The Shore Temple and I

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 Shore Temple

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 Shiva lingam

 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 Family of Shiva

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.

Vishnu in Reclining Position

 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. 

The Goddess Durga Shrine


The Sacrificed Deer

The temple is bordered with a wall and the top of wall is lined with Nandi Bulls. All of them are the same shape and same size. One wonders how the artisans managed this feat during those days. The carvings on the wall bear testimony to the exquisite craftsmanship of the Indian artisans of those days. The carvings have been eroded with the passage of time but have still retained their beauty and fine detailing. The high salt content in the air on the beach is the culprit behind the erosion. Only after looking at this havoc played by the sea did I realize that the sea takes away from the Shore Temple as much as it lends to its romance.

Exquisite Carvings on the Wall

 It is said that the Shore Temple was a part of a larger temple complex and there were six other temples in this complex and together they were known as the Seven Pagodas. However, legend has it that the sea claimed six of the seven pagodas and the present Shore Temple was the only one that remained. Let me add that this is not the official position of ASI, but local tradition is insistent about it. Well, there might be a grain of truth in the local tradition. The sea is always choppy here and over the years the sea may have claimed a lot of land. Limited excavations in this area have not yielded any results on the seven pagodas front, but a few other artefacts have been unearthed recently.
Not much is known about why the Shore Temple was built at Mahabalipuram. It was not the capital of the Pallava kings and the debate on why Mahabalipuram received royal patronage has not been settled. Maybe, it was an important port town during that time. But then again, one would associate commerce and trade with a port town, not a magnificent temple. Anyway, I’m not complaining, whatever the reason was, the Pallava kings made one of the most beautiful structures in India in the most picturesque of settings. For me, the romance of the Shore Temple will not die any time soon.

2 thoughts on “The Shore Temple and I

  1. Excellent post! You have also raised genuine, logical questions pertaining to the 7 Pagodas and the work of ASI on it. Most importantly, I was not aware of this magnificient structure in the my country. Thank you for highlighting such a grand structure.

    Jai Hind! Keep Writing!

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