Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram, formerly known as Mamallapuram, built during the reign of King Pallava Rajasimha is the oldest important temple in southern India. It is a complex of three temples, one large and two smaller. All three sanctuaries are dedicated to Vishnu and Shiva.
As its name suggests, the Shore Temple overlooks the Bay of Bengal. Its location, so near the sea, has resulted in considerable erosion of the temple’s structure.
The temple was initially identified as part of the 7 pagodas of Mahabalipuram. An ancient Hindu legend explains the pagodas’ origins in mythical terms. Legend has it that Prince Hiranyakasipu refused to worship the god Vishnu. The prince’s son, Prahlada, was devoted to the god and criticized his father’s lack of faith. As a result, the prince banished his son, but then relented and allowed him to come home. The two began to talk about Vishnu. When Prahlada stated that Vishnu was present everywhere, including in the walls of their home, his father kicked a pillar, to prove his son that this is not true. Then Vishnu emerged from the pillar in the form of a man with a lion’s head and killed Hiranyakasipu. As a result, Prahlada became a prince, and his son was the one who founded Mahabalipuram.
Some myths also mention that gods were so jealous of the architectural elegance of the monuments so they caused more floods, which submerged most parts of the city, except for a few structures that are seen now.
This temple is a permanent testimony to the royal patrimony of India. The temple can easily be reached by taking a bus or taxi from anywhere in Tamil Nadu. The nearest airport is located in Chennai, which is about 60 kilometers from Mahabalipuram.
Built in the 7th century, the Shore Temple is a description of the royal style of the Pallava dynasty. The temple was built during the reign of Rajasimha, when the art of Pallava is at its peak.
Ravaged by wind and sea, the temple has witnessed the historical events that marked India. This building, a work of genius was recognized and listed amongst the World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 1984.
Shore Temple comprises three shrines and the prominent ones are dedicated to gods Shiva and Vishnu. In the garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum, holy of holies), an image of Shivalinga embraces the entire place. At the rear end, one can find two shrines facing each other. Here, one shrine is dedicated to Ksatriyasimnesvara and other to Vishnu. In the shrine, Vishnu is portrayed reclining on the ‘Seshanag’, which is a symbol of consciousness in Hinduism.
The exterior wall of the shrine dedicated to Lord Vishnu and the internal side of the boundary wall are elaborately carved and sculptured. The images on the sculpted panels depict scenes from everyday life. However, the sculptures are incredibly real and artistic.
The exterior walls of the temple are segregated by plasters, thus forming bays where the lower part has been impressed into a series of nurturing lions. The Indian Archeology Department has excavated certain other figures from the site.
Shore Temple is no more a living temple. The structure of the temple determines people who visit it to contemplate and perhaps it was erected basically as a work of art. Those in the Pallava dynasty were known to be the great patrons of art and were keen to create their own style of temple architecture.
Today, Shore Temple makes the background of Mahabalipuram Dance Festival that is held every year, between January and February. The festival was organized to promote the traditional dance as well as tourism in Mahabalipuram.
Shore Temple is also referred to as the first stone structure made by the Pallava dynasty. Before this, the monuments used to be carved out of the rocks or stones. Unlike other monuments of the region, Shore Temple is a five-storied rock-cut temple. In southern India, this is one amongst the earliest and most important structural temples. The spire is decorated with extensive sculptures. In the recent years, a stone wall has been constructed to protect the sanctuary from further sea-erosion.
According to some inscriptions found in the slab of smaller Shiva temple, the names of the three temples of the complex are Kshatriyasimha Pallaveshvara-griham, Rajasimha Pallaveshvara-griham and Pllikondaruliya-devar.
Perched on a 15-meter plinth, the pyramidal structure raises to the extent of 18 meters. Presenting a typical Dravidian temple architecture, Shore Temple generates an exclusive and wonderful combination of history and natural splendor. The temple was designed to grasp the first rays of the rising sun and to spotlight the waters after sunset.
During the tsunami of 2004, the temple and its surrounding gardens were struck by water, but they weren’t severely damaged. The damage was to the foundation of the bali peetam (sacrificial altar) in front of the temple, to some steps and the small shrine at the basement of the Shore temple.