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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Mahabalipuram - Shore Temple

We had a stop over at Chennai while returning from our Kerala trip. One day my younger brother wanted to visit Mahabalipuram and I was happy to join him for it was many years ago that I visited the place. Incidentally I ought to tell that Mahabalipuram is around 60 kilometres South of Chennai on the way to Pudussery (Pondicherry). It was a bright sunlit day and quite warm under the Sun. In less than 2 hours we could reach Mahabalipuram which was earlier known as Mamallapuram.

We headed straight to the famous Shore Temple, known so, for it faces the Bay of Bengal and is just on the Shore. It is supposed to be one of the oldest structural temples of South India. 

I believe  a little bit of history could be tolerated. There was a great dynasty known as Pallavas who were ruling that area with their Head Quarters at Kanchipuram between the 3rd and 9th centuries CE. They were sea farers and Mahabalipuram was their main sea port,  for access to South East Asia as also Sri Lanka as evidenced by various artefacts/coins found thereat. One of the dynasty’s illustrious ruler Rajasimha Atyantakama (he had several titles) was reigning during the 7th century.Needless to say that he was a great conqueror and would have carried out several missions to expand his empire.   During that period Pallavas were   the strongest military power in the Sub Continent. Without going into controversies, we may conclude that the artisans would have been brought in from central/western parts of India where rock cut temple construction was in vogue. They were put to work at Mahabalipuram (we shall be speaking about the marvellous rock cut creations thereat in a separate post).

When we look at the Shore Temple from a distance they look like two pagodas but when we are in, we find three temples in a row. We were talking about the artisans/masons (not to be misconstrued for the free masons of the Masonic lodge!). To begin with they were instructed to carve out a Vishnu (reclining) shrine out of a monolith on the shore. They did their job well and their skills having been tested, were then assigned many other structures to be carved out at some distance.

The reclining Vishnu appears to have been the earliest creation as per a label inscription found on the lintel of this temple, calling it “Narapatisimha Pallava Vishnu Griham”. Narapatisimha is a title of Rajasimha. Then followed the construction of other two temples, but not immediately. It has probably been done after about 50 years  to appease the sentiments of a larger faction of Hindus who were staunch believers of Lord Shiva. Thus this is seen as a balancing act on the part of the royalty.   In the process Lord Vishnu got sandwiched between two shrines dedicated to Lord Shiva.

As said earlier, after carving out a Vishnu's (Reclining form known as Anantashayana) out of a megalith, two more shrines for Lord Shiva got constructed with dressed up granite stones. The smaller one in the front and a larger one at the back and in between sleeps our Lord Vishnu. Some suggest that the smaller one facing west was originally the mandapa (porch)  for entry  to Vishnu's shrine but we could not find any opening as such. However, the wall adores a Somaskanda (Shiva). Supposedly there was a Shiv Linga (Phallus) which is now missing.

The larger temple at the back (facing East) was not open that day. There is said to be a large (broken at the top) Shiv Linga with sixteen faces made of polished granite and also a Somaskanda on the wall identical to what we have seen at the smaller temple facing West. There are many other sculptures in and around the temple which have eroded to such an extent that  it is becoming difficult to identify them. We therefore, instead of spending time on that, decided to  go round and circumambulate the shrines.  We could discover the following three inscriptions which holds clues with regard to this complex..

This was probably  in the smaller Shiva Shrine

While moving clockwise, we figured an oval tank in the centre of which there was neat hole of about 8 inches with a clean cut slot to serve as a lock.  This is generally done to hold things securely. Probably a Shiv Linga was located there. But then there is a beautiful pillar quite tall looking like a Capstan of a ship just in front. We could not figure out what it is and with what  purpose. Since there is an opening on one side, we assumed that it could have been a very small shrine. The same tank also accommodates a rock cut damaged boar, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu.

Within the tank like structure, we also came across two sculptures, one seems to be that of Shiva on the Bull and the other one remained elusive.

While moving southward, we encountered a large seated lion which in itself was a shrine for Goddess Durga with an opening in its chest with a seated Durga.

Some other photographs relating to the site:

Such structural pieces remains scattered all around
This Ganesa is difficult to locate
While concluding it would be pertinent to add here that the site is supposed to have had 7 pagodas as stated by Marco Polo. 5 of them are supposedly swallowed by the Sea leaving the two, we now see. However deep water explorations by the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) only reveal the existence of a wall stretching into the sea and no more than that. Of course some of the fragments of the existing structures do surface when the sea recedes.

Now we are moving towards other part of Mahabalipuram where the rock cut temples etc. await us.