The Shore temple remained buried under the sand until recently. While the sand has been removed, the presence of the sea right next to it and the constant salt-laden winds and water spray still pose a threat to the temple.
Once the center of commerce and commerce in ancient and ancient medieval India, Mahabalipuram is now a well-known tourist destination, due to its numerous heritage structures belonging to the UNESCO Monument Group. It is believed that the word Mahabalipuram was a derivative of the original name Mamallapuram, which means the city of Mamalla, the warrior. Mamalla was a title of King Pallava Narasimhavarman I (630-70 CE). It was during his reign that most of the heritage structures we see today in Mamallapuram were made. Mamallapuram became an important commercial center in the 6th century AD. C., during the government of King Pallava SimhaVishnu. This was an era of great political changes that saw Pallavas competing for power with Pandyas, Cheras and Cholas; along with the growing religious fervor as part of the Bhakti movement under the saints Alwars (Vaishnava) and Nayanar (Shaiva).
A study of Mamallapuram’s historical findings, which include different archaeological, numismatic (eg, Roman Theodosius coins – 4th century AD) and epigraphic findings, shows that the city was once a thriving seaport with connections to Sri Lanka , China, and other Southeast Asian countries. Among the textual references are: Periplus of the Eritrean Sea (1st century CE), a Greek navigation book, which mentions Mamallapuram, calling it a prosperous port; while Ptolemy (2nd century CE), refers to Mahabalipuram as Malange.
Hiuen Tsang (7th century CE) in his travel records also speaks of Mamallapuram, calling it a seaport of Pallava. Saint Vaisnava Tirumangai Alwar in his work Nalayiraprabandha (8th century CE), described the bustling port city and wrote about the many ships anchored in the port.
Among the most famous landmarks of this port that was once prosperous, is the Shore temple. Marco Polo in his travel book mentioned the temple, referring to it as the Seven Pagodas of Mamallapuram, a name that adhered to the group of coastal temples among European merchants and cartographers. In 1375 in the Catalan Atlas, Abraham Cresques referred to the group of temples as Setemelti (from Sette Templi, which means seven pagodas in Italian). In 1582, a jewelry merchant named Gasparo Balbi also referred to the group of temples as “Seven Chinese pagodas” of Mamallapuram. Niccolai Manucci wrote about the 7 pagodas built by “Chinese men.” Like Polo, Balbi and Manucci had not set foot in the city and had only seen the temples from a distant ship, the tall pyramid towers of the temple had appeared to them as pagodas built by the Chinese.
Interestingly, all medieval European travelers had described seven coastal temples in Mamallapuram, while now only two are seen. This had led to much speculation about whether the accounts of these old travelers were objectively correct. However, during the 2004 tsunami, many temples, inscriptions and sculptures carved into the rock were briefly exposed as the waters receded (Holden, 2005).
Later, archaeologists with diving equipment explored an underwater site 700 m east of the Shore temple and found ruined walls, sculptures, rectangular stone blocks placed parallel to the coast and remains of forty other monuments (Sundaresh et al, 2014 , 1167-1176) From these findings, a new line of thinking has developed that believes that a part of the old Mamallapuram is now under the sea.
The Mamallapuram Shore Temple was built during the reign of the king of Pallavan Rajasimha / Narasimhavarman II, and is the oldest structural temple of importance in southern India. The two temples have three shrines, of which two are dedicated to Shiva and one to Vishnu. The first thing that catches one’s attention when you see the temple from a distance is the prakara (wall) down with the lovely Nandis on it and the tall pyramidal shikharas with their upper octagonal domes. These two tall shikharas / vimanas have an eroded ornamentation that shows similarities with the Pancha Rathas; However, unlike Pancha Rathas, these needles have tops on top that mark them as functional temples.
The shallow mandapas (entrance porches) are accessed by climbing a few stairs, and just beyond the door that contains worn dwarapalas, are the two main sanctuaries. These shrines show the typical characteristic of Pallavan: a Somskanda panel and a striated Shiva linga (the smallest sanctuary that faces west is missing the linga, while the main sanctuary that faces east has a broken striated linga). Behind the two main sanctuaries is the third sanctuary that has no vimana and has a small mandapa or porch. In this sanctuary you can see the Seshasayi (Sthalasayana) Vishnu. The five-story temples have been placed in such a way that the first rays of the sun fall on the main striated lingam facing east.
Simha-yalis are a common feature on the outer walls of the temple, although due to corrosive winds laden with salt, they are mostly resisted beyond recognition. On the north side of the temple there is a small kund that contains a miniature sanctuary facing east. This shrine is dedicated to Shiva, while there is a separate sculpture of a partially damaged Bhu-Varaha next to it. The Bhu-Varaha has an inscription plate on its base that gives us the titles of King Pallava Rajasimha.
On the south side of the temple, facing west, there is a large monolithic lion, often called the Durga lion, as the devi is seen sitting on his right hind leg with an arch in his hand. The lion’s chest has been cut to form a deep square niche, within which we see devi Durga as Mahisasuramardini. Near the pedestal there is a beautifully carved figure of lovely deer, which now has no head.
The entrance walls of the temple contain many carved panels, some of which show scenes from the history of Pallavan, while others represent Shiva in its various forms, such as Tripurantaka, Kiritarjuna, Dakshinamurti, etc. The outer walls have inscriptions of Pallava and Chola were praising King Narasimhavarman II, and appoints the deities inside.
The Shore temple remained buried under the sand until recently. While the sand has been removed, the presence of the sea right next to it and the constant salt-laden winds and water spray still pose a threat to the temple. To address this, the ASI has built a breakwater wall and planted Casuarina trees to prevent further erosion.
Travel tips: Mahabalipuram is near Chennai and can be easily visited, preferably during winters. Shore Temple is a monument with a ticket and remains open from 6:00 a.m. at 6:00 p.m.