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A visit to Mamallapuram – a photo essay

April 1, 2008

pillar_1_1_1.jpgMahabalipuram, which is now known as as Mamallapuram, is about an hour’s drive from Chennai (Tamil Nadu) and is a tourist town famed for its ancient sculptures and temples. The monuments in the city were mostly built during the 7th – 9th century A.D. during the time of the Pallava dynasty. The place has scores of temples and monuments, but some are more important than others.

The first photograph is that of the 7th century “bas-relief monolith” called Arjuna’s Penance. It is one of the largest bas reliefs in the world, 96 feet long and 43 feet wide. It has been carved on two gigantic adjoining boulders and contains more than 100 figures of gods, goddesses, birds and animals. It’s been named Arjuna’s Penance as it’s believed that it illustrates an incident from the epic Mahabharata when Arjuna, one of the Pandava brothers “performed rigorous austerities to get Shiva’s weapon and destroy his enemies.”


The photographs below are taken of the sculptures inside the cave. A lot of the fine details are missing due to erosion. The moist sea air being corrosive has destroyed not just the details but also the colours. This is true of all monuments at Mamallapuram. In some places one might see remnants of colour but mostly it’s all gone. Despite that the sculptures are awesome to see.




You can see the effect of the erosion in the sculpted pillar below. There is something very interesting in the sculpture…the “mother” has been drawn in such a way that she can be an elephant as well as a cow. Both heads have been carved out. The elephant head is at the extreme right and the cow’s head is turned towards the baby who is drinking milk.


There are other smaller temples in this area which is believed to have once been a training school for young sculptors. Probably the reason why some monuments have been left unfinished. It is also interesting to see the way rocks have been cut – so very neatly! For apparently no other purpose than for the purpose of training. The cutting is something to admire, considering that this was done many centuries ago without modern machines and dynamite.


The cutting of the rock below has been left half finished but it gives a glimpse as to the method. Using sharp chisels small pits have been made in the rock. One theory is that dry wood was inserted into these holes and then moistened, so that it expanded and broke the rock.


The ancient Egyptians, many centuries earlier, had perfected the technique of cutting granite. They too used primitive tools. One of the ways they did it was by alternatively heating and cooling the rock until it broke. Sand was often used inbetween the weapon and the stone to prevent the tool from braking and to improve abrasiveness.

The picture below is a natural formation of rock, precariously balanced, and is popularly called Krishna’s Butter Ball.


Well, not so precariously balanced when one sees it from the back.


The picture below is that of a well, or rather a water tank built by the ancients. Sure, it isn’t an architectural wonder, but I found it intriguing.


Another famous place with a cluster of monuments is where you see the Pancha Rathas (Five Chariots) – named after the Pandavas (Arjuna, Bhima, Yudhishtra, Nakula and Sahadeva) and Draupadi. The rathas seem to be spread out in a random manner, leading some historians to believe that perhaps they were made during a sculpturing competition. Each of these is carved from a single piece of stone.



Here is a picture of a cute squirrel who lives here


The Shore Temple is a famous landmark of Mamallapuram. It is located on the beach and the surroundings have been well maintained.



Several temples at Mahabalipuram are believed to have been washed away by the sea (the Shore temple survived) and perhaps some are still deep underwater. Some remnants were found when the Tsunami struck and the water receded.

I’ll end this post with a picture of an old man who sits outside one of the monuments everyday.


(Photos are all copyrighted to me)

Related Reading: What to see in Pondicherry – a photo essay
Life on the streets of Puducherry – a photo essay
The cave temples of Ellora in Aurangabad – a photo feature
A tour of the Ajanta Caves in Aurangabad – a photo feature

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35 Comments leave one →
  1. April 2, 2008 7:56 am

    Nice photographs. Good coverage. I don’t know whether you visited golden temple at vellore near Chennai during your Chennai visit.

  2. Guqin permalink
    April 2, 2008 7:57 am

    Very treasurable buildings and sculptures, I find them more authentically Indian than the Taj Mahal that has more of Islamic elements.

  3. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    April 2, 2008 8:44 am

    A lovely photo-essay, and it’s nice to see the place so well maintained. But trust ASI to put in incongruous green iron fences! When will they learn? They should realise that the UNESCO World Heritage Site status can be withdrawn.

