Mahabalipuram, situated about 60 km south of Chennai in Tamil Nadu, is an ancient port town known for its stone carvings and stone temples. It was built largely between the 7th and the 9th centuries. This port city of Pallavas is one of a kind tourist destination worth a visit.
1. A UNESCO World Heritage Site
Originally, the Mamallapuram had more than 400 monuments. Only a group of 40 monuments have survived to date. These monuments bear testimony to the incredible talents of the Pallava rulers and artisans who made them. These are the prime attractions in Mahabalipuram and among the must include places in Mahabalipuram Tour Packages. Known as the Seven Pagodas in many colonial-era publications, they are also called the Mamallapuram Temples or Mahabalipuram Temples in contemporary literature. UNESCO has declared Mamallapuram a cultural heritage place especially highlighting the three monuments namely Descent of the Ganges, Pancha Rathas, and Shore Temple in the year 1984.
2. Built by Three Generations of the Pallava Kings
Mahabalipuram was established in the 7th century CE by Pallava king Narasimhavarman I, also known as Mamalla, and hence it is called Mamallapuram. The Pallava kings ruled Mahabalipuram from Kanchipuram, the capital of the Pallava dynasty from the 3rd century to 9th century CE, and used the port to launch trade and diplomatic missions to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. The culture of South India reached the highest peak of progress during the time of the Pallavas. Though initially started during the Mahendravarman period, The temples of Mamallapuram were broadly built, during the reign of Narasimhavarman and his successor Rajasinghavarman. Among the top places to visit in Mahabalipuram, these temples were constructed as mandapa or pavilions and the rathas or shrines were decorated with granite rock faces while the famous Shore temple was made half a century later with a stone cloth.
3. Most of the Monuments are Monolithic
Home to several structured temples, man-made caves, rathas (chariot temples), and open-air bas-relief, Mahabalipuram is one of the popular places to visit in Tamil Nadu. The striking feature is that all the sculptures here are monolithic i.e. carved out of one single rock. The monolithic temples are known as Rathas, as they resemble the processional chariots of a temple. These five monolithic temples are each hewn out of a huge boulder. They display the full form and features of the contemporary temple form and show variations both in-ground plan and elevation. They are richly carved with artistic motifs and wall panels depicting the stories of Hindu Gods & Goddesses. These majestic edifices mark the high quality of craftsmanship in the region during that period.
4. Five Chariots Dedicated to the Pandavas
Among the 40 heritage monuments in Mahabalipuram, the Pancha Rathas hold a rather unique position. Built under the patronage of Narasimhavarman I (630-668 CE), these rathas are a group of five monolithic free-standing temples that were cut out from solid granite and diorite rocks and are the earliest monuments of their kind in India. These Pancha Rathas were named after the Pandavas (Arjuna, Bhima, Yudhishtra, Nakula, and Sahadeva) and Draupadi. These temples are built in the same shape as pagodas and greatly resemble Buddhist shrines and monasteries. The first Ratha that is located right by the entrance gate is Draupadi’s Ratha, shaped like a hut and is dedicated to the goddess Durga. The Arjuna’s Rath & Yudhistar’s Rath are dedicated to Lord Shiva while the Nakula Sahadev Rath is dedicated to the God of Rain, Lord Indra.
5. The Shore Temple – Oldest Stone Temples in South India
Situated on the shore of the Bay of Bengal in Mahabalipuram, the Shore Temple is one of the main attractions of Mahabalipuram. It was built in the 7th century during the reign of Rajasimha. The Shore Temple was built in the Dravidian style of architecture with blocks of granite. This is one of the oldest stone temples in South India, and among the most photographed heritage monuments in India. Perched on a 50 feet square platform, the 5-storeyed pyramidal temple houses three shrines where two of which are dedicated to Lord Shiva, and the other one is dedicated to Lord Vishnu. The temple is claimed to be a part of the Seven Pagodas by the legend. Now only five temples are still visible while two temples are submerged in the water. It is said that the Shore Temple acted as a landmark for the navigation of ships. The temple was the worst hit during the 2004 tsunami. However, the strong structure survived the catastrophe with the least damage and exposed some of these submerged parts of temples in the Shore Temple complex.
6. Known for its Carvings & Bass Relief
The temples in Mahabalipuram are well-known worldwide for their carvings and the Arjuna’s Penance. Also known as Bhagiratha’s Penance, it is a massive open-air bas-relief monolith dating from the 7th century CE. Measuring 96 feet long and 43 feet high, the bas-relief has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of the ‘Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram’. The bas relief is situated on a rock with a cleft. It is also known by the name of Descent of Ganga Monument as this monument has been carved with two narratives that have found their place in the local folklore. One is about Arjuna’s pleading for penance to God post the war at Kurukshetra and the other story is how Bhagirath prayed to God and brought the Ganga river on earth. Here, one can spot 150 different sculptural carvings of animals like Snake, Cat, Rat, Elephant, Sun, Moon, and more. The sculpture of a pair of deer which is to the bottom of this monument is the most interesting one in Mahabalipuram, among the must-include places in Chennai tour packages.
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