Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu is unique in having a display of the four sculpture forms – Cave Temples, Carved Monoliths, Sculptured Scenes and Masonry Temples. They were built during the rule of the Pallava kings between 6th to 8th century AD. Kanchipuram was the capital city of the Pallavas and Mahabalipuram was their seaport.
We were in Mahabalipuram for 2 days and stayed at the scenic GRT resort, managed by Radisson Blu called Temple Bay. The resort has a beach frontage – private access to a public beach which is the major attraction.
There was a sofa bed in the room that served as the additional bed, but very hard for sleeping. Mahabalipuram is filled with sculptures and carvings and we literally had an elephant in the room !!
The restaurant alloted for breakfast was huge and filled to max capacity. The breakfast buffet was good, but the crowd was too much; while we were leaving, there were people waiting outside for a table. There is a smaller seafood restaurant called Wharf 2.0, we had dinner there; quiet with the cool sea breeze and delicious food. Try the Era Kadugu Perallan – a prawns side dish with gravy – superb.
That’s about the stay and now to the sight-seeing. Mahabalipuram is a small town bordering the precious historic monuments that are their claim to fame across the globe. You can see many tourists walking around with cameras framing the countless sculptures on display and sale in the shops. We set out during the first half of the day; it was very hot but on the plus side it was not crowded. And to decipher and understand a bit about the sculptures, it’s advisable either to read up or to take a guide.
Our guide found us; as we were parking our vehicle in the parking lot near the shore temple, Mr. Ali approached and offered to take us around, we need to pay him after the tour. We agreed.
First stop was the Shore Temple, the tickets taken here were used at all the other sites also. The Shore Temple is a masonry temple with pagoda style vimanas (Vimana is the tower like structure over the inner sanctum in the Hindu temples). As per the legend (and archeological studies), there are six more such temples further out into the sea. The Shore temple is the seventh temple and the only one that is now visible. There are two temple vimanas seen and the temples are dedicated to Gods Vishnu and Shiva. More in this post 👉 Shore temple in Mahabalipuram🐚… shrouded in sand and stories
Next stop is the famous Five Rathas – ratha meaning chariot. These structures that look like five small temples are carved monoliths – cut out of a single large rock and not separate rocks as I thought. That’s difficult to believe !!
And the five chariots/ temples have been named after the Five Pandavas and their wife Draupathi, from the Mahabharatha.
First is called the Draupathi Ratha and it is dedicated to Goddess Durga. It looks like a small hut and the details include two dwarapalikas – female guards on either sides of the entrance and an elephant carving at the base of the temple👇.
In front of the Draupathi Ratha for Goddess Durga is the Lion – her mount – to pull the chariot.
Next is the Arjuna Ratha dedicated to Lord Shiva and his mount – the bull or nandi.
Then the third ratha called Bhima Ratha – dedicated to Lord Vishnu. This has to be the largest among the five.
The fourth is called Nakula – Sahadeva Ratha dedicated to Lord Indra and his mount the white elephant or Airavata.
And the fifth and last chariot is called the Dharmaraja Ratha (the name of the first born Pandava was Yudhishthira, he is also called Lord of Dharma or Dharmaraja).
I am not even going into the intricate carvings adorning the walls of these chariots. The carvings by themselves make up for an entire volume of artistic interpretations. All this is too much to digest in one go… but to imagine that all this was carved out from a single large rock ….is unbelievable !!
Next is the masterpiece called Arjuna’s Penance, one of the world’s largest bas relief structures. This represents the sculptured scenes among the different types of art forms on display. It’s a collage of characters from the Hindu mythology – Mahabharatha. Our guide Mr. Ali explained the stories behind some of the intricately carved figurines and animals. More in the post 👉Arjuna’s Penance – one of the largest bas relief sculptures in the world – how many stories can you decipher?
So far we covered the Shore Temple – a masonry structure, the Five Rathas – carved monoliths. Arjuna’s Penance – a sculptured scene and next is the Pancha Paandava Cave – it is simply a rock cut temple. There is no sculptures or idols inside, only the ornate pillars which have lions carved on their base are an attraction; in addition to the fact that chunks of rocks have been scooped out to create the cave temple👇.
Next stop is the Krishna Mandapam which is again a large sculptured wall depicting the typical scene from Krishna’s life. I couldn’t get the entire wall in one shot and hence had to break up the scene. We locate Krishna first – seen below holding with his left hand the mountain called Govardhana Giri to offer shelter under it for the villagers from a storm👇.
Next is Balarama – Krishna’s elder brother with his arm around a cowherd👇. Next to him you have a cowherd milking a cow which is licking a calf.
The next monument is another rock cut temple called Varaha Mandapam👇. Unlike the earlier Pancha Paandava Cave, there is a room in the centre, guarded by two devapalas or guards. Varaha meaning boar is the third avatar of Lord Vishnu and there are sculptures depicting this on the walls of the temple.
The pillars have lions carved on the base, just like the pillars in the Pancha Paandava Cave seen earlier. The walls have sculptures depicting various scenes and stories about Lord Vishnu, let’s see one scene that’s close to heart. This depicts Vamana is the fifth avatar of Lord Vishnu. Vamana is also called Trivikrama meaning the three steps – representing the heaven, earth, and underworld. This is also the story behind the Onam – the harvest festival in Kerala.
Lord Vishnu came to king Mahabali in the form of a young boy and asked for a piece of earth measurable by his three small steps. King Mahabali promised him the land. Immediately Lord Vishnu grew in size to the huge Trivikrama; with his first step he measured the whole of the earth, with his second the sky and no place for his third step. King Mahabali offered his head and Trivikrama pushed him down to the underworld. The above sculpture also depicts the same – Trivikrama with one leg on the ground, another raised upwards to the sky. King Mahabali was however granted one wish, to visit his loyal subjects once a year and his visit is celebrated as the legend behind Onam – the harvest festival of Kerala.
Our last stop is the legendary Krishna’s Butterball – a boulder that looks like it is ready to roll down but has stood in its place for centuries.
This sums up our Mahabalipuram sight-seeing. You need to know the significance of these centuries old monuments to appreciate them else they are simply carvings on rocks. It’s the stories that bring them to life.
Mahabalipuram is a place like no other and must see for all monument enthusiasts !! Hope you liked the pictures and stories.