Mamallapuram – Vishnu Temple


    Mamallapuram – The Workshop of the Pallavas

    Shore Temple Complex – Vishnu Temple

    This east-facing oblong and flat-roofed shrine houses a Vishnu image which is carved out of rock in situ. As the image had been constantly washed by the ocean for a long time, it is much weathered and worn off. Except for the tall makuta (crown) of Vishnu, all other iconographical aspects are much obliterated. Vishnu is shown reclining on a plain slab. He is shown with four arms where an upper arm is broken above the limbs. This broken arm has been redone in stucco. This repair goes very well with the story told by Dandin, where Lalitalaya mended the broken arm of a Vishnu image in Mahamallapuram.

    Vishnu Image |

    It is believed that the Vishnu temple is the earliest shrine in the complex. To prove its antiquity, we need to revisit the earliest references of this temple and image. Fortunately, we have three early references in this case. Bhoothath Alvar, born in Mamallapuram during the Pallava period around 713 CE, praises Lord Vishnu of Mallai referring to the latter as the one lying on a bare rock instead of coils of Shesha. Interestingly, Bhoothath does not mention Shiva temples. It is believed that Bhoothath lived before the Pallava king Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha (700-728 CE), author of the Shiva temples in the complex. And this might be the reason that Bhoothath Alvar mentions only Vishnu but not Shiva.

    The second and important reference comes from Avantisundarikatha of Dandin. Dandin was a poet in the Pallava court during the seventh and eighth centuries CE. He writes that the sculptor Lalitalaya mended the broken arm of reclining Vishnu by the sea at Mahamallapuram. Dandin also writes that he went to see the work of Lalitalaya and he got amazed when he failed to make where the arm was broken. Interestingly, Dandin does not mention Shiva temples though, by his time, the Shiva temples would have been completed or under construction.

    The third reference for its antiquity comes from Thirumangai Alvar, who lived during the eighth century CE. He praises Lord Vishnu of Kadal Mallai Talasayanam, stating that Lord Vishnu resides with Lord Shiva there. As Thirumangai Alvar was later than the Rajasimha period, his mentioning Vishnu with Shiva is quite appropriate and fits the scheme.

    From the above references, there is enough evidence to attest that the Vishnu temple or image predates the other two Shiva temples. However, there are different opinions among scholars. R Nagawamy1  tells that the Vishnu temple, referred to by Bhoothath Azwar, is the Sthalashayana Temple which predates the Pallava period and was responsible for making Mamallapuram a famous Vaishnava tirtha. Walter Smith thinks otherwise stating that the lying image of Vishnu seems to be the one mended by Lalitalaya.

    Nagaswamy is of the opinion that the Vishnu temple and the other two Shiva temples are all creations of the Pallava king Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha. To support his argument, Nagaswamy tells that Narapatisimha-Pallava-Vishnugrha, a label inscribed above the Vishnu temple, refers to Rajasimha. However, this label of Rajasimha is not found in any of his other inscriptions. Another argument, going not in favor of Rajasimha, is the arrangement and layout of these three temples. We have already seen that these three temples are not in a straight line which seems a little surprising if the whole work is attributed to a single author. Also, the position of the Vishnu temple is somewhat irregular, as instead of being a separate temple, this has been added as a part of the prakara wall of the east-facing Shiva temple.


    Lockwood2 also states that this label inscription above the Vishnu shrine was engraved by Rajasimha, however, he does not agree that it was Rajasimha who constructed the temple. Narapatisimha refers to Narasimha, and we have only two Pallava kings bearing this title, Narasimhavarman I and Narasimhavarman II. Help comes from Chitrur plates3, issued by the Pallava king Nrpatungavarman. The plates mention that Narasimhavarman I (630-668 CE) created a sleeping temple (sayyagrha) with stones in the midst of the ocean for Lord Vishnu. However, the phrase in Chitrur plates is also a little controversial. The argument here is whether Narasimhavarman I constructed only a roof over the temple or he also created the rock-cut image of Vishnu. Lockwood4 mentions that originally this image was open in the air, and Narasimhavarman I covered it with a roof.

    If it was Narasimhavarman I who constructed the Vishnu temple, then why Rajasimha engrave the label inscription? If we assume that it was Rajasimha who engraved the label, then in my opinion there is no case of plagiarism on behalf of Rajasimha. The reason is that Narapatisimha can be taken for Narasimhavarman I Mamalla as well as for Narasimhavarman II. Using the word, Narapatisimha, very cunningly, Rajasimha served two purposes, he kept the name of the original author and also put his stamp at the same time.

    Let us revisit the references from Alvar saints and Dandin. If we take scholarly dating of Bhoothath and Thirumangai Alvar, then both the saints lived in the different quarters of the eighth century CE, the former around 713 CE and the latter around 776 CE. Dandin’s period also falls around the last quarter of the seventh century and the first quarter of the eighth century CE. Narasimhavarman I ruled between 630-668 CE. With these dates in mind, if this Vishnu Temple was constructed by Narasimhavarman I, then all the three references fall in the line, as he ruled prior to all the three.

