Seven Pagodas of Mahabalipuram

Seven Pagodas Of Mahabalipuram

Seven Pagodas of Mahabalipuram

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The myth

The name “Seven Pagodas” has served as a nickname for the south Indian city of Mahabalipuram, also called Mamallapuram, since the first European explorers reached the city. The phrase “Seven Pagodas” refers to a myth that has circulated in India, Europe, and other parts of the world for over eleven centuries. Mahabalipuram’s Shore Temple, built in the 8th century CE under the reign of Narasimhavarman II, stands at the shore of the Bay of Bengal. Legend has it that six other temples once stood with it.

An ancient Brahman legend explains the pagodas’ origins in mythical terms. Prince Hiranyakasipu refused to worship the god Vishnu. The prince’s son, Prahlada, loved Vishnu greatly, and criticized his father’s lack of faith. Hiranyakasipu banished Prahlada, but then relented and allowed him to come home. Father and son quickly began to argue about Vishnu’s nature. When Prahlada stated that Vishnu was present everywhere, including in the walls of their home, his father kicked a pillar. Vishnu emerged from the pillar in the form of a man with a lion’s head, and killed Hiranyakasipu. Prahlada eventually became king, and had a son named Bali. Bali founded Mahabalipuram on this site. (Adapted from Coombes, 23-4.)

Unclear ancient evidence

The temples’ origins have been obscured by time, lack of complete written records, and storytelling. Englishman D. R. Fyson, a long-time resident of Madras (now Chennai), wrote a concise book on the...
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