The Shore Temple is one of the most visited sites in southern India. It may once have been a part of a much larger religious complex, now lost to the sea.
In the first millennium A.D., Mamallapuram, about 40 miles south of the modern city of Chennai (once known as Madras), was one of two important ports along the Bay of Bengal. Beginning in the seventh century, the powerful and creative Pallava Dynasty, which conducted trade and diplomatic missions from Mamallapuram, began constructing a series of imposing religious structures near the port, the most famous being the Pancha Rathas (Five Chariots), carved from a single outcropping of granite. To the east of the Pancha Rathas, almost at water’s edge, is the so-called “Shore Temple,” built between 700 and 728 A.D. The Shore Temple is actually three temples erected on a single platform. All three are in the shape of a pyramid, erected from blocks of granite, making them among the oldest such structures in southern India. Two of the temples honor Shiva, considered the supreme god by many Hindus. A smaller temple is devoted to Vishnu, another important Hindu deity. In the five-story main Shiva temple, which opens to the rising sun, the deity is represented by the Shiva Lingam, a glistening phallic-like stone representing fertility.
When Marco Polo visited the coast of the Bay of Bengal in 1292, he reported seeing what he described as “Seven Pagodas.” The Shore Temple was probably at least one (or perhaps three) of those pagodas. The devastating tsunami in December 2004 temporarily uncovered another temple constructed from granite blocks just offshore, leading to speculation that the rest of the seven pagodas are now under the Bay of Bengal. The area including the Pancha Rathas and the Shore Temple is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.