  4. April 2, 2008 9:26 am

    I have been to Mahabalipuram years back as a kid with my parents.
    It was a refresher course for me, as I have learned about the shore temple in history books.
    Sad that it was not the digital age and I dint have a digital camera :), but do have the faded photo prints somewhere in my parents house.
    Next time I have to dig that out.
    Thanx for the pictures. U are photographs are too good. Whch camera do u use?

  5. April 2, 2008 10:50 am

    I went there two years back. Its a beautiful place. If I remember correctly, there was a well in the shore temple and its said that the water is sweet in that well, although its connected to the ocean. And there were some statues of Gods in the temple too.
    Aneways, thanks for refreshing my memories. Its a beautiful place.

  6. April 2, 2008 11:24 am

    Good Essay. 10/10.
    I feel like going traveling all over India.
    Hope it will be possible in near future.
    Thanks for the pictures. They are really cool.


  7. Bharath permalink
    April 2, 2008 1:10 pm

    Very good photos and nice write up. Lots of things depicted on the wall in the cave. Truly a marvelous historical treasure house.

    Thanks for sharing.

  8. April 2, 2008 2:01 pm

    hey so this is mahabalipuram
    my dad had been there before i was born
    and was wondering that i had seen the place in these pics
    he had taken some lovely bnw pics ten but they were a lot more clear than these

  9. April 2, 2008 4:29 pm

    lol…nice post 🙂

  10. April 2, 2008 4:42 pm

    OldSailor, no we didn’t see the golden temple and in fact this is the first time I heard about it.
    Guqin, thanks.
    Vivek, it’s been well maintained but mostly the area immediately around the monuments. The parking lot, eateries etc are quite ill maintained and there are no toilets worth speaking of. No toilets is a big minus point.
    Xylene, I use the Canon 610, a review of which is here.
    Amit, you are welcome.
    Suda, thanks and well, that is my dearest wish too. See each nook and cranny in India.
    Bharath, there were some sculptures which also showed a distinct Buddhist influence. And you are welcome.
    Prax, nothing to beat black and white photography. And also digital cameras have their limiations.
    Vishesh, thanks.

  11. Joss permalink
    April 2, 2008 4:43 pm

    I love your blogs, and they are exactly what I was looking to read online. I want to go to India but I am not well enough at the moment. This blog gives me a window on a country that I love, which I can look through from my house in England.


  12. April 2, 2008 5:45 pm

    Thanks for the photo essay. I always enjoy your exposure of treasures.

  13. April 2, 2008 7:01 pm

    I’m adding one more destination to my list of places to visit. 🙂
    BTW, is it Mamallapuram or Mamamallapuram? Your post title has one, and the contents, other. An extra mother got added/removed? 🙂

    Haha, thanks! That was a funny mistake! And you won’t believe it, but I had made another mistake in the spelling of the place in the title, using “i” instead of “a” which Vivek kindly pointed out to me, but he missed this big one! 😀 Now I am feeling bad for Vivek, not myself, because errors like these are common with me! 🙂 – Nita

  14. April 3, 2008 12:58 am

    This looks gorgeous, Nita! I always envy people who can tour and write at the same time. I have been terrible at it.
    Thanks for this!

  15. April 3, 2008 2:33 am

    I’ve always wanted to travel and India is one of the places I would like to travel to. The photos were absolutely wonderful. And because it’s not likely that I will ever be able to leave my own country your blog has been such a sources of joy for me that I wanted to stop in and say thank you.

  16. April 3, 2008 7:44 am

    Joss, you are welcome! 🙂
    Brian, thanks to you too. 🙂
    Snigdha, I am not so good at it either, just trigger happy!
    brighfeather, don’t say you will not be able to come to India! Something tells me that you will one of these days, even if it is a decade from now.

  17. April 3, 2008 3:51 pm


    As an inhabitant of the ancient Pallava country,I thank you for these beautiful pictures !

    A picture can say a thousand words,maybe more 🙂

    Art is expressive and destructive as it uses canons that are a product of modern science 😉

    By the way,I think architecture is the artistic application of civil engineering,though I am not sure.Maybe Vivek can clarify.

