Mamallapuram – The Mystery of the Seven Pagodas


    Mamallapuram – The Workshop of the Pallavas

    The Mystery of the Seven Pagodas

    The town of Mamallapuram was known to the modern scholars since the last quarter of the eighteenth century CE however why it was referred as the Seven Pagodas is still shrouded in mysteries. Though considerable research have gone into this, unfortunately it is still not settled comfortably. There are some feelers suggesting that the Seven Pagodas could be true, however there are no concrete evidences to support the same.

    In 1590, Gasparo Balbi was the first to refer to the term Seven Pagodas. He writes, translated here from Italian, ‘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.’1 Balbi did not visit the place, but passed through it during very early in the morning, about three o’clock. How much he could have seen at that time in the morning, with considerable mist around, is questionable. However, he knew that the place was known as Seven Pagodas and it can inferred that he came to know this term through other mariners. Henry Yule2 has suggested that Setemelti of the Catalan Atlas was a corruption for Sette Melti (Seven Pagodas). The Catalan Atlas was prepared by Cresques Abraham, a medieval cartographer, in 1375 after taking considerable inputs from Marco Polo’s voyages. Though Marco Polo did not visit Mamallapuram however he would have sailed through it and might have come across its name as the Seven Pagodas. This suggests that the early mariners knew the place as the Sevan Pagodas and Balbi got his reference from some similar map or the Catalan Atlas itself.

    Geroge Chinnery – The shore temple at Mamallapuram, with a palanquin and resting bearers by the shore, published 1802 | British Library

    The next reference is from Alexander Hamilton3, in 1744. He only mentions the name Seven Pagodas but no explanation on the term. Pierre Sonnerat4 was the next to mention Seven Pagodas stating that the temples called by this name would be the oldest on the Coromandel coast, however he also skipped the reason behind this name. It was William Chambers who first explained the reason behind the name, Seven Pagodas. He writes, “The rock or rather hill of stone, on which great part of these works are executed, is one of the principle marks for mariners as they approach the coast, and to them the place is known by the name of the Seven Pagodas, possibly because the summit of the rock have presented them with that idea as they passed: but it must be confessed, that no aspect which the hill assumes as viewed on the shore, seems at to authorize this notion; and there are circumstances, which will be mentioned in the sequel, that would lead one to suspect, that this name has arisen from some such number of Pagodas that formerly stood here, and in time have been buried in the waves”5

    While describing the Shore Temple, Chambers writes, “And the natives of the place declared to the writer of this account, 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 (probably gilt) were particularly visible at sun rise, as their shining surface used then to reflect the sun’s rays, but that now that effect was no more produced, as the copper had since become incrusted with mould and verdegrease”.6

    From the above account, we infer that there were two notions of the Seven Pagodas. The first notion was that the hill at Mamallapuram with its various excavations was part of Seven Pagodas and the other notion was that the Shore Temple with its submerged cousins constituted Seven Pagodas. The notion of the hill was rejected by Chambers based upon the reason that the hill does not assume such appearance. He brought out the theory of submerged temples to suggest that it was Shore Temple and its cousins which would have resulted with the name of Seven Pagodas. Two interesting things to note here are, that the natives who narrated the story of submerged temple tops did not tell how many temple tops they were able to see. Another fact is that the name Seven Pagodas was provided by mariners, but the number seven should be taken in its absolute value or it was just a notional number.

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

    An curious statement comes from Jacob Haafner, who in his book, Reize in Eenen Palanquin, writes, translated from Dutch here, ‘Remarkable, among others, are seven temples, that stretch in a straight line from the shore, one behind the other, for as far as a mile or more, like a reef of rocks, deep into the sea.’7 Haafner and Chambers visited Mamallapuram in the same decade, Chambers in 1772 & 1776 and Haafner between 1779 and 1781. Isn’t it surprising that they gave two different accounts on the submerged temples? Chambers clearly tells that only the Shore Temple, as in its current form, was the only surviving temple out of the seven pagodas. While Haafner says that he could see all the seven temples, like a reef of rocks, deep into the sea. Probably the clue lies in the words of Haafner. Why did he used the term “like a reef of rock“, instead of using seven distinct structures. Did he see a reef in the deep sea which he took as the remains of the seven temples?

    James Goldingham, who wrote after Haafner, writes, “A Brahmen, about fifty years of age, a native of the place, whom I had an opportunity of conversing with since my arrival at Madras, informed me, his grandfather had frequently mentioned having seen the gilt tops of five pagodas in the surf, no longer visible (sic).”8 Interesting to note that the native acquaintance of Goldingham mentions about five submerged pagodas, suggesting that the two towers of the Shore Temple was all left of the Seven Pagodas. We should take into cognizance that all these accounts from the natives, as told to Chambers and Goldingham, were from the memories or as told by their ancestors. None of those natives saw the submerged tops by their own eyes. In such circumstances, account from Haafner is really curious and surprising. After Goldingham, the quest of the Seven Pagodas took a halt as the scholars got busy with the trifling monuments at the site, their dates, authors and other architectural features.

