Located at a distance of 58-km from Chennai, Mahabalipuram has everything that makes a site memorable; tradition, history, piety, western annals, and current importance as a centre of tourism.
Mahabalipuram is located close to Chennai (Madras) on the shores of the Bay of Bengal, along the Indian eastern coast. Known for its rocks carvings and monolithic sculptures it has the famous shore temple, the only one to have survived the ravages of nature. Also known as the Seven Pagodas (temples), six now lie submerged in the sea. Mahabalipuram temples whose architecture was inspired by the Pallava Art were built during the period 830 - 1100 AD.
Mahabalipuram contains nearly forty monuments of different types including an "open air bas relief" which is the largest in the world. For centuries it has been a centre of pilgrimage, and even today it attracts devotees and foreigners in large numbers.
There are two low hills in Mahabalipuram, about 400m from the sea whose both sides have 11 excavated temples, called Mandapas. Out of a big rock standing free nearby there is a "cut out" temple, called a "Ratha". This type is unique to Mahabalipuram.
Out of the other hill, much smaller and standing about 200m to the south, are fashioned five more rathas, and three big sculptures of a Nandi, a Loin and an Elephant. On the top of the bigger hill there is a structural temple, and a little distance the magnificent beginnings of a Vijayanagar Gopura and also survivals of what is believed to be a palace.
The Five Rathas
The five Rathas include The Dharmaraja, The Bhima, The Arjuna, The Draupadi and The Sahadeva. The Five Rathas, about 200 m south of the main hill, were fashioned out of a smaller hill sloping down from the south. From the largest part was made the biggest of the five rathas, the Dharmaraja. Then followed onwards north, in the descending order of height, the Bhima, the Arjuna and the Draupadi.
A little to the west of Draupadi there was a comparatively large rock and out of it the Sahadeva Ratha was made. Immediately in front of the Draupadi again two smaller rocks were sculptured into an elephant and a lion. Behind the Draupadi and the Arjuna, which stand on a common base, there is a Nandi.
The Shore Temple
The Shore Temple occupies a most extraordinary site at the very margin of the Bay of Bengal so that at high tide the waves sweep into it and the walls. For this reason their sculptures, have been eroded by the winds and waves of thirteen centuries.
The Shrines In The Shore Temple
There are 3 shrines in the Shore Temple. Two of them are of Saiva and the third is of Vaishnava, with an image of Lord Anantasayi made of live rock. There are Vimanas over the Saiva (also spelt as Shaiv or Shaiva) shrines, but none over the third; it seems to have disappeared with time. Built by Narasimha Varman II Rajasimha, the maker of the Kailasanatha temple in Kanchipuram in the 8th century, this is one of the earliest structural temples in Tamil Nadu.
Temple Of Sthalasayana Perumal
To the north of the bigger hill there is the temple of Sthalasayana Perumal. To the west of the five Rathas there are three more rathas, two side by side. About 600 m north of Mahabalipuram, along the coast, is Saluvankuppam, where there are magnificent excavated temples and, near it, a rock Mandapa with tiger heads along its periphery, called the "Tigers Cave". Between Saluvankuppam and Mahabalipuram, less than 200m from the sea, stands another structural temple, the Mukunda Nayanar.
Each and every one of these monuments of different types, structural temple, excavated temple "cut out" temple, "open air bas relief", not to mention sculptures and Mandapas to be found here and there, is important and interesting. The Shore temple, the celebrated "open air bas relief" called "Arjuna's Penance", the Mahishamardhani and the Adivaraha "Cave" temples and the Five Rathas are the especial rewards of the visitor. All the monuments are Pallava except that the original Sthalasayana Perumal temple was expanded in Vijayanagar times. To the Chola days belongs a Mandapa at the entrance to the township.