Sun-Rise At The Shore Temple

Dr. Sunil Deepak, 01 October 2018

Shore temple of Mahabalipuram is a magical place, especially early in the morning as the sun rises over the Bay of Bengal and illuminates the early 8th century structure.

I had reached Mahabalipuram around noon and passed the whole afternoon looking at the rock-temples at the area known as Arjun’s Penance. By the time, I reached the Shore temple, it was evening and the entrance to the temple was closed. So, I decided to stay overnight in Mahabalipuram and made the plans for getting up early on the next morning to visit it. I am so happy that I made that decision because that early morning visit was truly magical.

Shore temple, Mahabalipuram, Tamilnadu, India - Image by Sunil Deepak

History of the Shore Temple

In 700 CE when Rajasimha Varman became the king of the Pallava empire with its capital in Kanchipuram, the empire was nearing the end of its power. Over the previous centuries, his ancestors had built the seafaring empire with their ships going up to Rome in the Mediterranean. In the 6-7th centuries, the Pallava kings had built a large number of sea-facing rock-temples on the granite hills of Mahabalipuram.

Rajasimha ruled for 28 years and is credited with the building of the shore temple. 2 new Shiva shrines were built around an older statue of reclining Vishnu. After Rajasimha, the power of Pallava kings gradually declined and in the 9th century, the area came under the Chola empire.

4 Shrines of the Shore Temple

The Shore Temple is composed of 4 distinct shrines – an eastern facing Kshatriya Simheshwar temple dedicated to Shiva; a western facing Rajasimheshwar temple also dedicated to Shiva; a partially open shrine surrounding the older statue of reclining Vishnu between the first two temples; and, an open-air step-well Shiva shrine to the north.

When I visited it, the eastern sea-facing Shiva temple was closed for repairs. Even the shrine to the reclining Vishnu was closed.

Shore temple, Mahabalipuram, Tamilnadu, India - Image by Sunil Deepak

I could only visit the smaller west-facing shrine which has a central bass-relief panel depicting a family portrait of Shiva, with his consort Parvati and baby Ganesh between them, while their two older sons, Kartikeya and Skand stand behind.

Shore temple, Mahabalipuram, Tamilnadu, India - Image by Sunil Deepak

On the north, the fourth shrine is located at a lower level with the steps going down. It has a hole where once there was Nandi’s platform, and then a Shivalinga, while Nandi’s statue lies close to the back wall. Since it was an open-air shrine, so probably they had made it at a lower level, to provide shelter from the wind.

Shore temple, Mahabalipuram, Tamilnadu, India - Image by Sunil Deepak

Temple Complex

Entrance to the Shore temple is on the west where the ticket office is located about 200 metres away. The temple is located on a land jutting into the sea and the surrounding area has been landscaped.

As you walk towards the temple, you come across two stone platforms. Usually, in the temples, there is one platform with the animal representing the vehicle of the principal deity. Perhaps, the two platforms in front of the Shore Temple indicated that the temple had two main deities, though now both the platforms have lost their statues.

Shore temple, Mahabalipuram, Tamilnadu, India - Image by Sunil Deepak

Behind the two front platforms was the platform of the flag pole and a tiny Gopuram with steps going down towards the temple.

The outer wall of the temple complex was lined with a row of sitting Nandi bulls. After a corridor, there was an inner wall which had bass-relief panels showing Hindu mythological stories.

Nandi wall, Shore temple, Mahabalipuram, Tamilnadu, India - Image by Sunil Deepak

There was another Nandi placed above the entrance to the west-facing shrine. Thus, the whole complex very clearly underlines its affiliation to Shaivism.

Narsimha Stautes in the Shore Temple

The whole area also had many statues of another animal – the Narsimha lion, that looked like a sabre-toothed tiger. The image below shows a Narsimha niche with an Apsara on his right shoulder placed facing the sea, probably used for keeping a lamp as a light-house for the sea boats. Narsimha statues clearly represent the king during whose reign this temple complex was built. Thus, I wonder, if the Apsara could have been a representation of his queen or may be a family deity?

Narsimha, Shore temple, Mahabalipuram, Tamilnadu, India - Image by Sunil Deepak

The image below is another representation of the Narsimha on the temple walls. There are many of these. I am not sure if there are other examples of Hindu temples where the king’s symbol is shown in such a prominent manner and so consistently.

Narsimha, Shore temple, Mahabalipuram, Tamilnadu, India - Image by Sunil Deepak

The sea air with its humidity has affected everything in the Shore temple complex. Thus, most of the sculptures have lost their details.

Sunrise at the Shore Temple

When I reached the Shore Temple, it was still dark and there was no one else. Going around in the morning stillness was almost like a meditation. After about 20 minutes a few other persons came. On the other hand, the beach to the south of the temple, was already full of pilgrims in their red clothes, taking bath and selfies in the morning sea, with a few tourists clicking their pictures.

Pilgrims, Shore temple, Mahabalipuram, Tamilnadu, India - Image by Sunil Deepak

As I walked around, slowly the darkness receded and a sleepy baby sun peeked from behind the dark clouds on the horizon. To see the sun come out slowly and climb up in the sky till it was shining behind the shikhar of the temple, like a naughty boy playing with a mirror, was a moment of pure bliss.

Sunrise, Shore temple, Mahabalipuram, Tamilnadu, India - Image by Sunil Deepak

Conclusions

The first time, I had been to Mahabalipuram was in 1977. At that time, I had only visited the Pancha Ratha area. At that time, from the Pancha Ratha, you could walk towards the Shore Temple along the sea because there were no protecting walls or other buildings between the two. However, then I had thought that the shore temple was just an old ruin and not worth a walk.

This time, older and wiser, I spent the whole morning at the shore temple. It was an amazing visit and I will cherish the memory of this visit.

Let me conclude this post with something completely different. The image below has a group of Sabrimala pilgrims at the smaller Shiva shrine of the Shore temple in Mahabalipuram.

Sabrimala pilgrims, Mahabalipuram, Tamilnadu, India - Image by Sunil Deepak

A few days ago the Supreme Court in India has made a judgement about the entry of women of child-bearing age to the Sabrimala temple. I am not a religious minded person, I have never been to Sabrimala and I have no plans of going there, as my interest is more in spirituality. However, I feel that SC’s decision is a mistake.

I believe that parliaments and courts have a role in ensuring that our religions do not violate the fundamental human rights. If some practices are systematic, then we should look at them critically. However, I don't think that special rules for one temple violate the human rights. Such differences are a part of the richness and diversity in the way the religious faith is lived. Insisting on eliminating that diversity and promoting uniformity of the religious practices is a loss for humanity.

I hope that the SC judgement about Sabrimala temple will become an opportunity for people to reflect on the richness of our cultural and social diversities and find meaningful ways to safeguard this heritage for the future.

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Dr Sunil Deepak
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