This is perhaps the monument which gave this town the name of ‘Seven Pagodas’ by earlier mariners. This high rising monument is located at the sea shore, hence the name Shore Temple, and is visible from quite a distance across the ocean. This monument would have acted as a landmark for the ships to get the right directions to safely dock at nearby shore. First look of the monument gives the feeling of a pagoda, which European mariners were quite familiar with hence they gave the name ‘Seven Pagodas’ to this town. It was indeed earlier thought as the work of Chinese or Egyptians, which was only later clarified with extensive study of various monuments of the town. The local villagers tells about stories of seven such monuments with gilded top crowns which they were able to see just above the water level, however all were submerged soon. ASI took up the task of underwater archaeology however nothing much was found to support the existence of those monuments. It is quite clear that the sea has encroached much of the ground of the temple, as ASI did a wonderful job to clear out the debris from 8 feet sand accumulated by continuous drift from the sea and constructed break-water wall all around the sea shore to save the temple from further damage.
This temple complex consist three different temples, raised above the same platform. Towers of the two temples have survived, but of the one is missing. Temple with smaller tower faces west while temple with large tower faces east towards the sea. Both the towers are pyramidal stepped structure which is topped with an octagonal sikhara above. The octagonal sikhara puts this into Dravidian style of temple architecture.
The large temple tower has three recessed storeys. The cornice of each storey has regular arrangement of kudus(horseshoe dormer windows) as seen in the cave temples. Octagonal sikhara is mounted over a circular griva. This sikhara is topped with a kalasa and finial. The inner cell, garbhagriha, is a square of 12 feet sides and 11 feet high. There is a somaskanda panel at the back wall of this cell, while two similar panels are there in the porch of the temple. The enshrined Shivalinga is of typical Rajasimha style, made of black basalt stone with multi-faceted sides, sixteen in this case, and slightly fluted at the top such as to form the crown above the top. The upper part of the linga is broken. The total height of the linga would have been six feet out of this one feet is buried in the ground to fit in the hole to support the vertical shaft. The garbhagriha is preceded by a ardha-mandapa, in which south wall is sculpted Brahma and north wall is depicting Vishnu. On outer northern wall of the sanctum, we find two sculptures of interest, Shiva as Tripurantaka and Durga. There is an open circumambulatory path around this shrine. Many of the sculptures on the external walls are in much ruined condition.
The middle shrine, without any tower, is sandwiched in between small and large Shiva temples. This is a rectangular shrine to enshrine Anantasayana (Sleeping posture of Vishnu over Sesha) image of Vishnu. This image is very mush ruined and the attributes in his hands are beyond recognition. There is an inscription in Pallava Grantha script on the lintel of this shrine which suggests that this is perhaps the earliest shrine of the complex. The smaller Shiva temple is sculpted in similar design as that of large temple or Dharmaraja Ratha. The tower is stepped pyramidal in design, topped with an octagonal sikhara mounted on a circular griha. The sikhara is topped with a kalasa and finial above that. The cell has a somaskanda panel at the back wall. There would have been a mandapa in front of this temple, however this is missing now.
In recent excavations, a compound is found near the main shrine, within the complex. This compound has a circular shrine in the middle which has rampant lions on its pilasters. It has a circular sikhara. Inside is shown a figure of Ganesha. There would have been a kalasa above this sikhara however it is missing now. Another interesting discovery is an image of Varaha (boar) placed within this compound. We have seen similar Varaha images at Khajuraho and Eran, however those images are shown representing varaha coming out of the ocean carrying Bhu-devi. This Varaha at Mahabalipuram is in different posture, it is shown with its head down and pressing its hind legs with force such as to plunge into the ocean. There is no figure of Bhu-devi hence it is assumed that the scene represented here is of the start of spectacle of getting Bhu-devi from the depths of the ocean. As the shrine and the Varaha are constructed at the base of the compound, hence when it would have been filled with water, this would have presented a marvellous fascinating scene of Varaha submerged in waters to get Bhu-devi from its depths.
Within the compound of this temple, is a monolith sculpture of a lion. This is partly carved out of rock and partly sculpted. This majestic lion is seated majestically with a hole in its torso. This hole in its torso is perhaps a representation of a cave shrine. Inside the back of the hole, is carved a miniature image of Durga in Mahishasurmardini posture. Creation of this space near the heart of the lion also represents that concept of most loved person residing with your heart, viewers can recall a famous story from Ramayana where Hanuman opened up his heart to shown that Rama with Sita live within his heart. In similar fashion, for lion, being the mount of goddess Durga, it is quite appropriate to carve her image near its heart. A female guardian is shown sitting on lions leg, carrying a bow.
Hundreds of sculptures are found in this vicinity and are displayed as an open air museum. There are few inscriptions found in this temple. Some of those are listed below.
1. On the lintel of Vishnu shrine is an inscription which refers this temple as Narapatisimha Pallava Vishnu Griha. Narapatisimha is a title of Rajasimha, as seen among his list of titles from Kailasanatha Temple at Kanchi.
2. On the plinth of two balipithas excavated in the courtyard of this temple, there is found a damaged Sanskrit record of six verses written in Pallava Grantha script. This inscription praises Pallava King Atyantakama, a title of Rajasimha.
3. In the slab of smaller Shiva temple, which is now inserted in the base, are found two inscriptions of Rajaraja Chola I dated in his twenty-fifth year of reign, 1010 CE. The names of the three temples mentioned in these inscriptions are,Kshatriyasimha Pallaveshvara-griham, Rajasimha Pallaveshvara-griham and Pllikondaruliya-devar. The whole complex is referred as Jalashayana. These inscriptions also indicates that the Vishnu shrine was executed first among all the shrines.
We now move on to the last leg of the trip to Mahabalipuram, the Tiger Cave.