Friday, November 13, 2009

Discovering Mahabalipuram

Shore Temple MahabalipuramMahabalipuram is an ancient town on the outskirts of Chennai that was a flourishing sea-port for hundreds of years (1-100 AD). This town was a vital part of the trade-link between the Coramandel coast of India and the Far East - a link hidden to Arabia and Europe, who thought of India as the single source for all exotic spices. In reality, mace and nutmeg - once among the most treasured of spices - actually came from islands of Indonesia and Malaysia via Mahabalipuram and other nearby ports. This fact was cleverly hidden by Indian merchants who traded these spices to Arabs for large profits on the Malabar coast .

Is that Ganges coming down to Earth? Arjuna's Penance, MahabalipuramMahabalipuram is also home to some of the most extraordinary stone sculptures from the ancient world, the time when the Pallavas ruled the South. India has many rock-cut architectures from even older times and in larger scale, such as those in the Ellora and Ajanta caves. However, what makes Mahabalipuram special are the free-standing monolithic temples carved out of single granite rocks and the exquisite hill-side stone reliefs - some of which sport the oldest known Devnagari scripts along with scenes from the Mahabharata.

Near Arjuna's Penance MahabalipuramIt seems like every rocky hillside and stone formation became the canvas for these artists of old. Their ebalorate reliefs and life-like statues tell stories that have lasted thousands of years. They have lasted in spite of the assault by salty ocean sprays, the tides and the infrequent tsunamis and hurricanes.

I was attending a business event very close to this old seaside town and my host offered to be my guide to these ancient wonders. Thank you, Mani! This was a well-spent two hours that made a far greater impact than my history books at school ever did.

Rock cut hall with pillars at MahabalipuramThe large, detailed relief popularly called Arjuna's Penance shows Arjuna praying for divine support before entering the big war. One can see the Gods and demons looking on in awe. Another interpretation of this relief has Bhagirath praying to bring the goddess Ganges to the earth. On one corner, you can even see a pious cat praying to fool the mice into coming closer - some of our folk stories are that old apparently! The large elephant in the middle of this (and other reliefs) lead some to believe a Buddhist influence exists in these art-forms.

Divine beings watch from the heavens, Arjuna's Penance, Mahabalipuram
Elephant in the center and the pious on the bottom left round off Arjuna's Penance at MahabalipuramAnother relief, this time within the confines of a hall with pillars - all carved out of a rocky hillside - shows Krishna holding up a hillock to protect his fellow villagers from heavy thunderstorms unleashed by Indra. In each of these detailed artwork in stone, the detailing of these popular scenes from Indian mythology is quite amazing.

Krishna's brother Balaram comforts a villager, relief in Mahabalipuram
Cattle and villagers huddle under a hillock held aloft by Krishna (out of the fram) at Mahabalipuram
A temple in MahabalipuramWe drove past a gaint granite stone balanced precariously on a hillside and got down again to stroll around the Panch Rathas i.e., the Five Chariots. These are five monolithic temples in the shape of chariots each made in a different style and named after a character from the Mahabharata.

Krishna's Butter Ball at Mahabalipuram
Panch Rathas at Mahabalipuram
Panch Rathas at Mahabalipuram
Panch Rathas at Mahabalipuram
Panch Rathas at MahabalipuramFinally, I visited the Shore Temple which has been the landmark most associated with Chennai. Early European travellers refered to this location as the Seven Pagodas, setting off a legend about a city under the sea. Interestingly, the tsunami of 2004 uncovered more ancient underwater ruins that has given recent impetus to archeological expeditions. Who know, maybe the other six 'pagodas' are indeed waiting to be discovered under the sea after all!

Excellent Pepper Squid at The Trident Chennai
In-room Dining at The Trident ChennaiBy the time I returned to my hotel, it was dark. The pepper-fried squid on the in-room dining menu was particularly delicious! Try it, if you are ever at The Trident in Chennai.


Aathira Nair said...

Aah... squid .. that reminds me of the shacks in Goa serving various finger licking dishes of squids and prawns.

Lakshmi said...

One of my favourite destinations..even after several school excursions, am never tired of this place..still theres so much to know and see abt this place


nice pics

Vamsee Modugula said...

A non-food post from you in a long time! Nice! Mahabalipuram has been on my list ever since I was a kid and your post makes my resolve stronger. Some of those carvings are just beautiful.

I am in Indonesia now, eating a Mexican dinner (not bad):)

Nimesh Desai said...

Nice description with very nice photos. I was planning a trip to Mahabalipuram and Puducherry and this will certainly add fuel to my planning!

Shantanu said...

@Aathira: Oh yes, I love the seafood in the shacks on the beach in Goa.

@Lakshmi: I guess you would know the history behind this place much better than I do. This was my first trip and I didn't have time to explore the light-house. But I did learn a thing or two about the epicurean Pallavas.

Shantanu said...

@Harekrishnaji: Thank you!

@Vamsee: Yes, one of those rare times. :)

@Nimesh: Thank you. And do share your experiences from the trip.

மணி மு. மணிவண்ணன் said...


It was a pleasure to take you around Mamallapuram (as Mahabalipuram was known to history).

There is a lot more to see at Mahabalipuram. The next time you may want to go to the Tiger Cave area to study the oldest Devnagari inscriptions. The Pallava Sanskrit inscriptions are gorgeous to look at.

And if you get a chance, you should visit Kanchipuram the ancient city praised by Kalidasa as "nagareshu kanchi." Its Kailasanathar temple is presumed to be the model for the Ellora Kailasanath temple.

- Mani M.

kyh said...

Those are some architectural gems! What nice temples and sculptures. I love these cultural stuff. :)

And oh, nutmegs are from the Maluku islands, the so-called 'Spice Islands' in Eastern Indonesia.

Shantanu said...

@Mani: Thanks again. I will keep the additional info in mind for the next trip. :)

@Kyh: Yes, the name escaped me...had read about it in John Keay's wonderful book, The Spice Trail.

Karthik Sankar said...

Hello Shantanu, This is indeed a very vivid and picturesque account of Mahabalipuram. Have not been able to visit your blog lately. It is very refreshing to read your blog :)Have not been able to meet you ever since I left the company.Do let me know when you come down to Bangalore.

GMG said...

Hi Shantanu! It looks lovely! One day I'll see it on the spot... ;))

Waiting for you at Blogtrotter, which is firmly back to an amazing building... ;)). Enjoy and have a great weekend!

Sid said...

Wonderful picture of the balanced stone. Gives a very nice perspective. I really liked the shore temple and even a couple of restaurants around the area. Maybe you should give one of them a try the next time.

Been following your blog for a long time and love the restaurant reviews, especially the ones inside the hotels. First comment I guess :)

Shantanu said...

@Karthik: Good to see you here. Thanks. Not sure if I will have the time while in Bangalore (which is where I am right now!).

@GMG: I know, I know. I have been tardy in my browsing habits lately.

@Sid: Welcome here! Thank you for your comments. The only restaurant near M'puram I tried was at the Fisherman's Cove.

Anonymous said...

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I apologise, but, in my opinion, you are not right. Write to me in PM, we will talk.

Shantanu said...

@Anon: Not quite sure what you mean.

Anonymous said...

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And you et an account on Twitter?

Shantanu said...

@Anon: It will be helpful if you can identify yourself and your blog first.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
I Love Mahabalipuram said...

Hi Shantanu, We have just set up a facebook page for love of Mahabalipuram! Please like and share! And let us know if you want to contribute as well and I will provide you admin rights.

Hope to see you on there and be in touch!

I Love Mahabalipuram Admin