Mamallapuram – Past References

Mamallapuram – The Workshop of the Pallavas

Annotated Bibliography of Two Millenniums

Earliest Times to 1800 CE

There are very few sites in India which have enjoyed a continuous attention from travelers, historians, and explorers alike. Mamallapuram is one of those sites for which we have overwhelming accounts and references. These accounts are of utmost interest as these provide the picture of that period and help us understand the history and culture in a better perspective. Apart from the above, these also help in understanding the chronology of researches, carried out in explaining the monuments, icons, inscriptions and understanding these great monuments.

‘View of the ancient Hindu Temple on the Sea Coast at Mavelliporam-called the Seven Pagodas’ – 1784, part of the MacKenzie Collection |British Library

Anonymous (~50 CE, Periplus of the Erythraean Sea) – This work of an anonymous writer is written in Greek and describes navigation and trade routes from the Roman ports to the ports of the Red Sea, Northeast Africa, Sindh and South Western India. A reference of a sea port, Sopatma1, appears in this work. Sopatma of Greeks seems to be same as Sopattinam of the Tamil literature. T B Mahalingam2 locates Sopatma at the confluence of the sea and the Palara river in the Chingleput district. Schoff3 identifies it with Madras while P L Samy4 takes it as the present Marakkanam. N S Ramaswami finds it hard to accept Sadars’ claim for Sopatma as the former does not possess antiquity so far in the past5. Telling that it is wiser to look for another site for identification within the Mamallapuram region, he concludes that the balance of evidence inclines to the view that Sopatma was Vayalur, with Vasavasamudram nearby.

Ptolemy (150 CE, Geographia) – While describing the land within the Ganges region, Ptolemy6 mentions Maliarpha emporium (commercial port) and placed it before Contacossyla and after Melanga emporiums. This port has been identified with Mylapore7 and Mamallapuram8 variously, however recent studies seem to be in favor of Mylapore.

Two drawings of sculpture at Mamallapuram by Thomas and William Daniell, 1792 | British Library

Urithirangannanar (300 CE, Perumpanarruppatai) – This poem is a part of the Pattuppattu (Ten Idylls) in praise of the king Tonataiman Ilantiraiyan, ruling from Kanchipuram. Traditionally the poem is attributed to Urithirangannanar, the author of Pattinapalai. Dating of the poem is not fixed however it is generally believed that it was composed before third century CE. There is a mention of a flourishing commerce trade port named Nirpeyar (Nirappayal or Nirppeyal)9 near Kancheepuram. The port of Nirpeyar is said to be not far from Kancheepuram and consists of a lighthouse serving as a beacon for seafarers. Though there is a village named Nirpeyar however it is very far from Kancheepuram therefore it may not be identified with Nirpeyar of the poem. Nirpeyar has been identified with Mamallapuram by few scholars10 and with Sadras11 by few scholars. There is no consensus on the identification till now.

‘Ancient Sculptures on the Rocks at Mavelliporum’, from Mackenzie collection 1780-1820 | British Library

Bhoothath Alvar (Irandam Tiruvandadhi)-  He is one among the twelve Alvar saints of South India, and is second in the list of three principal Alvars, other two are Pey Alvar and Poigai Alvar, all three said to be born out of divinity. The verses of Alvars are compiled as Nalayira Divya Prabandham. According to a tradition, they were all born in the same year and month but on three consecutive days. There is no consensus on the dates of Alvars. A widely accepted view is that they were born during the Pallava period, however we cannot put a historical date against the Alvars.

In the invocatory verse (thanian) of Irandam Tiruvandadhi, Sri Thirukkurugai Piran Pillai, a disciple of Sri Ramanuja, paid worship to the feet of Bhoothath Alvar who was born in Kadal-Mallai11. In pasuram (verse) 70 of his Irandam Tiruvandadhi, the Alvar mentions Mamallai, which is described in commentary as present day Mahabalipuram where the lord took a lying posture on the ground in order to shower his mercy on his followers12. This Mamallai of Bhoothath Alvar has been identified with the present Mamallapuram by scholars13.

The question arises whether the image described by the commentators of the above work be taken as the one available in the Shore Temple? In most probability yes, as there is no other surviving image fulfilling the description. However, R Nagawamy14 is of opinion that the main Vishnu temple at Mamallapuram, Sthalashayana Temple, predates the Pallava, therefore if we have to look for an image pre-dating the Pallavas then it must be from this temple.

