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The Seven Pagodas of Mahabalipuram

Posted by Michael Pullman 13th January 2016
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There are many famous myths in the world of travel, from Georgia’s Golden Fleece to Ethiopia’s Ark of the Covenant, but one of the most intriguing lies in the Southern Indian town of Mahabalipuram. The town is famous for its stunning bas reliefs and the wonderful Shore Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built in around 700 AD, the temple is spectacularly located on the shores of the Bay of Bengal, but what is perhaps even more impressive is the thought that there may once have been seven of these shore temples. According to a myth that has circulated around India and Europe for over 11 centuries, seven temples once stood along Mahabalipuram’s shore. Local legend suggests that the god Indra became jealous of this earthly city and sank it during a great storm, leaving only the Shore Temple above sea level.

The Tsunami Offers a Glimpse of the Truth

These stories persisted with no real evidence until the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. Just before the tsunami struck India, the sea pulled back 500 metres. Amazingly, fishermen and tourists who witnessed this reported seeing a long straight row of large rocks emerge from the water, what could have been remnants of the Shore Temples. As the tsunami struck, the ruins were once again submerged beneath the waves.

In 2005 the Indian Navy searched the coastline using sonar, and discovered the remains of two submerged temples and one cave temple – so not the mythical 6 missing temples, but suddenly the ancient stories did not seem so outlandish. Since then more evidence of ruined temples off the coast has been uncovered by archaeologists, and scientists now believe another devastating tsunami struck the coastline in the 13th Century, causing destruction to much of the town - the god Indra's vengeance on the temples.

So it appears that once upon a time there may well have been seven shore temples. Thankfully India’s existing Shore Temple survived the tsunami of 2004, and can be seen today on our South Indian Odyssey tour. One of the oldest temples in South India, the weather-worn Shore Temple was built by the declining Pallava dynasty, and the emerging Chola dynasty, which came to create so much fantastic art, used it as a model for their temples.

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