Mahabalipuram was a 7th century port city of the South Indian dynasty of the Pallavas around 60 km south from the city of Chennai in Tamil Nadu. The name Mamallapuram is believed to have been given after the Pallava king Narasimhavarman I, who took on the epithet Maha-malla (great wrestler), as the favourite sport of the Pallavas was wrestling. It has various historic monuments built largely between the 7th and the 9th centuries, and has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The temples of Mamallapuram, portraying events described in the Mahabharata, built largely during the reigns of Narasimhavarman and his successor Rajasimhavarman, showcase the movement from rock-cut architecture to structural building. The mandapa or pavilions and the rathas or shrines shaped as temple chariots are from the granite rock face, while the famed Shore Temple, erected half a century later, is built from dressed stone. What makes Mamallapuram so culturally resonant are the influences it absorbs and disseminates. The Shore Temple includes many bas reliefs, including one 100 ft. long and 45 ft. high, carved out of granite.
All but one of the rathas from the first phase of Pallava architecture are modelled on the Buddhist viharas or monasteries and chaitya halls with several cells arranged around a courtyard. Art historian Percy Brown, in fact, traces the possible roots of the Pallava Mandapa to the similar rock-cut caves of Ajanta Caves and Ellora Caves. Referring to Narasimhavarman's victory in AD 642 over the Chalukyan king Pulakesin II, Brown says the Pallava king may have brought the sculptors and artisans back to Kanchi and Mamallapuram as 'spoils of war". The modern city of Mahabalipuram was established by the British in 1827
The monuments are mostly rock-cut and monolithic, and constitute the early stages of Dravidian architecture wherein Buddhist elements of design are prominently visible. They are constituted by cave temples, monolithic rathas (chariots), sculpted reliefs and structural temples. The pillars are of the Dravidian order. The sculptures are excellent examples of Pallava art.
It is believed by some that this area served as a school for young sculptors. The different sculptures, some half finished, may have been examples of different styles of architecture, probably demonstrated by instructors and practiced on by young students. This can be seen in the Pancha Rathas where each Ratha is sculpted in a different style. These five Rathas were all carved out of a single piece of granite in situ. While excavating Khajuraho, Alex Evans a stone mason and sculptor recreated a stone sculpture made out of sandstone, which is softer than granite, under 4 feet that took about 60 days to carve. The carving at Mahabalipuram must have required hundreds of highly skilled sculptors.
Some important structures include:
Thirukadalmallai, the temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu. It was also built by Pallava King in order to safeguard the sculptures from the ocean. It is told that after building this temple, the remaining architecture was preserved and was not corroded by sea.
Descent of the Ganges - a giant open-air bas relief
Arjuna's Penance - relief sculpture on a massive scale extolling an episode from the Hindu epic, The Mahabharata.
Varaha Cave Temple - a small rock-cut temple dating back to the 7th century.
The Shore Temple - a structural temple along the Bay of Bengal with the entrance from the western side away from the sea. Recent excavations have revealed new structures here. The temple was reconstructed stone by stone from the sea after being washed away in a cyclone.
Pancha Rathas (Five Chariots) - five monolithic pyramidal structures named after the Pandavas (Arjuna, Bhima, Yudhishtra, Nakula and Sahadeva) and Draupadi. An interesting aspect of the rathas is that, despite their sizes they are not assembled — each of these is carved from one single large piece of stone.