Mahabalipuram dates back to two thousand years, it contains nearly forty monuments of different types including an “open air bas relief” which is the largest in the world, for centuries it has been a centre of pilgrimage, it figures in the early annals of the British search for the picturesque in India in the 18th century, today it attracts shoals of foreigners in search of relaxation and sea bathing, and most strange of all, it has an atomic power plant for neighbour. A small library has been written on it. Over its history and that of its monuments a number of scholarly controversies rage.
Mahabalipuram was already a centre of pilgrimage when, in the 7th century Mamalla made it a seaport and began to make temples fashioned of rock. It was through Mahabalipuram that many Indian colonists, who included sages and artists, migrated to Southeast Asia. Sri Lanka’s national chronicle, the “Mahavamsa” testifies to this fact.
However, there are many other temples and statuettes which are magnificent in their carvings, one of which is Thirukadalmallai, the temple devoted to Lord Vishnu which was constructed by the King of Pallava dynasty to protect the sculptures from the waves coming from the sea. It is said that after the construction of this temple, the sculptures were able to withstand the turbulent waves of the sea and have been preserved since then. But the place is most renowned for Arjuna's Penance, which is a relief statue on a huge scale representing an episode from the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata; and the Varaha Cave, which is a small rock-cut temple built during the 7th century. Plus, there are Pancha Rathas (Five Chariots) which comprise of five colossal pyramidal constructions named after the Pandavas: Yudhistra, Bhima, Arjun, Nakul and Sahdeva together with their wife Draupadi. All the five chariots are built from granite carved in a unique style. These monuments and sculptures are delicate examples of the architectural pattern of the Pallava dynasty.
Apart from the monuments and temples, there are Mandapas which were built during the Pallava dynasty. These Mandapas are very beautifully carved and are adorned with spell-bounding motifs. The biggest Mandapam is dedicated to Lord Krishna and the sculptures inside it marvellously portray the brave legends of Lord Krishna. Besides this, there is Mahishasuramardini Mandapam, which is a rock cut temple depicting the war between the Goddess Durga and the demon Mahishasura, who changed himself into a buffalo. This Mandapa is the finest example of the architectural designs of the Pallava dynasty; the carvings and the designs are simply splendid and breathtaking. The Ganesh Mandapam is another shrine which is visited everyday by the people.