    And though Mamallapuram (ancient art/architecture) does a lot to the local economy by bringing in tourists from far and wide,I think the neighbouring nuclear power plant (modern science/technology) does just as well in terms of contribution to the economy of TN (and other states too) 😀

    I think tsunamis and sea erosion were quite common along the coast of TN during the past (and present) 😦 though I can only hope not in the future 😐

    A few steps are being taken to stop sea erosion along the coast of TN though.Groynes are being constructed and they are quite effective.More effective in terms of cost than sea walls as in Puducherry.I think mangroves would be pretty effective too.Anyway,we have to depend on modern science to save ancient art 😉 😀

  18. vish permalink
    April 3, 2008 4:09 pm

    Nita, during your visit to Chennai and other places did you find the people hostile…and did you have language problems?

    Raj, is it ‘puducherry’ or ‘pudhuchery’.

  19. April 3, 2008 4:42 pm

    Raj, thanks.
    Vish, no I didn’t find the people hostile except once when some broken Hindi slipped out! 🙂 I corrected myself immediately. Otherwise people were fine, service was efficient. Unfortunately it was difficult to chat with people as they were not fluent in English and nor we in Tamil.

  20. April 3, 2008 4:59 pm


    Puducherry or Pudhuchery or Pondicherry or Pondichéry, it (along with Kârikal) will always remain Thamizh / Tamil / Tamoul and French / Français.

    Mahé will always remain Malayalam and Français and Yanaon will always remain Telugu and Français.

    This is because Français remains as the de jure official language of Puducherry U.T by the Article XXVIII of Traité de Cession !

    That is what I like so much about Pondichéry !

    The Government of Pondichéry prefers to use Puducherry.It would be better that way because though I am from Chennai,I prefer old Tamil.

    (If you are from Chennai or if you know Chennai Tamil,you would know that Puducherry means a different thing from Pudhuchery 🙂 So let us call it Puducherry as old Tamil is better than any modern version)

  21. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    April 3, 2008 5:18 pm

    Raj: Un “Peu_de_[ça]_chéri” encore? 🙂

  22. April 3, 2008 9:24 pm

    Fascinating. I’m left wanting to travel to India, a thought that has entered my mind more and more recently. Maybe I should hurry, before erosion does any more damage to the carvings! Just kidding.

    I wanted to tell you, on a personal note, that my doctor’s first name is Sunita, and she goes by Nita. I told her about your blog, and all the interesting insights I’ve gained from you about a country I’d love to visit one day.
    She had just returned to the US from a two week visit to India and was shocked by how much prices had risen during the five years she had been away. She said 500 rupis didn’t go very far at all,
    when that used to be a signifigant amount of cash. Clothing prices were about the same as in the US.

    I hope that is good news for Indians, but I’m afraid that as in most modern countries, the wealth seems to stay in the realm of those who had it in the first place. I hope I’m wrong.

    Thanks for the excellent articles, and for your comments on my blog 🙂

  23. April 3, 2008 10:37 pm


    L’art est de cacher l’art —- Art is to hide art. Art consists in concealing art 🙂

    Chance passe science —- Chance (luck) passes science 😐

    Chacun est artisan de sa fortune —- Each one is a craftsman of his own fortune 🙂

    et (and)

    Tout est bien qui finit bien —- All is well that ends well 😀

  24. April 4, 2008 8:09 am

    Christine, do come! And hurry before the dollar falls any further in comparison to the rupee! 🙂
    I am looking forward to meeting you, you have been such a good blogger friend. From reading your blog I feel I know you so well! And you know I am here to give you and your family all the help you need.
    Yes prices have gone up but so have salaries. In fact middle class salaries have seen a big jump. It’s a little bit of a shock to me everytime I see people spend so much money without a thought! And Indian Americans would feel it more as the dollar gets them far fewer rupees today than it did 5 years ago.

  25. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    April 4, 2008 8:51 am


    Je n’ai jamais rencontré le proverbe “chance passe science”. En plus, il faut insérer des articles définis avant les noms, n’est-ce pas?

  26. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    April 4, 2008 4:39 pm


    Sorry I missed this post of yours.

    //…I think architecture is the artistic application of civil engineering,though I am not sure.Maybe Vivek can clarify.//

    At a very basic level you are right, though what you mean is “structural”, not “civil” engineering. However, a really good work of structural engineering is also good architecture. And good architecture is so with or without ornamentation.

    If you Google (Images) the works of Auguste Perret, Pier Luigi Nervi, R. Buckminster Fuller, Frei Otto etc., it is not easy to say where engineering ends and architecture begins.

