Pages From My Travel Dairy: Shore Temple At Mahabalipuram

We took a short holiday at Club Mahindra’s resort at Pondicherry, thanks to my sister-in-law.

As customary we planned it as a break to enjoy the ambiance, comfort and food at CM’s resort as well as visit places on the way and around – temples, historic sites and beaches.

Day 1:

We left Chennai on a Wednesday morning. Stopped by to have darshan at the Nithya Kalyana Perumal(NKP) temple at Thiruvidanthai and Sthalasayee Perumal(SP) and Shore temples at Mahabalipuram. These did not involve lengthy detours.

NKP and SP temples are religiously active places of worship even today and are not tourist spots.

About 30 to 40 kms away from Chennai on the ECR, NKP temple is the place to go if you find it difficult to find a soul-mate! Epigraphic evidence dates the temple between 10th to 16th centuries worshiped by Udaiyar, Rashtrakuta and Pandyan kings. You may google up on the interesting sthala puranams (legends on the origin) with their metaphorical overtones, and the rituals for netting the elusive life-partner. We did not get to have a darshan at the sanctum being under renovation.  The archakar (priest) drew our attention to a beauty-spot on the cheek of the utsavar that doesn’t go away! The mandapam pillars around the temple are richly embellished with sculptures though they do appear weather-worn.

A quiet place and a quaint village.

Our next stop was at SP temple, about 60 to 70 kms away from Chennai, located in the well-known town of Mahabalipuram. During the 14th century, the Vijayanagar king Parankusa fearing the onslaught of sea tides built this temple away from the shore as a replica of the Shore temple. At the sanctum, the reclining form of Vishnu quite unusually rests on the ground instead of the customary adisesha (snake) bed, with four hands, bearing no weapons and facing the east (unlike Srirangam). The deities here are named in chaste Tamizh! Example: The utsavar (the procession deity) is Ulagam Uiyya Ninra Perumal – he stands for the salvation of the world, not just his followers. The words roll off the tongue so sweetly!

The early Vaishnava saint Bhootath Azhvar was found in a temple tank here. All three Mudal Azhvar’s – Poygai, Bhootham and Paei – were not born naturally, it’s believed.

Surprisingly, unlike NKP temple, the mandapam pillars around this temple appeared sparse without sculptures. That too in a place like Mahabalipuram!

At this place we were informed about the original Shore temple. A must-see spot, now in ruins, managed by the Archeological Society of India and a Unesco declared World Heritage site. Before we move onto the Shore temple, mention must be made about the numerous way-side studios in and around Mahabalipuram displaying their craft – beautiful sculptures/icons from small to huge. It will be a very sad day if these disappear due to lack of patronage.

The Shore temple complex comprising at its center two Shiva shrines and one of Vishnu, without vimana (domed roof), is attributed to the Pallava king Narasimhavarman II (680-720 A.D). An early example of free-standing stone-dressed structure in contrast to Pallava’s signature rock-cut cave and monolithic rock temples. And the last of the surviving structures that Narasimhavarman I and his successors built over 200 years at Mahabalipuram. That several other structures stood along with the Shore temple, subsequently swallowed up by the sea, is strongly believed, yet to be confirmed by under-sea excavations.

Obviously weather beaten, its small size belies its grandeur in its heydays that could only be guessed by recalling another complex the king had built, surviving till date and in much better shape – Kailasanathar temple at Kanjeevaram, the capital city of Pallavas. As an aside, the latter temple also documents 200+ titles carried by Narsimhavarman II, overtaking all our politicians by miles!!

The courtyard of the complex is enclosed by a series of nandi’s (bulls), mythical yali’s and some varaha’s (boars) topping half-height walls. The main Shiva shrine is east-facing with an intriguingly front-free design towards the ocean! The purport of the design remains a matter of intense speculation among experts: Was it intended to provide devotees a mystic experience of communion with the elements? Or, for a theatrical effect? Was it for the benefit of local and foreign sea-farers sailing in and out of the trading port at Mahabalipuram? Whatever it be, even the Cholas following several centuries later, for a good reason, did not make any alterations/additions unlike at other places they inherited.

The smaller west-facing Shiva shrine has the traditional architectural accouterments like mandaps, perhaps used for rituals. According to the two inscriptions found in the slab of smaller Shiva temple, the names of the three temples mentioned are as Kshatriyasimha Pallaveshvara-griham, Rajasimha Pallaveshvara-griham and Pllikondaruliya-devar – are these among the 200+ titles of the king? The entire temple complex is called as Jalashayana (lying in water) connoting Vishnu. The inscription on the lintel of the Vishnu shrine also mentions this as Narapatisimha Pallava Vishnu Griha where Narapatisimha is again a title of Narsimhavarman II. The guy was smart – he made sure of the attribution.

The Somaskanda panel in one of the Shiva shrines is the best preserved. It is interesting to see  the reclining form of Vishnu resting on ground with four hands, no weapons, no adornments except the crown and without his consort or Bramha emerging on naabhi-kamalam, thus validating the fidelity of its later-day model at SP!. Time and salty wind are humbled at diminishing the beautiful serenity of the face.

The temple walls are replete with beautiful full-height statues of gods, guards and damsels. In their days obesity was certainly not one of their problems!  Smaller panels decorating the base are found all over like small change.

Even saw an animal sacrifice, of course, in stone!

No expert on history or stone art, I found it intriguing to see a confluence of Vaishnavism and Shaivism at one place. The king was an ardent worshiper of Shiva – most Pallava kings were, lured away from Buddhism/Jainism by Shaivaite saints – and carries the name of a Vishnu avatar. Why did he build a Vishnu shrine bracketed by two Shiva shrines? There is even a juxtaposition of a Bhuvaraha (another Vishnu avatar) and a small Shiva shrine in a small sunken water tank!  Maybe there’s some simple explanation.

Incidentally the Shiva shrine stands on a base of a stack of stone slabs, progressively smaller in size, cut into many-sided polygons, the edges of one slab by design out of alignment with those of the slab below -impressive geometry and aesthetically pleasing.

In hindsight maybe we should have hired a guide to tell us about it all. ASI has done a good job of preserving the site without vandalism or litter – could be more forthcoming with information on history and architecture, I thought. Was told by someone promoting tourism is not high on ASI’s agenda – it’s neither suave nor skilled for the job.

We left Mahabalipuram determined to revisit for a more leisurely guided pursuit of stories sculpted in muted stone here and around.

Not before the ladies bought a few bead-strands without bargain from the poor kurava women pushing their wares.

We had lunch on the way and headed for CM’s resort.

It was nearing 4-00 pm when we checked in – marked the beginning of our hassle-free stay – at the resort which is some 15 kms+ beyond the town of Pondicherry.

Had just the amount of energy for a short stroll on the beach – a short stretch of sand that the resort opens out to at the back, taking in lungs-full of free oxygen – rare for a mumbaite. Waters were said to be treacherous ruling out swimming. The sands were reasonably clean though not entirely litter-free.

Hit the bed after a light a la carte dinner.

(To be continued)

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11 thoughts on “Pages From My Travel Dairy: Shore Temple At Mahabalipuram

  1. Hello Raghu,

    You have a great skill in observing, listening and recording. Good and interesting narration.

    In a way I envy you. I have been to over 300 temples and not even one I can recollect having studied, enjoyed the way you do. Hats off!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good writing as usual. In school days , may be in class IX, i had a non-detailed text book in Tamil, named “Kudavarai Koilgal” and later had a glimpse of these temples in the film Server Sundaram & Kalankarai Vilakkam. Hope to visit one day!

    Liked by 1 person

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