Splendour of Mahabalipuram


Living in Chennai for the past 55 years one would assume that an ardent traveler and photographer like me would have explored the famous World Heritage Site of Mahabalipuram. Surprisingly, except for several visits on picnics, no proper learning was done by me till before, during and after the last visit in June 2018 along with my wife Sudha. The foundation for this trip was laid with the concise yet exhaustively written small paperback book ‘Mahabalipuram’ one of the monumental legacy series by Padma Bhushan Dr.R.Nagaswamy and published by Oxford India.

We started early on a hot and sunny Sunday morning with a packed lunch and our first halt was at the Kailasanadar Temple at Kovalam where I wanted to look at a unique inscription on the base of the Shiva Lingam I had read about. The officiating priest first said it cannot be shown and I left it there as at least I had received the confirmation of its existence from him. To my surprise, after a few moments, he himself called us inside and showed us the inscription. You can read about this temple more in our website link.

Our next halt was at the famous and popular 108 Divya Desam Temple called Thiruvidandhai. This is a temple in the control of Archaeological Survey of India. There are two temple tanks here, the one near the highway is in good condition and well maintained whereas the one adjacent to and north of the temple is in bad shape and used as an open toilet by the locals and visitors. This temple is dedicated to Kalyana Varadaraja Perumal and you can read about this temple more in our website link. After darshan of the processional deity, since the sanctum sanctorum was under renovation, we moved on to another place where again we have been going for several years with our children but never got close to understand what its name ‘Tigers Cave’ meant.

Tiger’s Cave

Tigers Cave is in Saluvankuppam before you reach Mahabalipuram. The cave is a large carved out rock in an attempt to create a temple but left unfinished. It is believed that this temple was meant for Goddess Durga based on the fact that a small model of a similar structure for her is present in the shore temple and from the lion-like Yaali carvings around the front entrance. To the north of this is another large tall rock probably meant for carving but left untouched.

Atiranachanda Eashwara Griham

Further north and inside the same campus is a Cave temple for Lord Shiva called Atiranachanda Eashwara Griham named after one of the titles of King Rajasimha Pallava (Narasimhavarman II, period of reign 700 – 729 CE). This is a rectangular cave with a central sanctum which houses a 16 faceted Shiva Lingam made out of a shining stone. The rear wall of this sanctum has a beautiful carving of Somaskanda (Shiva, Parvathi and Skanda) with Brahma and Vishnu looking at them. There are 2 more Somaskanda carvings on either side of the sanctum in separate niches. This cave temple is in a depression and a Nandi can be seen facing the Lingam. There is a tall stone Lingam without any base in between the Nandi and the main deity. A beautifully carved panel of Mahishasura Mardhini with Durga and her lion mount chasing the Asura Mahisha is seen here.

On the left and right extending walls of this temple are seen two inscriptions which convey the same message but one in Pallava Grantha and another in Nagari. These inscriptions mention the name of Rajasimha as the creator of this Shiva Temple. A 2015 article in the Times of India e-paper brought up forgotten information about a third inscription with the same message in a different version inscribed in Nagari Script which might have got buried under the sand later. According to this article ‘Benjamin Guy Babington, an English scholar included a transcription of this third inscription in a paper he presented in 1828. It was while going through a book “Seven Pagodas of the Coromandel Coast“ by Captain M W Carr, which included Benjamin Guy Babington’s 1828 paper, that Mr.R Gopu rediscovered this forgotten third Rajasimha inscription’. He mentions that the first five stanzas are the same in both inscriptions. They begin with the phrase “Srimatho Athyantha Kaamasya”. Athyantha Kaama is a favorite title of Rajasimha Pallava, which he has also inscribed in the Kailasantha Temple at Kancheepuram and in Talagirisvara Temple at Panamalai. The fifth stanza of this inscription says that Athiranchanda, King of Kings, built this temple for Shiva.

