Footsteps on the sands of time
Mahabalipuram, or Mamallapuram, is a small town in Kancheepuram district in Tamil Nadu, on the
Coromandel Coast, 60 km south of Chennai. Today’s peaceful town used to be a busy seaport during the time of Periplus (first century CE) and Ptolemy (140 CE).
Ancient Indian traders who went to countries in Southeast Asia sailed from this port. In the seventh century, it was the second capital and seaport of the Pallava kings of Kanchipuram and is now classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The modern city of Mahabalipuram was established by the British in 1827.
Mamallapuram attracts tourists from all over the country as well as abroad. It is Tamil Nadu’s only true travellers’ enclave, a mix of sun, seafood and sand, with a dash of seediness thrown in; but it’s much more than that. Famous for its ancient rock carvings, especially the Shore Temple, the village remains a renowned centre for stone carving.
You’ll see and hear the constant tapping of hammer and chisel as artisans chip away at exquisite sculptures. The local community, affected by the 2004 tsunami, have worked hard to get back to normal as quickly as possible.
The entire stretch of ECR upto Mahabalipuram runs alongside the Bay of Bengal. After leaving Chennai city limits, one really enjoys the long, winding drive on the coast road, drinking in the azure blue sea and the salty sea breeze.
Almost in the middle of this stretch is a backwater stream at Muttukadu, with the road going over a bridge across the stream. There is a boating facility and restaurant here which is a crowd-puller in fair weather. This backwater stretch is also a favourite spot for birdwatchers and you can stay at the forest rest house in the Vedantangal Bird Sanctuary.
Although the birding season is between November and February, Egrets, Pond Heron, Night Heron, River Tern, Pied Kingfisher, Pelicans and Storks are seen throughout the year.
Another vacation spot on ECR is Kovalam beach. Away from the city, it is generally low on tourists and you can enjoy the sunrise all by yourself or with your dear ones. There is a small fishing hamlet nearby bustling with fishermen bringing in their catch in the early hours and selling it on the spot. A couple of other attractions on this stretch are Crocodile Bank and Dakshin Chitra.
The Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Centre for Herpetology (or Croc Bank) was the brain child of the legendary Romulus Whitaker and a handful of like-minded conservation visionaries who began work on the facility in 1976, in a desperate effort to save India’s dwindling crocodile population.
Today, after more than 30 formidable years of cutting edge science and grassroots education, the Croc Bank remains a world leader in the field of frontline conservation. You can feed the reptiles for a small fee. Dakshina Chitra is a centre maintaining the living traditions of folk and performing arts, crafts and architecture of India, which occupies ten undulating acres overlooking the Bay of Bengal. There are several big and small resorts located here on the shoreline.
The drive finally ends at Mamallapuram village, where local fishermen pull in their boats. Its white sandy beaches are offset by the casuarinas trees found in abundance and you can take long unimpeded walks, drinking green coconut water, but at high tide take care walking over the rocks. It’s not great for swimming as there are dangerous currents but you can go fishing in an outrigger if you find a willing boatman to agree on the price.
The Pallava kings created many architectural novelties in this town. Another name by which Mahabalipuram was known to mariners, since Marco Polo’s time, is “Seven Pagodas,” alluding to the Seven Pagodas of Mahabalipuram rumoured to have stood on the shore, of which only one, the Shore Temple, survives. The Shore Temple is situated on the Bay of Bengal with the entrance from the western side, away from the sea.
Recent excavations have revealed some more new structures here. Standing like a magnificent fist of rock-cut elegance overlooking the sea, the Shore Temple symbolises the heights of Pallava architecture and the maritime ambitions of the Pallava kings. Its small size belies its excellent proportions and the supreme quality of the carvings, many of which have been eroded into vaguely Impressionist embellishments.
Originally constructed in the seventh century, it was later rebuilt by Narasimhavarman II and houses two central shrines to Shiva. The layout is meant to resemble the perfect cosmic body, with the head and heart located over the spire that dominates the structure. The temple is believed to be the last in a series of buildings that extended along a since submerged coastline; this theory gained credence during the 2004 tsunami, when receding waters revealed the outlines of what may have been sister temples.
The Shore temple shows the prominent influence of Buddhism in its traditional Pagoda style. The myth of the seven Pagodas fascinates the locals and it is beyond any doubt that there are more structures on the seabed which probably will never reappear and the secret of the pagodas may remain buried underwater forever.
Other popular sights include Thirukadalmallai, the temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu, and built by the Pallava Kings. It certainly fulfilled their intention, by protecting Mahabalipuram’s sculptures from further destruction by the ocean, as an earlier tsunami had reportedly destroyed the Pallava temples in the 13th century.
Descent of the Ganges or Arjuna’s Penance is a giant open-air bas relief. The panel (30m x 12m) is divided by a huge perpendicular fissure that’s skillfully encompassed into the sculpture; originally, water, representing the Ganges, flowed down it. The main relief shows Shiva standing with a wizened Arjuna, balanced on one leg in a state of penance.
As if we couldn’t wax more poetic on Mamallapuram’s stonework, there is also this relief carving, one of the greatest of its age and certainly one of the most convincing and unpretentious works of ancient art in India.
Many mandapams, featuring fine internal sculptures, are scattered over the main hill. Among them is Krishna Mandapam, one of the earliest rock-cut temples and predating the penance relief. Its carvings of a pastoral scene show Krishna lifting up the mythical Govardhana mountain to protect his kinsfolk from the wrath of Indra.
The temples of Mamallapuram, portraying events described in the Mahabharata, were built largely during the reigns of Narasimhavarman and his successor Rajasimhavarman and showcase the movement from rock-cut architecture to structural building. What makes Mamallapuram so culturally resonant are the influences it absorbed and disseminated.
Megalithic burial urns, cairn circles and jars with burials dating to the very dawn of the Christian era have been discovered here. The Sangam age poem Perumpannruppatai relates the rule of King Thondaiman Ilam Thiraiyar at Kanchipuram, from the Tondai Nadu port Nirppeyyaru, which scholars identify with Mamallapuram. The Pallava kings used the port to launch trade and diplomatic missions to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia.
The sculpture museum contains more than 3000 sculptures in stone, wood, metal and even cement, that run the gamut from interesting stonework to still-life depictions of fruit bowls, where you surely get your Rs 2 ticket’s worth. Some fine paintings are on display and the front courtyard is littered with sculptures. Local sculptors on the main street to the sea will teach you stone carving. For shopping, there are good art galleries, tailors and antique shops. Mamallapuram wakes each day to the sound of sculptors’ chisels on granite.
You can buy from the fixed-price Poompuhar Handicrafts Emporium or bargain at the craft shops that line the main roads. Sculptures range from Rs 300 for a small piece to fit in your baggage to Rs 4,00,000 for a massive Ganesh that needs to be lifted with a mobile crane. Expensive but beautiful curios culled from local homes can be bought at Southern Arts and Crafts.
Mahabalipuram is popular not only for its temples, but also for birdwatching, watersports, beach treks and shopping. The French enclave of Pondicherry, home to Sri Aurobindo’s Ashram, is 120 km away and connected to Chennai by the ECR. Best time to visit is December to March. The retreating monsoons bring heavy rains, so take care.