Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu
The Shore Temple is one of southern India’s most unique temples, both historically and architecturally. It gets its name from the fact that its stands on the shore of the Bay of Bengal, and it might have once served a dual purpose as a light house. Unlike virtually every other major temple in India, which are generally rock cut and involve intricately carved marble and granite, the Shore Temple is a stone structure giving it a truly ancient appearance. The Shore Temple is one of the oldest intact temples on the Indian Subcontinent and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Shore Temple was built in the early 8th century by King Rajasimha. Both historical records and early accounts indicate that he constructed a total of seven temples along the coast of the city Mahbalipuram, each similar to the others, but for centuries only the Shore Temple was known. Legend had it that the other temples were destroyed by the divine wrath of the gods and that they sank into the ocean.
From time immemorial, the Shore Temple was referred to as the Seven Pagodas, in memory perhaps of the other six lost temples. It remained little changed since its completion in 728 AD. It was certainly a familiar landmark to sailors plying the Bengal Coast in the Middle Ages. Evidence suggests that the temple may have once served the dual function as a lighthouse.
The story of the Shore Temple might have ended there, if not for one of the greatest disasters in recent memory. In 2004, a massive tsunami struck the coast of India. In the minutes before the wave reached the shore, the ocean pulled back, taking away centuries of sediment with it, and revealing ancient ruins. Survivors of the tsunami reported the site and its location.
The next year, archaeologists investigated the site. Where no evidence of the lost temples had ever been found before, several were now uncovered, along with remains of many other buildings, thus proving that the ancient myth of the Seven Pagodas was not in fact a myth. The area is now being explored and studied, and no doubt will be incredibly popular with divers seeking India’s now famous drowned temples.
The Shore Temple is architecturally much difference from India’s other great temples. Built from cut stone, it is much smaller and much more primitive in appearance, and yet at the same time boasts a much greater air of adventure about it. Temple-towers rise above both the main entrance and the inner shrine. The temple carvings are not nearly as extensive or detailed as is typical of other temples, but the older style is nevertheless equally fascinating. Of particular note is a series of great stone bulls representing Nandi guard the site.
The interior of the temple boasts three very ancient shrines: two to Shiva, and one to Vishnu. Some of the statuary inside is among the oldest to be found in India, and include an incomplete Vishnu, Krishna dancing and Vishnu riding Garuda. The remains of some of the other temples, which are now beneath the ocean just off shore, may already be accessible by scuba divers.
The Shore Temple stands on an outcropping of land on the east side of Mahabalipuram, separated from the rest of the city by a large open area park, approximately 900 miles south of New Delhi. It is open daily from 8:00am-6:00pm. The cost of admission is Rs5. Web: www.tamilnadutourism.org (official tourism website of Tamil Nadu).
In addition to the Shore Temple there are of course the other pagoda temples just offshore waiting for intrepid divers. Also in Mahabalipuram are a series of ten Cave Temples which represent ten stories of Hindu legend, with carvings and art to match.