Remains of the Sangam Era Subramanya Temple

We now leave this campus through a gate in the north and walk a short distance to see one of the oldest remains of a temple in Tamilnadu. Though the existence of this temple was known for some time it was only revealed by the Tsunami of 2007. This Subramanya (Muruga) Temple is said to date back to the Sangam Era ( 3rd Century BC to 3rd Century CE) from some of the elements including the bricks. Unfortunately, nothing more than the foundation and a little bit of the portion above is seen. Nevertheless, this is an important piece of our glorious heritage.

Mukunda Nayanar Temple

As you enter Mahabalipuram on your left is the Mukunda Nayanar Temple created by the Pallavas. It is a plain structure with an octagonal Shikara.

After this, we reached the ancient seashore town of Mahabalipuram and walked into the old Mamalla Bhavan, next to the bus stand, for breakfast taking in the aroma of the wood fire Dosa. As we had a hearty breakfast we fondly remembered a previous trip with the children who have all grown up and become independent.


We then reached the Shore Temple, a World Heritage Site declared by UNESCO in 1997. As we walked in, taking in a group of rural visitors blatantly standing and staring at foreign tourists, the cleanliness and beauty of the campus diverted our attention.  The twin temples are described in detail in our website link.


North of the shore temple is a monolith cave temple right on the beach called the Mahisha Cave. The north side of this Durga shrine depicts a large Mahishasura running for his life with a Lion pouncing from behind. This is an unfinished carving but nevertheless, awe-inspiring. Just imagine this monument with the equally ferocious sea waves pounding it on a stormy day and you can get an idea of the inspiration for the artists who set about carving it.

Temple Tank of the Sthala Sayana Perumal Temple

After completing my photography on our way to the Sthalasayana Perumal Temple we crossed the large temple tank on our left. Water was not there, but at least the tank was fenced and protected. This is a 108 Divya Desam temple glorified by the Azhwars between 7th Century and 10th Century CE and is right behind the bus stand. This temple is described in our website link.

Arjuna’s Penance

With some difficulty, we park our car somewhere and start our walk. First in the list is the famous Arjuna’s Penance. This is a magnificent work of art and though we have seen it many times we were still left standing in wonder as all other tourists. Arjuna’s Penance is a Bas Relief carved on a rock face about 100 feet wide and 50 feet tall. The huge carving has about 90 sculptures including gods, celestial beings, human beings, saints, animals and birds in it. The most visually dominating being a pair of elephants with their young playing below. The episode is from the Mahabaratha where Arjuna undertakes a penance towards Lord Shiva to receive the Pasupata Astra ( a very destructive weapon). A few people had related this carving to the story of River Ganga coming down from the Himalayas and getting tamed in the matted hair of Lord Shiva. But it has been clearly established as Arjuna’s penance by scholars including Mr.Nagaswamy.

Below is the map of all the sites mentioned in this article for your reference:

Adjacent to Arjuna’s Penance is the Cave of the Pancha Pandavas. This is the largest cave temple excavated in Mahabalipuram. Though it is named so it does not have any indication or connection with the Pancha Pandavas. It is a single-celled temple with a pillared section in the front. There are no sculptures in this temple, apparently started with some plan and abandoned later. The facade in front has carvings resembling Vimaanas and the pillars in the front row have Lion images carved at the base.

Cave of the Pancha Pandavas

A little way to the south is the famous Krishna Mantapam. Another fascinating Bas-relief carving of Lord Krishna lifting the Govardhana Mountain. Originally this was a carving without any Mantapam in front which was added in the 16th Century CE, mindlessly added preventing one from getting a delightful experience as in seeing the Arjuna’s Penance. While Arjuna’s Penance is based on the downward flow of energy depicting the Ganga this is in contrast depicting the upward flow with the lifting of the mountain. This group is another magnificent example of the artistic skills of the Pallava sculptors. The cow licking its calf as it is being milked, the bull, the people and Lord Krishna himself can all be appreciated only when seen in person.

Krishna lifting the Govardana Mountain. See how the ceiling and the pillars added later have ruined a potential grand experience!

