Mahabalipuram or Mamallapuram, 50km south of Chennai, was the major seaport of the ancient Pallava kingdom based at Kanchipuram. A wander round the town’s magnificent, World Heritage–listed temples and carvings inflames the imagination, especially at sunset.
My childhood memories of the place had been fading, so I planned to make a quick trip to refresh them. An early morning touchdown in Chennai helped beat city office-hours chaos and we directly hit the Old Mahabalipuram Road, also called the IT Expressway. In an hour I was at my destination, ready to see those beauties in stone.
It had been slightly overcast but it didn’t look like raining, and definitely not pouring. But the moment I reached the first stop – Tiger Cave, it did. As the heavens opened, I waited for some time so I could see the eighth-century carved tiger heads on the mouth of the cave. But when they didn’t relent I chose to head for Pancha Rathas or Five Rathas. A part of Unesco World Heritage Site in Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram, the monolithic rock-cut structures are also popular as Pandava Rathas, despite no connection with Mahabharata. Though the structures don’t have any religious significance as they never reached the sanctification stage, the five chariots are still named after the epic’s characters – Yudhishthira, Bhim, Arjuna, Nakul-Sehdev and Draupadi respectively.
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By the time I entered the compound and saw that carved elephant, it had stopped raining. The stand-alone elephant, called Gajaprishtakara, meaning elephant’s back (for that is what you see first as you enter the compound) has to be the most perfectly-sculpted elephant I would have laid my eyes on.
The Draupadi ratha resembles a hut, the Nakul-Sehdev one is simple with little embellishments, but the rest three are examples of architectural elegance. The Dharmaraja or Yudhishthira ratha and the Arjuna ratha are quite similar with four and three-tiered carvings on the roof respectively. The former is, however, the tallest one. The lion-mounted columns of the Bhima ratha, and its apsidal architecture is quite stunning. Though referred to as temples also, dedicated to Vishnu, Indra, Durga, Shiva, it is quite likely that their design reflects the wooden temple chariots of the Dravidian era.
The pleasant wind and the nippy air, much unlike the Chennai or the coastal weather, seemed more pronounced at the Shore Temple complex. It gets its name from its location on the Coromandel shore overlooking the Bay of Bengal. Standing pretty like an old guardian among the gardens and ancient courts, with dark clouds up above and a drizzle adding to the aura, this Pallava dynasty structure is one of the oldest stone temples of South India. Though no longer a worshipped temple, it makes for magnificent background every year for Mahabalipuram Dance Festival which is held around the months of January-February.
Built of cut stones rather than carved out of one giant rock, Shore Temple is a complex of three temples housing shrines dedicated to Lord Shiva and Vishnu, who is seen reclining on the Sheshnag in one of them. Then there is a carved stone panel, called Shivaskanda, in which you can see Shiva with goddess Parvati and their sons Vinayaka and Karthikeya. Legend has it that Indra had become so jealous of the splendour of this place that he flooded the area and submerged everything, with only few like Shore Temple having survived that.
Interestingly, Marco Polo and the European merchants and seafarers called the site Seven Pagodas, one among them believed to be Shore Temple, probably due to its pyramidal shape and multi-tiered carvings on the top. The 2004 tsunami not only exposed an old temple built entirely of granite blocks on the shore, it also renewed speculation about the seven pagodas, six of which were always thought to be submerged under the sea.