Mahabalipuram, India

Mamallapuram Travel Blog

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A day off and I found myself in George's car driving southwards along the East Coast Road. An area that was hit by the tsunami but according to George wasn't too severely damaged because there weren't many houses build along the shore. I had gotten up early at 5 o'clock and as I had feared there was no way to get breakfast before 6 o' clock. So I grabbed two kit-kats from the mini bar to ensure that I would at least have something in my stomach for the next couple of hours.
East Coast Road features one of the few toll roads in India and for part of the way you got glimpses of the Bay of Bengal. There wasn't much traffic yet and we reached our destination, Mahabalipuram (60 km south of Chennai), in about an hour. We were joined by a guide arranged by George, who would lead me around the town for the next two to three hours.

Mahabalipuram is a small fisherman's town famous for it's temples and bas-relief carvings, some of which are protected by the UNESCO. Most of these were made during the dynasty of Pallava kings in the 7th to 9th century. Ever since, Mahabaliparum has remained a sculptors town, with work being exported all over India and the world beyond.
We first went to Krishna's Butterball, a remarkable big boulder that seems to balance dangerously on the hillside. It is actually firmly attached at the base, but still it looks like it could flatten you any minute. Other interesting spots on the central rock of the town were several caves with bas-reliefs depicting scenes from legends, among which an absolute highlight, Arjuna's Penance, the world's largest Indian art bas-relief. This wall depicts many mythical creatures and animals (among which a family of elephants) watching Arjuna, one of the five brothers of the Mahabharata legend, standing on one leg for several years in order to get a mighty weapon from Shiva's needed to win a war.

After viewing all of these wonderful things in the centre of town, we visited a temple where active worship to Vishnu and Lakshmi was still being held (all of the other temples were only monuments). This was the first time I actually entered a Hindu temple since in Nepal this was never allowed. Quite interesting to see how the people went in and received holy water and the ingredients for creating the characteristic red dot on the forehead.

One of the most remarkable things about the temples and carvings in Mahabaliparum is that they were often carved from singles pieces of rock. This also goes for the Five Rathas: five temple chariots with accompanying stone animals, like a big elephant. Each chariot has a different architectural style and each is dedicated to a brother from the Mahabharata legend. The amazing thing is that these 5 temples were constructed by chiseled top down from the rocks. The builders came close to completing them, but the lack of details and roughness of some of the reliefs proves that they never actually did.

Krishna's Butterball Arjuna's Penance The Five Rathas The Shore Temple

(Click on the pictures above to view the full photo album)

The Shore Temple was the only one of seven comparable temples surviving until today. It featured a Vishnu and Shiva shrine, as well as the ever present linga and a sculpture of a sacrifice to Durga. Some of the sides of the Shore Temple had lost their detail owing to erosion by wind and water, but it still is a most remarkable building. My guide told me a story of the origin of bats (living in one of the temples shrines). According to legend bats were a rather failed experiment of Shiva trying to proof to the creator god Brahma that he could also create living beings. Another story involved one of the arguments between Shiva and his wife Parvati about who could make the best dance moves. In the end Shiva could perform one physical move which his wife couldn't, thereby proving his point that males were superior to females. I just love these stories.

Before leaving town I bought a set of postcards and a town guide after much haggling with the seller. Little did he know that previous travels to Asia have refined my value estimating and negotiating skills. Nevertheless, when I later calculated what I paid (some 60% of the starting price) I was still shocked by the relative price. I definitely need to practice calculating rupees to Euro. ;-)
When we left the town we dropped the guide after I paid and tipped him and George brought me to the Temple Bay resort so I could have breakfast. One of the typical resorts in the area, it was lush and beautiful but also attracted a different crowd. I think these were the first American tourists I came across (and hopefully the last) and the available food was more American than Indian as well. Nevertheless I was able to make a nice semi-Indian semi-continental selection again.

SPKumari says:
hi, after reading yr review on Mahapalipuram, I think you hv enjoyed btr thn i am. I did visit this places too. I juz love this places.. as i'm so in love with ancent stuff..buildings, things..anyway i will go back to this place again.
Posted on: Oct 19, 2008
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Mamallapuram
photo by: gert-n-bert