“Seven Pagodas” has served as a nickname for the south Indian city of Mamallapuram, also called Mahabalipuram (old name), since the first European explorers reached it. The phrase “Seven Pagodas” refers to a belief that has circulated in India, Europe, and other parts of the world for over eleven centuries. The group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram, including the Shore Temple built in the 8th century under the reign of Narasimhavarman II, stand at the shore of the Bay of Bengal. Legend has it that six other temples once stood with it.
An ancient Hindu legend explains the pagodas’ origin. Prince Hiranyakasipu refused to worship the god Vishnu. The prince’s son, Prahlada, loved Vishnu greatly and criticized his father’s lack of faith. Hiranyakasipu banished Prahlada but then relented and allowed him to come home. Father and son quickly began to argue about Vishnu’s nature. When Prahlada stated that Vishnu was present everywhere, including in the walls of their home, his father kicked a pillar. Vishnu emerged from the pillar in the form of a man with a lion’s head, and killed Hiranyakasipu. Prahlada eventually became king, and had a grandson named Bali. Bali founded Mahabalipuram on this site.
The temples’ origins have been obscured by time, lack of complete written records, and destruction of architectural proof by invaders. Englishman D. R. Fyson, a long-time resident of Madras (now Chennai), wrote a concise book on the city titled Mahabalipuram or Seven Pagodas, which he intended as a souvenir volume for Western visitors. In it, he states that the Pallava King Narasimharavarman I either began or greatly enlarged upon Mahabalipuram, circa 630. Archaeological evidence has not yet clearly proven whether Narasimharavarman I’s city was the earliest to inhabit this location.
About 30 years before the founding of Narasimharavarman I’s city, Pallava King Mahendravarman I had begun a series of “cave temples,” which were carved into rocky hillsides Contrary to what the name suggests, they often did not begin as natural caves. Mahendravarman I and Narasimharavarman I also ordered construction of free-standing temples, called rathas in the region’s language, Tamil. Nine rathas currently stand at the site (Ramaswami, 209). Construction of both types of temples in Mahabalipuram appears to have ended around 640 . Fyson states that archaeological evidence supports the claim that a monastery (vihara in Tamil) existed in ancient Mahabalipuram. The idea is based on the concept of Sadhus (Saints). Fyson suggests that the Saint’s’ quarters may have been divided between a number of the city’s rathas, based on their division into small rooms. Hinduism’s stupam design influence is also apparent in the traditional pagoda shape of the Shore Temple and other remaining architecture .
Fyson devoted only the next to the last page of his slim book to the actual legend of the seven pagodas He recounts a local belief regarding the pagodas, that the god Indra became jealous of this earthly city and sank it during a great storm, leaving only the Shore Temple above water. He also recounts the assertion of local Tamil people that at least some of the other temples can be seen “glittering beneath the waves” from fishing boats \. Whether the six missing pagodas exist does not seem to matter much to Fyson. As he was trying to frame the theory according to his assumption and amusements. He wanted to make his book “The Seven Pagodas” give his beloved city its nickname and fame, and that seems to be the important part for him. However, the six missing temples have continued to fascinate locals, archaeologists, and lovers of legends alike, and have recently returned to the archaeological spotlight.
Indian historian N. S. Ramaswami names Marco Polo as one of the earliest European visitors to Mahabalipuram. Polo left few details of his visit but did mark it on his Catalan Map of 1275
Many Europeans later spoke of the Seven Pagodas following travelers to their colonies in India. The first to write of them was John Goldingham, an English astronomer living in Madras in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He wrote an account of his visit and the legend in 1798, which was later collected by Mark William Carr in his 1869 book Descriptive and Historical Papers Relating to the Seven Pagodas on the Coromandel Coast. Goldingham mainly described art, statues, and inscriptions found throughout the archaeological site at Mahabalipuram. He copied many of the inscriptions by hand and included them in his essay. Goldingham interprets most of the signs as picture-symbols, and discusses what meaning their shapes may have . Benjamin Guy Babington, author of another essay in the same volume, identified several of the figures in Goldingham’s copied inscriptions as Telugu letters.
