The Magnificent Shore Temple and Rathas at Mahabalipuram – Part I

The 1400-year-old Shore temple and Panch Rathas showcase masterful stonework that leaves the visitor spellbound.

The Magnificent Shore Temple and Rathas at Mahabalipuram – Part I


Just 60 kms south of the metropolis of Chennai, on the East coast of India, lies the ancient living town of Mahabalipuram where one can witness the earliest refined stone artistry and understand the art of working on stone. The monuments here belong to the Pallava dynasty. This dynasty ruled the northern portion of Tamil Nadu and adjoining parts of Andhra Pradesh from the 3rd century till the end of the 9th century. The Pallavas are known for their refined techniques in stone architecture with the Shore Temple and the Panch Rathas, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, defining the architecture for South Indian Temple Architecture to come. Here we see the transition from rock cut architecture to stone cut temples.

It is well known that the ancient Indian coastal temple towns were the hub of commercial activities in India which included inland and overseas trade. The east coast areas of Kanchipuram and Mahabalipuram were connected with south-east Asia and western maritime trading locations that went as far as the Roman Empire. The ruins of the famous port Arikamedu, barely 100 kms from the Shore Temple site has remains of ancient Roman artefacts. Active sea erosion has changed the coastline in the last 2000 years and the past lies buried within the sea, occasionally giving a glimpse ( as during the sea withdrawal due to a Tsunami on 26th December 2004) of the monuments once standing proud but now claimed by the expanding sea. There are stone artefacts below the waves and they can be seen on a clear sea day, but there has been no proper excavation to rigorously examine their significance or to place them chronologically..

The Port at Mahabalipuram was originally known as ‘Maamalai’ or the great hill. The Pallava rulers had built up the strength of this port. One of the famous rulers, Narasimhavarman I (638-660 CE) was known as ‘Mamalla’ or the great warrior and so he changed the name of this port to ‘Mamallapuram’ or the city of Mamalla.

[Side view of the Shore Temple]

The Shore Temple

The Shore temple was built with blocks of grey granite in 700-728 CE during the reign of Narasimhavarman II (King Rajasimha), one of the most successful Pallava rulers. The beauty of this ancient temple lies in the fact that it was visible from far into the sea by the sailors who used to visit the very active ancient ports of this area. This elegant temple may not appear massive in construct but it is to be remembered that this was a precursor to future temple architecture in southern India and the south-east asian nations. The balance and proportions of the two slender Vimanas of the Shore Temple are an example of harmony in architectural conception.

This temple is situated on a rocky outcrop. One of the oldest depictions of this temple is a watercolour by an anonymous artist, kept in the British Museum as part of the Mackenzie Collection. This painting is dated to 1784. On the front of this painting there is an inscription in Ink: ‘Mahabalipur’; and on the back is inscribed in ink: ‘View of the ancient Hindu Temple on the Sea Coast at Mavelliporam-called the Seven Pagodas.’

Descriptive layout of the temple

There are three shrines in the Shore temple. The eastern and western shrines are dedicated to Lord Shiva with the east-facing shrine being the bigger structure. This Shiva shrine has its main opening on the sea-facing side so that early morning sun rays can enter the sanctum sanctorum.

[View from the east (sea side)]

The Deity in this bigger shrine was in the form of a sixteen-sided Lingam made of black basalt rock. Basalt is not a rock commonly found in this part of the peninsula. This stone was used to ensure that the Shivlinga did not face erosion due to constant salt-laden breeze. The polish and shine of this Shivlinga is intact even after more than a millennium, but sadly it has not escaped the wrath of invaders and the top portion has been damaged.

Inside the eastern chamber, there are multiple bas-relief panels showing Shiva with Parvati and other deities. A closer look behind the damaged basalt Shivlinga reveals a fading but beautiful family depiction of Shiva & Parvathi.

[The 16 faceted Shivling of Black basalt rock. The granite sheen still reflects the sun]

The inner panels of the main outer wall of the bigger shrine have lots of sculptures showing various themes from mythology. The passage of time has eroded the exact features and many of them lack the distinctive identity of similar rock-cut temples of later days.

[Heavily eroded panels inside the bigger shrine]

Sandwiched between the two prominent Shiva shrines is the original shrine of Vishnu, constructed by Narasimhavarman I (638-660 CE). This shrine is the oldest part of this complex and the top portion of this structure was never completed. Lord Vishnu is shown in a sleeping form here and it was called Jalashayana mudra, probably due to the ever present seawater at his doorstep. The sleeping Vishnu shrine in this temple does not have any of the usual attributes of the deity such as shankh, chakra, lotus, and sheshanag. This serene depiction gives the feeling of a God at peace with himself and the serenity envelops the onlookers.

