Mahabalipuram or Mamallapuram became the capital of Pallava rulers after Kanchipuram. 58 km from Madras, the tiny seaside village on the shores of Bay of Bengal is world-famous for its shore temples. The boulder-strewn landscape of the village is hardly a consideration for the huge influx of tourists who come here to explore its miles of unspoiled beaches and witness the splendor of the rock-cut art and architecture of the region. Unlike the other shrines in Tamil Nadu, the sculpture of Mahabalipuram depicts scenes from day-to-day life, instead of the carvings of Gods and Goddesses. The artistic architecture of Mahabalipuram can be broadly categorized into four parts: open-air bas-reliefs, structured temples, man-made caves and rock-cut 'rathas' or chariot-temples carved from single boulders.
There are open-air bas relieves of the famous Arjuna's Penance and the Krishna Mandapam that consist of massive rocks-carvings at the centre of the village. The most famous of all, the glorious Shore Temple stands tall looking at the waves of the sea, behind the protective shield of 'breakwater'. There are about 16 manmade caves scattered around the area that are in different stages of completion. A rocky protrusion between the beach and a lagoon, Mahabalipuram looks gorgeous with its rich historical legacy, wonderful beaches, excellent facilities and amenities for tourists and delicious fish-and-lobster cuisine. It is surprising to see how the place has managed to keep itself away from the vices of commercialization despite the huge influx of tourists and has remained friendly and relaxed.
Places of interest
Arjuna's Penance : Arjuna's Penance is 27 metres long and 9 metres high bas-relief believed to be the world's largest bas-relief. It consists of two huge boulders with a cleft in the rock that depicts the descent of the Ganga on Earth to fulfill the wish of King Bhagiratha to redeem the cursed souls of his ancestors. The carvings depict two large elephants, scenes from the tales of Panchatantra, a forest with tribal people, all forms of animal life and graceful women beaming with inner beauty. The whole scene seems to have a subtle touch edge of humor that is evident in the cat doing rigorous penance against an ascetic.
Caves : The Varaha Cave shows two incarnations of Vishnu-Varaha (boar) and Vamana (dwarf) along with four panels of the famous Pallava doorkeepers in contemplative reverie. It is the lyrical softness and grace of these supposed to be macho-guards that make them attract the attention of the tourists. The 7th century Mahisasurmardini Cave has fine bas-reliefs on its panels while the Dharmaraja Cave sports three empty shrines. The other highlights of these caves are the Somaskanda, masterpiece of 'dhwani' (the art of suggestion) depicting Lord Vishnu and a huge theatrical panel showing Goddess Durga's fight with the demon Mahishasura. Just 5 kn from the city is another 7th century cave called Tiger Cave, a rock-cut shrine.
Rathas : The famous Rathas or Chariots are situated at the southern extreme of Mahabalipuram. Known as the Paanch Pandava Rathas, after the five characters of Mahabharata, four of them are carved out of a single rock. The Draupadi and Arjuna Rathas are square in shape while the Bhima Ratha is linear in shape. Dharamraja Ratha is tallest of all and Nakula-Sahadeva Ratha is apsidal.
Krishna Mandapam : One of the earliest rock-cut temples of Mahabalipuram, its walls depict scenes of Krishna's pastoral life. One of them depicts Krishna lifting the Govardhan Parvat on his little finger to protect his people from wrath of the Rain God, Indra.