Mamallapuram, situated 58 kms south of Chennai, is a very important tourist stop. From the thousand year old lighthouse situated there, one has a breathtaking view of the turquoise waters of the Bay of Bengal. The lighthouse is not quite as one would expect. It is built on a little platform beautifully carved, perched on a rocky elevation where fires used to be lit a long time ago to guide the ships safely to port. The Shore temple is situated right on the shores of the beach away from the hustle and bustle of the main area. During high tides, this temple looks majestic with the gigantic waves crashing on it.
Below this rocky outcrop and the lighthouse, lies the little village of Mamallapuram. Built between the 8th and 10th century AD, it was a major sea-port of the great Pallava kings. Mamallapuram is today a marvellous open air museum displaying all the wealth of the Pallava craftsmanship. It has rock-cut caves and carvings set amongst the shadycasuarina groves. And a perfect little shore temple, ornaments its wide sun-drenched beach.
Perhaps the best known of the rock carvings is the immense 27 metre long and 9 metre wide bas-relief that is sculpted from one rock. It is done in fascinating detail on a huge whale-back shaped rock. Frozen in stone is the story of the descent of the river Ganga to the earth. It is after a thousand year penance by Bhagiratha, that the god Shiva agreed to let the heavenly river flow through his tresses, so that the world would not be destroyed by its turbulent nature. A natural fissure in the rock serves as the river, and the emaciated sage Bhagiratha is pictured standing on one foot, while all of creation - animals, humans and heavenly beings watch the descent of the Ganga. The panel is sculpted in a vivid and authentic style, and has the power to delight the viewer even a thousand years after it was carved.At Mamallapuram, one can see the various shapes of the Dravidian temple as it evolved from the early cave temples to the more elaborate style of temple architecture. This finally culminated in temples with immense gateways or gopurams, courtyards and thousand pillared halls. The five rathas (chariots) in Mamallapuram represent the five Pandava heroes of Mahabharatha. Carved out in different styles, four of them have been chiselled out of one immense rock. These rathas are the masterpieces of the Pallava temple architecture and sculpture. There are nine rock-cut temples excavated out of huge rocks. One of them dedicated to goddess Durga has carvings of the goddess killing a buffalo headed demon. In absolute contrast is the Ananthasayana panel where Lord Vishnu is illustrated as reclining peacefully on the coils of his serpent throne. A thousand years ago, Mamallapuram was a bustling sea port with ships bringing in riches from the distant lands. Now we are privileged to have these structures which offer us an insight into the golden age of the Pallava architecture.