Thirumangai Alvar (7th-8th century CE, Periya Tirumoli) – He is the last of the twelve alvars. He is said to have worked as an army general in the Chola army and later being converted to a Vaishnava saint. His period is generally considered to be between seventh and eighth century CE. Thirumangai Alvar refers the town invariably as Mallai and has often the adjunct Kadal (sea) before Mallai. Periya Tirumoli is a part of the broader work Naalariya Divya Prabandahm.  Description of the town starts with verse 1088 and goes till verse 1107. The lord is described with verse 1088 as below:

In Kaḍalmallai Thalasayanam I saw the lord, strong as a bull,
sweet as the nectar from the milky ocean,
generous as the Karpaga tree, bright like a golden hill,
sweet as sugarcane in the hearts of his devotees,
precious as a coral pillar,
who swallowed all the worlds and spit them out,
split open the mouth of the Asuran that came as a horse,
broke the tusks of the elephant Kuvalayābeeḍam
and walked between the marudam trees and broke them
and who saved Gajendra from the crocodile.15

Verse 1103 mentions the sea-port of the town in below words:

O ignorant heart,
embrace and worship the devotees
who circle the temple and worship the god
of Kaḍalmallai Thalasayanam
where ships bring golden treasure,
piles of the nine precious jewels,
and herds of large elephants
and unload them on the sea shore.

Verse 1106 mentions Vishnu’s retinue with Shiva on his side in below words:

O my ignorant heart!
Worship the devotees of him
who carries a divine discus in his hands
and keeps Shiva, dancer on the burning ground on his left side.
He rests on Adisesha on the ocean in Kaḍalmallai Thalasayanam
where the gods in the sky come and worship him happily.

Is Kadal Mallai of the Alvar same as present Mamallapuram? This is very much probable as we have a Chola period inscription, of the Chola king Rajendra Chola I (1014-1044 CE), in which the town is referred as Tirukkadalmallai16.

Dandin (7th-8th century CE, Avantisundari) – Dandin was a poet in the Pallava court who lived during seventh and eighth century CE. Dandin wrote in Sanskrit and stayed at Kanchipuram. As per Avantisundari, Dandin was the great-grandson of Damodara, the latter served at the Pallava king Simhavishnu and the Ganga king Durvinita. Avantisundarikatha and Avantisundarikathasara are two old Sanskrit manuscripts discovered in 1910s. Former is a prose work with a poetic introduction while latter is a summary of this work in verse. A very nice and less defective manuscript of Avantisundarikatha was published under Trivandrum Sanskrit Series from University of Travancore in 1954.

Avantisundarikatha has not survived in full but only in an incomplete form. In this prose work, it is told that the sculptor Lalitalaya mended the broken arm of reclining Vishnu by the sea at Mahamallapuram. There is a very high probability that Mahamallapuram of Dandin would be same as the present Mamallapuram and the Vishnu image in question would be the same as that of in the Shore Temple. The reference in Avantisundari goes as below:

‘तदनुग्रहार्थमेव केवलं अनुमहामल्लपुरम उरुतरंगहस्तसंवाह्यमानपादपङ्कजस्योर्मिमालिनो भगवतो भुजगवरशयनमनुगृहतः शैलस्य शार्ङ्गधन्वन केनापि कारणेन मणिबन्ध एव भग्नो ढक्षिणः करः |’

As per the story, when Dandin was residing at Kanchipuram, a renowned architect named Lalitalaya, came to see him. Lalaitalaya was introduced as a great architect, a magician and a Tamil author who had composed Sudrakacharita. Lalitalaya told Dandin that he had joined a broken forearm of the idol of Vishnu in Mahamallapuram on the sea coast. He requested him to see if this was done correctly. Dandin accepted this invitation at the behest of his good friend Ranamalla, the commander-in-chief’s son. Dandin started for the place accompanied by his friends Jayantanarayana and Bhajanananda. When he saw the idol, he was amazed at the wonderful skill of the architect as he could not even make out where the arm was broken17.

Cresques Abraham (1375, Catalan Atlas) – The Catalan Atlas is one of the most important map of medieval period. It is attributed to a Majorcan, Cresques Abraham, a Jewish book illuminator and master of the maps. Setemelti is found in his atlas at a place where Mamallapuram should be. Henry Yule18 suggests that Setemelti of the Catalan Atlas might be a corruption of Sette Melti (Seven Pagodas). It is to be noted that Marco Polo did not describe Seven Pagodas in his travels. N S Ramaswami19 explains that Marco Polo might have heard about the Seven Pagodas while his stay at Saint Thomas. And he provided this information to the cartographers on his return to Venice, and thus the place appeared on the map.  R Nagaswamy20 mentions Setemeter instead of Setemelti.

