Mahabalipuram- The Erstwhile Town of Seven Pagodas

Mahabalipuram or Mamallapuram has been in the recent news thanks to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping meeting up here for an informal summit. Located in the Chengalpattu district, along the Coromandel coast in Tamil Nadu, this historical temple town was established by the Pallava dynasty between 7th -9th century. The father-son duo of Pallava kings Mahendravarman and Narsimhavarnam were responsible for the development of this grand city. King Narsimhavarnam was nicknamed ‘Mamalla’ or great wrestler and that’s how the city was christened Mamallapuram.

Ancient coins from China, Persia and Rome found here point out that it was a flourishing seaport for trade many aeons ago. This architecturally ardent town is well known for its group of monuments. Temples, rock-cut caves, rathas or chariots and open-air rock-cut reliefs merit its inclusion as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

After exploring Pondicherry and Auroville, our next destination was the coastal town of Mahabalipuram.  It was afternoon by the time we reached and checked into our hotel. We decided to eat some lunch, and the hotel staff surprised us with a cake to celebrate ‘Father’s Day’. This gesture was particularly special since our daughter was soon to fly abroad for her undergraduate studies. We weren’t sure when the family could be together next to celebrate this occasion.

It was almost 4 p.m. as we headed towards the Shore Temple. The place was buzzing with tourists, guides chasing to make a fast buck. Peddlers trying to sell pearl necklaces, miniature stone sculptures and whatnot. In all this cacophony and not to forget the sun blazing on our heads, we purchased the entry passes and walked towards the Shore Temple. This temple is also known as the ‘2 States’ temple. It featured in this Bollywood movie where Alia Bhatt and Arjun Kapoor get married. This magnificent temple, with intricate carvings and workmanship, overlooking the Bay of Bengal is simply mesmerizing. The Mahabalipuram Dance Festival is held here in January/ February each year.

Shore Temple, Mahablipuram @Rafiq Somani

Legend has it that centuries ago Mahabalipuram had Seven Pagodas. The town enjoyed trade with Europe, South East Asia and other countries. A tsunami or earthquake is believed to have submerged the pagodas except for the Shore Temple, which is a testimony of its celebrated past. During the 2004 Tsunami eyewitnesses saw a series of rocks emerge as the tide receded 500 metres into the sea before returning to cause devastation. It also brought with it hitherto unknown ancient remnants—a lion sculpture which can be seen on the Mahabalipuram beach.  A couple of underwater expeditions have revealed a submerged city. But the enigma and mystery will continue to fascinate us until it is thoroughly researched and uncovered.

Mahabalipuram Beach @Rafiq Somani

A landmark attraction of Mahabalipuram is a bas relief rock cut on two boulders that spreads 96 feet wide and is 43 feet in height. There is uncertainty about the theme that it depicts with historians divided in view. Hence it is called Arjuna’s Penance as well as Descent of Ganges. Well, whatever may be its’s theme the bas relief with an ensemble of mythological figures, celestial beings, mammoth Elephants, serpents and so on is worthy of praise.

Arjuna’s Penance, Mahabalipuram @Rafiq Somani

There are many rock-cut cave temples too in Mahabalipuram and the adjoining areas. Near Arjuna’s Penance was the Krishna Temple which has narratives from Lord Krishna’s life carved. Krishna is lifting the Govardhan Hill, dancing with Gopis, milking cows and so on. Adjoining the Arjuna’s Penance was also the Panchpanadavas Cave temple.

Krishna Temple, Mahabalipuram @Rafiq Somani
Panchpanadavas Cave Temple, Mahablipuram @Rafiq Somani

The hot, humid weather was now taking a toll on us. We were melting like ice cream, or should I say butter. A gravity-defying 16 feet round rock called Krishna’s butterball has been standing precariously on a slope for more than 1000 years! Numerous attempts were made in the past, including elephants, to roll it down but without any success. We saw tourists clicking funny pictures as if trying to roll it off the slope or trying to balance it on their heads.

