Mamallapuram, popularly known as Mahabalipuram is named after the 7th century Pallava king Narasimha Varman I, Mammalan who was a great warrior and wrestler. It is a living testimony to the artistic temperament of the great Pallava kings who were trendsetters of the Dravidian architecture.Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Centre, Mahabalipuram boasts of various historic monuments built during the Pallava period between 7th and 9th centuries. A popular tourist destination on the outskirts of Chennai, Mahabalipuram attracts many tourists.Located around 60 km south of Chennai, this architectural splendor along the coast of Bay of Bengal has withstood the ravages of time and the recent Tsunami. The rock-cut monolithic monuments are good examples of Dravidian architecture that also portray elements of Buddhist design. The cave temples, monolithic rathas or chariots, sculpted bas-reliefs are intrinsic to the architectural splendor here.
History of Mahabalipuram
Mahabalipuram is one of history’s intriguing enigmas. The ancient Mamallapuram, as Mahabalipuram was formerly known, was flourishing port town of the Pallava rulers of south India who chiseled in stone a fabulous “open-air museum” of sculpture under the vault of a burning sky. Apart from this, nothing is known of the place. What was the purpose behind this whole exercise, and, more important, why all the royal patronage this place enjoyed suddenly disappeared, no one actually has any answer.
Experts say that there were seven pagodas or temples on the shores of Mahabalipuram. All but one were pillaged by the rapacious sea, though there is little underwater evidence to substantiate their existence.
Most of the temples and rock carvings of this place were built during the reigns of Narsinha Varman I (AD 630-668) and Narsinha Varman II (AD 700-728). Though the initial kings of Pallava dynasty were followers of Jainism, the conversion of Mahendra Varman (AD 600-630) to Shaivism led most of the monuments to be related with Shiva or Vishnu.
Places of Interest
The Five Rathas – The five Rathas include The Dharmaraja,The Bhima,The Arjuna,The Draupadi and The Sahadeva. The Five Rathas,about 200 m south of the main hill,were fashioned out of a smaller hill sloping down from the south. From the largest part was made the biggest of the five rathas,the Dharmaraja. Then followed onwards north,in the descending order of height,the Bhima,the Arjuna and the Draupadi. A little to the west of Draupadi there was a comparatively large rock and out of it the Sahadeva Ratha was made. Immediately in front of the Draupadi again two smaller rocks were sculptured into an elephant and a lion. Behind the Draupadi and the Arjuna,which stand on a common base,there is a Nandi.
Mandapas – The main hill at Mamallapuram is dotted with pillared halls carved into the rock face. These mandapas, with their graceful columns and intricate figure sculptures bear witness to the artistry of the Pallavan rock cutter. The ten pavilions at Mamallapuram, of which two are unfinished, were designed as shrine, with a sanctum and on outer hall. The shallow porticoes are adorned with exquisite sculptures of gods, goddesses and mythological figures. The Ganesh mandapa is an active shrine even today, with the idol of the elephant-god being revered by the faithful, fourteen centuries after it was first consecrated.Beyond the circular rock called Krishna’s Butterball is the Varaha mandapa dedicated to the two avatars of Vishnu as Varaha the boar and Vamana the dwarf. The pillars of this pavilion are perhaps the earliest to display a motif that became the signature of southern architecture-the lion pilaster, where a heraldic lion support ornamental pillar. The Mahishasuramardini mandapa has the goddess Durga in bas relief, slaying a buffalo-headed demon, and the Vishnu Sayana Mandapa shows Lord Vishnu lying under the protective hood of the seven-headed serpent Adishesha. Of the other mandapas, the Panch Pandava mandapa, that is unfinished, has a more elaborate facade. Its pillars are adorned with rearing lions springing from the capital, and the shrine is the only one surrounded by a passage which allows circumvolutions.
Krishna Mandapam – One of the earliest rock-cut temples on whose walls is carved a pastoral scene depicting Lord Krishna lifting up the Govardhana mountain to protect his kinfolk from the wrath of Varuna, the god of rain.
Shore Temple – Facing the sea and designed to catch the first rays of the rising golden sun, the Shore temple is perched on top of a rocky outcrop. This shrine is dedicated to both Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu. The temple has interconnected cisterns through which the sea can be let in to transform the temple into a water shrine. But, in recent times, a stone wall as been added to protect the shrine from the rising seas and further erosion.
Arjuna’s Penance – This skillfully carved rock is the largest bas – relief sculpture in the world. It gets its name from the figure of an ascetic who is believed to be Arjuna, the hero of Mahabharata, doing penance to obtain a boon from Lord Siva. However, there are others who think that the figure is actually Bhagiratha who entreated Siva to let the river Ganges flow over the earth.
Festivals of Mahabalipuram
Pongal – The most important festival of the Tamils, Pongal is celebrated in mid-January every year. Celebrated in Tamil Nadu as well as in most parts of South India, the festival is marked by happiness and revelry.
Mahabalipuram Dance Festival – The Mahabalipuram Dance festival is an occasion when artists from all over the country assemble to perform. It is celebrated in the month of January/February every year. The Shore Temple forms the setting of this festival and the music from the musical instruments mixes with the natural music of the wind and the sea.
Masimagam and Brahmothsavam – These Sthalasayana Perumal temple festivals are celebrated in the month of March
Getting there and Around
By Air – The nearest airhead is at Chennai (60 kms), which has both a domestic and international terminals. It is well connected by flights to all major cities of India and the world.
By Rail – The nearest railway stations are Chengalpattu (29 kms) and Chennai (60 kms). From these stations one has to take the road to reach the Mahabalipuram.
By Road – Buses are available from Pondicherry, Kanchipuram, Chengalpattu and Chennai to Mahabalipuram daily. The road to Mahabalipuram is good. Tourists can also hire a taxi from Chennai.
Several types of accommodation options, from economy to high-class, are available in Mahabalipuram. The best option is to check into one of the several beach resorts spread across the town. Almost all the accommodations offer quality facilities and services as per the requirement of the visitors.