    ‘The Seven Pagodas. 30 Miles South of Madras.’ by Elisha Trapaud in 1805 | British Library

    Before we move to some recent researches in this area, lets give a thought on how Mamallapuram was during and before the Pallava period. Of course, we do not have concrete information on this aspect, however there are certain literary sources which can help us understand the picture of that time. Dandin, in his Avantisundari, mentioned that he visited Mahamallapuram to see a recumbent Vishnu image. He did not mention any other temple at the place, and also did not tell that there were Shiva temples on front or back of the Vishnu image, as we see the complex today. He also mentions that the sea waves used to splash over the Vishnu image. Assuming that the Vishnu image mentioned by Dandin is the same Vishnu image as of in the Shore Temple, then this suggests that during the time of Dandin, 8th century CE, the Shore Temple did not exist. Also, there were no such seven temples at that point of time.

    It is an accepted fact that it was Rajasimha who built the twin temples of the Shore Temple complex. He has been attributed to few other monuments at the same site and as well as Kancheepuram and few other places. Would it be possible for him to build seven such temples at the same site during his rule? Rajasimha ruled for about 30 years or less, and he was an avid temple builderr pushing all limits and money on temples. However, constructing seven temples, on the same scale as of the Shore Temple, is not an easy task even for a royalty within a short time span. But why to think that it would have been carried out only during the reign of Rajasimha, there is a possibility that the construction activities were continued by the later rulers. The Pallavas were routed by the start of the tenth century CE and this would be the latest time to which we can push the seven pagodas. Now, if there were seven such temples, it would certainly be a magnificent achievement and should find at least a cursory mention in the epigraphs of the later rulers. Unfortunately, this is not the case, though we do find references of other temples in later epigraphs but not of the complex of the seven pagodas. In such a situation, the seven pagodas theory look very dicey.

    Shore Temple |

    In April 2002, a join underwater exploration, for three days, was carried out by the Scientific Exploration Society, UK and National Institute of Oceanography (NIO), Goa9. This exercise provided clues on possibilities of man-made structures off Mamallapuram. Therefore a bigger joint exercise was planned for 2003. However this joint exercise could not be realized, and NIO alone carried out this mandate in March 2003. The 2003 NIO explorations revealed, “many structural remains including a falling wall, with three courses, scattered dressed stone blocks, a few steps leading to a platform and remains of many more fallen wall sections. These apparently man-made structures are present in 5-8m water depth, about 800m from the present shoreline.” On the dating of these structures, NIO report mentions, “In the absence of datable evidences, the structures found underwater can be dated only based on the local traditions and available literature.”10 The structures are dates around 1500 BP.

    From the above, it is clear that there are some structures submerged near the shoreline, however there exact nature cannot be determined with certainty though it may be said that these might be remains of some temple of similar size as that of the Shore Temple. But what would have caused this submergence? The sea level fluctuations on the Indian east coast have been documented for last 5000 years.11 It seems that there has been no major tectonic activity at this sea coast in last 1200 years.12 In such a case, the best guess would be coastal erosion. But erosion is usually a slow process, how much time would it take to submerge five temples? It is suggested that the rate of erosion at Mamallapuram coast is 55cm/yr.13  If we apply this rate, for 1500 years, as the date of the submerged structures, we get a figure of 825 m. This means, that the structure which in now lying deep in the sea would be above ground some 1500 years back.

    Based upon the above NIO report, during 1770s, the shoreline would have extended to an extra 130 m into the sea. Does this allow the tops of the temple to remain visible above the sea? Can five temples be accommodated within 130 m as claimed by Haafner to be visible by his time? How about the natives of Mamallapuram, ancestors of whom narrated the stories of seeing gilt tops, how true it would be in such a case of slow erosion? The NIO reports concludes, “The first ever underwater explorations provided for further investigations, detailed explorations reported here, though fail to provide clinching evidence in favor, they do provide substantial material to carry out further research, may be with higher technology, and better preparedness.”

