The temple is perched on a rocky outcrop, which presides over the shoreline of Bay-of-Bengal. The temple was designed in such a manner that it catches the first ray of sunlight at dawn and illuminates the waters with its numerous lights after the dark. The shore temple standing at the picturesque background of azure sky and the vast blue sea is described perfectly by Percy Brown as 'a landmark by day and a beacon by night.'
The Shore Temple of Mahabalipuram was built during the reign of Rajasimha of Pallava dynasty in seventh and eighth century. This was the first structure in pallava dynasty to be built of stone unlike the older temples, which were hewn out of rocks. The shore temple is a five-storied rock cut structural Hindu Temple and is not a monolithical monument as are present in other parts of Mahabalipuram. It is one of the most important among the earliest structural temples of south India. The shore temple has a 60 feet high pyramidal structure and sits on a 50 ft square platform. There is a small temple in front of the main temple, which originally served as the porch. The temple is made out of a finely cut local granite.
The greatest improvement in design of shore temple is its 'Sikhara' or spine, which depicts a soaring, tiered style, gradually tapering to the top, which is completely different from rounded 'Vihara' style. All the elements of Dravidian architecture like the 'Vimana' or spire, the 'Gopuram' or the gateway and animals' figures can be seen in the Shore Temple. The temple used the dressed stone in its structure that gives the architects a greater creative freedom.
The main shrine of the temple faces the sea in the east. The sanctum of the Shore Temple lies in front of forecourt and the assembly hall. The temple shrine has relics of both Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu. The main sanctum and one of the two smaller sanctums on the west are dedicated to Shiva. The enclosing wall has a series of Nandi (bull of shiva) carved on it. There was interconnected water channels around the temple that allows the sea to let in and transform the temple into a water-shrine. Recently a stonewall is added to protect the shrine from the erosions by the sea.
The shore temple in Mamallapuram is refreshingly uncluttered unlike those grandiose structures of later Dravidian period. The temple encloses two shrines dedicated to Lord Shiva facing east and west respectively. In between these two shrines there lies a third shrine that honors Lord Vishnu. The Vishnu here comes as the preserver of universe, reclining on the serpent 'Sesha', that is a Hindu symbol of consciousness. The art in the sculptured panels of the temple is full of vitality depicting robust earthly beauty. The sculptures are breathtakingly real and artistic.
The Shore Temple of Mahabalipuram is not a living temple. It is opined that the temple was constructed as a work of art rather than a place for worship. Nowadays the temple is eroded in most places by the saline seawater and breeze. It is enlisted as UNESCO World Heritage Site.