Mahabalipuram, a UNESCO World Heritage site located on the Tamil Nadu coast of India, is world-renowned for its cave temples, Pallava era art and architecture (8th century AD) & shore temple. Local myth was that the shore temple was once part of a much larger temple structure which featured seven pagodas. Anecdotal evidence supported this: early mariners referred to the site as “Seven Pagodas” and 18th and 19th century European visitors recorded elderly locals as saying in years prior they had been able to see the glinting copper tops of the pagodas out at sea.
Myth abruptly turned to reality in the wake of the devastating December 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean. As the water pulled out over 500m immediately before the tsunami, locals and visitors reported seeing long rows of straight stones before they were swiftly recovered. However, the tsunami had removed centuries of silt from the sites and uncovered several small statues and temples on the shoreline.
As a result of the eye witness reports, the Archaeological Survey of India and the Indian Navy conducted a survey of the site. This revealed a large series of buildings, walls and platforms that have been interpreted as forming a large complex. Based on the style of carving, coins found at the site and the historical evidence, archaeologists believe that the site does date to the Pallava era. Although Mahabalipuram was a port city during this time, the specific layout and proximity to the remaining shore temple suggests that this may be the location of the lost six pagodas.
There are two theories as to what destroyed the site. Some archaeologists believe that the majority of the temple complex was likely destroyed in a previous tsunami in the 13th century. Others point to the severe coastal fluctuation in the area over the last 5000 years and suggest that the site eroded away.
Work continues on the site, with the hope of identifying more structures and their purpose as well as better understanding the history of the city as a whole. The myth of the Seven Pagodas may be coming to life before our very eyes.