A visit to the ancient temples of Mamallapuram


Just a quick hour or so south of the manic hustle of Chennai sits the town of Mamallapuram and one of the most significant collections of temples from the 7th-9th centuries that can be found in India. Even more impressive is that the temples are, for the most part, in surprisingly good shape. Some have suffered the fate of wind and sea spray from the coast but most are incredibly well preserved for being 1400 years old.

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Scattered across a few miles of shore there are three main areas where the temples are sited; unsurprisingly the areas in between are dotted with tchotchke shops and such catering to the throngs of tourists who visit daily. Easy enough to avoid if you have a driver or just keep your head down as you walk the roads between the sites. Working from the south to the north here are some of the highlights from our visit.

Five Rathas

These Rathas, literally chariots but more like carved temples, sit adjacent to each other at the south end of town. Each of the Rathas is dedicated to an individual god and the collection of them together is quite impressive. And, to be quite clear, each of these huge buildings was carved out of the piece of stone that was there when they decided to build. That someone had the vision to look at a chunk of stone and see in it a temple as ornate and detailed as these is incredible; that they were able to execute on the plan even more so.

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The carvings on the individual temples are incredibly detailed, with much of the work still visible even today, centuries later.

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Arjuna’s Penance (et al.)

Arjuna’s Penance is a massive bas-relief, carved into the side of a rock basically in the middle of town. The story told is under debate by historians and archaeologists (some claim it to be of Bhagiratha, not Arjuna) but pretty much everyone agrees that the level of detail shown in the carving is tremendous.

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There is a story being told in the carvings, one that I don’t really know, but the collection of animals, angels and gods is stunning.

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In the same small park area that holds Arjuna’s Penance there are a number of other temples to visit. They vary in size and age, though most are from the same era. Thanks to being sheltered from the weather they have survived the test of time incredibly well.

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Just spend an hour or two, starting from the south end of the park by the lighthouse and wandering about and you will see incredible carvings and statues scattered about the area. The main area is fenced in so it is hard to get too lost as you wander.

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Access to this part of the historical sites is also fee-free, unlike the Rathas or the Shore Temple. That changes the dynamic of the crowd a tiny bit, but not so much as to skew the experience. And if you’re on such a tight budget that the $5 to visit the main sites is too much, these certainly give a great feel for the history of the area.

The Shore Temple

Of all the sites in Mamallapuram the Shore Temple is in the worst shape of the sites in town. This is not particularly surprising given its location right on the waterfront where it has to deal with wind and sea spray all the time. Also somewhat unique to the Shore Temple is that it is a constructed building rather than a carved temple.

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Even with these two differences, the Shore Temple is an impressive site. And, along with the Five Rathas, it has entry controlled by the sale of tickets (Rs. 250, ~USD $5 for foreigners, Rs. 10 for Indians for both sites),which keeps the experience a bit more calm. That said, it can still get a bit crazy if you’re there with someone seen as a movie star.

The sites at Mamallapuram are each impressive. Taken as a whole, particularly with the mix of different gods and sects being honored, it is an incredible testament to the way of life seen in that era. It is most definitely worth the day trip down from Chennai to see this collection.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

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