Mahabalipuram is believed to have influenced temple architecture in Cambodia and Java too
The little girl runs and crouches behind the big boulder. She catches me smiling at her and puts a finger to her lips. It is a pleasant Saturday afternoon and the soft rays of the sun light up the sandy shores. l follow my gaze and see small hillocks, big boulders, rock cut temples and carved caves set amidst casuarina trees.
The blueness of the sky and the waves stand out against the sandy shores and the stony sculptures. A bunch of children are playing hide and seek. All of a sudden, I feel like a child again. The weight of three decades is removed from my shoulders as I go back to my childhood. We are a bunch of motley kids looking pretty in our uniforms and running and screaming wildly as we find freedom from our classrooms. It is the annual excursion to Mahabalipuram.
Several years later I am in Mahabalipuram again, lost in the sculptures. I am not seeking academic information or a place to picnic. It is an eagerness to explore, a childlike curiosity, a joy in discovering something new that overwhelms me.
The crowds soon gather. There are swarms of touts, tourists, vendors and visitors vying for attention at the historic site. The history of the coast, however, goes back to ancient times when maritime trade flourished here with Rome, China and other South East Asian countries.
Mahabalipuram became a thriving port during the Pallava reign between 6th-10th centuries. Referred to as Kadalmallai or Mammalapuram, after Pallava king Narasimhavarman 1, who was nicknamed Mammala or ‘wrestler’ it finds mention in works of ancient travelers and historians like Periplus, Ptolemy and Hiuen Tsang.
The structures at Mahabalipuram are among the oldest existing examples of Dravidian architecture
Interestingly it is documented in “Carta Cartalana”, a 14thcentury Spanish world map as “Setemelti” referring to “Sette Templi”, the obvious reference to the Seven Shore temples, of which only one remains today.
Standing tall against the ocean, the World heritage site, houses three shrines dedicated to Vishnu and Shiva. A guide tries to lure me by narrating the tale of the “tsunami temple”, referring to some sculptures that were found under water after the tsunami. “Underwater excavations are still happening madam”, he says, adding that the locals believe there could be a city buried underneath the waters. A local gypsy walks with beads and necklaces on her arms, trying to grab my attention.
There are three temples of which two Shiva Temples face east and west respectively built by Narasimha Varman II. The third is the Vishnu Temple built by Narasimha Varman I. Carvings of various Hindu Gods and Goddesses, such as Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Lakshmi, Parvati, Ganesha, Skanda , Narasimha and Durga, are depicted here.
The central shrine is in the form of a rectangle. Here the sculpure of Vishnu is found reclining; hence, the deity is known as Sthala Shayana Perumal or Ananthasayana. It is said that Vishnu reclines on the floor listening silently to the sounds of names. It is pretty dark in there and one has to strain to catch the glimpse of the reclining God. The grand temple is surrounded by mandapas and compound walls.
Hundreds of highly skilled sculptors toiled to create the wonders at Mahabalipuram
Legend has it that a great flood consumed a city of the east coast of India, more than 1500 years ago when the Gods grew jealous of its beauty. The sea has its secrets and some were uncovered post the tsunami, when recent underwater excavations have shown some structures hidden under the waters.
Excavations on the shore revealed the remains of an ancient temple dedicated to Shiva located to the south of the shore temple. A beautiful ring-well made of terracotta, a shikara stone are among the others which were found within the temple complex. According to the local traditions these structures are the remains of one of the six temples believed to have submerged. More temples were unearthed and we went in search of them.
We walk over to the monolithic rathas which are carved out of a single boulder. A tribute to the Pandavas of the Mahabharath, the Pallavas have built five Rathas or chariots called Dharmaraja (Yudhishthir), Bheem, Arjuna, Sahadev-Nakul and Draupadi. The monolithic temples are called locally as Rathas as they resemble the processional chariots of a temple. They were carved during the reign of King Mahendravarman I and his son Narasimhavarman I. Gods, kings, mortals and animals are sculpted on these temples as some of them are three storied like the Dharamaraja ratha and single storied like Draupadi ratha.
Erosion has taken a toll on several monuments but what remains, still speaks eloquently of the brilliance of Pallava architecture
I then see a beautiful bas relief which is sheer poetry on a single rock. I am looking at Arjuna’s Penance which narrates the story of Arjuna as Kiratarjuniya obtaining the weapon Pasupatha from Shiva after a severe penance. Set on the banks of the river which depicts life running its own course through images of nature, wildlife, man, it is also interpreted as the story of the descent of the River Ganges.
We walk past more rathas, cave temples and mandapams and watch as more stories come alive. The Varaha Cave, the Mahishamardini Mandapam, the Trimurthi cave, Ganesh Ratha, Govardhanagiri Panel, Konheri Cave, the Pindari Rath, the Krishna Mandapa – one is lost in the world of sea, sand and sculptures. I head to Krishna’s Butter Ball near Ganesh Ratha. It stands out there as everyone loses their balance while attempting to pose against the rock, even as it balances precariously on its own. A bunch of children were playing hide and seek. All of a sudden, I felt like a child again lost in the past.
First published on Jan 7, 2013