Mamallapuram – Introduction

Mamallapuram – The Workshop of the Pallavas

Introduction

Mamallapuram (also Mahabalipuram) is a small town located about 60 km from Chennai, the capital city of Tamil Nadu. A modern road, running parallel to the Indian East Coast, connects Chennai to Mamallapuram. This serene route is decked up with many tourist attractions making the town a favorite weekend destination. Whatever kind of visitor you may be, rest assured that Mamallapuram will mesmerize you with its beauty and serenity. The religious ones come for its temples,  the archaeology and history buffs for its monuments, the beach lovers for its serene beaches, others for a casual visit, and Mamallapuram treats all with the same fervor.

Mamallapuram is one among the few Indian sites which have garnered the maximum attention from the scholars and explorers alike, the others being Ajanta, Ellora and Elephanta. Since late eighteenth century, the town had been frequented by tourists, explorers and enthusiasts, reaching here thorough various modes and transports. The town was reachable through ocean, canal or a motor-able road, with a choice of transports such as motor, bullock-cart, ship and boat. Availability of various convenient conveyance options and vicinity to Chennai, Mamallapuram enjoyed the popularity among the natives and foreign travelers.

‘N W View of two ancient Temples by the Seaside. Mahabilipoorum. J. Gantz’ by John Gantz, 1825 | British Library

The place was popularly known as ‘Seven Pagodas’ among the visitors and mariners of early period. Reference of this name is first found in the accounts of Gasparo Balbi, in 1590, who first referred the town as ‘Sette Pagodi de’ China’.  This name was given by the early mariners who saw the town from a distance while on their voyages. Many of these mariners did not visit the town in person but had glimpse of it from a distance. It is believed that the name ‘Seven Pagodas’ was given because of the seven temples, either located near the shore or visible as group from a distance. Balbi mentions seeing eight pleasant hillocks there. Whether he took these hillocks as pagodas or he saw temples over these hillocks is not very clear. This notion of Seven Pagodas led to the theories that there once stood seven majestic temples, in a row, and five of these were later encroached upon by the ocean. At present, there are two temples near the shore, located within the Shore Temple complex. The natives of the town tells that there were five additional temples, now lie submerged in the ocean. Few submerged remains have been brought into light through ocean archaeology confirming that some structure lie submerged, however these submerged structures are not in the tune of five temples of the size comparable to the two standing temples at the shore.

Mamallapuram reached to its zenith during the Pallava rule of the seventh and eighth century CE when the town was catapulted it into a major sea-port and art center. Percy Brown1 writes, “Of all the great powers that together made the history of southern India, none had a more marked effect on the architecture of this region than the earliest of all, that of the Pallavas, whose productions provided the foundations of the Dravidian style.” The Pallavas constructed over a thirty monuments in a very short span of about hundred years. These rigorous construction activities and prospering sea trade community made the town a very prosperous one. Alas! It was not able to hold this position for long and soon it turned into a small settlement, of much lesser importance than it enjoyed in its heydays.

Photograph of Arjuna’s Penance, Mamallapuram, taken by an unknown photographer in the 1880s | British Library

The Pallavas remain active in Mamallapuram till the first quarter of the eight century CE, their activities ended with the end of the rule of the Pallava king Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha (700-728 CE). After the Pallavas, the town received some royal patronage from the later Cholas and Vijayanagara rulers, however it was limited to grants for the temples to continue their daily rituals. This patronage did not result in any new significant constructions. Being sung by the Alvar saints, Mamallapuram enjoyed its status as a divya Vaishnava tirtham making it frequented by the pilgrims in considerable numbers. After the fall of the Vijayanagara empire, the town went into oblivion only to be discovered again in the last quarter of the eighteenth century.

The town reached its fame during the last quarter of the eighteenth century when various European visitors and travelers started frequenting the place. The early accounts of the town and its monuments, published in the last decade of the eighteenth century CE, made it popular among the visitors. Its vicinity to Chennai, then Madras, made it an ideal spot for the Europeans to visit on a casual holiday.

‘North View of the 5 Pagodas about one mile south of Mahabilipoorum showing also a Lion and Elephant, the latter as large as life, the former larger, the whole cut sculptured from solid Granite stones – from a Sketch by Mr J. Braddock. J. Gantz’ in 1825 | British Library

The monuments of the town were featured in the accounts of the early visitors of eighteenth and nineteenth century as they were surprised and bewildered to find such fine specimen of Indian art. Various theories about the authors and period were proposed and later tossed and modified, creating a mysterious mist around the town and its monuments. With time progressing, new researches keep lifting curtain from many of its riddles providing us a fairly good knowledge on who were the builders, what they built and other similar topics. However, there are still many unsolved puzzles and riddles awaiting answers and explanations.

1984 brought a new heights to the monuments of Mamallapuram. By this time, our knowledge about the political and cultural aspects of its monuments was very much clear. The monuments of Mamallapuram were included in the World Heritage List by UNESCO in 1984. This puts the town on the world tourism map and provided much required impetus to conserve and protect these specimens. This inclusion in the coveted list allowed the local government bodies to ramp up the town and its connectivity to showcase it to the world tourists.

Mamallapuram is now a bustling small town, decked up with high end hotels and restaurants and boasts superb connectivity to Chennai and other nearby large cities. It is a well-known and much frequented weekend destination. Tourists from all over the world come to witness the exquisite art panels and majestic temples. The town receives all with open embrace and cater to the needs to all kinds of visitors. In the next chapters of the article, we will go deeper into the art and architecture of these monuments and also touch upon various mysteries surrounding the town.

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1 Brown, Percy (1956). Indian Architecture – Buddhist and Hindu Periods. D B Taraporevala Sons & Co Pvt Ltd. Bombay.  p 77

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