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  • Naseef T. P

Mahabalipuram - The Seaside Art Hub

A triumphant center for sculptures just 57 kilometers south of Chennai city, is an art hub and famous travel destination called Mahabalipuram. Those works of art formed from huge stones create wonder in the hearts of the visitors. Here you can see the visual wonders of Pallava art with a touch of ancient Dravidian architecture.

Overview of Mahabalipuram
Overview of Mahabalipuram

The complete and incomplete sculptures seen here are the crowning example of Pallava art. Making it the sculpture capital. This center of art that attracts countless visitors even from distant lands is the famous Mahabalipuram. Many tourists arrive here to witness the elegance of the centuries-old architecture.

Craftsmanship of Mahabalipuram
Skilled Craftsmanship seen at Mahabalipuram

List of Contents

The Land of History Carved in Stone

This heritage city, which lies along the Bay of Bengal, is aptly described as ' the land of history carved in stone '. Here we can see the ancient stone temples of South India. One of the oldest temples among them is ' Shore Temple '.

Shore temple at Mahabalipuram
Shore temple at Mahabalipuram

There is a name called ‘Kadalkarai Kovil’ among the ancients. This temple overlooking the Bay of Bengal is one of the most amazing sights I have seen in Mahabalipuram. This architectural wonder, which still stands tall in its ancient glory, is believed to have been built between AD 700 and 728. Standing on top of a natural granite rock, the architecture of the temple is amazing.

Rear view elevation of Shore Temple
Rear View Elevation of Shore Temple

Elements of the Temple Complex

The five rathas carved from a single stone
The Five Rathas Carved From a Single Stone

The temple complex contains three separate shrines: two dedicated to Shiva and one to Vishnu. All three temples in the temple complex are built on the same platform. Viewed from the northern end, these temples appear to be replicas of Dharmaraja's chariot. It is one of the main coastal temples facing east so that the sun's rays fall on the Shivalinga, the main deity of the shrine.

Scale of the Pancharathas
Scale of the Pancharathas

This five-storied building is situated in such a way that the first rays of the rising sun fall on Lord Shiva, the lord of the temple. Through the barrel vault tower (Gateway) visitors enter the premises. The ‘shikhara’ (roof) of the original shrine resembles a pyramidal structure. Like other notable structures at Mahabalipuram, it is decorated with intricate base reliefs. You can also see monolith sculptures scattered around the temple complex.

View from the beach
View from the Beach

Mahabalipuram - Chennai's Port

Most of the cave temples at Mahabalipuram were built during the reign of the Pallava king Narasimha Varman I. This great Pallava king who ruled South India in the 7th century (630-670) was known as ' Mammallan '. ' Mammallapuram ' meaning the town of Mammallan may have later become Mahabalipuram. Mahabalipuram was known as a port right at the beginning of the Christian era. Ptolemy, who came here in the 2nd century, mention this port. Not only this but also the Roman coins found in the nearby areas prove that this place was once an important trading center.The Chinese explorer Hiuen Tsang mentions that the Pallavas used this location as their seaport in the seventh century AD.

Raised level from the shore
Raised Level from the Shore

Pancharatha - Greatest Pallava Contribution

When reached Mahabalipuram, we first went to the Pancharatha complex. The Pancharathas are the greatest Pallava contribution to Indian architecture. The Pancha Ratham (Five Chariots) is an architectural sculpture of the five Pandava brothers of the Mahabharata, Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakulan, and Sahadeva, and their wife Draupadi. Thematically and structurally, each ratham is very different from the others. It is natural to create wonder in the viewers when they realize that these five chariots standing alone are carved out of single huge rocks.

Pancha Ratha carved out of a single stone
Pancha Ratha Carved Out of a Single Stone

Chariots of Pancharatha

The largest of the five chariots in the Pancharatha complex is the square-shaped Bhimaratha. This chariot with a vaulted roof and long pillars is named after the Pandava brother who was known for his strength. Human figures are not carved in it.

Largest Chariot - Bhimaratha

But the Ardha Nariswara statue at the back of another chariot, Dharma Ratha, is a heart-warming sight. Puranic story scenes and figures of gods like Shiva and Vishnu make this chariot a display of sculptural art.

Here you can see another chariot called Arjuna chariot which looks similar to Dharma chariot. The main attraction is that it is full of carvings. The figures of Shiva leaning on Nandi, Indra on the outside of Airavata, and Lord Vishnu on the outside of Garuda are the important sculptures in this.

Arjuna chariot front elevation
Front View of Arjuna Chariot

Detailed carving Arjuna Ratha
Detailed Carving Seen in Arjuna Ratha

Behind this chariot is a huge statue of Nandi carved in a single stone. Although the work is incomplete, the idol celebrates the craftsmanship of the hands that built it.

Nandi statue carved out of stone at Mahabalipuram
Nandi Statue Carved Out of Stone at Mahabalipuram

Another chariot, Draupadi's chariot, is the most beautiful among the five chariots. Instead of male gatekeepers, female gatekeepers were seen there. A lion statue can also be seen near this. The fifth chariot is known as the ' Nakula Sahadevi ' chariot. The carvings on it are similar to Dharma Ratham and Arjuna Ratham.

The smallest and farthest north ratha is called the Draupadi ratha, facing the western side. This is a beautiful example of a temple with a vimana that resembles a Kutagara or a rural home. Goddess Durga is the recipient of this ratha. The draupadi ratha is not very tall. An inner wall relief of the garbhgriha features a four-armed Durga and her followers.

Ratha Nakula Sahadevi is the two-storey ratha has a southern orientation. Mukhmandap is a structure with two pillars on either side of the entryway. Following this is a small porch known as the Garbhagriha.This ratha is situated separate from the enormous rock with the whale's back and has an apsidal or semicircular shrine carved out of rock.

Front view of beautiful Draupadi Ratha
Front View of Beautiful Draupadi Ratha

Draupadi Ratha at Mahabalipuram
Rear View of Draupadi Ratha at Mahabalipuram

Arjuna's Penance

Built during the reign of the Pallava king Mahendravarman between 600-640 AD, this monolithic sculpture is one of the largest of its kind in the world and the largest open-air bas-relief in the world. It is carved out of two huge rocks 27 meters long and 43 feet high. On the right side of Arjuna doing penance from his left leg, the form of Lord Shiva is carved on the huge stone.

Depicting the legendary story of the descent of the holy river Ganga from heaven to earth under the leadership of the legendary king Bhagiratha, One of India's greatest stone sculptures, it displays the Pallava dynasty's architectural and creative skill. The Pallavas governed from the fourth to the ninth century. It is a must-visit place for students of history and those interested in sculpture.

Shore Temple Complex at Mahabalipuram

There is no question that the magnificent sculptures of Mahabalipuram, which have spent centuries being exposed to the sea, wind, and sun, have not lost any of their beauty or serenity. It will remain an indelible wonder.


I have visited Mahabalipuram many times and taken pictures. There were always some unanswered questions in mind after returning from there. The question of who carved these amazing sculptures that obeyed the orders of the Pallava kings has remained a mystery.