[Sleeping Vishnu]

Both the Shiva shrines are perfectly aligned on the East-West axis, so much so that the smaller shrine that faces the land, completely covers the other shrine when you are in front of its entrance. One of the unique aspects of this shrine is that the ever present Nandi outside the sanctum sanctorum is missing from its usual spot. It is only the very observant who can spot the Nandi presiding regally right on top of the entrance arch of this shrine.

[Smaller Shiva shrine (western side entrance)]

The entrance doorway and the outer walls of this shrine has a lot of carvings. The doorway has the Lions representing the might of Pallava dynasty. The side panels depict various stories from Indian mythology. The salt-laden sea breeze has wrecked havoc on these stone carvings for over 1400 years and today the shapes have lost its sharp definition. There seems to be no defense against the inexorable march of time.

[Carvings on the northern wall of smaller shrine]

Inside the sanctum sanctorum of this shrine, also known as the Somaskanda panel, lies a bas-relief depicting Shiva and Parvati with Kartikeyan as a child. Not being in direct contact with the sea breeze, this sculpture is in much better shape. This is one of the few occasions where Kartikeyan is shown as a cherubic child in the loving presence of his parents. This picture of blissful domesticity gives no hint that Kartikeyan will turn out to be a superbly accomplished warrior and that he will be the leader of the Army of Devtas against the Asuras. Throughout Tamilnadu, he is worshipped as Lord Murugan, affectionately called Muruga, by his ardent devotees. Another remarkable feature is the presence of a ‘surahi’ or an earthen water pitcher at the feet of Shiva and Parvati. This gives a rather humane image of God.

The main Shivlinga inside this shrine is missing and there is just a small circular depression in the center where the Shivlinga would have been present when the temple was in use.

[Shiva’s family as deity]

On the southern side of temple, there is an idol of a single lion with a decapitated animal lying adjacent to it. This signifies the ritual animal sacrifice. The lion statue has a smooth rectangular alcove cut in front and there is a small sculpture carved within it. It must have been a very high order of skill which created such perfectly smooth levels and enabled chiseling sculptures within this small area. Do peer into the lion’s chest to get a view of the skilled carving.

[Lion with the offered sacrifice]

Just outside the temple structure there are numerous other remarkable rock depictions. There is a wall surrounding the main shrine with numerous Nandis sitting majestically on top of this boundary wall. There is a miniature Shiva shrine within the northern enclosure just outside the main structure. All around the enclosure there are stone steps going down. The shrine has been carved out of the bedrock and the base has 16 sides. Next to this miniature shrine, there is a sculpture of a Varaha (boar). With its head aimed at the ground, it appears as if it is about to dive below the water. This image is in tune with the traditional role of Varaha incarnation of Lord Vishnu when he saved the earth from drowning in the primordial flood.

[Miniature temple form along with Varaha]

On the western side there is a gap area on the surrounding wall where a doorway (Gopuram) would have stood originally. What is striking is that although the Gopuram doesn’t exist now, the Dwarpalas or gatekeepers still stand guard on both sides of the gateway to the temple.

Recent excavations

During recent years a lot of different structures have been excavated around the shore temple. As a result, it is now evident that it is not a stand-alone structure as believed earlier, but this is part of a proper temple complex with multiple structures and different layers of enclosures. There are panels with carved statues within this enclosure.

The outermost enclosure (based on the excavation done till date) has packed stone wall on one side and stone steps on another side. These steps are made by interlocking slabs of stone and a stepped staircase effect has been achieved by skillful joining. On the face of it, there seems to be much more below the ground awaiting discovery. The details of the extent of construction in this campus has been lost in the mists of time, a story familiar in the Indian milieu, repeated over and over throughout our history.

The Panch Rathas

These free standing monolith monuments are extremely intriguing as they have no precedent in Indian architecture. There are five carved monoliths, cut out of boulders at the site and the set is commonly called Panch Rathas (five chariots). Chariots or not is debatable as some researchers claim that these were meant to be temples. These structures date back to the 7th century and are attributed to the reign of King Mahendravarman and his son Narasimhavarman I (630–680 CE) of the Pallava Kingdom. These temple structures were never consecrated due to which some historians even speculate this to be a training ground to create templates for future endeavours for creating larger temples.

It is said that these 5 Rathas represent the 5 Pandava brothers of Mahabharata fame. It is interesting to note that so far away from the main geographical spread of the events of Mahabharata, the local folklore associates these structures with the story. In actual construction or iconography there is no direct link to corroborate this association, but it is almost universally known as related to Pandavas.

