Varaha Mandap at Mamallāpuram

Mandapas or Cave shrines of Mamallapuram.

Pallava art Varaha Mandap at Mamallapuram by Arun Shanbhag

The Pallavas (4th – 9th century ce) were the first dynasty to rule over large tracts of present day Tamil Nadu. Their capital at Kanchipuram was at the cross-roads of the North-South trade in spices, gems and silks. Their thriving port at Mamallapuram was the export nexus for trade with the distant lands of Java, Sumatra and Cambodia. The prosperity of the Pallavas, permitted their artistically minded King, Mahendra Varman (571-630 ce) to be a patron of the arts, focusing on sculpture and replicating in stone, temples which were previously built in wood, brick and mortar. Their dynastic reign thus oversaw the initiation and development of temple architecture in South India. Their work influenced temples as far away as Ellora and across the bay in Cambodia.

Despite their relatively short reign, the Pallava temples inspired even invading rulers. Their armies competed not only on battlefields, but also in designing sacred spaces for the divine. Muslim invasions and their assured destruction of Hindu art, fortunately did not penetrate this area. Thus uninterrupted, temple architecture evolved in Tamil Nadu for nearly two millennia.

In the port city of Mamallapuram (then Mahabalipuram) in 590 ce, Mahendra Varman initiated the concept of mandapas, or pavilions, wherein prayer halls were scooped out of the side of mountains with sculpted images in bas relief and supported with simple columns. Mahendra Varman was certainly inspired by similar mandapas in nearby Andhra lands and possibly also the Chalukyan cave temples in Badami. See my posts on Cave Temples of Badami.

I share with you the Varaha mandap, honoring Varaha, the boar avataar of Vishnu. This mandap (or gudi) is smaller and sparsely decorated, compared to the spacious and exquisite detailing of the Badami Caves. The gudi is about 8 ft deep, two facing carvings, two on the side walls and a couple of pillars. The sanctum is simply hewn.

The first panel on the left pays tribute to Varaha. Earth has just been born and evolution set in motion. But a giant serpent sweeps the young earth to the depths of the cosmic abyss. Evolution and the future of humankind are threatened and the Supreme Divine intervenes. Vishnu takes the form of the boar (Varaha) and plunges to the watery depths, subdues the serpent, rescues earth (represented as the young goddess Prithvi) and carries her to the surface. In this relief, Varaha’s right foot is firmly planted on the hood of the snake, while celestials adore the hero.
Varaha rescuing Prithvi (earth), Varaha Cave Mamallapuram Arun Shanbhag

This panel on the right wall honors the Trivikrama (aka Vamana) avataar of Vishnu. With his two feet he occupies all earth and the skies, and with his third step, suppresses the egotistical King Mahabali. Mamallapuram was previously called Mahabalipuram after this king.
Trivikrama (Vamana) avataar of Shri Vishnu, Varaha Cave Mamallapuram Arun Shanbhag

An earlier image of Lakshmi getting ready for a bath. Her attendants are carrying pots of water and in the background, elephants are readying to shower her. This is probably a precursor to the more common image Lakshmi as Gaja-Lakshmi. (In the third pic from the Vaikuntha Perumal post, you see a modern depiction of the GajaLakshmi motif on the lintel.)

Devi Lakshmi getting ready for her bath, Varaha Cave Mamallapuram by Arun Shanbhag
The panel facing the entry honors Devi. This one puzzled me. Notice the dress, facial and anatomic features of the two kneeling in front. They have a markedly oriental ‘look’ (for lack of a better word). What do we make of it?

Records from early in the millennia indicate that traders from China arrived on this coast for gems and silks. Further, we know Hindus traders also spread their faith to the distant lands of Cambodia and Java. Is this panel supposed to highlight an interaction? Interestingly, the person on the bottom left appears to be slicing his head off in devotion to the Devi. Or is he just slicing off his hair tuft, a common depiction of a buddhist converting to Hindu dharma. Notice the kneeling male on the right; has he brought an infant for Devi’s grace? Not clear and not a peep from art historians.
Adoration of Devi, Varaha Cave Mamallapuram Arun Shanbhag

And this naturally occurring balancing rock, aptly called Krishna’s “butter ball.” For scale, notice the person sitting on extreme left. Revel.
Krishna's butter ball at Mamallapuram Arun Shanbhag

Other posts from Tamil Nādu tirth yatra:

Other tirth yatras:


  • Speaking Stones: World Cultural Heritage Sites in India, Eicher Goodearth (2001).
  • M Hirsh, “Mahendravarman I Pallava: Artist and Patron of Maamallapuram,” Artibus Asiae (1987).
  • H Zimmer, Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, Princeton University Press (1946, 1992).
  • Temple India, Vivekananda Kendra Patrika (1981)

27 thoughts on “Varaha Mandap at Mamallāpuram

Add yours

  1. hi your article is really great. even i have written small article on mamallapuram. kindly go through it. give me comment and links too
    thank you

  2. Hi, Thanks for your reply. Now the ideas have changed! I’ll contact you if i need the photo (or other photos!) in future.
    Thanks again.

  3. Dear Arunshanbag,

    Will you give permission to use the butter ball image in a text book?


  4. Oh its my pleasure Arun – I enjoy reading your blog. I love exploring lost cities – it just fascinates me to no end. We have an old book at my thatha’s place – a reader’s digest collector’s edition titled the Last Mysteries of the World. I must have read it like a thousand times. 🙂

    Here’s the BBC report on the ’02 exploration . I remember an article where one of the archaelogists involved had said that the entire Indian coast has evidence suggesting something of a tsunami than an erosion – the submergence seems to have been in a single day rather than a gradual erosion – I am not sure if it was a 13th century tsunami or a brick temple found underneath that seems to have been submerged by a possible tsunami more than 2000 years back. Here’s another article discussing that.

    arunaH uvacha:
    Lakshmi – fabulous article and thank you for directing me to the link. WoW. What an exciting time. Looks like there is still so much more to learn (and find).

