Site of a lost City
On 26th December 2004, the killer Tsunami waves struck the shores of Mahabalipuram. When the waters receded, there were rumours that they had left behind some statues, rock carvings and remains of what could be the work of human hands.
All this stirred up expectations. Once again, archaeologists, historians and scientists began wondering whether there indeed was an ancient city which now lies buried under the sea.
The Archaeological Survey of India and the Indian Navy have just completed joint underwater excavations for this year. Alok Tripathi, a Deputy Superintending Archaeologist from the Archaeological Survey of India, and leader of the expedition team, told the media that the Tsumai had given Mahabalipuram a lot of publicity but nothing in terms of archaeology.
The ancient town of Mahabalipuram was a flourishing sea-port during the days of Periplus (1st century A.D.) and Ptolemy (140 A.D.). Many Indian colonists travelled to South-East Asia from this port town. Apart from these facts, we do not know much about the history of ancient Mahabalipuram. There are too many missing links in its history. And we do not know why almost all the monuments are incomplete.
The major attractions of Mahabalipuram include 14 rock cut cave-temples called mandapas, 9 monolithic shrines called rathas, 4 sculptured relief rock panels and the famous Shore Temple.
These structures were built by three successive Pallava Kings who developed the Dravidian style of temple architecture within the short span of a hundred years.
King Mahendravarman (600-630 A.D.) laid the foundations of elaborate rock cut cave-temples. The Dhramaraja Mandapa was built by him. Even at that time, Mahabalipuram was an important pilgrimage centre.
King Mahendravarman’s son, Narasimhavarman I (630 to 688 A.D.), who was called Mahamalla, started the Mahamalla style of temple architecture which consists of free standing monolithic structures. Most of the monuments at Mahabalipuram – the monolithic rathas, sculptured scenes on open rock faces like Arjuna’s Penance, the rock cut cave-temples of Govardhanadhari and Mahishasuramardini, the Jala-Sayana Perumal temple (the sleeping Mahavishnu at the rear part of the Shore temple complex) were built by him.
Narasimhavarman I’s son, Narasimhavarman II (700 to 728 A.D.), who came to be known as Rajasimhan, started masonry constructions. The magnificent five-storied Shore Temple on the sea beach was built by him and is one of the finest examples of Dravidian masonry temple structure. Narasimhavarman II also constructed the Kailasanatha temple in Kanchipuram during the 8th century. The Shore Temple was the last work of Pallava dynasty.
Mahabalipuram is one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites and is a popular tourist spot in India. Numerous foreign and Indian tourists come to Mahabalipuram in search of history, relaxation and sea bathing.
Name of the site
During the 7th century A.D., the place was known as Mahamallapuram (City of the Warrior King) after King Mahamalla (meaning Great Warrior), an honoric name of King Narasimhavarman I (630-688 A.D.), who created most of the monuments. The word Mahamallapuram was first corrupted to Mamallapuram, and then to the present Mahabalipuram.
Ever since the first western visitor wrote about the place in the 16th century, Europeans have called the place Land of the Seven Pagodas (land of seven temples).
The Shore Temple
The Shore Temple was built by Narasimhavarman II (Rajasimha) and is one of the earliest masonry temples in Tamil Nadu.
It stands on the edge of the Bay of Bengal. At high tide, the waves sweep into its compounds. The walls and their sculptures have been battered and eroded by the winds and waves for thirteen hundred years. Yet they stand intact.
There are three shrines in the Shore Temple. The one facing the sea and another facing west towards the township are Saiva (Lord Shiva). The one between the two is Vaishnava (Lord Vishnu) with an image of Lord Anantasayi made of rock. There are Vimanas (a kind of temple structure) over the Saiva shrines, but none over the third. Probably, it has disappeared with time.
