somaskanda in smaller temple


The smaller Shiva temple is sculpted in similar design as that of large temple or Dharmaraja Ratha. It has two recessed storeys with usual design of kudus and shrines interconnected with cloister placed above the cornice. The tower is stepped pyramidal in design, topped with an octagonal sikhara mounted on a circular griva. The sikhara is topped with a kalasa and finial above that. The cell has a somaskanda panel at the back wall. There would have been a mandapa in front of this temple, however this is missing now. On external walls are two panels of interest, one showing Ekpadamurti with three heads, one body and one leg depicting the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, second is showing Nagaraja standing under the five hoods of a serpent.

Varaha Shrine

In recent excavations, a compound is found near the main shrine, within the complex. This compound has a circular shrine in the middle which has rampant lions on its pilasters. It has a circular sikhara, which suggests that this is of vesara style of architecture. No kudus are seen, however we see bhuta and lion figures above the cornice. The sikhara is mounted on circular griva and has kudus (maha-nasikas) on four sides. Within these nasikas are shown a figure of Ganesha. There would have been a kalasa above this sikhara however it is missing now. Another interesting discovery is an image of Varaha (boar) placed within this compound. We have seen similar Varaha images at Khajuraho and Eran, however those images are shown representing varaha coming out of the ocean carrying Bhu-devi. This Varaha at Mahabalipuram is in different posture, it is shown with its head down and pressing its hind legs with force such as to plunge into the ocean. There is no figure of Bhu-devi hence it is assumed that the scene represented here is of the start of spectacle of getting Bhu-devi from the depths of the ocean. As the shrine and the Varaha are constructed at the base of the compound, hence when it would have been filled with water, this would have presented a marvelous fascinating scene of Varaha submerged in waters to get Bhu-devi from its depths.

Mahishasura-mardini Lion


Within the compound of this temple, is a monolith sculpture of a lion. This is partly carved out of rock and partly sculpted. This majestic lion is seated majestically with a hole in its torso. This hole in its torso is perhaps a representation of a cave shrine. Inside the back of the hole, is carved a miniature image of Durga in Mahishasurmardini posture. Creation of this space near the heart of the lion also represents that concept of most loved person residing with your heart, viewers can recall a famous story from Ramayana where Hanuman opened up his heart to shown that Rama with Sita live within his heart. In similar fashion, for lion, being the mount of goddess Durga, it is quite appropriate to carve her image near its heart. A female guardian is shown sitting on lions leg, carrying a bow.

Inscriptions of Shore Temple – There are few inscriptions found in this temple. Some of those are listed below.
1. On the lintel of Vishnu shrine is an inscription which refers this temple as Narapatisimha Pallava Vishnu Griha. Narapatisimha is a title of Rajasimha, as seen among his list of titles from Kailasanatha Temple at Kanchi.
2. On the plinth of two balipithas excavated in the courtyard of this temple, there is found a damaged Sanskrit record of six verses written in Pallava Grantha script. This inscription praises Pallava King Atyantakama, a title of Rajasimha.
3. In the slab of smaller Shiva temple, which is now inserted in the base, are found two inscriptions of Rajaraja Chola I dated in his twenty-fifth year of reign, 1010 CE. The names of the three temples mentioned in these inscriptions are, Kshatriyasimha Pallaveshvara-griham, Rajasimha Pallaveshvara-griham and Pllikondaruliya-devar. The whole complex is referred as Jalashayana. These inscriptions also indicates that the Vishnu shrine was executed first among all the shrines.

Olakkaneshvar Temple

Olakkanneshvara Temple – This structural temple is located above the hill, in which  Mahishasurmardini Cave is carved out. The temple could be the creation of Rajasimha, as it is mostly accepted that structural temples started during his time. The tower of the temple has not survived. A H Longhurst writes that before the stone lighthouse was built in 1900 CE, this temple roof was used as the lighthouse and for that purpose a wooden shad had been constructed on its flat roof. This wooden shed would have been constructed when the tower of the temple would have fallen. Does that mean that the tower fell very soon after the construction and where was original lighthouse before this wooden shed was constructed. I do not have answers to these now, will try to find out more about this.

However we come back to the discussion about this temple. The temple could be approached by flight of steps carved in the rock, these seem to be the time of Pallavas. The sikhara (tower) of the temple would have been on the same design as that of the Shore Temple, of Dravidian style. The dvarpalas of the main shrine are carved with half-profile, instead of regular posture of front facing style. There is enough space there to carve the front face style however the artists have preferred to go for half-profile. This is one of the examples at Mahabalipuram where we see such a profile of dvarpalas, one another example is Trimurti Cave. There is a theory that as the architecture advances, from Mahendra to Rajasimha, the profile of dvarpalas gets constrained, from full front facing to three-fourth and later to half profile facing each other. However I have few doubts in this, hence this topic goes into detailed study for future. However guardians on the back wall of the temple are carved with full frontal profile. This east facing temple was under worship till nineteenth century. There is a small ardha-mandapa which leads into a rectangular shrine.

