Mysteries of the Shore Temple Mahabalipuram

posted in: Asia, Heritage, India, Tamil Nadu | 56

When it comes to Mahabalipuram, the one thing that all of you might have heard of is the Shore Temple Mahabalipuram. In fact, it is possibly the first monument that comes to mind when you think of this UNESCO World heritage site. Even if you are just transiting through this town, it is highly unlikely that you would not have stopped at this significant temple. Naturally, the Golden Chariot tour had this as a part of its Mahabalipuram itinerary and I, thanks to the same, got a chance to visit it all over again.

Shore Temple Mahabalipuram
Shore Temple Mahabalipuram

From the first time that I visited this temple in the 1990s to now, a lot has changed about this temple. A lot of new perspectives that I discovered, new excavations have revealed stuff and the most significant of them all, hidden underwater temples have come to fore. What seemed like a straightforward temple in the 1990s, over the last three visits, has become a site full of mysteries. With this visit of mine, I tried to spot all that I had gleaned from the latest on this temple. I walked gingerly with eyes wide open, with the hope of making a new discovery myself – possibly spot a hidden coin or a sculpture. But naturally, it was a World Heritage Site that was must have been thoroughly examined and I was no expert.

I do sound mysterious – don’t I? Well, I honestly, did feel that way. Allow me to share why. I think that at the end of this post, you too, might be brimming with curiosity.

History of the Shore Temple Mahabalipuram

The West entrance of the Shore Temple Mahabalipuram
The West entrance of the Shore Temple Mahabalipuram

The Shore Temple Mahabalipuram dates back to the 8th century and is considered to be one of the oldest temples in India. The credit for building this granite temple has been given to King Narsimhavarman II of the Pallava dynasty. It is largely believed that this is just a small part of the actual temple that existed. There were more of these temples which got lost along the ever-changing shoreline of India. The actual name of the temple was is also, unknown. The current name – Shore temple, comes from the fact that this is located right on the shore of the Bay of Bengal.

Structure of the Shore Temple Mahabalipuram

I had briefly explained the structure of the Shore Temple Mahabalipuram in my first post of things to see in Mahabalipuram. Narrow passages, three shrines with 2 dedicated to Lord Shiva and one with a reclining image of Vishnu. I had seen these earlier but in this visit, I only managed to see one shrine properly as the other two were closed for restoration. The one that I saw was of Lord Shiva and his family – locally referred to as Somaskanda. Our Golden Chariot guide mentioned this name and said that it was so called as there were images of Lord Shiva, Goddess Parvati and their son Lord Karthikeya (also, called Skanda). This particular Shrine faced the West while the main Shiva Shrine faced the other way.

The Somaskanda sculpture in the West facing Shrine of the Shore Temple Mahabalipuram
The Somaskanda sculpture in the West facing Shrine of the Shore Temple Mahabalipuram

The East-facing shrine was deliberately so that the first rays of the sun fell on the Black Shiva Linga. While I could not see the shrine again this time, I did capture these images through the scaffoldings.

The black Shiva Linga facing the East in the Shore Temple Mahabalipuram
The black Shiva Linga facing the East in the Shore Temple Mahabalipuram

The third shrine is a go between the two Shiva Shrines and has a figure of a reclining Vishnu. I remember this from my earlier visit and also, recall how narrow and high those steps to this shrine were. While you are busy examining these shrines, don’t miss out on the lovely carved Nandis that adorn the entire wall that surrounds the Shore temple. And if you care to examine these even more closely, amidst the Nandis, you will find the Tiger faced Yelis and the Vishnu avatar of boars – Varaha. If you have read my earlier article on the Tiger Caves of Mahabalipuram, you will be able to connect the two monuments owing to these Yelis.

The Nandi walls of the Shore Temple Mahabalipuram
The Nandi walls of the Shore Temple Mahabalipuram

Now, the curious fact about this Shore temple. Notice the elaborate roofs. Click through this link to my article on the Pancha Rathas and check out Dharmaraja Ratha. Do you see something that connects the two? Do you notice the similarity? Seems to me that the theory of the Pancha Rathas being a model for temples elsewhere might just be true!

Miniature temple at the Shore Temple

The miniature temple at the Shore Temple Mahabalipuram
The miniature temple at the Shore Temple Mahabalipuram

Now comes a part that interested me a lot. A newly excavated Miniature temple, right beside the main Shore temple structure. This temple was accidentally discovered in the 1990s and hence, I had missed it on my first visit. I regret missing this owing to crowds during my second visit but am glad that I found these this time on.

The miniature Shrine and the Varaha at the miniature temple
The miniature Shrine and the Varaha at the miniature temple

This temple has a huge sculpture of the boar – Varaha behind its miniature shrine. The temple is below the ground level and as per our guide, the circular depression was actually a well. They say that this temple was submerged in water and was also, called Jalashayana.

