Mahabalipuram, also known as Mamallapuram is a name that inspires images of grand century old architecture. The town is situated on the east coast of India, on the Coromadel Coast, on a small strip of land between The Bay of Bengal & The Great Salt Lake. The drive from Chennai airport along the east coast road, takes about an hour & gives you glimpses of blue/green water & white sand beaches. Enough to get anyone excited!
My visit at the end of April, during the heat wave in India didn’t really foster beach days but I knew I just had to visit the Temple monuments that are UNESCO World Heritage site.
These monuments were built by the Pallava dynasty & due to the massive trade with China there is a heavy influence of Buddhist & Chinese architecture in the monuments. Infact, Mahabalipuram was an important port city a millennia ago & besides Chinese you can also see Assyrian & Egyptian influences in some of the monuments.
I learnt that the famous Kanjeevaram sarees we know of today have their roots in this important port city which was on the silk root, resulting in China selling silk in a barter system in exchange for spices etc. that the traders in India had to offer.
The Shore Temple
My first stop was The Shore Temple, I would recommend getting a guide as they can give you a detailed history of the place. My guide was fluent in English & Hindi & very knowledgeable. The Temple today, as the name suggests sits very close to the shore, in fact, it was almost battered by the waves until our late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, visited the monument & upon seeing the risk it posed to the structure, she then got boulders installed along the coast to protect the monument.
The Temple is surrounded by 59 bull sculptures, & is east west facing. So intelligently designed that at sunrise the sun’s rays fall on & illuminate the idol within the east facing room & during sunset the rays fall thru the west door illuminating the idol in the west facing room. There is also an open sandy area, which is a stage, on the western side where dance performances took place.
The shore temple & the other monuments here have been fighting against the elements of nature for Millenia. The December 2004 tsunami had water reach past the shore temple right up to the tourist souvenir shops outside. In fact, it is believed the town was hit by a much larger tsunami in 600 AD, according to my guide. I will attach a picture from another monument later in the blog which shows the alleged water line up to where that particular tsunami had submerged the monument.
Most of these structures, including the shore temple were buried beneath the sands & excavated by the British during the Raj.
Coming back to the Shore temple, the weathering over the past 1300 years is very clearly evident. The stone has been smoothed out by the wind & salty sea air & water. In this temple too you can see the Chinese influence in the form of the very Asian looking Lion figures. My guide pointed them out but it’s easy to spot & they reminded me of the ones in Indonesian, Cambodian & Javanese temples.
This was a vital port city, according to the guide a part of the silk trade that went on all those years ago. The Chinese traded silk in exchange for spices etc. in a barter system & that’s how the nearby town of Kanjeevaram ended up being known for silk today. It was because traders brought & introduced it to India all those Millenia ago.
Another really cool fact, is that the 2004 tsunami exposed a lot more carvings & buildings that have been swallowed up by the sea. It’s believed that about 6 temples are now underwater. If you’re a history buff like me, this place is a must visit. Listening to the stories & seeing these magnificent monuments transports one back in time. You can almost imagine the place at the height of its glory. Elephants & horses, trader’s ready to barter their wares a melting pot of poeple from some of largest empires of the day, vibrant, colourful & noisy 😊
The Five Rathas
My next stop was The Five Rathas or Pancha Rathas temple, it is an example of Monolithic architecture in India, meaning the whole monument, each individual piece was carved out of one huge piece of granite rock. It’s absolutely mind blogging to imagine how they started craving from the top to the bottom while managing to design this whole complex of structures & have perfect symmetry & proportions in the finished monument.
Each of the five monuments here has been made to resemble a chariot. These structures though referred to as temples were never really consecrated as the king that commissioned them passed away before completion. Each structure represents one of the 5 Pandavas & Draupadi from the epic of Mahabaratha.
There is a striking elephant & Lion structure, both with their backs to each other facing in opposite directions as if guarding the complex. This complex was also excavated by the British & when the elephant was excavated it was found to have real ivory tusks, that were then taken by the British & are now in the British Museum. Attaching a pic below where you see where the ivory tusks were installed on the elephant.
Another absolutely mindbogglingly stunning work of art, built by one of the Pallava Kings around 600 to 640 A D. This is a bas relief carved onto a huge rock face & is also known as The Descent of the Ganges, it depicts Arjuna performing penance to defeat the Kauravas & you can see a depiction of Shiva granting his wish. It is one of the largest open air Bas reliefs in the world & this is also a monolithic sculpture craved on two huge granite boulders. To give you an idea, it’s about the size of a Blue whale.
It’s also known as The Descent of The Ganges as some believe it to be the Sage Badrinath performing penance to ask Shiva to bring the Ganges down from the heavens, as you can see in the pic below the middle looks like a river flows down. It’s believed to be carved in this manner so the monsoon rain, flowing down the middle gives the impression of the Ganges River flowing down to earth.
You can spot the representation of the sun god & moon god. Two beautiful life like elephants with calves, a cat standing on one leg, which my guide described as doing yoga & a depiction of a snake princess in the middle of both reliefs.
The scale and magnitude of the craving can only be truly appreciated in person. Another fun fact, after Indira Gandhi visited here, she was so blown away by the beauty of the place that you will see here on this relief a deer depiction which she put onto our 10-rupee notes.
Krishna’s Butter Ball
My final stop was a visit to the famous Krishna’s Butter Ball, a gigantic granite boulder, resting on an inclined rock face. My first impression on seeing it was that it was going to roll down & crush everything in its path as it’s as it is so precariously balanced.
The boulder is massive weighing about 250 tonnes & around 20ft high & 16 ft wide. The rock on which it rests has been worn smooth in over the years, maybe due to people climbing up & probably sliding back down.
The legend states that a Pallava king, in 600 C. E., tried to move the boulder & failed & in 1908, the then Governor of the city, Arthur Havelock, tried to move the boulder with seven elephants due to safety concerns but failed in his attempt as well & it has apparently stood in place for around 1200 years. It’s quite a fascinating place to see as its incredible how this huge boulder rests on this sloping rock for over a thousand years.
This was my last stop as I was tied for time. There are however around 9 monolithic temple monuments to visit at this UNESCO world heritage site. I would recommend visiting the place in the cooler months as it would take a few hours of walking around to see it all properly & the heat was a killer this time of the year for me. Make sure to carry a hat, sunglasses, water, a good guide & comfortable shoes. The site is open 6am to 6 pm daily, entry is free for kids, adults pay Rs. 40, if your Indian & Rs. 600 if you are a foreign national. Mahabalipuram Panchayat charges an entry for vehicles, its currently Rs. 75 for a car, Rs. 125 for a bus, Rs. 15 for a two-wheeler & Rs. 100 for a tempo traveller.
Being only an hour from Chennai, a day trip is sufficient to see all the monuments & will also give you ample time to relax & perhaps grab lunch at one of the local seaside restaurants, giving you a chance to sample the local food too.
Overall, I would highly recommend a visit to Mahabalipuram, history buff or not. Its fab!