Mahabalipuram, or Mamallapuram, was the chief seaport of the Pallavas who ruled over much of South India from as early as the first century B.C to the eighth century A.D., and it is now recognized as the site of some of the greatest architectural and sculptural achievements in India. Under the reign of Narasimha Varman (c. 630), this seaport began to grow as a great artistic center. The beautiful cave temples and gigantic open air reliefs carved from blocks of granite date to the seventh century.
At the southern edge of Mahabalipuram is a group of five free-standing temples. Four of them were carved out of a single long granite boulder. These temples are actually detailed replicas of ancient wooden structures. These temples represent the rathas (chariots) of Arjuna, Bhima, Dharmaraja, Nakula-Sahadeva — the five Pandava princes of the epic Mahabharata — and their common wife, Draupadi. Work on these five temples was stopped after the death of Narasimha Varman in 668.
In early eighth century, work was begun on the Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram. This temple was built to honour Lord Shiva. Unlike the temples described above, the Shore Temple was built with granite blocks. The design of the Shore Temple is significant because it is the earliest known example of a stone-built temple in South India. The Shore Temple also influenced the architecture of the Cholas, who succeeded the Pallavas as the dominant dynasty in the area now covered by Tamil Nadu.
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