There are Somaskanda (depicting Lord Shiva and Parvati) reliefs on the walls of the Saiva shrine. In front of the eastern shrine is a stone Dhvajastambha (flag post), frequently under the waves. The light on top of it must have served as the last glimmer of homeland for thousands of citizens immigrating to South East Asia.The Dhvajastambha and the Balipitha (sacrifical altar) normally stand in front of the main shrine. Here they are located west of the shrine. There was a Prakara here with small nandis (bulls) on its walls. Some of the nandis still stand on what little remains of the walls.
The sea is an ever-present danger. A semi-circular groyne wall has been built to the east.
Parts of the temple were buried under the sand. Colonel Colin Mackenzie (1754 to 1821), a military officer and surveyor of the East India Company, dug them out. Mackenzie produced many of the first accurate maps of India. He was an art collector and orientalist. In 1799, he took part in the battle of Srirangapatnam, where Tipu Sultan was defeated.
There is an old legend here that originally there were seven temples. Of these, six have been swallowed by the sea. Only one temple – the Shore Temple – has remained. There are evidences of submerged structures under the waves. Sporadic excavations are going on. But it is too early to say whether there really was a glorious city and six more temples which now lie submerged under the waves off the coast off Mahabalipuram.
Largest relief sculpture in the world
There are two low hills in Mahabalipuram about 400 metres from the sea.
On both sides of the larger one are eleven excavated rock cut cave-temples called mandapas; two open air bas reliefs – one unfinished, and a third enclosed one. And a monolithic shrine, called a ratha, sculptured out of a big free standing rock nearby.
The surface of the larger hill consists of two large boulders measuring 29 metres by 13 metres, with a fissure in between. The two surfaces (southern and northern face) and the fissure contain some of the most exquisite relief carvings in India.
The beautifully carved 29 x 7 metres rock on the southern face, known as Arjun’s Penance, is the largest bas relief sculpture in the world. It is named after the figure of an ascetic standing on one leg performing severe penance. The current view is that the ascetic is Arjuna, hero of the epic Mahabharata, doing penance to Lord Siva to obtain from him a celestial weapon to use in the impending war against the Kauravas. However, some experts believe that the figure is actually Bhagiratha praying to Siva to let the river Ganges flow down to the earth.
Near the ascetic is Lord Shiva, with his attendants. Immediately below them is a small shrine with a relief sculpture of Lord Vishnu inside. By its side are many seated sages in meditation.
Other carvings on the rock are of animals and heavenly beings witnessing the descent of the Ganges from the Himalayas and episodes from the Panchatantra tales.
On the northern face are carvings of huge elephants. These are the finest elephant sculptures in India. There is a cat pretending to perform penance, waiting to pounce upon unfortunate unsuspecting rats. There are also a lion, a tiger and a boar. In the upper part of the surface are rows of semi-divine beings flying towards the fissure. Close by, is a beautifully carved monkey picking lice from the head of another. This was not sculptured here but brought from the nearby Mukunda Nayanar temple.
A little distance to the south is an unfinished attempt of the very same scene on another boulder. Probably, the maker of the first bas relief tried his skill here first.
In the cleavage are carvings of a serpent god and a serpent goddess. The fissure indicates a river. It is believed that during the Pallava days, water actually flowed down the cleavage from the hill behind because there are remains of what could be a water tank.
There is a third bas relief depicting Lord Krishna protecting the people of Brindavan from Indra’s wrath by interposing a mountain. Strangely, there are a few small sphinxes and gryphons at the edges of the huge composition. During the Vijayanagar times, a Mandapa was built in front of what originally was an open-air bas relief.
On top of the bigger hill is a structural temple. At a little distance are the beginnings of a magnificent Vijayanagar Gopura and remnants of a palace.
The Five Rathas
Out of the other hill, much smaller and standing about 200 metres to the south, were fashioned five beautiful rathas, and three beautiful sculptures of a nandi, a lion and an elephant.
The word ratha means chariot – but this is an incorrect expression for these structures because the rathas are not chariots, but really Vimanas. These five rathas have been named after the five Pandavas of Mahabharata – Dharmaraja; Bhima; Arjuna; Draupadi; and Sahadeva and Nakul (one ratha named after the two brothers Sahadeva and Nakul). But once again, they have no connection with the Pandavas of Mahabharata.