    Gajendra-moksha, Vishnu riding over Garuda

    Another mystery associated with the Vishnu image is whether he is lying over the coils of Shesha or on the ground. Sivaramamurti5 refers to the image as Seshashayi suggesting that Vishnu is lying over Shesha. Nagaswamy6 refers to the image as Anantashayi, suggesting that Vishnu is lying over serpent Ananta, another name of Shesha. Lockwood7 points to two roughly carved parallel wavy lines, engraved in front of Vishnu’s body, as a representation of layered coils of serpent Ananta. Walter Smith8 tells that Dandin mentions the Vishnu image to be reclining over a serpent bed but the image is actually resting on a plain platform. Smith suggests two possibilities, either the coils of the serpent were done in paint or it was deliberate on the part of the artists to show Vishnu lying over a slab, partly submerged in an ocean, where the ocean plays the role of Ananta, the primordial waters.

    Buddha Neelkanth | wikipedia

    Smith is correct that the Vishnu image was constructed near the ocean and the ocean played an important part, washing the feet of Vishnu at regular intervals. However, whether the ocean replaces Ananta or Shesha is not very certain. Smith refers to Buddha Neelkanth in Nepal, where Vishnu is shown in midst of the water. However at Buddha Neelkanth, though Vishnu is lying in midst of water, he is lying over the coils of Shesha. Therefore a comparison between the Mamallapuram image with Buddha Neelkantha fails, though in case of both the images, water plays an important role.

    Probably, we may compare the Mamallapuram Vishnu image with the image at Saranga in Odisha. This 51 feet long image is carved on a rock during the ninth century CE. Here Vishnu is shown lying over the rock, and Ananta coils are missing. However, apart from stored rainwater here and there over the rock,  there is no major role and source of water connected with this image.

    Krishna dancing over Kaliya

    K R Srinivasan9 tells that this Vishnu image is an ‘abhicarika’ form of reclining Vishnu. Abhicarika-murti is an image meant for some magic spell or sorcery to get rid of enemies or diseases. Certain images of Vishnu were used for this purpose and these images were categorized under abhicarika category. Such images are bereft of beauty and ornamentation and, instead, showcase a dark side. Such images are installed at the outermost periphery of a village, far away from human habitation, usually in inaccessible places.

    A question arises if this Vishnu image is a abhicarika form, why it was included within the bigger plan of the Shore temple complex. As the Vishnu image was taken within the bigger plan of the Shore temple and the temple was in worship till late eleventh century CE, we cannot state that this image is an abhicarika form as in such a case, it would not be under worship by the common mass.

    Krishna slaying Kesi

    The sidewalls of the temple have many work-off images. These images are, Krishna dancing over Kaliya-serpent, Krishna slaying Kesi or horse-demon, Vishnu riding over Garuda in act of rescuing an elephant from a crocodile or Gajendra-moksha-murti.

    Inscriptions –

    1. On the lintel of the Vishnu temple10 – reads Narapatisimha-Pallava-Vishnu-griha

    Back to Index

    1 Nagaswamy, R (2008). Mahabalipuram. Oxford University Press. New Delhi. ISBN 9780198071273 p 79
    2 Lockwood, Michael (1993). Mamallapuram. Tambaram Research Associates. Chennai. p 104
    3 Mahalingam, T V. Inscriptions of the Pallavas. p 447
    4 Lockwood, Michael (1993). Mamallapuram. Tambaram Research Associates. Chennai. p 117
    5 Sivaramamurti, C (1952). Mahabalipuram. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 31
    6 Nagaswamy, R (2008). Mahabalipuram. Oxford University Press. New Delhi. ISBN 9780198071273 p 69
    7 Lockwood, Michael (1993). Mamallapuram. Tambaram Research Associates. Chennai. p 104
    8 Walter Smith (1996). The Vishnu Image in the Shore Temple at Mamallapuram published in  Artibus Asiae vol. 56 no ½. pp19-32
    9 Encyclopedia of Indian Temple Architecture. p 55
    10 Nagaswamy, R (2008). Mahabalipuram. Oxford University Press. New Delhi. ISBN 9780198071273 p 72


    1. . . . about Lord Shiva's weapon, I think the surface just got sheared off and it was a Trisula, there are traces of the side curved prongs.
      What does He hold in his rear left hand? I've forgotten if I ever knew?

    2. hi saurabh

      The vishnu shrine finds mention in the vanaparva. further Rajasimha was not purely a devotee of Shiva, one of his birudas from kanchi kailsanatha is Sripativallabhah- The favorite of Srivallabha ( Vishnu)

    3. Thanks for this very interesting and enlighting article! Just one small correction: The Kirātārjunīya is not a play, it’s an epic poem. And it’s far from certain wether Bharavi was on the court of the Pallavas.


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