The Legacy of Pallavas, Mahabalipuram-Part II: Caves and Sculptures

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The Legacy of Pallavas, Mahabalipuram-Part II: Caves and Sculptures

The second and the largest complex at the Mahabalipuram hosts many cave temples and bas-reliefs.  The monuments in this complex are scattered across on the hillock and one have to walk for more than a kilometer to cover all the monuments. On a shorter visit, do visit the Mahishasuramardini and Varaha cave temples, Descent of the Ganges and the Krishna Mantapa.
"Descent of the Ganges" - largest open-air bas-relief in the world
"Descent of the Ganges" - largest open-air bas-relief in the world
We started with Olakkannesvara Temple which is built on top of the Mahishasura mardhini cave, it also served as a light house overlooking the Coromandel Coast of the Bay of Bengal. During the 7th century Mahabalipuram served as a major port for the Pallavas.

Olakkannesvara Temple on top of the Mahishasura mardhini cave
Olakkannesvara Temple on top of the Mahishasura mardhini cave
Mahishasuramardini Mandapa is a rock-cut cave temple with large exquisitely carved reliefs on its interiors, the prominent ones are the goddess Durga slaying the buffalo headed Mahishasura and on the other side is the panel of Adisesha - Vishnu reclining on the seven hooded serpent.
Large panel of goddess Durga slaying the buffalo headed Mahishasura
Large panel of goddess Durga slaying the buffalo headed Mahishasura
Another large carved panel inside the Mahishasura mardhini cave depicting Adisesha - Vishnu reclining on the seven hooded serpent.
Another large carved panel inside the Mahishasura mardhini cave depicting Adisesha - Vishnu reclining on the seven hooded serpent.
Further on the way are the Ramanuja Mantapa and Raya gopura, leading our way to the Varaha Cave Temple
Ramanuja Mantapa, originally a shiva cave temple
Ramanuja Mantapa, originally a shiva cave temple
Raya Gopuram on the way towards Varaha Cave
Raya Gopuram on the way towards Varaha Cave
The most prominent sculpture in the Varaha cave temple is that of Lord Vishnu in the incarnated form of a Varaha or boar lifting Bhudevi, the mother earth goddess from the sea. On the other side of the wall is a sculpture panel of Vishnu as Trivikrama. On the eastern wall are the panels of Goddess Lakshmi and another of Goddess Durga standing on a lotus.
Varaha Cave temple with the panel of Lord Vishnu in the incarnated form of a Varaha or boar lifting Bhudevi
Varaha Cave temple with the panel of Lord Vishnu in the incarnated form of a Varaha or boar lifting Bhudevi
Sculpture panel of Vishnu as Trivikrama
Sculpture panel of Vishnu as Trivikrama
Varaha cave temple with panels of Goddess Lakshmi (left) and another of Goddess Durga standing on a lotus (right)
Varaha cave temple with panels of Goddess Lakshmi (left) and another of Goddess Durga standing on a lotus (right)
There is also an interesting natural rock boulder over the hillock called as the Krishna's butter ball. This is a massive rock about 5 meter in diameter in the shape of a ball, balanced on the slope of the hill which is inclined at an angle of 45 degrees. Legend has it that it has sustained elephants pull and tsunamis but still standing still.
Krishna's butter ball - The Balancing rock of Mahabalipuram
Krishna's butter ball - The Balancing rock of Mahabalipuram
The last one in the path was the Trimurti Cave Temple, which is less visited by tourists due to its isolation from other monuments. The cave temple has three shrines dedicated for Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara (Shiva).
Trimurti cave temple
Trimurti cave temple
Further down the hillock on the West Raja street is the largest open-air bas-reliefs in the world, Descent of the Ganges and Arjuna's Penance. It represents the legend of the descent of the sacred river Ganges to earth emerging from Shiva's head and flowing in between the two huge boulders and about 146 characters are carved out to represent animals, half-humans, people and gods. Most notable piece of art is the life size panel of elephant herd including adult and baby elephants moving towards the river to drink water.

Descent of the Ganges bas-relief and the adjoining Panchapandava cave
Descent of the Ganges bas-relief and the adjoining Panchapandava cave
Life size panel of elephant herd moving towards the river ganges
Life size panel of elephant herd moving towards the river ganges


The cave temple adjoining the open-air bas relief is the unfinished Panchapandava Mandapa, which is also the largest cave temple length-wise in Mahabalipuram. The columns of the verandah have lion bases which is typical to Pallava style of architecture. There are six pillars and two pilasters on the front facade of the cave temple.


Krishna Mantapa is another masterpiece beside the Panchapandava Mandapa, originally an open air bas-relief dedicated to lord Krishna but later enclosed within a mantapa during the Vijayanagara rule in 16th century. The bas-relief in the mantapa has sculptured panels of Krishna lifting the Govardhana hill to protect the gopis (milkmaids) and cowherds from floods.
Bas-relief of Govardhandhari
Bas-relief of Govardhandhari
Panel of Krishna lifting the Govardhana hill to protect the gopis (milkmaids) and cowherds from floods
Panel of Krishna lifting the Govardhana hill to protect the gopis (milkmaids) and cowherds from floods

Entry ticket and Parking fee: Entry is free. Car parking is on the road and is free.
Timings: Sunrise to Sunset, typically 6:00 am to 6:00 pm.


Tiger cave:
Tiger cave is another interesting Pallava monument about 5 km north of Mahabalipuram on the Mahabalipuram-Chennai Highway. It is definitely worth the visit, as the cave is unique compared to typical Indian cave temples. It has carvings of tiger heads on the mouth of a cave, eleven in total; five on either sides and one in the middle. There is a pavilion at the center, which was probably used as a platform for hosting events. The beach near the tiger cave is also popular among tourists.
Tiger cave
Tiger cave
Tiger cave beach
Tiger cave beach
Standing rock formation near the tiger cave
Standing rock formation near the tiger cave

Entry ticket and Parking fee: Entry is free. Car parking is ₹30, ample parking is available.
Timings: Sunrise to Sunset, typically 6:00 am to 6:00 pm. The gates at the beach closes before 6 pm.

More on Mahabalipuram Click below:
The Legacy of Pallavas, Mahabalipuram-Part I: Rathas

The Legacy of Pallavas, Mahabalipuram-Part III: Shore Temple

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