Krishna’s Butterball, Mahabalipuram @Rafiq Somani

The Trimurti Cave temples representing the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh are also close. Another attraction was the three-tiered Ganesha Ratha Temple with ornamentation on the exterior façade.

Trimurti Cave, Mahabalipuram @Rafiq Somani

We soon exited the complex which housed Krishna’s Butterball and headed to see the Panch rathas. On the way, we picked some raw mangoes and chilled water to keep ourselves hydrated. June was certainly not the best time of the year to visit this town, but that’s when most schools have vacations.

Lighthouse, Mahablipuram @Rafiq Somani

As we continued walking, we passed an incomplete bas relief which reminded us of Arjuna’s Penance. At another place, we saw a lighthouse and then the Mahishamardini Mandapam temple. We saw tourists climbing a boulder on top of which is the Olkaneswara Temple. A troop of monkeys was up to mischief as they tried snatching food items from tourists. We kept climbing, preferring to ignore them and finally reached the top. A panoramic view of Mahabalipuram with the lighthouse, the beach and the sea in the distance greeted us.

Olkaneswara [email protected] Somani

The Panch Rathas are five chariots that get their names from the legendary five Pandava brothers and their wife Draupadi of the Mahabharata epic. The tallest of the five rathas, with three tiers having Shiva in the form of Ardhanariswara (half man, half woman), is Dharmaraja or Yudhisthir’s Ratha. Next to it was the longest of the five rathas, with a gabled roof, called Bhima Ratha.

Panch Rathas, Mahabalipuram @Rafiq Somani
Dharmaraja or Yudhisthir’s Ratha, Mahabalipuram @Rafiq Somani
Bhima Ratha, Mahablipuram @Rafiq Somani

Arjuna’s Ratha and Draupadi’s Ratha, in the form of a small hut, lay next to each other. The Nakula and Sahadeva Ratha is the only ratha which stands aside and is not in the same line as the other rathas. A giant elephant sculpture stood next to it.

Arjuna’s Ratha, Mahablipuram @Rafiq Somani
Draupadi’s Ratha, Mahablipuram @Rafiq Somani
Nakula and Sahadeva Ratha, Mahablipuram @Rafiq Somani

Having heard about the Seashell and Pearl museum decided to visit it too.  Raja Mohammed, the founder of the museum, has painstakingly collected 40,000 shells from countries across the globe like Thailand, Mexico, Australia and so on. Models of a train, car and aeroplane embellished with oyster shells and numerous other attractions were on display. The pearl museum has a replica of the largest pearl as well as the smallest pearls the size of pinheads. A fish aquarium was also close by, with fish in various hues and tints.

Sea Shell Museum, Mahablipuram @Aafiya Somani
Pearl Museum, Mahabalipuram @Aafiya Somani

There was so much that we had managed to see in a matter of hours. The sun was now setting as we retreated to our hotel suite, which had an attached pool. Our feet were tired, aching and so we decided to unwind at the poolside and reminisce all the heritage, culture and art that we had experienced.

Mahabalipuram is now inevitably going to be on the wish list of many travellers thanks to the buzz generated by Modi-Xi visit. But even if it weren’t for them, this town with its architectural wonders steeped in history and the mystery surrounding the submerged city will allure you. The next time you are in Chennai set aside a day to visit Mahabalipuram. You won’t be disappointed.

Nearest Airport: The nearest airport is Chennai with connectivity to international destinations as well as major cities of India.
Distances: Mahabalipuram to Chennai is 56 km by road.
Mahabalipuram to Pondicherry is 95 km by road.
Where to Stay: We stayed at the Four Point’s Sheraton. You can do a net search for an array of staying options depending on comfort and budget. 
Travel Trip: If you have the time, do spend a couple of days in Pondicherry and Auroville in addition to Mahabalipuram.

This travelogue was first published in Corporate Tycoons Magazine, Nov 2019.

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