Mahabalipuram Temple

By Sanjeev Nayyar | 2003

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Welcome to Mahabalipuram. This section has 3 parts, cave temples i.e. scooping out the scarp of the hill, monolithic temples were executed by chiseling out the exterior face of the boulder e.g. five rathas, structural temple meant using blocks of stones for constructing temples e.g. Shore temple. What you see is Bas-relief i.e. the depiction of Puranic story in the form of sculptural panel. Bas-relief was introduced by Pallava king Narasimhavarman I (630-668 a.d.). The cliff of the natural rock has been chosen to carve these puranic stories. At the far end you see Panch Pandav Mandapa. This five-celled cave is the biggest in Mamallapuram. Local guide said it has five bedrooms one each for Nakul, Bhim, Draupadi, Yudhister, Sahadev. Arjun was meditating as you shall see later.

Descent of Ganges. A prodigious rock wall (eight feet in length & thirty feet in height) carved by the Pallava artisans reflects in bright sunshine, the timeless story of the descent of the Ganges. Copyright V Kutumba Rao. Note the gigantic elephants with delineation of features.

Another view of the bas-relief.

Arjuna s Penance. The two rocks to a length of 90 feet with a narrow fissure in between are used to depict the story of Arjuna s penance for is desired boon of Pasupata astra from Lord Shiva. This event is witnessed by Lord Shiva (extreme left) in standing form with his upper arms holding trishula & mazhu and the lower right arm in the gesture of giving boon. Below the Lord are his two ganas (dwarf attendants). In the center of the picture the man standing on his left leg & raised hands is Arjuna, his severe penance is shown by his prominent rib bones & long beard. Surya (above Lord Shiva) & Chandra (not in picture) with celestial bodies witnessing the event. A number of animals like deer, jackal, monkey are shown in a wild, dramatic manner.

The Krishna mandapa actually contains the panel of Krishna as Govardhanadhari. Its bas-relief portrays how Lord Krishna protected the cowboys and their cattle from the onslaught of thunder. Krishna is seen in the center as holding the Govardhana hill with his left arm. What you see is the entrance to the mandapa. Note that the rock boulder is huge, starts with Arjuna s bas-relief that you saw in pic 1 and ends with this mandapa.

Mounted on a dashing lion, a maidenly amazon with slender grace, Goddess Durga attacks the powerful king asura, Mahisha. Copyright V.B. Anand.

There is a beautiful garden in this complex. In it is this huge rock piece so well poised. Local guide called it Krishna s Butter Ball. He said that the British tried to move the ball but failed.

Overview of the 5 Rathas or monolithic temples. Chiseling work starts from top to bottom. A small hill sloping from south to north has been segmented into five divisions & converted into monolithic temples. Each monolithic temple shows different kind of sikhara. The five rathas are Dharmaraja Ratha, Bhima Ratha, (center huge structure), Arjuna Ratha (left of Bhima ratha), Draupadi Ratha (extreme left) and Nakul Sahadev Ratha (extreme right).

A rear side view of the 5 rathas. In front is Lord Shiva s carrier Nandi, carvings are of Arjuna ratha, extreme left is Dharmaraja ratha.

Dharmaraja ratha - this southernmost monolithic temple is the highest in the group. It is having square base and series of diminishing tiers to a total number of three with octagonal sikhara at the top. Each storey is demarcated from the other by a convex roll cornice with chaitya-window arches & small pavilions surround the upper storeys. The temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva.

The second highest monolithic temple is Bhima Ratha. The sikhara is of the wagon-vault roof which carries a row of miniature stupis over its central ridge.

On your right is the Arjuna Ratha. It is a two storied vimana with octagonal sikhara. The wall contains panels of Indra, Siva with Nandi, Vishnu on Garuda etc. To our left is the Draupadi Ratha, the vimana is single tiered and shows square sikhara. On the back wall of the cell is found the depiction of goddess Durga. The shrine is guarded by female door-keepers. The lion that you see in front is the vahana of the goddess Durga

Nakula - Sahadeva Ratha - it is a two storeyed apsidal vimana. It is having the shape of back of an elephant from its base to the top. The great elephant figure close to this ratha suggests its dedication to Lord Indra. The ratha has a rectangular plan rounded at one end & correspondingly the storeyed roof is surmounted by a vault with an apsidal back. This form reproducing the design of the Buddhist chaitya halls went out of fashion.

Overview of Shore Temple. It is a structural temple meaning using blocks of stones for constructing temples. Shore temple is a temple complex consisting of two Siva temples and a carving of Anantasayana Vishnu. The temple facing east is entered by a small gopura (smaller one). On plan, it consists of a small sanctum & a front mandapa & is a two-tired vimana. The sanctum is housing a linga. The temple facing west is also dedicated to Lord Shiva. The temple is large in plan comprising sanctum, mahamandapa, front mandapa, balipitha and dvajastamba. The carving on Lord Vishnu on a boulder in Anantasayana form is lying in between these two temples. It belongs to the period of Narasimhavarman I and thus earlier than the Siva temples.

Another view. Note that the Siva temples are enclosed by double prakara walls with the row of Nandis on the wall of the inner prakara.

Another view of the Shore Temple. Huge boulders have been placed between the sea & the temple. Local guide told me many a time seawater entered the temple

Rear side meaning west entrance to the large temple. The temple s vimana is four tiered with octagonal sikhara. It is important to note that stupis of both these temples are not covered by kalasa (copper finials).

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