Balbi, Gasparo (1590, Viaggio dell’ Indie Orientali) – There is a very brief mention of Mamallapuram in this account. Gasparo was on a ship on his journey from Nagapattnam to St. Thomas on 30th May, 1582. When the ship passed through Mamallapuram at about three in morning, Gasparo saw the monuments from a distance. He writes:

About three of the clock the next morning we came to a place, which is called the Seven Pagodas, upon which are eight pleasant hillocks, not very high, which are seven leagues from Saint Thomas, right over against it, where we arrived about noon the thirtieth of May, saluting it with three Peers of Ordinance.”21

Balbi used the term “Sette Pagodi de’ China” which suggests that either he thought that these temples were the constructions of the Chinese or he had some information from other sources on the same idea.

Manucci, Niccolao (1707, Storia Do Mogor) – Manucci (1639-1717) was an Italian traveler who worked at the Mughal court. Manucci believed that India was under the Chinese during the ancient times and Chinese were the original rulers of this land. To support his theory he provided instances where he find Chinese pagodas and Chinese inscriptions. Mamallapuram was one among those sites. He describes the town as, “On the coast of Choramandal, near the sea, there is also a rock called Mavelivarao, distant four leagues from a place called Sadrasta patio (Sadrasta-patanam, or Sadras) where there are many sculptured figures resembling Chinese.”22

Bas relief of the ‘Descent of the Ganges’ by Thomas Daniell, published 15 October 1799 | British Library

Alexander Hamilton (1727, New Account of the East Indies) – While describing the ports and places north of Sri Lanka and on the eastern coast of India, Hamilton writes, “Near Connymere are the Seven Pagodas, one of which, whose Name I have now forgot, is celebrated among the Pagans for Sanctity, and is famous for the yearly Pilgrimage made there. The god is very obscene, if his Image rightly represents him, and his Nymphs as lewd as any in Drury-lane, if their Postures were really figured and carved as they are to be seen on the Outside of the Temple.”23

Pierre Sonnerat (1782, Voyage aux Indes orientales et à la Chine, fait depuis 1774 jusqu’à 1781) – Sonnerat was French naturalist and explorer. He traveled on a voyage to India and China between from 1774 to 1781. A passing reference of Mamallapuram was found in his book. It goes, “The temple called the Seven Pagodas, which one sees between Sadras and Pondicherry, should be one of the oldest on the Coromandal coast because, having been built on the seacoast, the waves come upto its first stage now. This is a phenomenon which we abandon to researches of physicist.”24

William Chambers (1788, Some Account of the sculptures and the ruins of Mavalipuram) – Chambers visited Mahabalipuram in 1772 and 1776 however he wrote his accounts almost a decade later based upon his memory and observations. His account was published in the Asiatick Researches vol. I and was the very first account describing the monuments and legends of Mamallapuram. He tells that the monuments he is describing appear to be remains of some great city that has been ruined many centuries ago. He mentions about the adjoining village which retained its old name and has many Brahmins residing there. These Brahmins were well aware of the subject of these various monuments and sculptures. Chambers tell that the place was known as Mavalipur in Malabar dialect, but Mahabalipur, the city of the great Bali, in Sanskrit. To the mariners, it was known as Seven Pagodas. He described various rock-cut temples of the town including The Great Penance, Ganesha Ratha, Krishna Mandapa, Mahishasuramardini Mandapa, Lion seat etc. But of all these, the Panch Ratha complex took his breath away. He was so mesmerized that he writes, “..(all previous monuments) they are surpassed by others that are to be seen at a distance of about a mile, or a mile and an half to southward of the hill”25.

He suggests that the Pancha Ratha monuments have Egyptian influence as these all have pyramidal roofs and their gates and roofs were flat without arches. However the sculptures on these seem to be Gothic in nature. He seems to be a good observer as he observed two very fine points. One is the presence of inscriptions on top of few sculptures. Another point that the monuments were left unfinished and there is a splt in the rock out of which one of these monuments were hewn out.

About the inscriptions, he mentions that the script was unknown to him as well the locals. However the script appears to be similar to some Siamese scripts. About the spilt in rock, he suggests that the only possibility which can result in this is a very strong earthquake and it would have also resulted in the work to be stooped in between. While describing the Shore Temple, he writes that the natives of the place told him that the more aged people among them remembered to have seen the tops of several pagodas far out in the sea, which being covered with copper were particularly visible at the sun rise as their shining surface used to reflect the sun rays. Chambers solidifies his earthquake theory stating that the sudden earthquake would have arisen the sea to swallow up some land resulting in submerging of these pagodas.

