April 8, 2012

Mamallapuram - A Complete Travel Guide


Mamallapuram aka Mahabalipuram, (also stylishly called as "Mahabs" nowadays) is a small town located near Chennai city in South India. This town is one of the important tourist sites in the entire South India. It is famous due to its Pallava period monuments ranging from bas relief panels to monolithic rocks and structural temples. 

The coastal city of Mamallapuram was an important port during the Pallava period. It is believed that the town got its name from the popular Pallava king Narasimhavarma I; he was called as "Mamallan" which means a great wrestler. As the coastal town was under the Pallavas and all the monuments in the town were the creations of  the Pallava kings such as Mamallan, this theory holds true than the other theories. There are few people who believe that it was the city of Bali, the Asura king, and they relate some mythological stories of Bali and his grandson Bansura to this city; they also claim that it was due to them it got the name as "Mahabalipuram". However, there are no proper references or records for such claims.

The great Vaishnavite Bhootath Alwar, one of the twelve Alwars, was born in Mamallapuram in the 7th century CE. He had referred this city as "Mallai" in his poems.

Who built the monuments of Mamallapuram?:

Although all the scholars agree that the monuments of Mamallapuram were done by the Pallava kings, there is no consensus among the scholars on the exact builder. Nevertheless, it is commonly accepted that the work on monuments started during the reign of the Pallava king Narasimhavarman I (630 - 668 CE). He was also called as "Mamallan" against whom the city is named. This king's predecessor Mahendravarman (590-630 CE) was the pioneer in rock cut temples and structural temples in Tamil Nadu state of South India. Before his period, the temples in the region were built using mortar, wood, metal or brick. Following Mamallan,  the Pallava kings such as Mahendravarman II (668-672 CE), Parameshvaravarman I (672-700 CE) and Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha (700-728 CE)  are believed to have contributed to the monuments of Mamallapuram. 

Mahendravarman I started the cave temples in Tamil Nadu. His successor Mamallan continued with the cave temples and he perhaps started monolith rathas. Parameshvaravarman built the monuments of both types. His successor Rajasimha introduced the structural temples.

Types of Monuments:

The monuments of Mamallapuram can be categorized into four types as follow:

1) Rock-cut shrines - In this style, a rock face is excavated to make place for sanctum sanctorum
2) Monlith structures aka Rathas - In this style, a solid rock is cut out to build free standing temple
3) Bas-relief Panels - In this style, a rock face is carved with figures - bas-relief images
4) Structural Temples - They are stone work temples.
Rock-cut Shrines:
Adi Varaha Temple:

Adi Varaha Temple is an earliest monument in Mamallapuram. It is a least visited site in the town. It is dedicated to Varaha, the boar incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Apart from the sculpture of Varha, there are a lot of interesting life size sculptures such as Gaja Lakshmi, Durga, Harihara, Vishnu, Brahma, royal family, etc. are found in this monument. From outside,it might look like any other ordinary temple. However, once you enter inside the temple, you would feel as if you have entered into an entirely different world. Wherever you turn your face, you would find life size stone images. They are unbelievably stunning images. To know more about this temple, visit here.

Mahisasuramardini Cave Shrine:
Mahisasuramardini Cave Shrine is an important and popular monument in Mamallapuram. The sanctum has a bas relief panel of Somaskanda form - Shiva, Parvati along with the infant Skanda. However, the bas relief panels on the side walls are more attractive. One side wall has an attractive bas relief of Durga, the mother Goddess fighting with Mahisa, the buffalo faced Asura. There is another panel depicting Lord Vishnu in the reclining posture. To know more about this monument, click here.

Ramanuja Mandapa:
Many of the monuments in Mamallapuram are unfinished. Ramanuja Mandapa, a lesser known monument is supposed to be a complete monument; however, it was unfortunately vandalized.This beautiful little monument has few elements which are added as additions later. To know more about Ramanuja Mandapa, visit this page.

Koneri Mandapa:
Koneri Mandapa is hardly visited by any traveller. The access to the site is not safe; moreover, it is not known even to the locals. Koneri Mandapa is a five celled monument. The cells are supposed to have dedicated to five different forms of Lord Shiva. Currently, there are no idols inside the cells. However, all the cells have different forms of dwarapalas. Next to Koneri Mandap, there is an unfinished mandapa carved out of same rock. Also, there is an attractive lion bed located near the monument. To know the complete details about this monument, go to this page

Kotikal Mandapa:
Kotikal Mandapa is a small cave shrine supposed to be dedicated to Durga, which has no idol but only the dwarapalikas at the entrance today. Visit this page for more details on this monument.

Trimurti Cave Temple:
Trimurti Cave Temple is an attractive monument with three cells dedicated to Vishnu, Shiva and Subramanya (or Brahma). All the cells have beautiful images of dwarapalas. There is a separate panel where the image of Durga is carved out. Also, the back side of the cave shrine has images of few animals depicted. Visit this page to know more about this cave temple.

Varaha Mandapa:
Varaha Mandapa is one of the most popular monuments of Mamallapuram. Although the cell has no idols or images, the monument has become popular due to its four bas relief panels. The sculpture of Varaha lifting Bhoo Devi is an outstanding sculpture; the entire monument is named after this sculpture. There are three more excellent bas relief panels in this monument - Gaja Lakshmi, Durga and Trivikrama with his left leg raised atop. To know more about this site, visit here.
Pancha Pandava Mandapa:
Pancha Pandava Mandapa, located near Arjuna's Penance, is an attractive mandapa. The front facade of the mandap is supported by six lion based pillars which are very beautiful. Click here to know more about this site. 

