Mamallapuram – What’s in the Name

Mamallapuram – The Workshop of the Pallavas

What’s in the Name

The present town of Mamallapuram was referred as Mahabalipur in its earliest available modern account of William Chambers in 17881. Chambers mentions that the town got its name after king Mahabali or Bali, a famous demon king who was subdued by Lord Vishnu when the latter took from of Vamana-avatara and sent the king to nether land. Chambers mentions another legend, as heard from natives, that the town was swallowed by the sea on the request of Indra when the latter got jealous over the beauty of the town. In prior references, mostly from mariners, the town was popularly known as Seven Pagodas, named so after the temples or pagodas seen as seven in number. The first confirmed reference of term Sevan Pagodas comes from Gasparo Balbi2 in 1590, in whose accounts the place is referred as “Sette Pagodi de’ China”. Explanation of Seven Pagodas is found in the accounts of Quintin Craufurd3 telling it got the name from the numbers of towers. Kavali4, credited as the first early Indian who wrote about the ruins of Mamallapuram, tells that two temples of Seven Pagoda group still stands as two temples in the Shore Temple complex, while the rest five are supposedly submerged in the ocean suggesting that this set of seven temples probably constituted the Seven Pagodas.

In 1830, Benjamin Guy Babington5 was first to interpret a Tamil inscription finding the town was referred as Mahamalaipur but not Mahabalipur. Babington translates Mahamalaipur as “city of the great mountain”. Therefore he concludes that the tradition of associating the town with King Mahabali is all fabricated and of later origins. in the 1844 guidebook of John Braddock6, Sir Walter Elliot edited an inscription explaining Mamallaipur as the proper name of the town. The first accurate editing of inscriptions came out in 1890 from E Hultzsch7 and with it the finding that the town was referred as Mamallapuram in the Chola inscriptions of the Shore Temple. From the start of twentieth century CE, the town started being referred as Mamallapuram among the scholarly circles. In a 1909 article, V Venkayya8 explains that the town’s name Mamallapuram was after the Pallava king Narasimhavarman I who was also known as Mamalla in his inscriptions and therefore it would be safe to say that the king also founded the town.

Mamallapuram finds itself being referred as Kadal-Mallai in the Alvar poetry. In verse 70 of Irandam Tiruvandadhi of Bhoothath Alvar9, Mamallapuram town is referred as Mamallai. In a later work on Irandam Tiruvandadhi, Sri Thirukkurugai Piran Pillai, a disciple of Sri Ramanuja, pays his tribute to Bhoothath Alvar mentioning the latter was born in Kadal-Mallai10. Thirumangai Alvar, who can be safely placed in 7th-8th century CE, mentions seeing his lord in Kadalmallai Thalasayanam, situated on a seashore where ships were seen loaded with treasures, elephants and jewels11. Kadalmallai as the name of the town was also in vogue during the Chola period of Rajendra Chola I (1014-1044 CE) as evident from his inscription in the Shore Temple mentioning the lord and the town as Thirukkadalmallai.

Watercolour of the rock sculpture of Arjuna’s Penance, by John Gantz, c. 1825. Inscribed: ‘A view of the Sculptures representing the tapass or intense penance of Arjoona Mahabalipoorum from a Sketch by Mr J. Braddock. J. Gantz’ | British Library

Inscriptions at Mamallapuram throw some light on this riddle. A Pallava inscription of the reign of Nandivarman II, datable 796 CE12, and two Chola inscriptions of Rajendra II (1051-1063 CE)13, found in the Adi-Varaha cave-temple refer the town as Mamallapuram. The Chola inscriptions at Shore Temple belonging to Rajendra I (1014-1044 CE) mentions the lord and the town as Thirukkadalmallai. Though the distance between the  Adi-Varaha cave-temple and the Shore Temple is not significant, however it appears that the village was known as Mamallapuram and the Shore Temple and its precincts were known as Kadalmallai. The Alvar poets who have sung about the thalasayana lord Vishnu mostly refer to the rock-cut Vishnu image part of the present Shore Temple complex and therefore them referring the place as Kadalmallai concur with the inscriptional data in the temple.

Though the town of Mamallapuram might be in existence prior to the Pallavas, however there are many supporting evidences suggesting that it was the Pallava king Narasimhavarman I who put this town into prominence and thus was responsible for its renaming and art activities. Below are the points favoring association of this Pallava king with the town.

