A Trip to Mahabalipuram

Mahabalipuram is a small coastal town, situated on the Tamil Nadu coast, nearly 56 kms from Chennai. It is a seventh century port city established by Pallava kings, who ruled from Kanchi. Named after the Pallava king Mamalla, the city is famous for its numerous temples and rock carvings. Generally it is said to be established in the 7th century, and known as “Mallai Mallai,” Kadal, Mallai and Mamallai in numerous ancient texts, though some excavations indicate towards an earlier settlement. The shore temple, constructed by King Narsimha Varman II (C.E. 700-728), along with another group of temples and caves have been classified as a UNESCO world heritage site.

The numerous temples and rock carvings are classic examples of South Indian temple art and its evolution during the reign of the Pallava kings. The town not only has a beautiful beach, a British era Light-house, but numerous interesting rock formations as well. It is also famous for the variety of sea food available. The town is well-connected by road as it lies on Eastern Coastal Road. Nearest airport and railway station is located at Chennai which is only 56 kms away. There are regular bus services available by tourist buses, TNSTC (Tamil Nadu State Transport Corporation) and MTC Chennai (Metropolitan Transport Corporation). The good road conditions on ECR (Eastern Coastal Road) mean that the journey is usually completed within just an hour only. The best season to visit Mahabalipuram is in August-September, when the sun is not scorching and there is the occasional rainfall.

The journey from Chennai to Mahabalipuram in the morning is an unmatched experience. The road moves along the beach, never leaving it for more than 300 meters, and you can easily catch the sunrise and the coastal wind blowing through the Bay of Bengal. The entire coast is bathed in a thousand special blends of peach. Still it is advisable to leave Chennai early and see the sunrise at Mahabalipuram itself. The beach looks golden in the early morning light, with a greenish Bay of Bengal in the background. The entire city is about a kilometre long, and can be explored on foot in a day.

The city is famous for some good sea-food, especially prawns. Two really good restaurants are Blue Elephant and Moonraker’s, both of which are located near the beach. For breakfast it is advisable to try Blue Elephant, especially the tuna sandwiches. The restaurant has a very good ambience and the menu offers a good variety. One can have South Indian vegetarian staple as well as sea food. In the opposite direction of the beach, the first rock formation, also known as ‘Butter Rock’ or ‘Krishna’s Butter Ball’ can be seen. It is a massive rock, measuring 5 metres in diameter, precariously perched on a 45 degree slope. The sight is amazing and is popular among tourists trying to take interesting pictures with the rock in background.
Just a short distance south from Butter Rock is a temple (Ganesha Mandapam) made by cutting a single rock, which is still active and an unfinished Rayar gopuram (Gateway) of a different temple. Climbing down from the high ground, you will come across one of the largest bas-relief sculptures in the world. The right hand side is called Descent of Ganges and to the left is Arjuna’s Penance. Though it is called Arjuna’s Penance, the myth is not very clear, as it can be Bhagiratha’s penance for bringing the Ganga to the Earth as well. All the figures are carved in such a way that they either face the central cleft or are moving towards it, and they have raised their hands in admiration. One of the most intriguing figures is of a cat meditating near the leg of the bigger of the two elephants on the relief. A separate figure of a pair of monkeys, tending and caring for each other is also present.

Next to Arjuna’s penance is another temple, (Krishna Mandapam), carved into rock. If you walk southwards on the same road, you will come across the stone carvers, using diamond-toothed machines, and continuing the sculptor tradition. Just below the light house, along the road is another rock carving, very similar to Arjuna’s Penance.

Take a stairway to the right, or you can just start climbing the plain ground, and it will lead you to the Mahishasuramardini cave. This temple is dedicated to Goddess Durga, Slayer (Mardini) of the demon (asura) Mahisha. This is also carved into a single rock. Over its top are situated Olakkaneeswara Temple, and the light house.

To the south of this lies the Varah cave, which has been carved into a single rock, and is dedicated to Varah, who was the third avatar of Vishnu. Moving down from the Varah cave, and coming to the main road once again, walk southwards and come to Panch Rathas Shopping Complex, which houses some good restaurants (a Punjabi one by the name ‘Dhaba Express’ as well). There are shops which sell souvenirs and idols. After resting here for a while, one can move to see the most beautiful temples of the town.
The Panch Rathas complex, with all temples made from a single piece of rock. They are so-called because they resemble a wooden chariot. They were constructed by the Pallava King Narsimhavarman I (C.E. 630-668). A single rock sloping from south to north was utilised to cut out different forms of temples, besides some animal figures. Though also known as Panchapandav Rathas, they have got nothing to do with Mahabharata. The southernmost temple is the largest one and is known as Dharmaraja (Yudhisthra), with Bheema next to it. Arjuna and Nakul-Sahdeva stand next in line, along with an unfinished looking rock-cut (sometimes referred to as Kunti’s ratha). Draupadi’s Ratha stands separately with an elephant and a lion monolith structure. The elephant and lion have been cut in such a manner that they don’t hide each other’s view when seen from the back, while the top of the elephant looks very similar to the top of Draupadi’s ratha. These temples, each with a different form of temple art and architecture, are known to be the best examples of South Indian temple architecture of the Pallava Kingdom.

Walking back northwards along the main road, you will reach the main bus stand, and a road on the right side will take you to the Shore Temple complex, which is very clean and beautifully maintained. It is the best known temple of the town, and actually consists of three temples, one dedicated to a reclining Vishnu and others to Shiva. Recent findings suggest that these two temples were part of a larger temple complex. The main temple complex is surrounded by a perimeter of Nandis (the bull). The carvings here are much eroded, and thus very less detailed when compared to the carvings at earlier complexes. It directly faces the sea, and is protected from the tides by huge rocks, but has to face the erosive action of salty winds from sea. Also, as opposed to the earlier temples which were cut from a single rock, this one is a structural temple. This temple is regarded as the culmination of architectural efforts during the Pallava era, which began with stone carvings.

A small market has been established near the temple complex, where one can buy souvenirs and snacks. But for a nice evening sea-snack, it is good to go back to Moonraker’s which serves delectable prawns with chilli sauce. After a small snack one can head out to the beach. The beach near the shore temple complex is shallow, and one can venture up to 50 feet into the sea, although one should be careful about sudden variations in the sea floor. You can also hire a catamaran for 100-150 rupees, which will take you to the sea and show the areas of recent findings and some submerged structures as well. These structures were discovered after the Tsunami. The locals will tell you that originally there were seven shore temples, and all except one are submerged. The beach areas were hit hard by the tsunami, though the shore temple complex was spared because of its higher elevation and the protection by a rock wall. Some of the restaurants near the beach carry pictures of destruction on their walls. The beach is decently wide, and one can easily enjoy a game of football or volleyball.

A trip to the city can be finished in a single day. The ECR road is wide and well-maintained, and often adventure enthusiasts cover the entire Chennai-Mahabalipuram distance on cycles. It takes about three and half hrs on a well maintained cruising speed. Sometimes you will also come across athletes who do the same stretch running. On the way, you can also stop at Madras Crocodile Bank (MCB) which houses more than one thousand crocodiles from all around the world and more than 2000 snakes. It is located on a branch road near Kovalam, about 37 kilometres from Chennai.

A trip to Mahabalipuram is like a visit to the ancient world. The place is still the centre of stone carving activities and you can imagine the scenes from more than a thousand years ago. The place is still being explored, developed and understood.

Shivraj Negi

[Image courtesy: http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/3617400164/]