Dharmaraja Mandapa:
Dharmaraja Mandapa is a small little known three celled cave shrine. There is no deity present in the cell today. To know more about this strikingly beautiful monument, go here.

Atiranachanda Mandapa:
Atirananchanda Mandapa is one of the best Pallava period monuments. It is located in Saluvankuppam village near Mamallapuram. The three celled mandapa has three bas relief panels of Somaskanda and also a polished Shiva Linga in the central cell. The site located in the Tiger's cave complex is one of the popular tourist destinations for Chennai citizens. To know more about this extraordinary tourist site, visit here.

Tiger's Cave:
Tiger's Cave aka Yazhi Mandapa is definitely one of the best monuments in and around Mamallapuram. It is located on ECR at Saluvankuppam village near Mamallapuram. It is a famous picnic spot for Chennai citizens mainly due to its proximity to the beach and open space surrounded by a lot of trees. The mandapa surrounded by Yazhi faces as a garland is a unique sculpture which cannot be found anywhere else. Tiger's Cave is actually a misnomer as the site is full of lion figures and Yazhi figures and not tigers. To get the complete details of Tiger's Cave, access this link.

Monolith Structures aka Rathas:
Five Rathas:

Five Rathas is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Mamallapuram. There are five rathas located in this site. Although it has no connection with the Mahabharatha heroes, they are named after them and often referred as Pancha Pandava Rathas. Draupadi Ratha, Arjuna's Ratha, Bhima Ratha, Dharmaraja Ratha and Sahadeva Ratha are the five rathas found in the site; each one follows its own architectural style. Apart from these five monolith structures, the elephant sculpture and Nandi sculpture are also highlights of the place. To get complete details about all these five rathas and the sculptures carved on them, visit this site.

Ganesha Ratha:

Ganesha Ratha is one of the completely finished ratha in Mamallapuram, where a lot of unfinished monuments are found. This small but beautiful ratha has a Ganesha idol installed inside the cell. Go here to know more about this monument.

Pidari Rathas:

Pidari Rathas are two small similarly looking attractive rathas which are not completely finished. The access to the site is difficult. To know more about the monument, visit this page.

Valaiyankuttai Ratha:

Valaiyankuttai Ratha is a small beautiful ratha similar to Arjuna ratha in architectural style. It is a little known monument located in a remote location in Mamallapuram. To know more about this site, go here

Open air Bas-relief Panels:
Arjuna's Penance:

Arjuna's Penance is the masterpiece of Pallava architecture. You cannot find such a massive open air bas relief panel anywhere else. There are about more than 100 images carved in this panel. It remains as the symbol of the entire Mamallapuram town. To know complete details about all the intricately carved images in this panel, visit my page.

Unfinished Arjuna's Penance:

There is another version of Arjuna's Penance found in Mamallapuram. It is also an open air bas relief panel almost depicting the same theme as Arjuna's Penance. However, it is an unfinished monument. Go here to know more about this site.

Krishna Mandapa:

Many of us do not realize that Krishna Mandapa located near Arjuna's Penance is also an open air bas-relief. The pillared mandapa is a later addition. The sculpture of Krishna lifting the Govardhana hill to protect his associates is beautifully depicted in the bas relief. There are very small but interesting images in the panel. Find more information about this here.

Structural Temples:
Shore Temple:

The Shore Temple is one of the most popular monuments in Mamallapuram. The Shore Temple must have acted more like a landmark for the ships landing in Mamallapuram, which was an important port in the ancient times. There is a belief that there were six similar temples in the town and hence it was called as 'Seven Pagodas' by the Europeans in those days.

The Shore Temple is actually a collection of three temples. Two temples are dedicated to Lord Shiva whereas the third temple is dedicated to Vishnu in the reclining posture - Jalasayana Perumal. Apart from these three temples, the statues of Lion and Varaha in the open air temple are also found in this complex.

To explore more about the site, visit my page here.

Olakkanneshvara Temple:

Olakkanneshvara temple is located above the famous Mahisasuramardini Cave Temple. It used to act as a lighthouse in the ancient times. Some of the rare sculptures are found in the outer walls of the temple. Go here to know more about this temple.

Mukunda Nayanar Temple:

Mukunda Nayanar Temple is a small monument located at the beginning of Mamallapuram if you reach the town from Chennai. It is a least visited but very strikingly beautiful monument. To know more about this temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, visit my page.

Rayar Gopuram:

Rayar Gopuram, an important landmark of Mamallapuram, is an unfinished tower. It is very popular; however a least visited monument. Let us explore more about this site here.

Other Places of Interest:
Apart from the monuments built by Pallava kings listed above, there are other places of interest located in Mamallapuram. Let us explore those places in detail.

Brick Temple:

The 2000 years old brick temple of Lord Murugan was unearthed during the Tsunami that hit the coastal town in 2008. It is found near the Tiger's Cave complex in Saluvankuppam village near Mamallapuram. Click here to know more about this place. 

Sthala Sayana Perumal Temple:

Sthala Sayana Perumal Temple is an important site in Mamallapuram. It is a famous Vishnu temple; one of 108 Divya Desam temples. Although this temple is supposed to be an ancient temple, the current structure cannot be dated back to the Pallava period. The current structure appears to have been built by the Vijayanagara kings. To know more about this temple, visit this page.  

Krishna's Butter Ball:

Krishna's butter ball is not a monument; it's a natural rock formation. However, it attracts almost all the tourists of the town. To know more about the site, go to this page.

When you go Mamallapuram, do not stop by visiting just Shore Temple, Five Rathas and Arjuna's Penance. Spend your time and effort to cover all the above places.

Happy travelling.

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