From Mamallai to Mamallapuram: tracing the port city’s history

The summit venue has its origins in the word ‘Mamallan’, title of a Pallava king

Updated - October 12, 2019 10:35 am IST

Published - October 12, 2019 01:06 am IST - CHENNAI

Mahabalipuram or Mamallapuram was originally called Mamallai or Kadalmallai.

Mahabalipuram or Mamallapuram was originally called Mamallai or Kadalmallai.

Mamallapuram, or Mahabalipuram, the ancient Pallava port city, is in focus as the venue for the informal summit between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The town was originally called Mamallai or Kadalmallai.

Mamallapuram has its origins in the word ‘Mamallan’, the title bestowed on Narasimhavarman II, the great king of the Pallava dynasty that existed between the 3rd and the 9th century. ‘Mamallan’ means ‘great wrestler’.

The king’s story was immortalised by Tamil writer Kalki in the novel Sivagamiyin Sapatham . The heroine, Sivakami, is portrayed as the daughter of the chief sculptor, Ayanar. She is the lover of Narasimhavarman.

“An inscription calls him Vidita Mahamalla Sabdah Prajanam,” noted archaeologist R. Nagaswamy said, adding that the original name of Mamallapuarm was Kadalmallai.

‘Prosperous town’

“Mallai means prosperity. The town got the name because it was enriched by the wealth brought through sea trade,” he explained.

Vaishnavite literature refers to the town as Mamallai or Kadalmallai, and the temple of Sthalasayana Perumal situated there is one among the 108 Vaishnavite shrines.

The earliest literary reference could be attributed to Poothathazhwar, the second in the lineage of Azhwars, who was born in Mamallapuram.

His verse says, “Thamarullum maamallai (Mamallai as it is in the minds of the devotees)”.

“It is like calling Thanjavur Thanjai. Mallai would have originated from the word ‘mallal’. It means rich,” said Professor T. Gnanasundaram.

The temple would have predated the period of the Pallavas, who expanded the town and made it a cultural capital.

Thirumangai Azhwar, the last among the 12 Vaishnavite minstrels, always referred to the town as Kadalmallai in his verses in praise of Lord Sthalasayana Perumal

Chola period

Mr. Nagaswamy said the name of the town was changed to Jananthapuram by Chola king Raja Rajan.

Mamallapuram became Mahabalipuram in modern times, and the latter is not the Sanskrit equivalent.

“Mahabalipuram is actually a distortion of Mamallapuram. The English spelt it in a way that suited their tongue, and it was given a Sanskrit puranic twist,” said V. Arasu, former head of the Tamil Department at the University of Madras.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.