The little well like depression at the miniature temple
The little well like depression at the miniature temple

Along with this discovery, several smaller artifacts and coins were excavated from this Shore temple campus and that honestly, was one of the key reasons that I was watching my step through this entire tour of the Shore temple. Who knows, you might just find a new idol or even a secret chamber!

The Durga Shrine at the Shore Temple

The Durga Shrine at the Shore Temple Mahabalipuram
The Durga Shrine at the Shore Temple Mahabalipuram

This according to me, was one of the most well-preserved parts of the Shore temple of Mahabalipuram. The stone sculpture of a tiger with Goddess Durga mounting it stood just beside the main Shore temple shrines. What made this a riveting find for me was the presence of a small chamber with an even smaller engraving within. I could not identify the engraving within, though it did seem like a miniature one of Durga itself. These small discoveries made me feel that there were secrets within this temple that still lived on and we 21st-century humans, were not able to decode them.

The Mysterious 7 Pagodas of Mahabalipuram

This section of my blog is possibly the most mysterious and fascinating part of the Shore Temple of Mahabalipuram. The one thing that I deliberately omitted from the history of this temple was the fact that the earliest mention of the Shore temple was in the European accounts of sailors who came to India. They referred to the Shore temple as a Pagoda and used it as a beacon to guide them to the coast. In fact, the accounts mention the Shore temple as 7 pagodas.

The pagoda shaped roof of the Shore Temple Mahabalipuram
The pagoda shaped roof of the Shore Temple Mahabalipuram

This remained a curious fact as there was only one Pagoda in sight, until the Tsunami of 2004 which hit the Bay of Bengal. The Tsunami swept the waters away to reveal hidden temples kilometers away from the shore, under the sea. Following this up, the archaeological team and the Navy have found remains of similar temples underwater. I could sight several ancient artifacts and pieces from these temples that were returned back to the shore by the Tsunami. You can see them along the walls of the temple.

Naturally, I want to know more. I want to know what happened. I do want to rediscover it all. And I would not be surprised if you too, feel as intrigued. Tell me what you are feeling right now after reading this. Is it as I predicted at the start of this post or is it just me being overly curious? Waiting to hear from you.

Getting here:

  • The closest airport to Mahabalipuram is Chennai. You can even take a train to Chennai or Pondicherry and then, head to Mahabalipuram by road
  • There are plenty of taxis and buses available to take you to Mahabalipuram from both these cities.
  • The Shore temple is bound to be part of your itinerary if you are a part of the Southern Splendour Golden Chariot tour.
  • If you are your own, you will still be able to find the Shore temple easily as it is the center of Mahabalipuram.

Travel Tips

  • Most of the general advice on Mahabalipuram can be found in the Travel Tips section of this article on Mahabalipuram
  • The entrance tickets to the Shore temple cost INR 30 for Indians and INR 500 for the Non-Indians. Please do not lose the tickets as they allow you access to all the other monuments in Mahabalipuram
  • The Shore temple is open from 6 am to 6 pm on all days. Avoid public holidays as the temple gets crowded
  • The best time to see the temple is either at Sunrise or Sunset when it glows with the sun rays
  • The steps of the temple are fairly uneven and high too. A good pair of travel flats is high recommended.
  • There are plenty of shops and restaurants around the Shore temple.You can buy some local memorabilia from here. However, remember to bargain well
  • Remember to engage an authorized guide in enjoying the mysteries of the temple.
  • Around December, there is a huge Indian classical dance festival held here. They say that the temple looks amazing under those lights. You might want to consider a trip around then.

P.S: I visited theShore Temple Mahabalipuram this time, as a part of the Golden Chariot tour, organized by Karnataka State Tourism Development Corporation.



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56 Responses

  1. Jatin Chhabra

    Great pictures Ami, I must say that I’ve heard about the temple of Mahabalipuram, but I didn’t know that they have such rich details & architecture.

    • Ami

      Oh yes, they do and they have such mysteries surrounding them. Thanks for stopping by Jatin.

  2. Abhinav Singh

    I went here for the first time in 2010. Unfortunately I was late and it was closed. I finally saw it on my second trip in 2017. Needless to say I was amazed with the architecture and its setting. Wonderful blog

  3. Durga Prasad Dash

    Visited these places very very long time ago. Thanks to your article, got reminded of that visit.
    A beautiful write up with mesmerizing photos.

  4. Una-Minh Kavanagh

    Oh wow! Beautiful photos of a place that has such incredible history. What secrets it may hold?? Would love to visit this stunning place next time I’m in the area.

    • Ami

      Yep and should you uncover any of those secrets, please share them with me. 🙂

  5. Hendrik

    This seems to be an amazing place. I love these old temples and somehow especially the Indian ones like this one are really fascinating. And you have seen them even a couple of times! Thank you for sharing your experiences.

    • Ami

      They are so ancient and yet so beautiful Hendrick. You too might find one visit may not be enough.

