The Legend of the Seven Pagodas – Mamallapuram

The ancient city of Mamallapuram has been called the town of the seven pagodas ever since the first European explorers reached the city several centuries ago. According to popular belief, once upon a time six other temples stood along with the now famous shore temple on the shores of Mahabalipuram’s rock strewn beaches. Myth has it that the God Indra became jealous of this earthly city, and sank it during a great storm, leaving only the Shore Temple above water (Figure 1). Local fishermen have for long claimed to have had glimpses of at least some of the other temples glittering beneath the waves.


Figure 1 : The Shore Temple Complex

During the Tsunami that struck the coast in late 2004, the sea pulled back about 500m. During this time, tourists and residents were reported to have seen a long, straight row of large rocks emerge from the water just before the waters rushed back again. The tsunami also made some immediate, lasting changes to the coastline, which left a few previously covered statues and small structures uncovered on the shore like the large stone lion left sitting uncovered on Mahabalipuram’s beach.

Since these incidents, several studies and excavations have been made and are being made by the Archeological Society of India (ASI) with the help of the Navy and in partnership with international agencies. The excavations have thrown up evidence that a large network of temples once existed along the coast of Mahabalipuram. The remains of a temple approximately one-and-a-half times the size of the still standing Shore Temple structure, plus a smaller temple on the same excavation site, have been laid bare by the excavations. Additionally, several submerged structures have been found in the sea. This is an ongoing story.

Mabalipuram Today

Mahabalipuram is connected to Chennai by the East Coast Road or the ECR as it is called. It is about 35 km from Chennai. Mahabalipuram was an important port built by the Pallavas during the Seventh Century for the maritime trade with the countries of South East Asia and Mediterranean. The temples of Mamallapuram were built largely during the reigns of Narasimhavarman I and his successor Narasimhavarman II (Rajasimha). They showcase the movement from rock-cut architecture to structural building.


Figure 2 : The Ganesha Mandapa

The main hill at Mamallapuram is dotted with pillared halls carved into the rock face. These halls or mandapas are carved with graceful columns and intricate figure sculptures. The Ganesh mandapa (Figure 2) is an active shrine even today, with the idol of the elephant-god being revered by the faithful, fourteen centuries after it was first consecrated. 


 Figure 3: Krishna’s Butter Ball

Beyond the circular rock called Krishna’s Butterball (Figure 3) is the Varaha mandapa (Figure 4) dedicated to the two avatars of Vishnu. The Mahishasuramardini mandapa has the goddess Durga in bas relief and the Vishnu Sayana Mandapa shows Lord Vishnu lying under the protective hood of the seven-headed serpent Adishesha.

Figure 4 : The Varaha Mandapa

The other caves include the unfinished Krishna Mandapam (Figure 5), the Rayar Gopuram (Figure 6) and the Trimurthi Temple (Figure 7).


Figure 5 : Krishna Mandapam  


Figure 6 : Rayar Gopuram


Figure 7 : Trimurti Temple

 The first conventional lighthouse was established in 1887 by placing a wick lamp inside a 4th order optic and lantern on the roof of Olakkaneeswara Temple (Figure 9). This temple has been built on top of the Mahishasuramardini cave. More recently a conventional light house has been built (Figure 10).


Figure 9 : Olikaneeswara Temple light House


Figure 10 : Mahabalipuram Light House

The smaller hill of Mahabalipuram contains the eight rathas which are monolithic temples fashioned as chariots. Of the eight rathas, five have been named after the Pandava brothers, the heroes of the epic Mahabharata, and Draupadi (Figure 12). The largest is the Dharmaraja ratha (Figure 11) while the Bhima, Arjuna and Nakula-Sahdeva rathas (Figure 13) are lesser copies of the Dharmaraja ratha.


Figure 11 : The Dharmaraja Ratha                                                             

Figure 12 : The Draupadi Ratha


Figure 13 : The Nakula Sahadeva Ratha

One of the largest Bas reliefs in the world is located at Mahabalipuram titled ‘Arjuna’s penance’. It depicts the penance of Arjun to obtain Lord Shiva’s weapon to destroy his enemies.


Figure 14 : Arjuna’s Penance 


Figure 15 : Another View of the Bas relief

Some records indicate that the relief depicts King Bhagirath’s penance to Lord Shiva to bring down the Ganges down from the mountains of the Himalayas to purify the souls of his ancestors.  Lord Shiva comes down to earth and lets the flood trickle through his hair, dispersing the waters safely in innumerable streams all over the world in order to safely disperse the water without harming the earth.  This strange sight aroused the curiosity of the world’s animals, who gathered round the soaking God.

 The cleft in the two rocks is perhaps the most famous part of the carving.  It depicts the descent of Shiva from heaven through the colossal waterfall.  The ruins of a stone water tank above the rocks support this interpretation. 

 A visit to the ancient city of Mahabalipuram is like a journey into time itself, reminiscent of the splendour of past glories and religious fervour. The sound of the stone carvers chipping away incessantly in their shops takes you back to the heady days of old.  Mahabalipuram is timeless and it is still being discovered – everyday. One hopes that some day we will see all seven temples on the beaches of Mahabalipuram restored to their pristine glory once again welcoming visitors to this ancient temple port.


