Mamallapuram – Shore Temple


    Mamallapuram – The Workshop of the Pallavas

    Shore Temple

    Located very close to the Mamallapuram beach, and aptly named, the Shore Temple has been the emblem of the town since ages. In the backdrop of this temple was developed the legend of the Seven Pagodas, the name given to the town by the early mariners. It is believed that once there stood seven temple with rising glittering towers, reaching far into the ocean. However, at present, we only see two temples, intact with their rising towers. Whether there were five/six more temples is still an unsettled issue which has been discussed in detail in another chapter of this article.

    Watercolor of a general view of the Shore Temple and beach by Elisha Trapaud, 1805 | British Library
    View from East |

    The present Shore Temple is in fact a temple complex comprising of multiple temples. The complex is dominated by two rising towers, corresponding to two different temples, dedicated to Shiva. These two temples are set up back to back, one facing east and the other facing west, however both are not in the same axial alignment. Sandwiched between these two temples is a temple dedicated to the anantsayana, sleeping form of Vishnu. Though these two Shiva temples are connected with the Vishnu temple, however all the three are not in a straight line. The Vishnu temple appears to be the earliest among all the three. Both the Shiva temples were constructed during the reign of the Pallava king Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha (700-728 CE) as attested by inscriptions. When the Shiva temple on the east was constructed, the Vishnu temple became a part of its prakara (boundary) wall. The eastern temple is saved from the dashing ocean water by construction of a groyne-wall in about 1944-451.

    Shore Temple Complex |
    Enclosures of Temple Complex |

    The temple with the taller tower, facing east, is entered through a small gopuram. It is referred as Kshatriyasimha-Pallava-Ishvara-griham in inscriptions. This temple is inside an enclosure (prakara) wall which surrounds it through north, east and south, leaving it open on the west. The open west side allows entrance to the Vishnu shrine. The temple is built on a square plan and has a four-story tower. The tower of the temple is lean and elongated, achieved by avoiding the regular row of mini shrines on few stories. This mini shrine arrangement is missing on the first and the fourth story. Instead of it, the first story has sejant lions at the corners while the fourth story has dwarf human (bhuta) figures at the corners. Though the row of shrines is missing on few stories, the kudu (dormer window) ornamentation over cornice is present on each story. The shikhara is octagonal rising above octagonal griva. The nasikas over the shikhara display Ganesha figures inside. The stupi above the shikhara is intact and gives it appropriate elevation.

    Sanctum of the East Temple
    Shiva as Tripurantaka

    The garbhagrha (sanctum) is guarded by dvarapalas. A Somaskanda panel is carved in its back wall. A tall, sixteen-faceted linga, broken at the top, is installed in front of this panel. This linga was displaced and later installed at this place, Nagaswamy2 suggests that this reinstallation was done in a wrong orientation. The ardha-mandapa, preceding the sanctum, has sculptures on its north and south walls,  Brahma in the south and Vishnu in the north. The outer-walls of the mandapa also has sculptures, northern side is better preserved. On the north wall, there is an image of Shiva as Tripurantaka and Durga as Mahishasuramardini.

    Twin Towers |
    View from West |

    The temple facing the west has smaller tower, consisting of three stories. It is referred as Rajasimha-Pallava-Ishvara-griham in inscriptions. However, it also follows the pattern of the taller tower, thus achieves similar slenderness and elevation. Mini-shrine arrangement is missing on the first and third stories, thus only provided on the second story. Both, first and the third stories have dwarf human (bhuta) figures at the corners. The tall octagonal griva supports an octagonal shikhara. The stupi is present above the shikhara however it is broken in its upper part.

    Somaskanda |

    The garbhagrha (sanctum), like the other temple in the complex, also has a Somaskanda panel in its back wall. There is a socket for linga in front of the panel, however linga is missing at present. There are two mandapas in front, one small and other large, superstructure of both have not survived. The temple is enclosed in two circular enclosures, the small enclosure has a gopuram on the west side. There are two sculptures at this entrances, one depicting Shiva as Ekapadamurti and another of a naga with five hoods. The inner walls of this enclosure has panels depicting history of the Pallava clan. However these all panels are very much weathered leaving except very few still surviving with faint traces. Beyond this smaller enclosure are three large bali-pithas. The enclosure wall of the outer circle is topped with multitude of Nandi images which were put on the top of the wall during the restoration activities.