After this, we started our walk towards the Ganesha Ratha entering the fenced area through a gate. This was originally a Shiva Temple with a Nandi in front. A Ganesha Idol

was installed a little more than hundred years ago and from then on it is called by the present name. A long Sanskrit inscription written in Pallava Grantha script mentions this temples name as Atyanta-Kama Pallaveshwara Griham. This is a solid rectangular and beautiful structure carved out of a single rock facing west.

Krishna’s Butter Ball

North of this is the Large round rock, popularly called Krishna’s Butter Ball, standing alone on a sloping rock. This is an amazing sight as it looks ready to roll down and yet has stood for centuries.

North of this are some amazing tall rocks through which you walk in to reach the west facing Trimurti Mantapa. This is a monument that houses Subramanya, Shiva and Vishnu in the three chambers. All are beautiful carvings on the back wall and the chamber of Shiva has a Linga in it. Unlike other such temples here the back wall behind the lingam has an image of standing Shiva and not the usual Somaskanda. Outside and to the south of these chambers is a niche for Durga. In front is a trough for storing water, possibly for worship purposes in the early days.

West of this structure and at the northern end is the Kottikal Mantapa. This is a west facing sanctum with the back scooped out but without any idol or carvings. The facade has, on either side, two female guardians with a bow, sword and shield indicating that this could have been an unfinished attempt at a temple for Goddess Durga. Further down towards south are two more cave temples which we will see as we come around the circuitous route. If you prefer it is actually easier to walk down and see them from here.

We now walk back, crossing the Ganesha Ratha and reach the west facing Varaha Mantapa. This cave has seated Lion Pillars to support the roof and is rectangular with an empty sanctum in the rear. On your left, as you enter is the Varaha carving which is followed by Gajalakshmi, the empty sanctum which originally could have housed a Vishnu Idol, Durga and Trivikrama. All these carvings are exceptional and the most beautiful is considered the Varaha Idol and hence the name of the cave. It is worth spending time here to have a detailed look at each and every aspect of the carvings are great and have a reason and meaning connected to legends.

A little way up is the Rayar Gopuram which was meant to be a huge tower but was never finished. The huge size of the base gives an idea of the magnificent size and scale on which this Gopuram was planned and it is a pity that it never went up much beyond what we see today.

Ramanuja Mantapa

What is today called as Ramanuja Mantapam was originally a Shiva temple which was changed to a Vishnu Temple during the Vijayanagar Period. This rock cut temple originally had some excellent sculptures including a Somaskanda sculpture. This structure suffered a lot of damage during the revival of Vaishnavism here in the 16th Century CE. During that time it is believed that this Mantapam could have been in use for the processional deity of Ramanujar, the great Vaishnavite Saint.


The Dharmaraja Mantapam which is visible as you walk further is a cave temple without any carvings or deities in it. This has a main central chamber flanked by two chambers on either side indicating that could have been another unfinished attempt to house the Holy Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.


Another amazing experience awaits at the Mahishasuramardhini Cave and we move on keeping a wary eye on the monkeys around. This is a Shiva temple where he is seen in the Somaskanda form with Parvati and the child Subramanya. On the north side wall occupying the space from floor to ceiling is the bas-relief of the bull-headed Mahishasura being vanquished by Goddess Durga. This sculpture is indeed one that requires great study as each and every aspect of the arrogant Mahisha, his soldiers and deputies depict the fact that they are on the verge of defeat, while the postures and depiction of the goddess and her army depict that of domination. On the south side wall is the sculpture of Lord Vishnu in his cosmic sleep.  The five hooded snake on top of him is seen pouring out fire to scare away two demons who have come to disturb the lord. Two dwarfs, man and woman, are joyfully flying chasing them away and below the reclining lord are three figures personifying his Chakra, Garuda and Bhoodevi in adorant prayer.


Opposite this is an attempt at another monolith structure. We now start our climb up to the Olakaneswara Temple which is on a tall rock and is accessed by a series of steps, some of them carved on the rock. This temple is right above the Mahishasuramardhini Cave. This originally was a temple with a Shikara and had been in worship until the 19th Century CE. This square structure has beautiful carving on the three sides with a small doorway from the west leading inside.


