Group Monuments at Mahabalipuram

Archaeological splendor mix with southern India’s rich cultural legacy to create a one-of-a-kind 1.5-square-mile treasure trove.
Arjuna Penance
Follow the Leader: Arjuna's Penance stone elephant carving (Photographer's Choice)
Group Monuments at Mahabalipuram
Location: Southern India
Date of Inscription: 1984
Why Go: Hewn from boulders and caves, the ancient sculptures and Hindu temples revolutionized Indian art and architecture—and rocked the world.

With the Group Monuments of Mahabalipuram, the Pallava dynasty set its legacy in stone—or, more specifically, diorite and granite. Nearly 1,400 years ago, the Indian rulers created a mini-metropolis of art and architecture along the Bay of Bengal, about 37 miles south of Madras in the state of Tamil Nadu. The 32 structures, which are carved out of all-natural materials, gave an arty edge to an otherwise commercial town. Of course, the shrines, temples, sanctuaries, and sculptures outlived the monarchy, but the Pallavas' contribution to Indian culture remains as solid as…yes, a rock.

The Pallava family controlled southern India roughly from the first century to the eighth century. During this time, the seaside town of Mahabalipuram became an active and profitable port, thanks to heavy trading with its Southeast Asian neighbors. From 630 to 728, the royal art buffs poured their largesse into constructing sacred sites. Narasimhavarman Mamalla (630 to 668) was especially involved in the patronage, and his name is dropped on more than one temple lintel.

The 1.5-square-mile area can be viewed as a whole, though each of the five types of edifices are deserving of individual attention. The myriad buildings display an evolution of sculptural styles and an innovation of engineering techniques. Bypassing the wood and brick structures of yore, Mahabalipuram's craftsmen jumped right into intricate cave designs, monoliths, and highly-modeled temples of the Dravidian school.

In addition, the sculptors were doing Rubenesque before Rubens was even conceived, and their shapely, supple style was imitated in Cambodia, Java, and other locales.

Five pancha rathas (chariot) temples, for example, were carved as monoliths from diorite boulders and are named after four Pallava brothers and their shared wife, Draupadi. Each of the pyramidal rathas displays flourishes unique to southern India. Take Arjuna ratha as Exhibit A: The ornate structure has, on its first tier, fluted pilasters that frame sculptures of the Hindu Lord Shiva and Nandi, his trusty bull; above, roof shrines display smaller figurines squished inside horseshoe-shaped arches.

An octagonal dome is the cherry on Arjuna's top. The most pared-down ratha is Draupadi. The shrine's curved roof is nearly blank, so as to not upstage the goddess Durga, who flanks the door. Despite the architectural digest of details, though, the rathas are considered unfinished and were never sanctioned (or used) as houses of worship.

The open-air rock reliefs tell a more complete story—at least pictorially. The most famous tale (as told by kinetic sculptures) is the Descent of the Ganges. In short, King Bhagiratha implored Ganges to drop in on Earth, which was in need of some nourishment, but the river god ignored his pleas. Shiva then had to step in, ordering him to come down. The artists incorporated the cracks in the cliff to dramatize the momentous event. The 20-foot-tall monument also depicts a lively party of gods, goddesses, mythical creatures, and animals fierce and cuddly—the groupies of Hindu's rock stars.

Deities make another appearance in the mandapas, rock sanctuaries-cum-rooms that are wallpapered with bas-reliefs. The A-listers show up, including Krishna, seen ducking under Adishesha's seven-headed serpent hood; Varaha, the avatars of Vishnu who appear as a boar and a dwarf; and Ganesha, the elephant-faced god whose shrine still draws worshipers. The pavilions also display some of the motifs and constructions unique to this region, such as pillars that sprout from lions' heads and capitals that feature bounding Leos. You know you've made it into Art History 101 if you have a period named after you, and so we call this Pallava Art.

But Mahabalipuram is more than just a pretty slideshow; the area also has a mysterious side. Early 18th-century explorers referred to the complex as the Seven Pagodas, but subsequent visitors found only one temple standing, the Shore Temple. The wedding-cake structure has two towers and three shrines—a pair for Shiva and one honoring Vishnu, who's seen chilling on his serpent couch. The temple's brethren, by contrast, are rumored to be underwater. In 2002, excavators and divers uncovered ruins off Mahabalipuram that point to the missing sextet. Three years later, in the aftermath of the 2005 tsunami, a number of stone artifacts, including a granite lion, surfaced. Even after all these centuries, the Pallavas are still making headlines.

A globetrotter and travel writer, Andrea Sachs contributes frequently to the Washington Post.

Published: 23 Aug 2006 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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