    As per an early eleventh century CE inscription of the period of the Chola king Rajaraja I, the temple complex was under worship and known as Jalasayana. The three temples within the complex were referred as, Pallikondaruliya-devar for the Vishnu temple and the two Shiva temples as Kshatriyasimha-Pallava-Ishvara-griham and Rajasimha-Pallava-Ishvara-griham. The inscription also tells that there were flower gardens on both side of the complex. On the evidence of its inscription, it is confirmed that it was the Pallava king Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha (700-728 CE) who constructed the Shiva temples of this complex. While there is a consensus among scholars that the two Shiva temples were the construction of Rajasimha, however on the authorship of the Vishnu temple, there are diverse views. Scholars who support Nagaswamy are of opinion that all the three temples were the creations of Rajasimha. The scholars on the other side are of opinion that the rock-cut image of Vishnu preexisted before the Rajasimha period. Most of them are of opinion that this image was the work of Narasimhavarman I Mamalla (630-668 CE), and few even suggesting that it was Simhavishnu (560-580 CE) who might have created this image.


    1. No 40 of South Indian Inscriptions vol. I  – on the south base of the Shore Temple – dated in the twenty-fifth year of the Chola king Rajaraja I, corresponding 1010 CE – The purport of the inscription is a new division of the land of the town of Mamallapuram, which has been agreed upon by the citizens. The citizen made this pact while assembled in the tirunandavana to the south of Jalasyana-deva (Shore Temple) at Mamallapuram, the chief town of the fifty Pudukkudaiyan Ekadhira, which form part of Amur-kottam. The inscription mentions that the king built a jewel-like hall at Kandulur and conquered following countries, Vengai-nadu, Ganga-padi, Nulamba-padi, Kundamalai-nadu, Kollam, Kalingam, Ira-mandalam, Iratta-padi, Tadigai-padi, Seriyas and Pandyas. The record was inscribed by Tiruvelarai Muvayirattu-erunurruvan, the karanam of this town.
    2. No 41 of South Indian Inscriptions vol. I  – on the north base of the Shore Temple – dated in the twenty-sixth year of the Chola king Rajaraja I, corresponding 1011 CE – This mutilated inscription mentions three temples, two of which were called after the Pallava kings who constructed those. Jalasayana alias Kshatriyasimha-Pallav-Ishvara-deva seems to refer to the Shore temple. The second temple, Rajasimha-Pallava-Ishvara-deva seems to refer to the Kailasanatha Temple at Kanchipuram. The third temple, Pallikondaruliya-deva may refer to Sriranganayaka temple at Pallikonda near Virinchipuram. Though Hultzsch takes these three temples as explained before, Sivaramamurti & Nagaswamy take these three names as the name of the three different temples within the Shore Temple complex. Jalasayana is taken as a common name of complex, while the east facing Shiva temples is taken as Kshatriyasimha-Pallav-Ishvara-griham and the west facing Shiva temple is taken as Rajasimha-Pallava-Ishvara-griham, and the Vishnu temple is taken as Pallikondaruliya-devar.
    3. No 42 of South Indian Inscriptions vol. I  – inside the Shore Temple – dated in the ninth year of the Chola king Rajendra I, corresponding 1021 CE – it records gift of a piece of land from the mahasabha of Siridavur alias Narasimha-mangalam to the lord of Tirukkadalmallai.
    4. On the plinth of the bali-pitha in the western complex – No 18 of the Epigraphia India vol XIX – not dated – various titles of the Pallava king Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha, these titles are Apratima, Avanibhushana, Akalanka, Dharanichandra, Arimardana, Atulbala, Kulatilaka, Atyantakama, Aparajita, Chandrasekhara-shikhamani, Chandasani, Udaychandra, Rajasimina, Ranajaya, Sribhara, Citrakarmukha, Ekavira, Shivachudamani, Kalakala, Abhirama, Ranabhima, Gunalaya, Srivallabha, Abhimana, Ranavira, Yuddharjuna and Narendrasimha.

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    1 Sivaramamurti, C (1952). Mahabalipuram. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 33
    2 Nagaswamy, R (2008). Mahabalipuram. Oxford University Press. New Delhi. ISBN 9780198071273 p 70


    1. 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

    2. 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

    3. 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


    4. 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?


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