    Do you think that the earlier (2000 years ago) tsunami wiping out the city was what lead to the legend of Mahabalipruam and the avataar of Trivikrama? provocative, eh!

    Thank you again.

  5. Hi Lakshmi:
    Glad to hear you are enjoying these. Mamallapuram (I think this is the new name?) is such a a fabulous place. I want to go back there soon, as I realized I have missed a lot.

    See my comment number 5 above; I have read how the recent tsunami exposed some rockwork and subsequent underwater exploration has unearthed additional temples. I had not read about the tsunami in the 13th century – possible; though it is more likely that normal erosion over centuries caused some of these older temples (which were built on the edge of the shore) did succumb to the waters.

    Let me know more if you find out.
    and thanks for your support.

    See this link to the legend of the Seven Pagodas.

  6. Arun, I enjoy each one of your temple posts. I’ve been to Mahabs several time, yet to take Satish there. You know there’s also this theory from underwater exploration near Mahabs, that there was a tsunami in the 13th century that had washed out the temples.

  7. Aditya:
    Thanks; I will look at my pics this evening.
    And I do plan on writing a post on the Shore temple in a few weeks.

    In the meantime, please check you pics and let me know.


  8. Hey Arun,

    GG is my wife’s blog [as you may have guessed]… I’ll dig up my pictures and send you link… they were like six inch wide rectangular protrusions if you look towards the town from the front of the actual temple…

    Hard to explain… :-p photos will have to be found.

  9. Aditya:
    not sure what you mean by the Rectangular protrusions on the West Side of the temple.

    I have lots of pics of the Shore Temple and will re-look at them. Also, I will be posting more about the Shore temple in a few weeks.

    Left a comment on gorigirl, perhaps you will get that too.

  10. I visited Mahabs when I was in India in ’05… the shore temple was pretty amazing… does anyone know what the rectangular protrusions on the West side of the temple are?

  11. Saroj:
    Yes, the association of Onam with Mahabali is very clear. Since it is culturally so pervasive, there must be a historical basis for Mahabali; particularly since we also have the fabulous city of “Mahabalipuram.”

    Buddhist, certainly. Mahendra Varman had converted from Jain to Shaiva early in his reign; and as you mentioned Buddhist influence had just started to decline (after the end of the Mauryan Empire).

    It was an interesting observation.

  12. Mahabali plays a very important role, culturally, for Malayalees as you may know. One of two major Malayalee holidays (Onam) revolves around the legend surround Mahabali and his banishment into the underworld.

    Regarding the “oriental” look, it is possible that it could be Buddhist influences? Granted Indian Buddhism was on the decline, it’s a possibility!

  13. Sia!

    According to foreign lore, Mahabaliuram (aka Mamallapuram) was known as the city of Seven Pagodas because of their seven huge temples on the coast, which were visible from far out at sea. Today only one Shore temple is present at the very edge of the water. The water’s edge had to be pushed further out to save this temple.

    The Tsunami did an amazing thing; as the high waters receded, it pulled a lot of sand away and the ruins of two more temples were exposed, also a few statues. The archeologists are now busy excavating these amazing temples.

    Folks have not started to believe the legend of the “Seven Pagodas.” I was going to write about it when I post about the “Shore Temple” which is the only one standing.

    Here in Mamallapuram, the only avataars I saw were, Varaha, Trivikrama (or Vamana), and Krishna. In Badami, (see my links above), you see a few more.

    Thank you Sia for the reminder. I will send you the links for the Street Food Round Up. Have a few more Street Food posts to put up.

  14. is it mahabalipuram temple arun? there was some documentary in BBC other day where the narrator was narrating about some of the biggest tsunami’s this planet had and the mhabalipuram was mentioned.
    lovely pictures. reminds me of trip to Badami caves. were there all avtars of vishnu carved?
    by the way, on off note can u please mail me ur post for MPB-street food with url. i just dont want to miss it while doing the round-up.

  15. Hi Viji:

    You got to go there for school picnics? Lucky you! Beautiful place. Its amazing the history of this place.

    I agree with the Nara Bali! Perhaps it was one of those war scenes! or whatever else. I am surprised there are no records describing this scene.

    and Mahendra Varman seems like an amazing character. He ruled for 59 years (!) and was an artist himself. Apparently a few of his plays are still performed in TN and kerala. Yeah, he had a lot of friends, travelled and was certainly impressed by the cave temples in Andhra and Ajanta – and also the caves at Badami.

    and yeah, glad the barbarians never made it past the Deccan!

    Thanks for your insights.


  16. Simply beautiful, isn’t it Arun. Whenever the annual school excursion was planned, it would always be Mahabalipuram and Kovalam beach, year after year (not only in my school but most of the schools in madras). Yet we never got tired of it 🙂

    Your comment on “Oriental look” is interesting. “Nara Bali” was also prevalent in those days and so your comment about the male “slicing his head off” brings in an interesting point for discussion — though I am not sure Hindu Dharma really allowed such practices.

    The folklore tale is that after seeing Ajantha cave paintings Mahindra Varma pallava wanted to create something everlasting too and ended up building Mahabalipuram.

    Thanks to the blistering heat, the invaders never came this far south and destroyed these beauties.


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