From here we start our walk down and around the main hillock to reach the Koneri Mandapam which is on and facing the west. This is a rectangular structure with two bays at the back of which are 5 chambers. These 5 sanctums were meant for different forms of Shiva as has been arrived at from a study of the Dwarapalas – Tatpurusha, Aghora, Sadyojata, Vamadeva and Ishana. All the sanctums have a pair of Dwarapalas each and all the sanctums have sockets in the floor for installation of the Lingams. Adjacent and north of this is another unfinished Mantapam with five entrance arches but only one sanctum.


You now walk back to the southern side come out of the campus to visit another old cave temple dedicated to Aadhi Varaha Perumal. This is the oldest temple in worship which has been in continuous worship from as far back as 700 CE. This west facing temple has some excellent carvings and will be featured in detail on our website shortly.


Further down this road and keeping left you reach the Thirukazhukundram road (before the ECR) where there are the Valayankuttai and Pidari Rathas. These are a group of Three unfinished structures, two of them with square shikaras and one with an octagonal shikara. None of them have any carvings or inscriptions.


After a homemade picnic lunch we started our tour of the Five Rathas. These five monolithic structures actually have nothing to do the Pancha Pandava Brothers of Mahabaratha, though they are named after them. These were meant to be a cluster of shrines. Four of them are on a line from north to south in the following order. Draupadi Ratha, Arjuna Ratha, Bhima Ratha and Dharmaraja (Yudishtra) Ratha.

Arjuna Ratha and the Monolith Elephant
Monolith Bull with Draupadi Ratha in the background

Opposite Arjuna Ratha and facing south is the Sahadeva Ratha. In between these two is the famous large monolith elephant. Behind the Arjuna Ratha is a large and beautiful monolith of a reclining Nandi (Bull). All five Rathas are distinctly different with each one of them having a different type of Shikara. The Arjuna Ratha was originally a Shiva Temple as is evident from the carvings of Shiva, Subramanya, Indra and other aspects. This is a two-storied structure with an octagonal Shikara at the top of which is a finial shaped like a lotus bud.

Goddess Durga inside Draupadi Ratha
Lion Mount of Durga

The Draupadi Ratha with the idol of Goddess Durga inside has a square base with a conical sloping thatched roof style shikara with beautiful ornamental carvings in the corners. In front of this west facing Durga shrine is her mount the Lion which is a monolith carving six feet tall and facing north.

Following this is the large and rectangular Bhima Ratha with a barrel-shaped Shikara on top. This structure is unfinished in stages and its oblong shape could have been with an intention of housing the reclining form of Lord Vishnu, though no indications, carvings or inscriptions are available to support this.

Bheema Ratha
Dharmaraja Ratha

The Dharmaraja Ratha is the tallest in the complex and has three tiers said to represent Earth, Space and heaven. It has a square base with the tiers tapering towards the top and with an octagonal Shikara. This was originally a Shiva temple and was called Atyantakama Pallaveshwara Griham as per inscriptions found here. Several carvings are found here including the different forms of Lord Shiva – Ardhanari, Shiva Trimukha, Chandrasekhara, Harihara, Tandava Shiva, Gangadhara, Bhikshatana, Dakshinamurthy and Somaskanda to name some. Apart from this are carvings of Subramanya, Vishnu, Brahma, Bhairava, Surya, Chandran and many more. This structure has many features and deserves a detailed study for those with the interest in the subject.

The Sahadeva Ratha is a rectangular south facing monolith structure with a Gajaprastha Vimaana resembling the back of an elephant. This is a nearly complete structure. Along with the miniature temple towers, one in Bhima Ratha and one in the facade of Sahadeva Ratha, the seven temple towers in this complex represent seven architectural styles portraying the artistic skills of the builders amply.

Sahadeva Ratha with Dharmaraja Ratha in the background

As the day comes to a close at sunset we start our way back. Always, when we used to travel this road whether on our sea frolicking trips or the angling trips, the kids used to be specific about packing up dinner from Hotel Runs in Adyar. Getting home wet with salt and sand all over, a nice bath, a drink followed by dinner…, well we missed it this time!


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