Mahabalipuram or Mamallapuram is a town located in Kancheepuram district in Tamil Nadu, about 60 km south from the city of Chennai. An ancient historic town, the place was a bustling seaport during 1st century CE. During the reign of Pallavas, in the 7th and 8th centuries, a group of sanctuaries was carved out of rock along the Coromandel coast including structures of rathas (temples in the form of chariots), mandapas (cave sanctuaries), giant open-air reliefs such as the famous ‘Descent of the Ganges’, and the Shore Temple, with thousands of sculptures to the glory of Shiva. All the group has been presently classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site
In a Tamil text written by Thirumangai Alvar written during 8th-century, the place is described as Sea Mountain ‘where the ships rode at anchor bent to the point of breaking laden as they were with wealth, big trunked elephants and gems of nine varieties in heaps’. Apart from several other names such as Mamallapattana and Mamallapuram, the place was also known by the name “Seven Pagodas” after the Seven Pagodas of Mahabalipuram that stood on the shore, of which one, the ShoreTemple, survives.
The temples of Mamallapuram, portrays events described from Mahabharata, The mandapa or pavilions and the rathas or shrines shaped as temple chariots are hewn from the granite rock face, while the famed Shore Temple, erected half a century later, is built from dressed stone. The Shore Temple includes many bas reliefs, including one 100 ft. long and 45 ft. high, carved out of granite. All but one of the rathas are modeled on the Buddhist viharas or monasteries and chaitya halls with several cells arranged around a courtyard. The shrines were dedicated to different deities. The monuments are mostly rock-cut and monolithic. They are constituted by cave temples, monolithic rathas (chariots), sculpted reliefs and structural temples. The pillars are of the Dravidian order and the sculptures are examples of Pallava art. They are located in the side of the cliffs near India’s Bay of Bengal. It is believed that this area served as a school for young sculptors as evidenced in the half finished sculptures and in the Pancha Rathas where each Ratha is sculpted in a different style. The five Rathas were all carved out of a single piece of granite in situ. The five monolithic pyramidal structures was named after the Pandavas (Arjuna, Bhima, Yudhishtra, Nakula and Sahadeva) and Draupadi.
Some of the other important structures of the heritage site include, Thirukadalmallai, the temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu; the Descent of the Ganges or Arjuna’s Penance – a giant open-air bas relief; Varaha Cave Temple – a small rock-cut temple and the Light House, built in 1894.