I had studied about the Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram in school and I remember being fascinated by the description in the book. I pictured it in my head as a majestic structure in black granite against the backdrop of the sea, with the waves lapping against the temple walls. How poetically beautiful! Some time back, I had the opportunity to travel to Mahabalipuram and see the Shore Temple. My wife and I had gone to Pondicherry for a vacation and we learnt that Mahabalipuram was only 100 kilometres away. So, one morning we drove from Pondicherry to Mahabalipuram, covering the stretch in about one and a half hours.
As I entered into Mahabalipuram, I realized that the place is no bigger than a small hamlet. It looked as if the place is frozen in time. My guess is, it wouldn’t have looked very different 300-400 years ago. We asked for directions to the Shore Temple and parked our car in the KSTDC parking lot. We met a guide called David who promised us to show not only the Shore Temple, but also all the other monuments in Mahabalipuram. He was a nice guy and we soon started chatting. He said he was born a Hindu but got converted to Christianity to marry his sweetheart. Heartwarming story, isn’t it? Anyway, I digress. Let’s return to the Shore Temple.
You have to walk a few paces from the gate to get to the temple. From the gate, it is hidden from view but as you walk towards it, it emerges, quite suddenly, and takes your breath away. A beautiful structure of black granite standing against the blue sky and the blue sea in the backdrop. I swear, it wasn’t much different from the way I pictured it in my head, when I was in school. The only difference was that the waves didn’t actually touch the temple walls. Walking towards the temple, I got the feeling that I’m walking back in time, years, centuries, millenia, to the 8th century when the temple was built by the powerful Pallava kings. The structure arrests your imagination and you just walk towards it, dumbfounded at its beauty. It becomes obvious why it has been chosen as a UNESCO World Heritage site. I clicked this picture from some distance. I know it has come a little tilted to the right, I’m not a great photographer, you see.
The temple complex has three shrines, two dedicated to Lord Shiva and one to Lord Vishnu. The Shiva shrines are orthogonal in configuration and face east and west. The main shrine has a Shiva lingam, which is damaged a little now. However, whatever is left of it, reveals how majestic it would have looked in the 8th century. In the background, you can see the family of Shiva carved into the stone.
The other Shiva shrine in the temple complex, which is on the other side of the main shrine, does not contain a lingam. It has the family of Shiva carved on the stone wall. You can see Shiva, his consort Parvati, and his sons Kartikeya and Ganesha very clearly in the carving. You have to climb a few steps to get to this shrine and a door protects the shrine from the elements and probably that is why the carving is still preserved so well.
The Vishnu shrine is in between the two Shiva shrines and it did strike me as remarkable considering the rivalry between Vaishnavas ind Shaivites in the first millennium AD, especially in South India. Probably it was a deliberate attempt on the part of the Pallava kings to get the two communities to put aside their differences and pray together. Again, this is just my assumption and not historically verified. The idol of Vishnu in the shrine is very different from any I’ve seen across India. The idol is in the reclining position and has been preserved quite well, despite the elements.
Out on the porch is a shrine dedicated to Goddess Durga. You see a lion with a cavity in its chest. Inside the cavity, the image of Durga is carved in stone. The image of the Goddess is also carved on the right shoulder of the lion. The part that I found most striking was a sculpture of a deer sacrificed in honor of the Goddess. The detailing on the sculpture is really amazing, with the severed head of the deer placed a little way from the body.