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.
“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
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.