The four structures that are in sequence represent the three elder brothers and Draupadi. The fifth structure that stands alone is said to represent Nakul and Sahadev. A look at the five structures in one frame gives the understanding that the structures are big or small depending on the size of the boulder at the site on which it has been meticulously sculpted (inside and outside both) to give it a distinct shape and life.

[Five structures of the Rathas]

The first small structure is called Draupadi Rath. It looks like a hermit’s adobe with a hut like thatched curved roof effect. The outer walls have figures carved on it. The shrine is actually dedicated to Goddess Durga. The Goddess is depicted standing on a lotus pedestal with one hand in benediction pose. Celestial beings hover near her. At her feet the royalty is shown in obeisance (may be Mahendravarman and Narasimhavarman). There is a rock cut standing lion at the front of this shrine, which is the mount of Goddess Durga.

[Durga as deity inside the Draupadi Ratha]

The Next structure is called Arjuna Ratha. The Draupadi Ratha and Arjuna Ratha are carved out on a single bedrock and are placed on one pedestal, as if signifying the special bond between Arjuna and Draupadi as depicted in the epic of Mahabharata.

[Arjuna and Draupadi Ratha on one pedestal]

The Arjuna Ratha has a basic structure of standard pallava era free standing temple. The Vimana or the pyramidical roof is two tiered and intricately carved. The kalash or pinnacle that is usually placed at the top of the temple roof has been carved at the base of the temple structure for both the Draupadi and Arjuna Ratha, but not placed on top of the Vimana. This further suggests that construction of the temple was left incomplete for some reason. The most mesmerising aspect of this Ratha are the life like carvings of deities and human figures on its outer walls. On the back side of this shrine there is a depiction of Lord Shiva standing in a relaxed way and leaning on Nandi, the bull. The figures are so beautiful and so full of  life that if you stare at them for a while, you might end up starting a conversation with them.

There is a huge Nandi carved out of a rock that sits behind the Arjuna Ratha.

[Exquisite carvings on walls of Arjuna Ratha]

The next in line is the Bhīma Ratha and it is the biggest of the five structures. It is a single tiered oblong structure, with a barrel-vaulted roof and ornate columns with lions carved onto their bases. The interiors of the ground floor remains incomplete. It has a circumambulatory passage wide enough for humans to walk around. The single tiered roof is intricately carved with Vimana designs and faces. The length of this unfinished temple gives the idea that it may have hosted Ananthashayana Vishnu (the reclining form of Lord Vishnu). This structures clearly shows the process through which the stone work was taken up.

[Rectangular Bhīma Ratha]

The Yudhishthir or Dharmaraj Ratha is the tallest structure. It depicts the maturing of temple architecture and is the most refined of the five structures. It became the basis of the temples to come later during the reign of the Cholas and others thereafter. The base of this shrine is square with an open façade on all four sides, supported by carved pillars with lion bases and corner supports. The Vimana or pyramidal tower is three tiered with open porches. There are many life like sculptures on all the corners of this shrine that depict deities and even an inscribed sculpture that shows Narasimhavarman I, who had commissioned this temple. The inscriptions on this shrine are in the Grantha script that has been attributed to the Pallavas.

Another corner of this shrine has the most endearing sculptured depiction of Ardhnareeshwar. It is the ultimate divine manifestation of the masculine and the feminine in the same deity. It is the combined form of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati.

[Dharmaraj (Yudhishthir) Ratha with the ubiquitous Ardhnareeshwar]

Another fascinating fact about this shrine is the depiction of people with different hair styles. The different styles are visible if you look at the faces carved into the upper tiers of the Vimana. This variety denotes the extensive trade links of Mamallapuram port city, during Pallava time.

[Panel with different headgears]

The lone structure standing separately is called Sahdeva Ratha. Apparently it represents the brothers Nakul and Sahdeva. The twin brothers seem to have been ignored while ascribing monuments to them, similar to the case in the story of Mahabharata where they have a limited role compared to the three elder brothers. A life size statue of an elephant is carved on the side of the Sahdeva Ratha.


These stone and rock cut monuments are a reminder of how human artistry coupled with diligent workmanship can give life to ideas. The stone cutters did not stop at only experimenting but produced the most elegant temples and lifelike sculptures. With the patronage of the royalty, this art continued and led to the construction of massive temples and structures that have withstood the vagaries of time and human destruction.

Next part of this series will cover the world famous bas relief and other structures of Mahabalipuram.

About Author: Ruchi Pritam

Ruchi is a History and Law Graduate from Delhi University with an MBA from Madras University. She is a Bank-empaneled lawyer and has taught at several MBA institutions as a visiting faculty. She has always had a fascination for Indian art, temples and culture that has led her to travel and write on the various architectural wonders of India. She has authored the book - Journey Through India’s Heritage. She can be followed on @RuchiPritam.

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