Babington’s note on the text is included as a footnote to Goldingham’s work.
In 1914, British writer J.W. Coombes related the common European belief on the origin of the pagoda legend. According to him, the pagodas once stood on the edge of the shore, and their copper domes reflected sunlight and served as a nautical landmark. He claims that modern people do not know for sure how many pagodas once existed. He believes that the number was close to seven .
N. S. Ramaswami places much of the responsibility for the myth’s European propagation on the poet Robert Southey, who mentioned it in his poem “The Curse of Kehama,” published in 1810 He refers to the city by another of its popular names, Bali. In his poem, Southey clearly states that more than one of the Seven Pagodas is visible Southey told romantic tales of many cultures around the world, including India, Rome, Portugal, Paraguay, and Native American tribes, all of which were based on accounts of others’ travels, and his own imagination. “The Curse of Kehama” certainly played a role in rising Orientalism.
Ramaswami’s words for European explorers are not entirely negative. He notes that, before Europeans began to visit South India toward the beginning of the British Raj, many of the smaller monuments at Mahabalipuram were partially or entirely covered with sand. The colonizers and their families played an important role in uncovering the archaeological site in their free time. Once early English archaeologists realized the extent and beauty of the site, toward the end of the 18th century, they appointed experienced antiquarians such as Colin Mackenzie to preside over the dig.
Before the December 2004 tsunami, evidence for the existence of the Seven Pagodas was largely anecdotal. The existence of the Shore Temple, smaller temples, and rathas supported the idea that the area had strong religious significance, but there was little contemporary evidence save one Pallava-era painting of the temple complex. Ramaswami wrote in his 1993 book Temples of South India that evidence of 2000 years of civilization, 40 currently visible monuments, including two “open air bas-reliefs,” and related legends spreading through both South Asia and Europe had caused people to build up Mahabalipuram’s mystery in their minds. He writes explicitly that “There is no sunk city in the waves off Mamallapuram. The European name, ‘The Seven Pagodas,’ is irrational and cannot be accounted for” Anecdotal evidence can be truthful though, and in 2002 scientists decided to explore the area off the shore of Mahabalipuram, where many modern Tamil fishermen claimed to have glimpsed ruins at the bottom of the sea. This project was a joint effort between the National Institute of Oceanography (India) and the Scientific Exploration Society, U.K. The two teams found the remains of walls beneath 5 to 8 meters of water and sediment, 500 to 700 meters off the coast. The layout suggested that they belonged to several temples. Archaeologists dated them to the Pallava era, roughly when Mahendravarman I and Narasimharavarman I ruled the region . NIO scientist K.H. Vora noted after the 2002 exploration that the underwater site probably contained additional structures and artifacts, and merited future exploration
During the tsunami
Immediately before the 2004 tsunami struck the Indian Ocean, including the Bay of Bengal, the ocean water off Mahabalipuram’s coast pulled back approximately 500 meters. Tourists and residents who witnessed this event from the beach recalled seeing a long, straight row of large rocks emerge from the water. As the tsunami rushed to shore, these stones were covered again by water. However, centuries’ worth of sediment that had covered them was gone. The tsunami also made some immediate, lasting changes to the coastline, which left a few previously covered statues and small structures uncovered on the shore.
After the tsunami
Eyewitness accounts of tsunami relics stirred popular and scientific interest in the site. Perhaps the most famous archaeological finding after the tsunami was a large stone lion, which the changing shoreline left sitting uncovered on Mahabalipuram’s beach. Archaeologists have dated it to the 7th century (BBC Staff). Locals and tourists have flocked to see this statue since shortly after the tsunami.
In April 2005, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the Indian Navy began searching the waters off the coast of Mahabalipuram by boat, using sonar technology . They discovered that the row of large stones people had seen immediately before the tsunami were part of a 6-foot-high (Biswas), 70-meter-long wall. ASI and the Navy also discovered remains of two other submerged temples and one cave temple within 500 meters of the shore . Although these findings do not necessarily correspond to the seven pagodas of myth, they do indicate that a large complex of temples was in Mahabalipuram. This draws the myth closer to reality—and there are likely many more discoveries waiting to be found.
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