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Mahabalipuram: UNESCO World Heritage



The historic city Mahabalipuram or Mamallapuram is located in Tamil Nadu, India. This city became an important city of art, architecture and literature during the reign of the Pallava dynasty, between the 3rd century CE and 7th century CE. This city was already a thriving sea port in the Bay of Bengal before this time. In excavations a significant number of coins and other artefacts has been found here, which indicates a pre-existing trade relation with the Romans even before it became a part of the Pallava Empire.

It was inscribed under the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1984 as a cultural heritage

Early History

  • Many opinions exist about the origin of the name of this site.
  • One of the most popular explanations is that this place is named after benevolent King Bali, also known as Mahabali. The ancient Indian text of VishnuPuran documents his exploits. “Puram” is a Sanskrit term for a city or urban dwelling. Mamallapuram is the Prakrit version of the original Sanskrit name.
  • There is another view, according to which it is being believed that the city was founded by the Pallava king Narasimhavarman I in the 7th century AD. The name Mamallapuram derives from Mamallan, meaning the warrior. Mamalla was a title of the Pallava king Narasimhavarman I (630-70 CE). The name Mamallapuram got distorted during the British era toMahabalipuram and thus it is also known as Mahabalipuram.
  • Narasimhavarman I (630 CE – 680 CE) patronage helped the creation of a number of the city’s most iconic landmarks. This period of artistic excellence was duly continued by subsequent Pallava kings.
  • Hiuen Tsang (7th century CE) in his travel records also talks of Mamallapuram, terming it as a Pallava sea-port.


1) Cave Temples

  1. a) Adi Varaha Perumal Cave
  • This Cave Temple is the earliest of all Pallava structures in Mahabalipuram, yet the least visited one.
  • The construction of this site began before the reign of Mahendravarman I. The temple is dedicated to Vishnu (Varaha is an incarnation of Vishnu) and its execution follows the spirit of Vaishnava Agamic
  • This temple houses two relief sculptures of Pallava kings, Simhavishnu (c. 537 CE – 570 CE) and Mahendravarman I, accompanied by their respective wives.
  1. b) Trimurti Cave
  • The Trimurti Cave is dedicated to the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Maheswara (Shiva) representing the process of creation, sustenance and destruction.
  • Aside from the deity, the carved pillars and sculptures also show devotees in various postures. The Varaha and Krishna Caves exhibit mythical tales related to Vishnu and Krishna.
  1. c) Mahishasuramardini Cave
  • The Mahishasuramardini Cave can be found at a hilltop location. This is the second, along with the Kotikal Cave, of the caves dedicated to Durga.
  1. d) Tiger Cave 
  • The Tiger Cave sums up the evolution of the Pallava’s cave temple structures over a period of time.

2) Arjuna’s Penance

  • It is also known as Descent of the Gangesreferring to the legend of king “Bhagiratha” performing penance and praying to the Lord Shiva to bring the river Ganges to earth so as to gain salvation for his ancestors.
  • This 7th century AD masterpiece of sculpture carved by Maandhaatar is 25 metres in length and 12 metres in height and is regarded as the world’s largest Bas Relief.
  • The dramatic relief sculpture narrates the tales from Indian epics such as the Mahabharata.

3) Pancha Ratha

  • Pancha Ratha (five chariots) is an architectural ode to Mahabharata‘s five Pandava brothers Yudhistir, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula, Sahadeva, and their wife Draupadi.
  • Draupadi Ratha: is a temple dedicated to Goddess Durga.
  • Arjuna Ratha: dedicated to Lord Shiva; is almost a replica of the Dharmaraja ratha.
  • Bhima Ratha: is dedicated to Vishnu in repose; replicates a Buddhist chaitya; is devoid of any figure carvings.
  • Nakula-Sahadeva Ratha: is dedicated to Indra, the rain god; is apsidal in shape with ornamental features and is devoid of figure carvings.
  • Dharmaraja Ratha: Is dedicated to Hari-Hara (Vishnu-Shiva) and Ardhanareeswara (Siva-Parvati combine).
  • Thematically and structurally, each rathais significantly different from the other ones, but all of them were carved out of a long stone or monolith. The walls of these ancient edifices are decorated with bas-reliefs and murals.

4) Shore Temple

  • The Shore Temple is located on the beach and if local lore is to be trusted it is the one surviving structure of the legendary Seven Pagodas.
  • Built between 700 and 728 CE during the reign of Narasimhavarman II, this is indeed a remnant of a larger complex of temples and civil structures much of which lie under the depth of the sea now.
  • Marco Polo in his travel book mentioned the temple, referring to it as the Seven Pagodas of Mamallapuram.

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Thus, Mahabalipuram invokes a certain kind of mystery with its sculptural extravaganza depicting the strong artistic temperament of the Pallavas, who were the pioneers in South Indian art.

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