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Mahabalipuram (also known as Mamallapuram) India

Mahabalipuram, also known as Mamallapuram, in modern Tamil Nadu

  • Located just south of Madras in southern India, Mahabalipuram was once a major ritual center for the Pallava imperial dynasty (3rd to 10th centuries AD). In ancient times, the town functioned as a seaside port city serving the Indian Ocean. Mahabalipuram now serves as one of the most attractive tourist locations in the state of Tamil Nadu as it is well known for its historical Hindu landmarks and sculptures. Most artistic remains date to the 7th or 8th century, which is the reign of the king Narasimhavarman Mahamalla, for whom the site is named (Mamallapuram derives from the king’s title). The famous Sanskrit writer Dandin wrote the Avantisundarikatha which references the site and calls it Mamallapuram. The cliff-side sculpture known as Arjuna’s Penance, or the Descent of the Ganges is featured in most catalogues of Indian art as its exquisite features are not only representative of the ancient era and its kings but also of Indian Hindu sculpture.

Cave Temples at the Site

Cave Temples:
  • Mahabalipuram sits on a kilometer-long hill whereby all of its monuments exist. Some of the earliest features at the site are two cave temples and their art, which were most likely carved much earlier than the 7th century. The first cave, to the north-west, is called the Kotikala Mandapam and was once a fort. Although a fort is no longer extant at the site, there are many cut-marks indicating that there was once a giant wall surrounding the entire hill. In recent years, a throne-room was excavated revealing a vault cut deep into the bedrock lined with brick partitions. The Kotikala Mandapam itself is relatively small and dedicated to the fierce Hindu goddess Durga. The entrance is guarded by two female guardians.
  • A second cave temple was excavated into the south-east hill. Its name is the Dharmaraja Mandapam and is an exemplary rock-cut piece of architecture because of its smooth cuts into the rock and elaborate chambers. Unfortunately, due to the sands of time, the central deities found in the various shrines and antechambers cannot be determined but were undoubtedly connected to the god Shiva and his mythology. This cave is later than the Kotikala Mandapam and dates to the 7th century. 
  • During the King Mahamalla’s reign, seven more cave templers were erected and are meant to be worshipped in a circumambulatory order beginning from the east and ending to the west in clockwise motion. The cave-temples at Mahabalipuram were more elaborate than comparable cave-temples elsewhere in southern India at the time. Scholars have pointed out that at Mahabalipuram the excavators gave greater attention to details in the carved relief images since all interior walls were ornamented with many major Hindu myths, many of which were often life-sized. One excellent example depicts the goddess Durga slaying the buffalo demon. She is in company with her dwarven attendants and attacking forward while the demonic foe is falling backwards. In almost all representations, the scene is represented in its final moments with Durgan already victorious and standing over the Buffalo demon. However, here at Mahabalipuram she is depicted in the very act of defeating the demon, a nearly revolutionary representation in sculpture.