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Mahishasura Mardini Cave, Mahabalipuram

Main characteristics

Coordinates: 12.6150 N 80.1926 E
No:48        (list of all attractions)
Categories:Hindu shrines, Rock cut architecture
Values:Art, Architecture, History, Archaeology
Rank:7
Address:Asia, India, Tamil Nadu, south of Chennai, Kanchipuram district, Mahabalipuram town, "hillock" near the centre
Alternate names:Mahishasura Mandapa, Mahishasura Mardini Mantapa
Age:
Religion:Hindi
UNESCO World Heritage status:Part of "Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram", 1984, No.249
Mahishasura Mardini Cave temple with Olakneswara Temple above, India
Mahishasura Mardini Cave temple with Olakneswara Temple above / Aashim Tyagi, Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Mahabalipuram contains 14 cave temples and several of these unique structures contain significant works of ancient art. One of them - Mahishasura Mardini Cave - contains several beautiful reliefs well demonstrating the artistic abilities of sculptors in Pallava times.

Temple is not finished and does not contain any inscriptions. It is located at the base of diorite hillock, with another ancient structure - Olakneswara Temple on top of this hill.

Anantasayana sculpted panel in Mahishasura Mardini Cave
Anantasayana sculpted panel in Mahishasura Mardini Cave / , Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Front part of the cave temple is adorned with four columns and two pilasters, floor and ceiling are not completed. Columns have different design - the two central columns are different. Most likely this is explained by the attempt of Vaisnavites to remove them. One was really removed and was recently replaced by low quality replica.

Both beautiful sculpted panels are placed at opposite side walls of shrine. One relief depicts eight-armed Goddess Durga defeating the demon-king Mahishasura - it is possible that the temple got its name from this demon. Goddess is accompanied by eight ganas, Mahishasura with his army of seven demons is retreating.

Mahishasura Mardini panel in Mahishasura Mardini Cave
Mahishasura Mardini panel in Mahishasura Mardini Cave / , Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Another panel depicts Anantasayana - e.g. Vishnu reclining on snake-like king of nagas - Ananta Shesha. This serpent has thousand heads - relief shows five. Below Vishnu there is Bhu-devi, Mother Earth. Above the God and below him there are shown four flying ayudh-purushas - divine weapons of Vishnu. This panel is considered to be one of the highest achievement in Indian ancient art.

Rear wall contains three shrines. Central shrine is larger and is adorned with a porch. Porch in turn has a pair of beautiful pillars with horned lions - vyalas - at the base. All shrines are symbolically duarded by dvarapalas. Side shrines are not adorned but the central shrine is adorned with large Somaskanda panel showing Shiva himself, his consort, Uma, divine child Skanda and Nandi at their feet and other gods in the background.

Choice of two unrelated religious motives on sidewalls is not clear today. It is also not completely clear why there were developed two shrines for Shiva and one for Vishnu.

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