Tamil Nadu’s Olakaneswar: A Pallava Temple or Lighthouse? 


They are sentinels of a bygone past…of seafarers, empire builders and traders who sailed the oceans to find a good trade. Lighthouses have something romantic and otherworldly about them, but even among all the exciting old lighthouses that dot the coast of India, there are a few that truly stand out!

You will find one such at Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu. Olakaneswar is a lighthouse built by Pallava kings in early 600 CE and what is interesting is that it stands next to a British era lighthouse built over a 1000 years later in 1887. A millennium apart, both served the same purpose of guiding ships to this once busy port!



Olakaneswar Temple served as a lighthouse for centuries
Olakaneswar Temple served as a lighthouse for centuries|Wikimedia commons 

Mahabalipuram, also known as Mamallapuram, was an important port city for the Pallava rulers who reigned over large parts of Tamil Nadu between 275 CE and 897 CE. In the Tamil work Periya Thirumozhi from 8th century CE, a Vaishnava poet Thirumangai Alwar, mentions Mahabalipuram as a flourishing sea port where traders from China and South East Asia landed.

Even Marco Polo landed at Mahabalipuram during his journeys in the 13th century CE and referred to it as the 'City of Seven Pagodas'. Pallava rulers commissioned spectacular rock cut temples and sculptures at Mahabalipuram that can still be seen today.

Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram
Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram|JW Coombes

Even amidst all these grand works, the Pallava-era lighthouse Olakaneswar or Olakkanath (which translates to ‘flame eye’) temple is a stand out. Designed as a Shiva temple on a hilltop, the roof of this temple has a shallow depression where a pot with a height of 1.5 feet was kept, filled with oil. The oil was set on fire every evening, transforming the temple into a lighthouse to help ships navigate by night.



Olakkanath temple
Olakkanath temple|Wikimedia Commons

This temple-lighthouse was built around 600 CE, during the reign of Pallava ruler Mahendravarman I and this system of using a flame on the temple roof continued for centuries. In fact, when the British gained complete control of the Tamil Nadu coast in 1801 CE, they continued to use the old Pallava lighthouse for a long time!

Lighthouse built by the British
Lighthouse built by the British|Wikimedia commons 

The industrial revolution brought with it great advancements in navigation technology and in 1887, the British began building a new state of the art lighthouse making the old redundant. The new lighthouse was completed in 1904.

This British lighthouse is no longer in active use but it is popular among tourists, who have been visiting it since it was opened to the public in 2011.

Sadly, few remember the older and far more historic lighthouse of the Pallavas dating back over 1400 years before. It remains a silent, forgotten sentinel of a bygone era!

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