From the largest part was made Dharmaraja, the biggest of the five rathas. Then proceeding towards the north, in descending order of height, were made Bhima, Arjuna and Draupadi. Sahadeva and Nakul was made out of a comparatively large rock a little to the west of Draupadi.
Two smaller rocks in front of the Draupadi were sculptured into an elephant and a lion. Behind Draupadi and Arjuna, which stand on a common base, is a nandi.
There are some superb sculptures on Dharmaraja and Arjuna. The former contains splendid divine and secular portraits, with labels beside some of them. The latter are certainly kings, but it is difficult to identify them. There are some lovely royal couples on Arjuna. Again, it is impossible to say who they are.
Draupadi is the ratha dedicated to Goddess Durga. Her mount, Lion, stands right in front of the ratha.
We do not know the purpose of building the rathas. It is believed that early temples were made of perishable materials. Some one probably decided to preserve these styles for posterity and built the rathas in stone. There is nothing like these rathas anywhere else in India outside Mahabalipuram (except in Kazhugumalai – in Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu).
These sculptures show how beautiful, delicate and sensitive Pallava sculpture was, making it one of the greatest schools of Indian art.
Four other rathas
Apart from these five rathas, there are four more rathas in Mahabalipuram taking the total to nine. Among themselves they represent four different styles: the apsidal, the barrel vaulted, the domical and the hut. The first two styles are comparatively rare and the last very much so. The third style was to become the main style in future.The rathas with the domical sikhara are the Dharmaraja, the largest of them all; the Arjuna, a smaller version of the first; the Pidari and the two Valayankuttai – these three located elsewhere in Mahabalipuram.
The Bhima and Ganesa, near the larger hill, are barrel vaulted. Sahadeva is apsidal. Draupadi is hut shaped. Not a single monument in Mahabalipuram is complete. Probably, there was a school of sculpture here in the ancient days. This would explain the existence of probationary and incomplete sculptural and architectural efforts all over the place.
Mahishamardhani and Adivaraha mandapas
Of the many excavated rock cut cave-temples in Mahabalipuram known as mandapas, the two best are the Mahishamardhani and the Adivaraha.
The Mahishamardhini temple has been excavated in a rock on the eastern side of the top of the hill. There are three shrines in the Mahishamardhani Mandapa. A small mandapa projects forward from the central shrine.
On the northern and southern walls of the Ardhamandapa facing each other, are great sculptural reliefs of Goddess Durga fighting the demon and of Lord Vishnu in His cosmic sleep. The energy with which the young Goddess Durga goes to war with the buffalo headed demon is in magnificent contrast with the cosmic sleep of Lord Vishnu on His serpent couch.
These two are the finest sculptural reliefs known to Indian art. Both are connected in their common scriptural source becauses the incidents are from two consecutive cantos of the Devi Mahatmyam.
Right above it is a structural temple and a lighthouse which functioned for decades until a new lighthouse was erected close by. Near the Mahishamardhani temple is a smaller rock where an unfinished attempt at excavating a fane has been made.The Adivaraha temple also has two groups of royal sculptures, also facing each other. In one, a king is seated with two queens flanking him. In the other, a king is standing with his two consorts by him. There are many opinions but it is generally thought that the seated monarch is Simhavishnu (574-600) and the standing one his son and successor, Mahendra I (600-630). There are, besides, reliefs of many divinities.
Besides, the temple here is the only one in Mahabalipuram (apart from the Sthalasayana Perumal) where worship continues today, but fitfully.
Sthalasayana Perumal Temple
Immediately to the north of the bigger hill is the Perumal Sthalasayana temple where worship continues to this day. There was a temple here from pre Pallava times. But the present temple is a result of many enlargements made by Vijayanagar rulers.
