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Varaha Cave Temple, Mahabalipuram

Main characteristics

Coordinates: 12.6179 N 80.1916 E
No:43        (list of all attractions)
Categories:Hindu shrines, Rock cut architecture
Values:Art, Architecture, History, Archaeology
Rank:9
Address:Asia, India, Tamil Nadu, south of Chennai, Kanchipuram district, in Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram) town, so called "hillock area"
Age:the late 7th century AD
Religion:Hindi
UNESCO World Heritage status:Part of "Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram", 1984, No.249
Varaha Cave Temple, India
Varaha Cave Temple / Wikimedia Commons, V.Sundar / CC BY SA 3.0

Exquisite, small jewel of the ancient South Indian architecture is Varaha Cave Temple - rock-cut Hindu temple located in the ancient city of Mahabalipuram. This sanctuary belongs to UNESCO World Heritage site named "Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram".

Mahabalipuram (ancient name – Mamallapuram) was flourishing port city of Pallava dynasty during the 7th – 9th centuries. In many respects Mamallapuram was the second capital of Pallavas next to Kanchipuram. This city at the second half of the 7th century experienced unprecedented flourishing of art and architecture, here were created multiple unique artworks. As far as we can judge now, artists at Mamallapuram made courageous experiments, using the natural landscape to create striking, unusual monuments.

Numerous monuments of architecture and art in Mahabalipuram show gradual movement from rock-cut architecture to structural buildings. Varaha Cave Temple in this sense is one of the most primitive buildings in Mahabalipuram.

But don’t be deceived by the word "primitive" because Varaha Temple is far from being primitive – it is sophisticated, architectonically rich structure. This small temple is shaped in low rock outcropping, only a bit higher than the temple itself.

Varaha Cave Temple, depiction of Varaha
Sculptural group with Varaha / , Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Temple is entered through mandapa – beautiful verandah with two pillars and two semi-columns. All four contain doorkeepers – figures of horned lions at the bases of columns.

Entrance in the hall of temple is guarded by two gate keepers.

Side walls inside the temple are adorned with four large sculpted panels. Centrepiece of northern sculptural group is Varaha – avatar of Vishnu, similar to wild boar. Varaha holds up his wife Bhūmī – mother earth – he has saved her from Naga, the snake king. Southern sculpted panel shows Vishnu Trivikrama – as a dwarf with one foot on earth, another – in clouded sky. Third leg is on tyrant Bali, pushing him to underworld. Next to Vishnu stand Brahma, Shiva, Sun and the moon. Eastern panel shows goddess Lakshmi with two maidens and two elephants. Fourth panel shows goddess Durga standing on a lotus under umbrella.

Varaha Cave Temple is one of greatest examples of Pallava art. It has been created during the reign of Narasimhavarman I Mahamalla (r. c. 630 – 668) and represents an early stage in Dravidian architecture with many elements of Buddhist design prevalent.

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