Located on the Coromandel Coast, Mahabalipuram is a 7th century port city that served as the capital of the Pallavas.
When we were planning our vacation, I had initially thought of spending a couple of days at Mahabalipuram, but things didn’t quite work out the way I’d hoped. Still, since it was just a 2–2.5 hour drive from Pondicherry, and could easily be covered as a day trip, I was determined to visit the city.
Mahabalipuram, referred to as an “open-air museum,” (similar to Nawalgarh in Rajasthan) is home to a wide variety of architectural styles, from rock-cut caves to temples hewn out of a single rock to gorgeous bas-reliefs. Some believe that the area was a school for sculptors, and this does seem plausible as the many different sculptures and types of architecture found here could easily have been demonstrated by instructors and practiced on by students.
Nowhere is this more evident than at the Pancha Rathas (five chariots), where each Ratha – carved from a single piece of granite – depicts a different style of sculpting. In addition to the chariots are a few animal sculptures, notably a lion and an elephant, which were also carved from a single rock.
Opposite the Pancha Rathas complex is a huge, open air complex where stone workers have their workshops. This is a great place to see artists at work and pick up souvenirs to take back home.
The Varaha Cave temple is located in a park (entrance free), which is also dotted with a lot of other stone temples and sculptures. The entrance to the temple is guarded by lions, carved into the base of the pillars, while Pallava doorkeepers guard the main mandapa. The four walls of the mandapa have large sculptured panels – the Northern panel depicts Vishnu as Varaha (the boar) holding up Bhumi (the earth goddess).
Once you see the temple, take a walk through the park, which is home to a ton of monkeys! The husband and me walked about a bit, until the sheer number of monkeys spooked us and we decided to turn back. I was keen to explore a bit more, but the hubs was tired, so he sat it out while I went on to explore some of the other old temple structures perched high up on rolling hills. Some of these places were rather simple, but the views were breathtaking.
All this walking about in the heat was getting us rather irritable, so we decided to get some lunch before continuing further. I wanted to have some seafood, so the driver took us to a place called Luna Magica, which I had heard about and wanted to try. The hubs took one look at all the fresh fish there and decided he couldn’t eat anything there! A brief argument conversation later, we decided to move out and find another place to eat. We ended up at a beach café, I don’t remember the name, where I did get some coastal food, but it was nowhere close to what I expected! Has anyone been to Luna Magica? Is the food as good as the reviews say it is?
Oh well! The food debacle behind us, our next stop was Arjuna’s Penance. Measuring 27 meters by 9 meters and carved on two gigantic stones, the bas-relief is among the largest in the world. The carving breathes life into the Panchatantra story of Ganges’ descent from the Himalayan mountains. Legend has it that King Bhagirath brought Ganges down from heaven to purify the souls of his ancestors, but when he realized that doing so would flood the earth, he prayed to Lord Shiva to intervene. Shiva allowed Ganga to descend on his head, allowing the flood to trickle through his hair, dispersing the waters safely in innumerable streams worldwide. The most famous part of the mural is the cleft between the rocks, which depicts Shiva’s descent from Heaven through the colossal waterfall.
The highlight of Mahabalipuram, though, is the 60 ft high, 5-story high Shore Temple, built on a 50 ft square platform overlooking the Bay of Bengal. In contrast to the rest of the rock cut temples in this city, the Shore Temple is built from dressed stone, and is one the important structural temples in South India.
The temple is a combination of three shrines. The main shrine is dedicated to Shiva as is the smaller second shrine. A small third shrine, between the two, is dedicated to a reclining Vishnu. The outer wall of the shrine to Vishnu and the inner side of the boundary wall are extensively sculptured and topped by large sculptures of Nandi. The whole temple has this wind swept look though, as the stone has slowly eroded away. The carvings still retain their beauty, but you can clearly see the damage that is being caused by wind erosion.
The temple is separated from the rest of the beach, which reminded me a bit of the beaches of Goa…next time we plan a trip down South, I’ll definitely block a couple of days for a stay at Mahabalipuram!