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Mahabalipuram: The Temple that Rose from the Sea

Mahabalipuram: The Temple that Rose from the Sea

We have all heard the story of how an ancient temple, was unearthed by the receding waters, after the catastrophic tsunami of 2004 in Tamil Nadu’s Mahabalipuram. The news made international headlines. And every tourist who heads there, is still told this tale, which is not entirely true.

Years before the unfortunate tsunami, archaeologists had been working on a site, which they knew was buried under the sea bed, for some time. Over a decade and a half, since work started, there are some amazing finds that have been thrown up.

Underwater fallen structure off the Mahabalipuram coast | Pinterest

While myths abound, on how there were once mystical pagodas on the shore at Mahabalipuram, the first inkling that there could be more than the already familiar structures dotting Mahabalipuram’s shore, under water, came in 2001. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI): Chennai Circle, received reports that a few Tamil fishermen had seen some carved rocks at the bottom of the sea. Based on the leads, the ASI began its marine exploration work soon after. Prof. Alok Tripathi, the former head of the Underwater Wing of ASI, led at excavations at Mahabalipuram and he told LHI that his team started exploring the underwater rocks in 2002-03. Right from the start there were clear indications that there was a larger complex. He says,

“We found some submerged rocks, broken pillars and remains of walls, dated to the Pallava era, roughly when Mahendravarman I and Narasimharavarman I ruled the region i.e. 6th-7th century CE.”

Were these the famous Pagodas of Mahabalipuram? For centuries, travellers and visitors had told tales of a spectacular complex of pagoda-like temples that could be seen from far, in the sea. The first probable literary reference to this is made by Marco Polo who came to India in the 13th century. Author NS Ramaswami in his book Indian Monuments (1979) writes, “When Marco Polo was in San Thome, he might have heard of Mamallapuram, only some thirty miles away, if a place marked ‘Setemelti’ in the Catalonian Map, drawn in 1375 in part on information he gave cartographers on his return to Venice may be identified with the historic site. Setemelti may be regarded as ‘Sette Templi’ which is Italian for ‘Seven Pagodas’.”

Potsherds and granite slabs unearthed during the excavation | Wikimedia Commons 

An Englishman base din Madras, D. R. Fyson, for instance wrote a concise book on the city titled ‘Mahabalipuram or Seven Pagodas’, which over time became a bible for Western visitors visiting the site. In it he spoke of local legends regarding a larger complex of temples ‘glittering beneath the waves’. Till the discovery of the underwater structure in 2001, the presence of a larger complex and possibly even the seven temples or pagodas were considered a myth by modern scholars due to the lack of any evidence of structures. This changed with the discovery of this old temple. However archaeologists and scholars are still not ratifying the view that there were indeed 7 temples. All that they are saying, is that yes, the shore temple complex was larger.

Prof. Tripathi says this discovery is a clear reflection that this rock and the Shore Temple, which are about half a mile away, together constituted a larger complex.

The rock that was fully exposed, after the Tsunami also carried a Tamil inscription on it dated back to 935 CE. It carried praise for the Rashtrakuta King Krishna III, who was described as the ‘conqueror of Kanchi and Thanjai (i.e. Kanchipuram and Thanjavur). It also mentions he donated gold to a temple.

The sanctum sanctorum. While the thin, tabular bricks at the top were laid by the Pallavas, the larger bricks underneath date from the Sangam period. | Wikimedia Commons 

Interestingly, as the excavators went deeper they found out even more facets. For instance, a few days into the excavation in 2005 they found brick remains in the sanctum sanctorum of the temple, an unusual find given the extensive use of granite during the Pallava period. Even deeper, they found remains of a brick shrine, over 2000 years old. This was the first time that archaeologists had found such an old structure in the area. This also indicated that the Pallavas just built their temple on the brick foundations left behind after the Sangam era shrine collapsed.

Explaining the devastation that led to the disappearance of the temple, that was finally unearthed, Dr. Tripathi explains,

“The Shore Temple is constructed on bed-rock whereas the excavated structures were built on sand. So possibly, they collapsed when a forceful incident might have taken place in the past.”

The incident referred to could have been a cyclone or a tsunami.

Steeped in legend, famous through history and home to some of the oldest and most elaborate temples in Tamil Nadu, Mahabalipuram is spectacular. Hundreds of thousands throng to this UNESCO World Heritage Site, each year. Yet, we know so little about this complex… So much more needs to be done!

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