Chambers also mentioned some legends and traditions on the creation of city as he learned from the natives. As per a legend, this city was established by King Bali, grandson of Prahalada. He also mentions some verses from Mahabharata as provided to him by the natives in support of this legend. The story goes further stating that Bali begot a son named Banacheren (probably Banasura) who has thousand arms. Aniruddha, son of Krishna, seduced the daughter of Banacheren which resulted in the capture of Aniruddha at the city of Mahabalipur. Krishna came to rescue and cut off the all hands, leaving two, of Banacheren and later slayed him. After the above episode, the city went into oblivion till it was resurrected by a prince named Malicheren. Malicheren, getting befriended with few nymphs, went to see the palace of Indra. On his return, he started replicating the splendor of the heavenly city into his city of Mahabalipur. Indra got jealous of this and ordered the Sea god to took away the glory of the earthly city. The Sea god obeyed the order and swallowed the town consequently.

View at Mamallapuram showing the lion, elephant and raths – by Thomas Daniell in 1792 | British Library

William Robertson (1791, An Historical disquisition concerning the Knowledge which the Ancients had of India) – William Robertson was a Scottish historian, and he served as the principal of the University of Edinburgh for a considerable time. His contributions are mostly in the area of Scottish history however he wrote an important work on Indian history as well. About Mamallapuram, Robertson writes, “There are remarkable excavations in a mountain at Mavalipuram near Sadras. This mountain is well known on the Coromandel coast by the name of the Seven Pagodas.”26 Then he mentions about the descriptive work of Chambers which can be referred to understand the antiquity and magnificence of the monuments.

Quintin Craufurd (1792, Sketches chiefly relating to the History, Religion, Learning and Manners of the Hindoos) – Craufurd spent his early life in India in the service of the British East India Company. He settled in Paris where he devoted to the art, history and literature. Craufurd writes, “There is a pile of  ruins on the coast of Coromandel, near Sadras, called by the Europeans, from the number of its towers, the seven pagodas, by the natives Mavalipuram. It appears that it was once a temple and palace of great extent. Most of the characters and hieroglyphics with which the walls abound, are no longer understood; and though tradition informs us that it was once at a considerable distance from the shore, when the tide is at flood, most of the ruins are now covered with water.”27

Thomas and William Daniell (1792-1793, Oriental Scenery) – Thomas and his nephew William spent ten years in India. They were reputed landscape painters and painted various temples at Mamallapuram. After they were back in Britain, they produced their monumental work, Oriental Scenery, in six volumes, from a selection of their drawings produced in India. The Daniells’ magnificent views of Indian landscapes and antiquities in both oils and aquatint made an immediate impact on the British elite.

Plate 1 from the fifth set of Thomas and William Daniell’s ‘Oriental Scenery’ called ‘Antiquities of India.’ 1799 | British Library

Paulinus of St. Bartholomew (1796, Viaggio alle Indie orientali) – Also known as Paolino da San Bartholomeo, he was an Austrian Carmelite who lived in India for fourteen years, between 1774 and 1789. He is credited of being the author of the first edition of the Sanskrit grammar to be published in Europe. His accounts were published in 1796, in form of a book, in Rome. A German edition came in 1798 and English edition came up in 1800. His account of Mamallapuram is in connection with the rock-cut shrines of Elephanta and Kanheri. He tells that he thinks that these shrines were constructed in honor of Mithra, who was in worship not in only in Persia but also in India. He refers to Gemelli Careri who had proposed that the temples at Elephanta were creation of Alexander the Great. As the author considers the age of the Mamallapuram temples to be the same of Elephanta, therefore he questions Careri on how Alexander could have constructed this as he certainly did not ride till that part of the land28.

Colonel Mackenzie (1799-1816) – Colonel Mackenzie is a well-known figure in the progress of study of the Indian history. He collected a big number of manuscripts which constitute the collection known as Mackenzie MSS. In 1799, Mackenzie deputed Boriah to collect the written records on Mamallapuram. This account was titled as “Account of the Ruins & Sculptures at Mahavellypooram” and was based upon the oral information collected from the natives. Boriah’s younger brother, Laksmiah, was sent in 1803 to gather more information. His account was in two parts, one describing and interpreting the monuments and the other was about history as told by the natives. The first map of Mamallapuram, made by an European agency, was done in 1808. In 1816, Mackenzie deputed draftsmen and artists to create an album of the monuments at Mamallapuram. This album was titled, ‘”Antiquities of Mavellipore or Maha Bali Pooram”.