  6. stylishtravlr

    Aww this place looks wonderful ! I would love to visit it one day! I am glad I just read it as I never heard about it! Your photos are fabulous!

    • Ami

      Thank you. You are bound to love the treasures in this place. I do hope you plan a trip soon.

  7. Lindsay @ The Neverending Wanderlust

    I really do love exploring old temples, shrines, and pagodas. Although I haven’t seen a wide variety of them, they still hold a very real place in my heart. I do hope to make it to India someday, and Mahabalipuram seems like it should be on my must-do list. Thanks for teaching me about a new place and giving some great background information 🙂

    • Ami

      Glad you liked it enough to add to your list. I am pretty sure you will not be disappointed Lindsay.

  8. Sandy N Vyjay

    Reading this post immediately after visiting the temple last week, gives me a sense of deja vu. I too visited the temple after a gap of more than 10 years and see a lot has changed. We had planned to see the underwater temple from a catamaran, but alas the sea played spoilsport and we had to abandon our plan. Hope to head back again for this. Apparently one can get a clear view of the sunken temples.

    • Ami

      Count me in on this one. I want to see the sunken temples too. I do hope I get to see it some day.

  9. Rita Venkat

    During school and college I was absolutely bored of this place as this was the only place we used to be taken for excursions and picnics 🙂 There was an amazing article in Deepta Roy Chakraverty about paranormal experiences in Mahabalipuram that prompted me to explore it again but sadly did not feel anything though loved the new additions. I must say your fantastic article captures every aspect of mystery and art of this architectural marvel.

    • Ami

      Thank you Rita. I must hunt up that article on paranormal activities. First that I have heard of.

  10. Adrenaline Romance

    Although we are not really much into architecture (and religion), it is difficult not to admire these temples. Those temples look very mysterious, and they are testaments to man’s creativity and ingenuity.

    P.S. You know, I think if Sheila and I would visit them, we would feel like Indiana Jones and Lara Croft, respectively. 😀

    • Ami

      Oh, I felt the same too….Lara Croft types. This place does bring out those attributes. Hope you plan to visit them soon.

  11. Carola

    Having just visited the Angkor temples of Cambodia, I am fascinated how knowledge about such massive structures can just get lost over time. Of course, shorelines change over time and what was once on land is now in the sea (and vice versa). It is nice to read that there was some positive element to the terrible 2004 tsunami in revealing the pagodas.

    Happy continued travels!

    • Ami

      You bet, the lost information and finding them through a natural disaster does create so much intrigue. Am yet to do the Angkor wat temples and hope to manage it sooner.

  12. Tania Mukherjee

    When I read “Shore Temple” I was wondering why does it not have a name of some God/Goddess or dynasty; why shore? So you have the same question too! Your post raised my interest in this temple manifolds. Now I want to go there and see for myself what secrets can I discover!

  13. Chandi

    Hi, what a wonderful temple. You know what’s nuts is that i lived in Auroville (outside of Pondicherry) in 1990 and I never went to this temple!

  14. Siddharth and Shruti

    Lovely architecture. The sculptures and artifacts are so elaborate. So many secrets. We would love to visit this mysterious temple and try and figure out the mystery.

    • Ami

      Thanks guys and if you find something, do share it along, will plan another visit to see it 🙂

  15. Joe

    Definitely looks like a ‘must see’ sort of place. Not that I’ve been there either, but it kind of reminds me of Angkor Wat a little with the structure of its main temple complex, although I can tell it’s a wonderful, evocative place to visit in its own right. Fully deserving of its UNESCO Heritage status, I’m sure, and further proof that India has an embarassment of riches when it comes to sumptuous temples 🙂

    • Ami

      Have not been to Angkor WAt but I can understand the similarity having seen some other blogs on it. This place sure dazzles you with its mysteries and history. hope you visit it.

  16. Chiara

    This guide was so complete and awesome! I ve always been fascinated by temples and this one looks so mysterious so it’s even better! Thanks for writing this post

    • Ami

      Glad you found this useful and handy. I do hope you visit the shore temple soon. Cheers

  17. Ami

    Thank you so much for the compliments. At the moment, I don’t really work on guest posting. However, when I do, will be in touch. Till then, stay tuned.

  18. Ami

    Thank you so much. I am proud to say that I have done the same on my own without any help. Your compliments are a perfect reward for me.

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    Your mode of describing all in this paragraph is really pleasant, every one can without difficulty understand it, Thanks a lot.

  20. Abhijeet Singh Rawat

    Why it’s shivling is broken? I am searching this but i failed to get information. Hope you help me out.

  21. Thirunavukarasu

    Hi, did you you notice the difference in the erosion levels in the sculptures. I doubt if the entire temple complex belong to one epoch. I think that sharper sculptures are modifications to the original constructions. What you think.

    • Ami

      Interestingly, there are quite a few theories on that. So would not be surprised if you are right.

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