Earlier this year, I had made a promise to myself; that I would make a conscious effort to explore more of South India. And come September; it was time to head to Chennai and then traipse across Pondicherry, Auroville, Tranquebar and Mahabalipuram (also called Mamallapuram.) Although I was drenched in sweat just after exiting the Chennai Airport, the thrill of exploring the ancient temples of Mahabalipuram was reason enough to be gung-ho.
Mahabalipuram is at a distance of hardly 50 kms from Chennai and the route is the scenic East Coast Route. There are regular buses for Mahabalipuram from Chennai and take around 1 hr 30 mins to reach. Travelling between Chennai and Mahabalipuram along the East Coast Highway, one may want to schedule enough time for some interesting stops along the way. On top of the must visit charts are Cholamandalam Artists Village & Dakshina Chitra.
Mahabalipuram – A Brief Introduction
Mahabalipuram was built by the Pallavas between the 4th and 9th centuries AD. The Pallavas were a dynasty that ruled much of South India. Mahabalipuram was once a thriving port city and is an excellent introduction to the majestic and much famed – South Indian temple architecture. Most of the monuments in Mamallapuram are monolithic, and have been carved out of one single rock.
It is a small town and therefore makes it possible to visit the best monuments in a single day. It is recommended you get an early start because the sun can get really harsh during the afternoons. Mahabalipuram’s international cultural importance was recognised in 1995 when Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram) was granted the status of being a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Mahabalipuram – Historical Attractions
Mamallapuram’s monuments can be divided into four categories : open-air bas-reliefs, temples, man-made caves and rathas (chariots carved from single boulders to resemble temples or the chariots used in temple processions). Arjuna’s Penance and the Krishna Mandapa are famous bas-reliefs that adorn massive rocks near the centre of the village, while the immaculate Shore Temple presides over the beach.
Mahabalipuram’s monolithic shrines and exquisite rock-cut cave temples lie scattered over a landscape heaped with boulders and rocky hillocks, interspersed with greenery. There are many man-made caves and monolithic structures, in different stages of completion, that are scattered through the area, but the best are in a group, named after the five Pandava brothers of the Mahabharata – and are known as five rathas.
Around 4 kms away from Mahabalipuram, Tiger Cave (ECR Road) is the site of an 8th-century shrine dedicated to the tiger-riding goddess Durga. It is a shallow cave, with sculpted lions (mythical beasts) framing the entrance, and is located quite close to the beach.
Staying by the Sea – Chariot Beach Resort
I’d reached Mahabalipuram at around 1 or 2 in the afternoon and was immediately ushered to the warmth of a cottage on the sea by the helpful staff at Chariot Beach Resort. I wasn’t quite used to the heat and humidity but the cool drink panakkam helped restore calm after a delicious lunch. Panakkam is made of jaggery, and is mixed with various spices to make it a refreshing cooler in Tamil Nadu.
Evening time was peaceful with the sound of the waves on the seemingly private beach of the resort. There were cute huts on the beachfront and I was more than happy to let myself loose and enjoy the moment with the strong sea breeze whispering stories from the past. The sunset was on the opposite side and I figured that sunrise would be the best way to wake up the next day.
Mornings and evenings are the best time in Mahabalipuram, when nature is beckoning to you with calmness and the music of the waves almost transcends your soul to an elevated level. After all, this ancient capital of the Pallava Kings is said to be a ‘Lost City’ and some believe that it had some of the Greatest architecture of that time.
Breakfast was a mix of idli with gunpowder dry chutneys, and I loved the idea of pouring ghee over them and savouring the rich taste. Panakkam was a constant accompaniment to combat the searing heat, I remember calling it a wonder drink! The chef was extremely mindful of my requests for local cuisine and presented bun parotta and kaikari terattal for one of the meals. It was out of this world tasty! After a siesta, I wandered around town and saw the artisans carving intricate stone statues. There were statues of Buddha, Ganesha, Lord Shiva and various other mythological figures.
I was headed to see the sunset from the lighthouse and it was indeed a serene sight. Back at the cottage, the breeze was cool and coaxed me into the joy of the alfresco shower. Nice and fresh, it was time to enjoy the beach delights in the beach restaurant at Chariot Beach Resort. Slow, romantic music played and the hues on the horizon completed a fairytale experience. Plus, the breeze had really picked up and the excellent food was an added bonus. A walk on the sand after the hearty dinner remains one of my favourite memories of the time spent in Mahabalipuram.
Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram) – A Guide for Places to Visit
Popularly believed to be the world’s largest bas-relief; it is also called the ‘Descent of the Ganges.’ Bas reliefs are structures protruding from the base of the rock. Arjuna’s Penance is visible on the road itself and is a stunning photo-op when colourfully dressed Tamil women walk past.
There are representations of the gods, elephants, monkeys, and other creatures look on. A naturally occurring cleft down the rock is said to represent the Ganges, and Lord Shiva is shown to receive the water in his dreadlocks. On the left-hand side, Arjuna, one of the Pandava brothers and a consummate archer, is shown standing on one leg.
Legend of Shiva Purana : Arjuna went to a forest on the banks of the Ganges to perform a penance, in the hope that Shiva would part with his favourite weapon, the pashupatashastra. Shiva appeared in the guise of a wild forest-dweller, and picked a fight with Arjuna over a boar they both claimed to have shot. According to the legend, Arjuna only realized he was dealing with Lord Shiva after his attempts to defeat the wild man proved futile. He was finally rewarded with the weapon pashupatashastra.