    In a totally different class, where ornament is distinct from structure and yet the two are inextricably integrated, you have the work of the turn-of-the-20th-century Barcelona architect Antonio Gaudi. It is truly mind-boggling, because he designed and built beautiful but complex structures which are not easy to repeat even in our own times, despite computers and more sophisticated material and construction technologies.

    //…tsunamis and sea erosion were quite common along the coast of TN during the past … mangroves would be pretty effective too.Anyway,we have to depend on modern science…//.

    I have not seen scientific documentation to suggest tsunamis having been common along the TN coast. About erosion, of course, there is evidence at Poompuhar, Mamallapuram and a number of other places. However, the wisdom about the sequence of coral reefs, mangroves, mud-flats and sand dunes as effective natural means of protection against sea erosion is known since ancient times. It is their wilful destruction by human agency that results in the need to invest in engineering works to perform the same functions — and much less effectively, because they call for a single line of defence to stand in for the traditional three or four.

  27. April 4, 2008 7:08 pm

    tsunamis and sea erosion were quite common along the coast of TN during the past … mangroves would be pretty effective too.Anyway,we have to depend on modern science

    Raj, I think Vivek said it best in response to above. I see this thought expressed quite often – let’s destroy nature, cut down trees etc. right now, and any negative effects will be quickly “fixed” by technology/science. Maybe if people spent more time understanding nature first and how it works instead of destroying it and then looking for quick fixes later…but c’est la vie.

  28. April 4, 2008 7:15 pm

    Vivek, thanks. That was funny. 🙂

  29. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    April 4, 2008 7:30 pm

    Amit: Thanks, but I dpn’t quite get WHAT was funny.

  30. April 4, 2008 8:00 pm

    Vivek, my mistake – wrong post. My previous comment was in response to the risqué joke/situation you mentioned regarding Viagra, breast implants and memory in this post. Trying to respond to multiple posts. 🙂

  31. April 9, 2008 12:40 am


    Thanks and sorry for the late reply.

    I did take a look at some of their works and was impressed by them.

    About Gaudi,though some of his works are a bit (just a bit) gaudy,they are truly outstanding nevertheless.That man must be a genuis to design such original structures.And some of his methods were ingenious !

    People are not sure if the destruction of Kaveripoompattinam was due to sea erosion or a tsunami.A tsunami is the more likely of the two.Wikipedia states that scientists believe that it was due to a tsunami.

    In any case,I believe that tsunamis were not that rare along the coast of TN in the past.I am quite sure that tsunamis originating from the Indonesian archipelago woud have had an effect on the coasts of TN and SL.Like the tsunami(s) caused by the eruption(s) of Krakatoa.Some small tsunamis would have hit the coast but people might have believed that it was due to unusual sea activity.

    Some of the Andaman and Nicobar tribes seem to have escaped the wrath of the Indian Ocean tsunami to a large extent.Their traditional folklore seems to warn them that tsunamis follow earthquakes,so they try to avoid the coast after earthquakes.That is one more reason to believe that tsunamis were not that rare in the A&N Islands and some of them may well have had (atleast) a small effect along the coasts of TN and SL.


    I agree that humans (human greed) are(is) partly responsible for causing Mother Nature to behave in angry manner 😦 And science/technology has to save them afterwards.That is what makes (ethical) science what it is-the saviour of humankind 😉 🙂

  32. July 14, 2008 10:23 pm

    i have never visited mahabalipuram till now..once i got a chance but i was unwell..dint go 😦
    i envy u now… 😦

  33. June 26, 2012 2:27 pm

    We want to use one of your image for academic purpose at ILLL University of Delhi (India), therefore we need copyright permission for the same. URL of the Image is given below

    • June 26, 2012 2:36 pm

      I received a request from you to use one of my images from this post:
      You are welcome to use the image, but please let me what purpose. If it is non-profit it is completely free ofcourse, whatever it is used for. However it would be nice to know what it is being used for. If it is a poster or a paper you can use the name “Nita Jatar Kulkarni” to give credit as the photographer.

      thanks and regards,

  34. July 28, 2015 4:48 pm

    Superb coverage and fantastic photographs. Reminded of my recent visit to the place. The explanations given for each is superb. The one about mother feeding child (elephant mother and cow) is special.

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