  • Nandan Jha says:

    We paid a fleeting visit to this place on our way to Chennai from Pondicherry in early March, 2007. It was a very hot day and fellow travelers were not too enthused on spending time looking at stones. With a < 2 year old baby, the heart of a young parent didn’t pursue as well :), and the visit remained in-complete.

    At some point in future I would like to spend lots of hours, preferably in a forgiving Sun to this place which is often called as the ‘stone sculptor capital’ of the world.

    Patrick the Jasper, your post makes me crave more. Thanks. And its been a long time, you wrote something here. Be around and write often.

  • Patrick says:

    Thanks Nandan.
    We drove in from Chennai. It is really a pleasant ride on Mahabalipuram Road. There’s a crocodile/snake park on the way which is a must see especialy for kids.

    Yes Nandan i know its been a long time, You know how work sorta catches up with you. Am trying though.

  • lakshmi says:

    Great post . Mahabalipuram or Malai or Mammalapuram was once a port of the Pallavas. The excavation at a place called Tigers cave or Salavanakuppam which is just 5 kms before Mahabs as we fondly call it has shown a temple that dates back to the 2nd century even before the Pallavas, probably the early Cholas..A few hours is not enough..even after going there dime a dozen times, i still feel a lifetime is required to know more about it. Even my posts on Mahabs are incomplete ..however here is a snippet from one of my post.

    To quote from one of the papers written on the website of National institute of Ocenography by Sundaresh*, A.S. Gaur, S. Tripati and K.H. Vora,

    “According to the local traditions these structures are the remains of temple as there were 5 temples believed to be submerged out of 7 and the shore temple is the last surviving one located on the shore at Mahabalipuram. The earliest possible date of these structures could be around 1500 years BP, as the temple architecture has flourished during the Pallava period. The backwaters at Mahabalipuram, on the western bank of Buckingham canal probably served as a port at Punjeri during early centuries of the Christian era. The major and important factor affecting Mahabalipuram cost is erosion. A recent study suggested that the rate of coastal erosion in and around Mahabalipuram could be as high as 55 cm per year. Therefore cause of the submergence of these structures is probably severe coastal erosion. ”

    Sorry for this long comment..Nandan, I hope you wont complain :)

  • Nandan Jha says:

    I know you can’t keep a writer down for long, so if not full posts, at least full comments :). Your comment has greatly increased the value of this post.

  • Ram Dhall says:


    Good to see you back after a slightly longish interval. You have beautifully made up for your absence with a magnificent post on Mahabalipuram. The narration is simply mesmerising. The pictures complement the narrative excellently.

    Lakshmi: Thank you very much for the additional information.

    Well done Patrick.

    Would look forward to your next post.

  • Patrick says:

    Thanks Ram and Laxmi. I am not an expert on Hindu Mythology so i have had to borrow heavily from several texts while doing research on the subject especially on the historical relevance and i have tried to blend them all together coherently. The photographs however are entirely mine.

    Yes lakshmi – I entirely agree, a few hours is simply not enough. I badly wanted to see the structures which were newly exposed by the Tsunami which the locals were talking about but simply did not have the time. Maybe next time.

  • Rajeev Tivari says:

    This is a breezy write up on one of my destinations in near future-I have planned a one-day TTDC conducted tour ex-Chennai in December. Recently I have been driving on ECR by Mamallapuram from Chennai, but have so far not been able to insert a stopover.

    It is really a fascinating place, so nicey described in your post. This has fuelled my curiosity about the carvings even further. The style of the shore temple seems to be quite different from the rest of temples in south.

    What do you say about Dakshinchitra?

  • patrick jasper says:

    Thanks rajeev. Glad to be of service.

  • Patrick Jones says:

    The work on stone especially the low relief, is amazing. Well, if they can create music out of stone pillars (at Suchindram temple), anything is possible.

    Nice post, Patrick the Jasper.

  • Patrick says:

    Thanks PJ

  • Rajeev Tivari says:

    I am Suchindram bound this Christmas. In my previous Cape trip I missed it.

  • Manish Khamesra says:

    I always get confused between Mahabaleshwar and Mahabalipuram, after reading it I think I am writing so for the last time.

    This is the place where the sound of sculptors working on large rocks, converting images in their mind to artwork, got blended with the roaring sound of ocean. I always had these images in my mind (may be, thanks to a wonderful article about the same in our school text books). So now I know, where it is situated and I am sure next time, whenever I will be around Chennai, I would be there :)

    Laxmi, thanks for giving the excerpt of the paper, which as always made this article more interesting.

  • Patrick says:

    Thanks manish

  • Manish khamesra says:


    I will like to add that all the pictures are just splendidly beautiful. Its a pleasure even to have look at them again and again.

  • Rabiraj Naidu says:

    I would like to restore the 7 temples of Mahabalipuram to their former glory perhaps by using a bridge over the shore to an encirclement of the temple grounds with it starting from property in Chennai Biz Realty, Manager Kishore Kumar ( You may also discuss with me in detail as I shall be going to Chennai this October 2014. I will have the required funds to finish this project.

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