Like a pearl from an oyster, Mamallapuram is an invaluable treasure that lies next to the sea. A temple town, it was also a stirring port in the 1st millennium CE. Littered with ancient architecture, it has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. It is most famous for rock cut temples and shore temples that have been built around themes from the epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana. Here’s how you can make the most out of your visit to Mamallapuram.
Pancha Pandava Ratha – Chariots of the Five Pandava – are shrines of Pandu brothers and their common spouse Draupadi, chiselled out of huge boulders in the form of Temple Chariots of varying styles. The Pandu brothers are heroes of the Indian epic, Mahabharata. Three of the Chariot Temples are dedicated to Dharmaraja, Bhima, and Arjuna; Nakula and Sahadeva have one temple and the fifth one is dedicated to Draupadi. The construction dates back to 7th century CE and are all monolithic.
Mahishasuramardhini Mandapam depicts two intricately carved panels on either side of its walls depicting scenes from mythological lore. On one side, the Pallava sculptors have chiselled a glorious depiction of the battle between Mahisha and Goddess Shakti with exquisite detailing and aesthetic perfection. The engraving on the opposite panel is equally astounding with a representation of Lord Vishnu in Ananthashayanam posture (Lord Vishnu slumbering on the serpent king Adishesha) while his weapons (personified as Gods) retaliate to an ambush by the asuras Madhu and Kaitabha. The etchings are spellbinding.
Descent of the Ganges aka Arjuna’s Penance is a giant 9m (29.5 ft.) high bas-relief filled with detailed carvings. The relief depicts meticulous engravings of divine figures, humans, elephants, monkeys, snake gods, etc. The two different names given to this structure is because of a lack of clarity about which mythological story is being told through these carvings. One notion states it to be a depiction of Arjuna’s penance to Lord Shiva to attain his weapon, while the other notion claims it to be the story of King Bhagiratha bringing the Ganga river down to Earth.
The Shore Temple is the oldest structure in the area with an age of at least 1400 years. Unlike other monuments in Mamallapuram, the Shore Temple is a structure temple built from blocks of varying sizes which were worked and carved on the ground. The current structure is a reconstruction after damage caused from the cyclone that struck here. The temple’s proximity to the sea has resulted in high erosion of the structure.
The India Seashell Museum is one of its kind in India and is a repository of a large collection of varying kinds of seashells. The museum displays a collection of 40,000 unique shell specimens. Exhibits also include small aquariums, interesting items like vehicles, trains, etc., made out of sea shells. The museum also houses a souvenir shop which sells various types of items made out of seashells, conches, pearl jewellery, accessories like keychain, etc. The museum is the largest of its kind in Asia.
Mamallapuram is famous for its veritable history of stone sculpture art. The Sculpture Museum in Mamallapuram recognises and celebrates this age old tradition of the city. The museum houses a distinct collection of more than 3000 sculptures depicting characters and instances from myriad stories of Hindu mythology, emphasising the historic significance of these tales and storytellers of the ancient period. The medium of construction varies from wood, brass, rock, and natural cement. Shops selling sculptures by contemporary sculptors flank the path outside the temple complex where you will find sculptures ranging from miniatures to 3m (9.85 ft.) high.
Surfing is not a common sport in India; however, the high waves of the east coast have made enthusiasts realise their potential to facilitate surfing. The sport is slowly catching up with the interests of local people, especially children, and is leading to an explosive surge. Many recognised training institutions and surfing clubs have cropped up along the Mamallapuram Beach and is usually home to surfers during the evening and early morning hours.
Beach yoga camps are a popular activity here. Several camps are organised on a daily basis. You can also enrich yourself by learning the unique skill of stone carving at local sculpture shops and hotels. You can pick up the art of fashioning a small simple locket in five hours at the price of ₹100/- per day. These stone sculptures are a must buy when in Mamallapuram, and it is advisable to buy them from small roadside shops instead of the main roads.
Mamallapuram is truly a prized destination with plenty to see and explore. Sthalasayana Perumal Temple, Thrimurthy Cave Temple, Varaha Cave Temple, Krishna Mandapam, Krishna’s Butterball, Thirukadalmallai Temple, Ganesh Ratha Temple, and Tiger’s Cave are just some of the numerous other sites of interest. The Olakkaneswara Temple, also known as the Old Lighthouse, is accessible only by a stretch of steps cut on the open surface of the rock. Services were held here till the 19th century.