Mahabalipuram or Mamallapuram is a small tourist village in Tamil Nadu. The town is famous for its stone carvings made during the Pallava dynasty in 7th – 9th century. This historical site is also listed in UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. These monuments and temples are located about 58 – 60 km away from Chennai the capital city of the state.
In early days the village was called “Mamallapuram” and was built by the great king of Pallava Dynasty King Narasimha Varman I. Later the village became popular as Mahabalipuram, which literally means “the city of Sacrifice”.
Mahabalipuram has a strong historical background that dates back more than 2000 years. The group of monuments at Mahabalilpuram includes temples and the great grand architectural buildings that were made by carving hard rocks. These structures are massive and beautiful.
Today, Mahabalipuram is a pilgrim site that witnesses devotees not only from India but from all over the world. Today it is one of the major tourist attractions for scholars, devotees, artisans, architects and historians. These monuments gained UNESCO’s “World Heritage site distinction” twenty-six years ago i.e. in the year 1984.
This heritage site was once the seaport of the ancient Pallava Dynasty and today it has about forty monuments that include one of the largest open-air bas-reliefs in the world. The Mahaballipuram seaport traded with distant kingdoms of Southeast Asia. These kingdoms were Kambuja (Cambodia), Shrivijaya (Malaysia, Sumatra and Java) and with the empire of Champa (Annam). The Distinction of “World Heritage Site” is divided into four categories of monuments. These are:
Ratha Temples: the temples in the form of processional chariots carved from rocks.
Mandapas : the sanctuaries covered with bas-reliefs.
Rock reliefs: Including descents of River Ganga
Temple : The magnificent pyramidal towers made by cutting huge pieces of rocks. Most of these temples are dedicated to Lord Shiva.
Mahabalipuram was the main city of the soun-eat Indian Pallava civilization. It is a major center of the Siva cult and is hence visited by people. The sanctuary is widely known especially for its mandapas (cave sanctuaries), rathas (chariot shaped temples), and gigantic open-air reliefs. The well crafted sculptures that have a characteristic softness and graceful modeling have an influence even in Cambodia, annam and Java.
The Pallava rulers founded Mahabalipuram in the 7th century. Trade was carried out with various South-east Asian kingdoms of that time like Shrivijaya (Malaysia, Sumatra, and Java), the empire of Champa and Kambuja (Cambodia) through the harbor of Mahabalipuram. But now, it is more popular for its unique rock sanctuaries and beautiful Brahmin temples constructed and ornamented between 630 and 728.
During the reign of Narasimhavarman I Mamalla, most structures, like the rock-cut rathas, Arjuna’a penance which consists of open rocks with scenes sculpted artistically on them, the Govardhanadhari and Ahishasuramardini caves, the sleeping sculpture of Mahavishnu or Chakrin at the back o the Shore temple or the Jala-Sayana Perumal temple are thought to have been built.
All Holy places of the Hindus at Mahabalipuram are extraordinarily unique. They display an impeccable fusion of art, culture, legends and religion. The Dravidian stykle of architecture that belongs to the state of Tamil Nadu can be seen here at its best. The Mandapas or Cave Temples, chariots known as Rathas; the wonderful structural temple and Arjuna’s penance which is an open air bas-relief can be seen here. The legend is that this penance was done by Lord Arjuna to get Pashupata weapon from Lord Shiva. This rock cut architecture later became the basis or inspiration for architecture of South Indian temples in the later periods. This kind of temple architecture can also be clearly seen in temples of Annan, Java and Cambodia. The descendants of the sculptors and craftsmen of these shrines are actively involved in this city’s contemporary culture.
How to reach
By Air: The nearest airport to Mahabalipuram is Chennai International Airport which is well connected with all the other airports of India and of the world. Chennai being the capital city of Tamil Nadu has frequent flights from other cities.
By Rail : The important city near Mahabalipuram is Chennai which has a good rail network connecting it to the major cities of India. The nearest railhead to Mahabalipuram is Chegalpattu, which is about 29 km away. Frequent train services are available from Chennai to Chegalpattu.
By Road: Once you are in Tamil Nadu, there are frequent bus services operating between the important cities and Mahabalipuram. You can also heir a taxi from Chennai directly to Mahabalipuram.
Major Tourist Attractions:
There is a nominal entrance fee, to Shore Temples and Five Ratha temple, of Rs.250 for foreign nationals and Rs.10 for Indian citizens.
Shore Temples: These are the oldest monuments of this heritage site build in somewhere around 700 AD. Most of these are re-constructed because of the damage caused by a cyclone.
Panch Pandav Rathas (Five Chariots of Pandavas) : These chariots were build back in 7th century and still stand strong. These chariots are decorated with some exquisite carvings and are complemented with huge elephant structures.
Sculpture Museum: The museum has hundreds of century old wooden and stone sculptures.
Thirukadalmallai : A temple at the sea shore built on the instructions of a Pallava King in order to protect and safeguard other sculptures from the ocean. This temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu.
Structures Carved out of Rocks :
Arjuna’s Penance : A huge bas-relief made by carving a rock and decorated with detailed carvings of monkeys and elephants.
Krishna’s Butterball : It is a giant rock that looks like a huge ball on the hilltop. It is an interesting place for scientists as the rock defiance the laws of physics.
Mahishamardini Cave : A carving of Lord Shiva, his wife Parvati and Murugan
Varaha Cave : Famour for the carvings of Lord Vishnu, Goddess Gakalakshmi, Trivikama and Durga.