|Mamallapuram, “the City of Mamalla,” takes its name from great Pallava ruler Narasimhavarman I (630–668 CE), who was called “Maha-malla” (great wrestler). Also known as Mahabalipuram, Mamallapuram was a seaport during the time of Periplus (1st century CE) and Ptolemy (140 CE). Many Indian colonists sailed to Southeast Asia through this port town. While there is some evidence of architectural activity going back to the period of the father of Mamalla, Mahendravarman I (600–630 CE), most of the works are attributed to the period of Narasimhavarman I. The historical monuments include rock-cut rathas or shrines (ratha – chariot), sculpted bas-relief scenes on open rocks such as Arjuna’s Penance, the cave sanctuaries of Govardhanadhari and Mahishasuramardini, and the Jala-Sayana Perumal Temple at the rear part of the Shore Temple complex.
Mamallapuram is one of the main tourist places in Kanchipuram. It is located at around 52 kilometers (31 miles) to the South of Chennai, the capital of Tamilnadu and at a distance of 94 kilometers (59 miles) from the North Pondicherry.
Of the nine monolithic temples found in Mamallapuram, the most important are the Five Rathas representing the famous five Pandava brothers of the Mahabharata fame. These monuments are each carved from a single rock, with examples of a variety of forms of plan and elevations. While the Dharmaraja, Arjuna, and Draupadi rathas have square bases, the Bhima and Ganesa rathas are oblong and the Sahadeva ratha is apsidal or arch-shaped.
The Draupadi Ratha is a square shrine with a kutagara (hut-shaped roof). The Arjuna Ratha has a dvitala (two-tiered) vimana (pyramid-shaped roof or tower) with a mukhamandapa (pavilion or pillared hall). The Bhima Ratha is oblong with a salakara (wagon-vaulted roof). The Dharmaraja ratha is a tritala (three-tiered) vimana having functional shrines at all the talas (stories or levels). The Nakula-Sahadeva Ratha has an apsidal plan and elevation which indicate the experimental tendency of the architect.
Monolithic sculpting, both cut-in and cut-out, continued during later periods (for example, the Atiranachanda Cave, Pidari Rathas, and Tiger-Cave). Structural architecture (constructed from building materials) was introduced on a grand scale by the Pallava ruler Rajasimha (700–728 CE), culminating in the creation of the world famous Shore Temple. The Shore Temple is a complex of three temples: Rajasimhesvara (a small tritala vimana facing west), Kshatriyasimhesvara (the larger east-facing vimana), and Nripatisimha Pallava Vishnugriha (an east-facing, oblong, flat-roofed mandapa shrine) which houses the reclining Vishnu. These shrines are enclosed by two prakara (courtyard) walls with openings constructed in later times. The inner surface of the prakara walls once contained panel sculptures, which are worn out now.
The notable cave temples here are the Varaha Mandapa, the Mahisamardini Mandapa, and the Paramesvara Mahavaraha Vishnugriha (Adivaraha Cave). These are in the Mamalla style, while the Adiranchanda Cave Temples belong to the Mahendra period.
The caves of Mamallapuram were once plastered and painted, as indicated by the remains. There was a lull in the architectural activity of the place after the days of the Pallava ruler Rajasimha in the early 8th century CE, with only a few additions during late-Pallava and Chola times. The grandiose Vijayanagara architecture phase of the 14th to 16th centuries CE is represented by the Raja Gopurams (royal temple towers) and the Sthala-Sayana Temple, juxtaposed to the carved boulder of Arjuna’s Penance.
Recent excavations to the north and south of the Shore Temple have revealed rock-cut figures representing religious themes of period prior to the construction of the temple. Other discoveries are a monolithic statue of Bhuvaraha, a reclining image of Vishnu, the base of a shrine to Durga with deer, and a square socket which may have accommodated a mahastambha (free-standing pillar). To the south of the Shore Temple an excavation exposed a ghat (a set of steps down to the water) facing the sea.
Mahabalipuram can be easily reached via road.
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