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The biggest and most important Mahabalipuram temple is the Shore Temple located on the east coast of Mahabalipuram. The spectacular Shore Temple symbolises the heights of Pallava architecture and the maritime ambitions of the Pallava kings. Perched on the edge of a sandy beach on the Bay of Bengal, where it has been subjected to centuries of battering by salt water and oceanic winds, this early 8th century stone temple is considered one of the oldest temples in South India, and a forerunner of the Dravidian style.
Other Mahabalipuram temples are actually cave temples also known as mandapas. Scattered over the main hill west of Mahabalipuram town, these rock-cut cave temples are sanctuaries or temples covered with bas-reliefs. The earliest period of use of these caves as sanctuaries can be traced to the Buddhist and Jain periods. They were excavated on rock faces which were cut and then carved using chisels and iron mallets.
Of the eleven mandapas or cave temples seen in Mahabalipuram, the most notable are the Varaha Cave Temple, Krishna Cave Temple, Tiger Cave Temple, Panchapandava Cave Temple, and the Mahishasuramardini mandapa.
Varaha Cave Temple
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Situated west of Arjuna’s Penance, the Varaha Cave Temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu, is one of the finest examples of Indian rock-cut cave architecture. Built in the late 7th century, the Varaha Cave Temple has beautifully moulded lion pillars, while the relief sculptures of Lakshmi, Durga and Varaha, the boar incarnation of Vishnu, are among the masterpieces of Pallava art.
Krishna Cave Temple
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Immediately south of Arjuna’s Penance is Krishna Cave Temple, one of the earliest rock-cut cave temples around the region. Dating to the mid 7th century, its excavated entry has columns leading to a main hall. A notable carving inside the cave is a sculpted panel which brings out the myth of Krishna lifting the Govaradhan hill to protect the cow herds and gopis (milk maids) from heavy rains and floods (the wrath of Indra); there are also scenes of Krishna frolicking with the milk maids.
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Mahishasuramardini Cave Temple
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The Mahishasuramardini Cave Temple is close to the lighthouse on top of the hill. Scenes from the Puranas (Sanskrit stories dating from the 5th century AD) are depicted on the mandapam, with the sculpture of the goddess Durga considered one of the finest.
There are two very beautifully carved frescoes of Durga, the mother goddess at both ends of the long hall. She is shown seated on a lion mount or vehicle with all her weapons. The depiction also features her slaying the buffalo headed Mahishasura. At the other end of the hall, opposite the Durga panel, the carving shows Vishnu in a reclining posture on the bed of Ananta the multi-hooded serpent. He is surrounded by divine beings appealing to him to continue with the creation of the universe. There is also a third chamber which shows a carved fresco of Vishnu.
Tiger Cave Temple
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Dating to the early 8th century, the Tiger Cave Temple (also known as Yali) is a shallow cave with an unusual and unique architecture. The entrance to the cave faces south-east and it is built above the ground level with a pavilion closed on three sides. The parapets on either side of the staircase are decorated with lions.
The cave temple has been carved out of a boulder with a portico which has a sculpted garland of eleven yali heads, mythical animals in the shape of tigers. The main carving here is that of Durga riding a tiger. It is also inferred that this cave may have been used for holding open-air shows or as an utsava mantapa (festival pavilion) for the festival of Indra. The lion pilasters carved at the corners of this cave also show a female riding a ferocious looking lion, which is reported as the first of its kind in the Mahabalipuram caves, and hence credited to the Pallava King Rajasimha; there is also a carving of its creator Rajasimha.
Trimurti Cave Temple
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Dating to the early 8th century, the Trimurti Cave Temple has three separate sections in a sequence dedicated to each of the Hindu trinity gods – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva or Maheshwara. Cut out from the rock-face, each shrine is flanked by pilasters with guardian figures. On the rear wall of the cave, individual carvings of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva attended by devotees are beautifully carved.
Panchapandava Cave Temple
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The unfinished Panchapandava Cave Temple is near the open air bas-relief of Arjuna’s Penance. The cave entrance faces east and it is the largest cavern at a length of 50 feet (15 m). The cave was built with the intention of creating a circumambulatory passage within the cave to go round the main shrine. At present, only a small chamber has been carved in the centre which remains attached to the main rock. At the entrance, the curved cornice has a series of shrines with the four central shrines projecting out. The vaulted roofs of the shrines are carved with kudu (horse-shoe) shaped windows and each houses another smaller shrine. The niche below the kudu has a carved deity with carvings of ferocious looking lions on the shrines. From the architectural features carved here it is conjectured that this style could be assigned to the Narasimhavarman I Mamalla period extending to the Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha period.
Getting Around the Mahabalipuram Temple Complex
With the exception of the Shore Temple located on the east coast of Mahabalipuram, the rest of the temples are situated on the main hill west of Mahabalipuram town. With Mahabalipuram being a small town, all these temples can be accessed on foot or by bicycle. A self-guided walking tour of the ruins in Mahabalipuram is an excellent way to see the sites. Alternatively, you can speed up your tour on a bicycle which can be hired for the day in town.