Shiva as Dakshinamurthy


On one external wall of the ardha-mandapa, within a niche with pilasters on each side, is carved Shiva as Kalari (?), slaying Kala (Yama). The execution of the sculptures does not suggest any comparison with other Pallava sculptures, such that it seems that this has not been done by those artists. There are three devkoshtas (niches) on external walls of the main shrine, on south we have a nice sculpture of Shiva as Dakshinamurti sitting under a tree, on west is shown Ravana trying to shake up Kailasa with Shiva and Parvati seated over the mountain and on north we see Shiva as Nataraja. The sculptures are much ruined, and were plastered and painted over hence the originality is much less visible. The temple would have been dedicated to Shiva, as supported by his various postures on external walls. Interestingly we do not find any Somaskanda panel here, which is very characteristic feature of Rajasimha. Also no Shiva-linga found inside. In absence of any inscriptions, it is hard to assign the temple to any king, however as rampant lion pilasters are present hence this could be assigned to Rajasimha, still the mystery persists that why other characteristic features are missing.


Mukund-Nayanar Temple


Mukunda Nayanar Temple – This temple was buried under 12 feet of sand and was excavated at the same time when Sulvankuppam excavations were carried out. This lies little far from town, on the way towards Sulvankuppam. This is a small temple which is very similar to Dharmaraja Ratha in its architecture and design. This east facing double storey temple, thought assigned to Rajasimha’s period, does not have rampant lion pillars, which are very characteristic features of his style and are found in all the temples attributed to him. The temple has a ardha-mandapa supported on two pillars and two pilasters. The pillars are circular in shape with diminishing diameter towards the upper end. The beam and corbel are very simple, resembling style of various cave temples of Mahendravarman I. Over the cornice, we see outlines of kudus, which are very much ruined due to saline nature of the sand and sea water. Above the cornice is seen regular arrangement of mini shrines interconnected via cloisters. There are kudus, or better termed as nasikas, on the roof sides of these shrines. The corner shrines are with square roof however the middle one is with oblong roof. These mini shrines separates the first storey with the ground one. On the first storey are seen niches on all four sides, however all are empty. The cornice of this storey also depicts kudus arrangement. Above this storey is a circular griva which was topped with an octagonal shikhara (tower), which is missing now. This octagonal tower puts this temple into Dravidian category of architecture, as other temples of Rajasimha.

Somaskanda Panel


The ardha-mandapa leads into a square garbha-griham. On the back wall of this sanctum is a Somaskanda panel. Shiva shown seated with Uma and baby Skanda, while Vishnu and Brahma are shown standing behind them. Parvati is shown sitting under an umbrella and wearing a karanda-makuta. Skanda is shown seated in her lap. The style is very similar to the other such panels of Rajasimha’s time. The presence of this panel supports the theory of its assignment to Rajasimha. There is a Shivalingam installed in front of this panel, however it seems to be a later addition. L H Longhurst writes that from the style the temple seems to have some foreign influence, however I do not see any such influence in any of the element of this temple.

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  • injamaven

    Like your new slideshow! I'd be happy to stay at Mamallaa ____ too.

  • vj

    hi Saurabh.

    You must include the Olakkaneshwara in the list of structural temples of Rajasimha. Also the later mukunda nayanar temple in the list of structural temples.

    Are you doing one set for the ancillary stand alone ones – the durga rock behind the shore temple and the thani yaanai panel

  • Saurabh Saxena

    Hi vj,
    This structural temple post is not yet finished and the two temples you mentioned will be included in this post.
    Yes there will be another article for stand-alone monuments as well.

  • Krishnan

    Dear Mr. Saxena
    you have again brought out a very detailed and descriptive article on the treasures of Mahabalipuram. You have taken pains to consult so many references on th subject.Congratulaions and a big thanks.
    May be I missed it, have you mentioned about the old light house which was used during Pallava period?
    Keep it up and with best regards

  • Saurabh Saxena

    @ Krishnan – I have not mentioned the old light house in the article, may you please provide some information on this.

  • vj

    the olakkneshwara is the old lighthouse – if you look through the British library archives – you will see a illustration showing the temple used as a lighthouse !!!

    nice one Saurabh – the Dakshinmurthy of shore temple is exactly the same as we see in Kailasantha – and it does show beyond doubt the he holds a flame stick in his upper right hand


  • vj

    kalari murthy – is the form of shiva kicking Yama while saving markandeya- you have an exquisite one from Moovar koil and one in GKc as well

  • Saurabh Saxena

    Hi vj,
    I am confused on the iconography whether it is Kalari or Andhakanta. If you see one hand of Shiva is in same posture as in Muvar Koil Kalari, however figure of Yama in this figure is quite stout. Hence I am not sure whether to term it as Kalari or Andhkanta. That's why I put a question mark on that place. What do you suggest, Kalari or Andhakanta?