To the right of Arjuna, a natural cleft represents the Ganges, with water spirits in the form of snakes. There is also evidence of a cistern and channels at the top, which indicates that at one time they must have carried water to flow down the cleft, simulating the great river.
Sthala Sayana Perumal Temple : Just on the opposite side of Arjuna’s Penance is the Sthala Sayana Perumal Temple. Although not as old as the other historical attractions of Mahabalipuram, it is definitely worth a visit.
Just a short walk away, to the left of Arjuna’s Penance, is Krishna Mandapam. It is also a bas-relief, and was carved in the 7th century. Inside Krishna Mandapam, the carvings depict Krishna using his strength to lift a mountain (Govardhan) to protect people from imminent floods. Also near Arjuna’s Penance, to the north, is a huge spherical boulder known as Krishna’s Butter Ball, somehow balancing on a hillside. It is perhaps the favourite place for tourists to get their photographs clicked!
Varaha Mandapam II
The Varaha Mandapa II’s entrance hall has two pillars with lion-bases and the entrance is flanked by two dwarpalas, or guardians. One of four panels shows the boar-incarnation of Vishnu (Varaha) standing, with one foot resting on the naga snake king as he lifts the earth – from the ocean. Another panel is of Gajalakshmi, the goddess Lakshmi seated on a lotus and being bathed by a pair of elephants. One of the panels also showcases a four-armed Durga. The Varaha Mandapam II is located behind Arjuna’s Penance, very close to the Ganesh ratha.
The Ganesh Ratha is a small temple that was originally a Shiva Temple. Now it is an active temple with a Statue of Lord Ganesha inside it. The structure of the temple from the outside is beautiful and looks like a mini ship. It is very close to Krishna’s Butter Ball.
Mahishasuramardini Mandapam is remarkable for the two impressive sculpted decorations at each end of its long veranda. In the panel to the right, Durga is seated riding a lion and wielding an assortment of weapons. The intricately carved panel shows the eight-armed goddess Durga as Mahishasuramardini, destroying the buffalo headed demon Mahishasura. At the opposite end of the veranda, Vishnu is depicted sleeping peacefully on his serpent bed, surrounded by the gods. Also atop the hill, another Mandapam features various sculpted figures and mythical scenes, including one large panel of Vishnu as a huge boar. On top of the Mandapam, one can climb the stairs to reach the remains of an 8th Century Temple.
Five Rathas (Also Panch Rathas)
I was absolutely floored by the initial sight of these five (panch) monolithic stone shrines, even though the structures are incomplete, according to the guide at the temple. The five rathas are named after the five brother heroes of the Mahabharata and resemble temple chariots. The five rathas complex is a little distance away from the other monuments in Mahabalipuram and the ancient sculpting techniques are astonishing. The rathas were carved out of single pieces of rock from the top down.
Also known as Panch Rathas, some of the important structures and sculptures in the same are : Arjuna Ratha, Durga Panel in Draupadi Ratha, Bhima Ratha, Nakul-Sahadeva Ratha, and the statue of King Narasimhavarman on the Dharmaraj Ratha.
Prettily perched at the edge of a sandy beach on the Bay of Bengal, the Shore Temple is a stone temple constructed in the 7th Century. The rock-cut Shore Temple is a magnificent structure and is surrounded by statues of Nandi, the Bull. It is considered to be one of the oldest temples in South India, and the first temple in the Dravidian style that is very prevalent in temple architecture of Tamil Nadu.
The shore temple has two carved towers which look dazzling in the background of a blue sky. The shrines are mainly dedicated to Lord Shiva and inside one of the temples is also a sculpture depicting various deities. A low boundary wall topped by rock-cut Nandi bulls surrounds the main temple. There is also a solitary sculpture of a lion near one of the temples.
The design of the two finely carved towers of the Shore Temple was profoundly influential and spread across South India and eventually also to Southeast Asia. The Shore Temple is a great ode to the architectural brilliance of the Pallava Kings.
Also, it could be a great idea to visit the local stone carvers and buy statues and miniatures locally made in the streets of Mahabalipuram.
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A Legend Associated with Mahabalipuram
A Lost City? Mahabalipuram after the 2004 Tsunami
According to folklore and the guide, the Shore Temple was underwater for many years and came into view only in the early 20th Century. And I was quite amazed when someone offered me a boat ride in the Bay of Bengal promising me to show more temples submerged in water. Popular theories say that the Pallava Kings made a collection of 7 temples and out of them only the Shore Temple is visible and that 6 temples still remain underwater. The locals further say that some of the submerged temples came into view during the receding waters of the Tsunami of 2004.
The romantic in me wants to believe that Mahabalipuram could be the remains of a once thriving city, submerged below the sea when the shoreline changed. According to the locals, archaeologists have already uncovered the remains of a massive collapsed temple, after the tsunami of December 2004. Mahabalipuram is also believed to be a part of the legend of Seven Pagodas, written about in the diaries of early European travelers, and that six temples are still submerged in the ocean.
Chariot Beach Resort is a recommended place to stay if your budget can afford it. There are various activities on offer for groups. The resort also offers Ayurvedic Treatment in a pretty building designed like a houseboat, beside a lake. It is an apt place to spend the weekend, especially for Chennai-ites.
Note : I was at Chariot Beach Resort, Mahabalipuram on an invitation. The views shared here are my own and completely unbiased. My readers’ trust is my greatest priority.