According to a recent Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) report, the monument at Mahabalipuram (now Mamallapuram) in Tamil Nadu is the most visited centrally-protected ticketed monument for foreign visitors during 2021-22. Shore Temple, overlooking the Bay of Bengal, is one of the most prominent monuments of Mahabalipuram.
Most of the structures in Mahabalipuram, including the Pancha Rathas, are rock cut structures but the Shore Temple constructed by Rajashima (Narashima II-reign 700-728 CE) of Pallava dynasty is an exception. It is a structural temple built by placing blocks of rock one above the other, just as we use bricks to construct modern day buildings.
A closer look at the temple
Old maps of the region mention the Shore Temple as Seven pagodas; it is quite likely the remaining six have been washed away by the sea. Today manmade barricades have been constructed to protect the Shore Temple from the advancing waters of the Bay of Bengal.
The temple with twin spires is unique as it enshrines both Shiva and Vishnu under the same roof, something not quite common in the sub-continent. Although a single structure, the temple houses three shrines, two of which are dedicated to Shiva and the other to Vishnu. The one on the east (facing the sea) is topped with a higher spire and one the west, is topped with a shorter spire. The spire on the east has five stories and is known as Kashatriyasimhesvaran, while the west one has three stories and is known as Rajasimhesvaram. Both the eastern and western shrines are dedicated to Shiva. The east facing shrine houses a Shiva Linga while the smaller shrine facing west houses a Somaskanda panel with Shiva, Uma and their son Skanda. The small space between the two Shiva shrines is dedicated to Vishnu and enshrines a grand panel depicting a reclining Vishnu.
Lion sculpture in Shore Temple complex
The single structure, housing the three shrines, is housed in a large compound along with several other scattered structures. A wall topped with statues of Nandi Bull runs all round the structure. According to local legends, there were a total of 101 bulls out of which 80 survived to this day. The complex also houses a statue of a lion. The temple has its share of relief work on its outer walls. But the reliefs are shallow and lack intricacy and most of it has been heavily eroded because of the effect of salt water and sea breeze.
Two pedestal-like structures stand at the entry gate on the western side. Adjoining to the wall on the northern side is a stone tank. Stone steps lead to the bottom of the tank and the tank houses a Shiva Linga.
The beautiful stone structures around the temple
The temple lies below the ground level. The temple was actually buried by sand, which was removed after several archaeological excavations. The 2004 Tsunami also revealed a few other new structures which have been excavated and restored by ASI.
Shore temple from a distance
- Mahabalipuram is located 55 km south of Chennai and can be visited for a day trip. However, tourists looking for a detailed exploration must make an overnight trip