Mahabalipuram was a renowned centre of arts and culture during the Pallavas. The Department of Tourism, Government of Tamil Nadu, organizes a highly acclaimed Mahabalipuram Dance Festival every year.
The Dance festival starts on Christmas day every year; and is conducted on all Saturdays and Government holidays right up to the first week of February. Dancers and musicians of repute from India and abroad thrill the crowds every year. Indian folk dances are an added attraction.
How to get there
Mahabalipuram is only 58 km from Chennai – a pleasant one hour drive from Chennai.
AirChennai (58-km) is the nearest airport with both domestic and international terminus. Chennai is connected with all the major places in India through the numerous domestic flights. International flights operate from various parts of the world to Chennai.
RailThe nearest railway stations are Chennai (58-km) and Chengalpattu (29-km). From these stations one can travel by road to Mahabalipuram.
RoadFrequent buses are available from Chennai, Chengalpattu, Pondicherry, Kanchipuram, etc. The road to Mahabalipuram is good. Taxis are also available.
Accomodation: There are plenty of accommodation to suit all budgets. Or you could stay in Chennai.
More temples under the sea?
A British traveler J. Goldingham, who visited Mahabalipuram in 1798 wrote about certain ancient legends. Once upon a time a large city stood here. This city was so beautiful that the Gods became jealous and sent a flood that swallowed up the entire city in a single day. Even today, the local fishermen and priests talk about seven temples – of which six were submerged under the waves leaving the seventh temple still standing on the seashore. This is the reason sailors called Mahabalipuram Land of the Seven Pagodas.
On the basis of these legends that in remote times a great flood in the area inundated the ancient city and the local fishermen’s pointing towards a series of large submerged structures, the best-selling author Graham Hancock in his book Underworld and Channel 4 television series Flooded Kingdoms of the Ice Age proposed a theory that there was a submerged city in the area.
In April 2002, a joint team from the Dorset based Scientific Exploration Society (SES) and marine archaeologists from India’s National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) undertook some archaeological diving and discovered submerged ruins – a series of structures off the coast of Mahabalipuram – that clearly showed man made attributes. Graham Hancock dived with the expedition. The submerged ruins are spread over several square miles at distances of up to a mile from the shore and at depths of 5 to 7 meters (15 to 21 feet).
Mahabalipuram was recently ravaged by the killer tsunami. In March 2005, a team of divers from the Indian Navy and Archaelogical Survey of India carried out extensive exploratory work in the area with INS Darshak, a hydrographic survey vessel, providing administrative support.
They again found structures buried in the sea off the coast of Mahabalipuram that show evidences of human activities.
Archaeologists say they have found stone blocks and pottery under the sea, and are examining whether the site is that of the fabled temples that went under water.
“Some of the rocks we found under sea bore definite signs of human activities. We have already found remnants of a temple offshore. This new finding is not in isolation and we will have to compare and correlate it with the onshore structures,” said Alok Tripathi, Deputy Superintendent of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
“We have recovered artefacts and structures which resemble the shore temple, during the expedition which lasted more than three years”” Vice-Admiral, Sureesh Mehta, Deputy Chief of Naval Staff, told reporters here.
But a lot of underwater archaeological work is required to assess the nature and full significance of these underwater structures.
Mahabalipuram has a lot of things that makes a site memorable.
The rock cut cave temples, the rathas and the Shore temple are a few of the oldest temples in South India. If you are fond of archaeology, history, temples, simple sight seeing, or are fascinated by tales of cities lost long ago, visit Mahabalipuram.
If you are a connoisseur of music and dance, come to Mahabalipuram during the Dance festival. Sit before an open-air stage created 13 centuries ago. Treat yourself to the unique and unforgettabe aesthetic event. Witness Indian dances – Bharathanatyam, Kuchipudi, Kathakali and Odissi, presented by the best exponents of the art besides folk dances.
All this amidst the mystical ambience created in the neighbourhood of sculptures built by the Pallavas and the soft lapping of the waves.