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Adivaraha Cave Temple

Main characteristics

Coordinates: 12.6147 N 80.1911 E (mistake up to 200 m)
No:58        (list of all attractions)
Categories:Hindu shrines, Rock cut architecture
Values:Art, Architecture, History, Archaeology
Address:Asia, India, Tamil Nadu, south of Chennai, Kanchipuram district, Mahabalipuram town, north-western part of temple hill;
Alternate names:Adi-Varaha Temple, Paramesvara-Maha-Varaha-Vishnu-Griha
Age:Around 630 - 668 AD
UNESCO World Heritage status:Part of "Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram", 1984, No.249
Simhavishnu relief in Adivaraha Temple, India
Simhavishnu relief in Adivaraha Temple / Wikimedia Commons, Michael Rabe / CC BY SA 3.0

One of the few finished monuments in the magic ancient city of Mahabalipuramn is Adivaraha Cave Temple. This rock-cut temple contains beautiful sculptures representing some of the highest achievements of South Indian art.

Contrary to some other nearby temples, Adivaraha temple is under active worship and thus it is not freely available for curious tourists and photographers. It is opened only for a few minutes in morning.


Cave temple has been named after the incarnation of Vishnu - Varaha (boar). There is another temple named after Varaha - Varaha Temple - nearby, thus this temple is named otherwise - Adi-Varaha.

In many aspects the architecture of this temple repeats the other Varaha Temple - with simulated roof structure (traditionally Indian rock-cut temples imitate wooden structures), with pillars adorned with horned lions - vyalas.

Contrary to other nearby temples, this rock-cut temple is darker and damper due to later structure covering the facade. Original (now nearly invisible) facade is magnificent, with four pillars and two pilasters. At the time of construction there opened wide view on tropical lagoon or riverbed.

Collonade of octagonal pillars divides the main hall in two parts - forepart (maha-mandapam) and rear part (ardha-mandapam).

Maha mandapam starts with the facade construction - four pillars which are adorned with vyalas - horned lions sitting on bases resembling lotus.

Rear part contains a cell - sanctum sanctorum - the main shrine.

Whole temple is adorned with beautiful reliefs.


The art of Adivaraha sculptures surpasses the reliefs of the nearby Varaha Temple.

Forepart is adorned with intricate rock-cut panels with similar themes as in Varaha Temple. But here next to Hindu deities are depicted also some royal figures of time, possibly Simhavishnu (reigned in 537 - 570 AD) and Mahendra (reigned in 600 - 630 AD). Although temple is devoted to Vishnu, it is characteristic for Pallava style that next to sculptures devoted to Vishnu here are also Shaivaite motives such as Gangadhara and Durga panels.

Gangadhara panel contains beautiful depiction of four-armed Shiva.

Back wall of forepart contains beautiful panel depicting Gajalakshmi - goddess Lakshmi sitting on lotus, bathed by elephants and assisted by four otherwordly beauties.

Central panel contains the main relief - devoted to Varaha. It shows Vishnu as a man with the head of boar defeating Hiranyaksha - a demon who has taken the Earth.

Entrance in the shrine cell is guarded by two guards - dvarapalas with Vaishnavite emblems.

Rear wall of shrine is adorned with relief of Varaha made in stucco technique. Most likely this relief has been refashioned numerous times - current image is not in Pallava style anymore. This relief is covered with bright colors and is worshipped up to this day.

Shrine contains also two panels showing Harihara and Durga. Harihara is somposite depiction of Vishnu and Shiva. Goddess Durga is shown with eight hands, charming and sophisticated, with a parrot on wrist and weapons in hands.


Inscriptions of Adivaraha Temple rise several unsolved questions.

Floor of rear hall contains inscription in Pallava Grantha script - it curses those who don't worship Shiva. It is weird to find such a text in temple devoted to Vishnu. It is possible that it has been added in the 11th century.

Another inscription above the Harihara relief lists ten avatars of Vishnu. It is written in Pallava Grantha script, Sanskrit language. It lists Buddha as one of avatars. Buddhism by this time (the 7th - 8th century) was not a significant religion in this region - thus it is a mystery why Buddha is mentioned here.

On the floor in front of the shrine is important Sanskrit inscription from the 9th century - it mentions Mahamallapuram. This is the first mention of this glorious city in written sources.


See Adivaraha Cave Temple on the map of India!


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