Boriah Kavali (1799, Account of the Ruins & Sculptures at Mahavellypooram) – As stated above, Boriah was dispatched by Colin Mackenzie to record the legends and traditions on the temples of Mamallapuram from its natives. Boriah wrote a six page account, mainly describing the monuments as per the information described from the natives of the town.

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1 Schoff, Wilfred H (1912). The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. Longmans, Green and Co. London. p 242.
2 Prasad, P C (1977). Foreign Trade and Commerce in Ancient India. pp 84-85
3 Schoff, Wilfred H (1912). The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. Longmans, Green and Co. London. p 242.
4 Samy, P L (1976). Water Cult at Makapalipuram published in Journal of Tamil Studies, issue 9-10. p 90
5 Ramaswami, N S (1989). 2000 Years of Mamallapuram vol. i. Navrang, New Delhi. ISBN 8170130379. pp 19-22
6 Stevenson, Edward Luther (ed.) (1991). Claudius Ptolemy The Geography, Book 7. Dover Publications. New York. p 150
7 Federico De Romanis and Marco Maiuro (ed.)(2015). Across the Ocean: Nine Essays on Indo-Mediterranean Trade. p 117/ Raman, K V (1988). Port Towns of Tamilnadu: Some Field Data and Prospects of Maritime Archaeology published in Marine Archaeology of Indian Ocean Countries. p 115/ Par le P Paulin de S Barthelemy (1808). Voyage aux Indes orientales vol 1. p 156
8 Baldwin, John Denison (1874). Pre-Historic Nations. p 231/ The British Museum: Egyptian Antiquities vol. II. p 420/ Lieutanant Newbold (1843). On the Process prevailing among the Hindus, and formerly among the Egyptians, of quarrying and polishing Granite published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland vol. VII. p 126/ Heeren, A H L (1833). Historical Researches into the Politics, Intercourse and trade of the principal nations of antiquity vol. iii. p 61
9 Chelliah, J V (1985). Pattupattu – Ten Tamil Idylls. Tamil University. Thanjavur. p 125
10 Samy, P L (1976). Water Cult at Makapalipuram published in the Journal of Tamil Studies, issue 9-10. p 90/ Nagaswamy, R (2008). Mahabalipuram. Oxford University Press. New Delhi. ISBN 9780198071273. p 79
11 Rajagopalan, N (2002). Sri Bhutat Azhwar’s Irandam Thiruvandhadhi. Chennai. ISBN 8190128734. p 1/ divyaprabandham.koyil.org
12 pasuram 70 of Irandam Thiruvandhadhi
13 Nagaswamy & Majeed (1978). Vasavasamudram. p 1
14 Nagaswamy R (2008). Mahabalipuram. Oxford University Press. New Delhi. ISBN 9780198071273. p 79
15 Periya Tirumoli on Project Madurai
16 No 42 of South India Inscriptions, vol. I, part II – Tamil and Grantha Inscriptions
17 Pillai, S K (1954). Avantisundari of Acarya Dandin. University of Tranvancore. pp 5-6
18 Yule, Henry (1875). The Book of Ser Marco Polo, the Venetian. John Murray. London. p 129
19 Ramaswami, N S (1971). Indian Monuments. Orient Book Distributors. ISBN 9780896840911. p 23
20 Nagaswamy R (2008). Mahabalipuram. Oxford University Press. New Delhi. ISBN 9780198071273. p Setemeter
21 Balbi, Gasparo (1590). Viaggio dell’Inde Orientali. C Borgominieri. Venice. p 85
22 Irvine, William (1907). Storia do Mogor vol. I. John Murray. London. pp 153-154
23 Hamilton, Alexander (1727). A New Account of the East Indies vol. i. Edinburg. p 354
24 Sonnerat, M (1806). Voyage aux Indes orientales et à la Chine, vol. i. Paris. p 364
25 Chambers, William (1788). Some Account of the Sculptures and the Ruins of Mavalipuram, a Placea few Miles North of Sadras, and known to Seamen by the name of the Seven Pagodas published in Asiatick Researches vol. i. Calcutta. pp 145-170
26 Robertson, William (1791). An Historical disquisition concerning the Knowledge which the Ancients had of India. T Cadell. London. p 352
27 Craufurd, Quintin (1792). Sketches chiefly relating to the History, Religion, Learning and Manners of the Hindoos. T Cadell. London. p 98
28 Johnston, William (1800). A Voyage to the East Indies. London. p 381

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