    Plate 18 from James Fergusson’s ‘Ancient Architecture in Hindoostan’, by Thomas Colman Dibdin, 1847 | British Library

    2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami provided an opportunity for archaeologists to carry out further discoveries as when the waves engulfing Mamallapuram receded, they also washed away beach sand into the sea, exposing remains of various structures. ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) carried out excavations at two sites, one site at about 300 m south of the Shore Temple and another site at Saluvankuppam. The site near the Shore Temple was excavated under T Satyamurthy, Superintending Archaeologist at ASI Chennai circle. The excavation exposed a massive temple complex, larger than that of Shore Temple. Satyamurthy believes in the legend of Seven Pagodas and tells that this excavation will pave the way forward for further investigations in this direction. On the question of why the Shore Temple survived but the newly excavated temple collapsed, ASI officials answered that the excavated temples was not constructed on a rock-bed as that of the Shore Temple and this was the main cause of the fall.14

    The site at Saluvankuppam unearthed remains of a brick basement, where three different phases of construction were observed.15 These different phases were dated to early 4th century CE, 6th -8th century CE and 8th – 9th century CE. It appears that the sea had encroached this structure multiple times which resulted in different construction phases. This resulted in the search of finding earlier tsunami activities as erosion alone will not be able to justify the findings at Saluvankuppam. However, no immediate success was made and a report of 2006 ends with, “Expanding the search for anomalous sand layers to other areas along the east coast, particularly closer to ancient cultural settlements should be a major component of future work.”15

    ‘View of the ancient Hindu Temple on the Sea Coast at Mavelliporam-called the Seven Pagodas.’ by an anonymous artist, part of the MacKenzie Collection in 1784 | British Library

    Conclusion – We found that during the time of the Pallavas, there was no reference to the magnificent seven temple complex, neither  in inscriptions and nor in literature. Though it is not mandatory or customary for the Pallava kings to insert such a reference, however absence of it is also surprising. The tern Seven Pagodas came from the early mariners, how they get to know it, whether there were exactly seven pagodas or its just a notional number, did any mariner visit the town or they just passed through it during their journeys, are all open questions at the moment.

    The marine archaeology has opened new avenues and provided some early feelers of submerged structure. However in absence of concrete or clinching evidences, nothing can be said with any certainty. There is a scope for further research, however it would be a very costly affair. Except Haafner, no other traveler mentioned seeing the seven structures. In such a situation, account from Haafner appears questionable. All the early sketches and photographs go against Haafner. And Haafner did not leave any sketches of what he saw on the shore.

    The quest is open and is unresolved. In my opinion, there would of course be some structures submerged near the sea shore, as also found at many other ancient ports on the east coast of India. It would be tough to associate these structures with the Seven Pagodas, and with out current context of knowledge and information, the theory of the seven pagodas with five submerged temples seem to be a myth.

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    1 Balbi, Gasparo (1590). Viaggio dell’Inde Orientali. C Borgominieri. Venice. pp. 85-86
    2 Yule, Henry (1875). The Book of Ser Marco Polo, the Venetian. John Murray. London. p 129
    3 Hamilton, Alexander (1727). A New Account of the East Indies vol. I. Edinburg. p 357
    4 Sonnerat, M (1806). Voyage aux Indes orientales et à la Chine, vol. I. Paris. p 217
    5 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. p 145
    6 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. p 153
    7 Haafner, M J (1811). Voyages dans la peninsule occidentale de l’Inde et dans l’ile de Celian vol. i. Paris. p 122-124
    8 Goldingham, J (1807). Some Account of the Sculptures at Mahabalipoorum; usually called the Seven Pagodas published in Aisatick Researches vol. v. Calcutta. pp. 72-73
    9 Vora, K H & Sundaresh (2003). Mahabalipuram: A Saga of Glory of Tribulations published in Migrations & Diffusion, vol. 4, number 16, 2003. pp. 67-79
    10 Gaur, Tripathi & Vora (2004). Underwater Investigations off Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, India published in Current Science vol. 86, no. 9, 10 May 2004. pp. 231-237
    11 Banerjee, P K (2000). Holocene and late Pleistoene relative sea level fluctuations along the East Coast of India published in Marine Geology. No. 167. pp. 243-260
    12 Mohapatra G & Hari Prasad M (1999). Shoreline Changes and their impact on the archaeological structures at Mahabalipuram published in  Gondwana Geol. Magz, Spl, 1999. pp. 225-233
    13 Ramaiyan M, Krishna Prasad E & Suresh P K (1997). Shoreline oscillation of Tamil Nadu coast published in the Proceedings of Second Indian National Conference of Harbour and Ocean Engineering, (INCHOE – 97), held at Thiruvananthapuram in 1997. pp. 1177-1182
    14 Subramanian, T S. The Secret of Seven Pagodas published in Frontline vol. 22 issue 10. May 07-20 2005
    15 Rajendran, Machado, Satyamurthy, Aravazhi & Jaiswal (2006). Evidence of ancient sea surges at the Mamallapuram coast of India and implications for previous Indian Ocean tsunami events published in Current Science vol. 91, no 9, 10 November 2006.


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