  1. It is generally believed that the town took its name Mamallapuram after the king Mamalla or Mahamalla. Two Pallava kings bore the biruda (title) Mahamalla, Narasimhavarman I and Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha. However, it was Narasimhavarman I who took pride in that tile and included it in his most famous Badami inscription14. Rajasimha has this biruda in his exhaustive list of more than 250 birudas however this biruda was not used in any dedicatory inscription of his suggesting that this biruda did not hold any special value for him.
  2. Dandin, a Sanskrit poet of 6th-7th century CE, mentions the town of Mahamallapur and its rock-cut Vishnu image which was repaired by architect Lalitalaya15. Dandin was a court-poet of the Pallavas and his great-grandfather was contemporary of the Pallava king Simhavishnu. This suggests that Dandin was contemporary of the Pallava king Narasimhavarman I and may be to his immediate successor.
  3. Culavamsa, a 13th century CE work, mentions the episode of the Sri Lankan king Manavamma taking refuge in the Pallava court. King Narasiha (Narasimhavarman I) helped the Sri Lankan king, providing him with an army through a naval expedition16. This suggests that the Pallava king was involved in naval expeditions and Mamallapuram probably served as his sea-port.
  4. It is generally believed that Mahendravarman I had no or very minimal association with the town of Mamallapuram. Therefore Narasimhavarman I appears as a good and just candidate for starting many, if not all, excavations, monoliths and bas-reliefs activities in the town.
  5. Tirukalukundram, a village not very far from Mamallapuram, is famous for its rock-cut hill temple. In this temple is found an inscription of the Pallava king Narasimhavarman I renewing an old grant17. The inscription mentions the king as Vatapikonda (victor of Vatapi) suggesting that the inscription was engraved after his Badami expedition which took place sometime in 642 CE. This suggests that the Pallava king was active in this region, and therefore would surely be involved with the affairs of Mamallapuram.
  6. Chitrur plates of the Pallava king Nrpatungavarman18 (869-880 CE) mentions Narasimhavarman I constructed a stone temple in the midst of the ocean for Mahavishnu. This reference is certainly to the rock-cut Vishnu image and a temple above the same located within the present Shore Temple complex at Mamallapuram.

To conclude, it may be said that Kadalmallai was used to refer the Shore Temple and its precincts near the sea shore. The village or area inland was referred as Mamallapuram where Adi-Varaha cave-temple is situated. The village as well as the Shore Temple was in existence prior to Pallava king Narasimhavarman I (630-668 CE) however the king was instrumental in transforming the fortunes of this village and the village took its new name after the king. It was Narasimhavarman I who put the place into prominence with his various artistic, trade and military activities.


1 Chambers, William (1788). Some Account of the Sculptures and the Ruins of Mavalipuram, a Place a 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
2 Balbi, Gasparo (1590). Viaggio dell’Inde Orientali. C Borgominieri. Venice. p 85
3 Craufurd, Quintin (1792). Sketches chiefly relating to the History, Religion, Learning and Manners of the Hindoos. T Cadell. London. p 98
4 Ramaswami, N S (1989). 2000 Years of Mamallapuram. Navrang. New Delhi. ISBN 8171030379. pp 55-62
5 Babington, B G (1830). An Account of Sculptures and Inscriptions at Mahamalaipur published in Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland vol. ii. pp 258-269
6 Braddock, John (1844). A Guide to the Sculptures, Excavations and other remarkable subjects at Mamallaipur, generally known to Europeans as “the seven Pagodas” published in Madras Journal of Literature and Science no 30. Chennai. pp 1-56
7 South Indian Inscriptions vol. I
8 Venkayya, V (1909). The Pallavas published in Archaeological Survey of India Annual Report 1906-7. Calcutta. pp 233-234
9 verse 70 of Irandam Tiruvandadhi on divyaprabandham.koyil.org
10 thanian of Irandam Tiruvandadhi on divyaprabandham.koyil.org
11 Periya Tirumoli on Project Madurai
12 No 38 of South Indian Inscriptions vol. XII
13 cg 108 & 109 of A Topographical List of Inscriptions in the Tamil Nadu and Kerala States vol. III
14 Mahalingam, T V (1988). Inscriptions of the Pallavas. Agam Kala Prakashan. New Delhi. pp 135-136
15 Pillai, S K (1954). Avantisundari of Acarya Dandin. University of Tranvancore. pp 5-6
16 Geiger, Wilhelm (1929). Culavamsa, being the more recent part of the Mahavamsa, Part I. The Pali Text Society. London. p 107
17 Mahalingam, T V (1988). Inscriptions of the Pallavas. Agam Kala Prakashan. New Delhi. p 144
18 Ramesan, N (1972). Copper Plate Inscriptions of the State Museum vol. III. The Government of Andhra Pradesh. Hyderabad. p 8

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