The Missing Pagodas of Mamallapuram

For centuries, European sailors who travelled through the Bay of Bengal talked about a mysterious city that they called the Seven Pagodas. Marco Polo mentioned the city in his accounts of Asia, saying that the pagodas were so large he could see them from a great distance away. He even put the city down on his world map.

Above: Eight pages of the original 1375 Catalan Atlas credited to the Moroccan school of cartography. This map took notes from Marco Polo’s accounts and marks the city of the seven pagodas. 

After him, several other travellers and writers have talked about the Pagodas. Soon the Pagodas became so much a part of the European imagination of the east, that they even had a story about it. The story went like this.

Once, there stood a line of seven temples along the coast that looked out into the Bay of Bengal. Their shimmering copper-covered domes were visible for miles around. The temples were a part of a magnificent city whose people were so happy that it made even the Gods jealous. Indira, the God of rain, was particularly jealous of this famed city. So, he sent down torrents of rain which made the seas swell up and swallow the whole city.

In fact, the Europeans were so fascinated by the tale of their own making that it found a mention in Robert Southey’s epic poem, ‘The Curse of Kehama’

“Their golden summits in the noon-day light,

Shone o’er the dark green deep that rolled between.

For domes and pinnacles and spires were seen

Peering above the sea…”

‘The Curse of Khema’(1810) by Robert Southey

But it may not all have been make believe. On the south-eastern coast of India, some two hours south of Chennai, are the ruins of the ancient city of Mamallapuram. Archaeological excavations in the area revealed expertly built temple complexes, lovely stone carvings and a wealth of information about the Pallava dynasty that ruled large parts of south India between the 3rd and 9th century CE.

Could the city of the seven pagodas and Mamallapuram be the same? It is a possibility. In 2001, a set of fisherman working along that coast reported that they had seen strange structures underwater during low tide. That spurred the Archaeological Survey of India to launch its first excavations for underwater structures in Mamallapuram in 2002. What did they find? No more than 500 meters out into the sea was a 6-foot-high, 70-meter-long wall and broken pillars and what they would later identify as secondary temple complex.

This still isn’t proof that there were ever Seven Pagodas on that coast, but it did prove that the Mamallapuram complex was much larger than originally thought. Then, in December of 2004, a tsunami hit the eastern coast of India. The sea waters receded nearly half a kilometre and large parts of the beach had layers of sand wash away. What was revealed underneath all that sand?

In Mamallapuram a carved stone lion sat on the beach. In another spot, a large stone inscription was found. The most exciting find was in a place called Saluvankuppam, quite close to Mamallapuram. Excavations there revealed the remains of a 2,000 years old temple dedicated to the God Muruga. And where there was a temple, there would have been a pagoda.

Above: Muruga Temple, Saluvanakuppam Image Credit: Ravichandar84 [CC BY-SA 3.0]

You might think that with all this growing evidence, historians would finally agree that that the story of the Seven Pagodas had some truth behind it? Well they won’t. But they do agree that there is a lot more exploration waiting to happen.

So if the story of the seven pagodas was made up, what did European sailors actually see? In all likelihood it was the two domes of the magnificent Shore temple that sits right on the edge of that coast at Mamallapuram.

Want to find out more about Mamallapuram and its mysterious past? Take a walk with the Storytrails Audio Tour, and listen to our stories of ancient kingdoms, enraged Gods, and languages long forgotten.

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