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Notes on the Geography of Peninsular India: Mamallapuram 3: Shore Temple

An early feature of Mamallapuram was an image of Vishnu cut from bedrock at the ocean's edge. The image survives, much worn though enclosed within a temple since the eighth century.

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Peninsular India: Mamallapuram 3: Shore Temple picture 1

We were going to take a look this Sunday afternoon, but we're having second thoughts.

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It's a holiday. What did we expect?

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Shall we try tomorrow?

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Excellent idea. It's early Monday, and up ahead is the Shore Temple housing the old image of Vishnu.

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Actually it's two Shiva Temples built over the Vishnu image, almost hidden between them. The larger Kshatriyasimhesvara faces east; the smaller Rajasimhesvara faces west. The lawn and hedge are recent embellishments. Early photographs show the temple on a rocky shore.

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Unlike so many of the monuments at Mamallapuram, this one is structural, not monolithic. The form, however, is very similar to the nearby but monolithic Dharmaraja ratha.

The bulls on top of the wall were placed there in the British period; they had earlier been scattered in beach sand which covered much of the site.

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The ocean has now retreated a couple of hundred yards; this is the view from the east or ocean side, once in the splash zone.

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This dipdan or lamp post, which hasn't moved, formerly stood in the sea.

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The entrance gate.

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Space is tight as we squeeze in.

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We're looking out from the sanctum toward the old lamp post.

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The sanctum itself contains a Somaskanda panel, in other words a family portrait of Siva, Uma, and Skanda. The broken lingam is the original, from the eighth century.

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There's another Somaskanda panel in the east-facing temple.

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And here, taking a well-deserved rest, is the pre-temple image of Vishnu.

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Unlike the rest of the temple, he's been carved from the bedrock.

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Outside, there's a lion with a shrine set into its chest. Note the headless buffalo. That's no accident.

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It's Durga, sitting on the Buffalo Demon whom she beheads. The niche presumably held a lamp.

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On the opposite side of the temple, a discovery was made in 1990 of the sunken, circular feature shown here. The cylindrical shrine at the center is unusual, but the most striking object is Varaha, the boar avatar of Vishnu.

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Here he is, getting ready to summon his strength to lift the earth goddess out of the sea.

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The entire ensemble apparently sat at the neck of a peninsula jutting into the sea. The Pallavas protected that peninsula by building a breakwater, bits of whose reddish stone survive, pushed out of place by stormwaters. The intricate stepped wall on the right is Pallava work, too, and was the foundation of the breakwater. The water was on the right, and the wall was designed to protect the temple, fifty yards to the left and jutting out to the sea.


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