Mahabalipuram was a 7th century port city of the South Indian dynasty of the Pallavas around 60 km south from the city of Chennai in Tamil Nadu. It is believed to have been named after the Pallava king Mamalla. It has various historic monuments built largely between the 7th and the 9th century, and has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The monuments are mostly rock-cut and monolithic, and constitute the early stages of Dravidian architecture wherein Buddhist elements of design are prominently visible. They are constituted by cave temples, monolithic rathas (chariots), sculpted reliefs and structural temples. The pillars are of the Dravidian order. The sculptures are excellent examples of Pallava art.
It is believed by some that this area served as a school for young sculptors. The different sculptures, some half finished, may have been examples of different styles of architecture, probably demonstrated by instructors and practiced on by young students. This can be seen in the Pancha Rathas where each Ratha is sculpted in a different style.
Some important structures include:
- Thirukadalmallai, the temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu. It was also built by Pallava King inorder to safeguard the sculptures from the ocean. It is told that after building this temple, the remaining architecture was preserved and was not corroded by sea.
- Descent of the Ganges - a giant open-air bas relief
- Arjuna's Penance - relief sculpture on a massive scale extolling an episode from the Hindu epic, The Mahabharata.
- Varaha Cave Temple - a small rock-cut temple dating back to the 7th century.
- The Shore Temple - a structural temple along the Bay of Bengal with the entrance from the western side away from the sea. Recent excavations have revealed new structures here. The temple was reconstructed stone by stone from the sea after being washed away in a cyclone.
- Pancha Rathas (Five Chariots) - five monolithic pyramidal structures named after the Pandavas (Arjuna, Bhima, Yudhishtra, Nakula and Sahadeva) and Draupadi. An interesting aspect of the rathas is that, despite their sizes they are not assembled — each
- of these is carved from one single large piece of stone.
According to descriptions by early travel writers from Britain, the area near Mahabalipuram had seven pagodas by the sea. Accounts of Mahabalipuram were first written down by British traveller John Goldingham who was told of the "Seven Pagodas" when he visited in 1798.
An ancient port city and parts of a temple built in the 7th century may have been uncovered by the tsunami that resulted from the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake. As the waves gradually receded, the force of the water removed sand deposits that had covered various rocky structures and revealed carvings of animals, which included an elaborately carved head of an elephant and a horse in flight. A small square-shaped niche with a carved statue of a deity could be seen above the head of the elephant. In another structure, there was a sculpture of a reclining lion. The use of these animal sculptures as decorations is consistent with other decorated walls and temples from the Pallava period in the 7th and 8th centuries.