Mahabalipuram, a village south of Chennai in the state of Tamil Nadu, was a busy port during the 7th and 8th century reign of the Pallava dynasty. The temple town is believed to be over 2,000 years old and has approximately 40 monuments, including the largest open-air bas-relief in the world. The UNESCO World Heritage Site distinction has been bestowed on four categories of monuments at Mahabalipuram: ratha temples (temples in the form of chariots), mandapas (cave sanctuaries covered with bas-reliefs), rock reliefs and structural temples.
The Five Rathas, literally chariots, date from the 7th century AD. The sculptures are complemented by enormous stone animals, including a large elephant.
The Varaha Cave Temple, a mandapa, is an example of Indian rock-cut architecture dating from the late 7th century. The Pallava doorkeepers in front of the mandapa are two pillars and two semi-columns with horned lions carved into the bases. Inside the mandapa the walls have four large sculptured panels, fine examples of naturalistic Pallava art. The northern panel depicts Vishnu as Varaha, the boar, holding up Bhūmi, the earth goddess.
Descent of the Ganges at Mahabalipuram is a giant open-air relief carved out of the monolithic rock. The monuments and sanctuaries here were built by the Pallava kings in the 7th and 8th centuries. The legend depicted in the relief tells the story of the descent of the sacred river Ganges to earth. The waters of the Ganges are believed to possess supernatural powers.
The Shore Temple, overlooking the Bay of Bengal, is a structural temple built with blocks of granite, dating from the 8th century AD. The temple is a combination of three shrines. The main shrine is dedicated to Shiva as is the smaller second shrine. A small third shrine, between the two is dedicated to a reclining Vishnu. The Shore Temple is the most famous of the temples here.