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.

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

The front part of the cave temple is adorned with four columns and two pilasters, floor, and ceiling are not completed. Columns have different designs – 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.

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

Both beautifully sculpted panels are placed at opposite sidewalls of the 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.

Another panel depicts Anantasayana – e.g. Vishnu reclining on snake-like king of nagas – Ananta Shesha. This serpent has a 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.

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

Rear wall contains three shrines. The 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 guarded 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.

The 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.


  1. Mahishasura Mardini Mandapam, Tamil Heritage. Accessed on April 16, 2010.
Mahishasura Mardini Cave on the map
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Location, GPS coordinates: 12.615051 N 80.191481 E
Categories: Hindu shrines, Rock cut temples and monasteries
Values: Art, Architecture, History, Archaeology
Rating: 2 out of 10 stars
Where is located? Asia, India, Tamil Nadu, south of Chennai, Kanchipuram district, Mahabalipuram town, "hillock" near the centre
Alternate names: Mahishasura Mandapa, Mahishasura Mardini Mantapa
Religion: Hindi
UNESCO World Heritage status: Part of "Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram", 1984, No.249

Video of Mahishasura Mardini Cave

Tuff Echo, June 2018

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Key Gompa / , Flickr / CC BY 2.0

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Sri Meenakshi Temple – gopuram / , Flickr / CC BY 2.0
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