Mamallapuram or Mahabalipuram which is located about 50km from Chennai, Tamil Nadu in the South of India, was one place we visited during our recent trip to India, Chennai to be precise (April 2017)! We have visited the place as children, probably in the 90s but thoroughly enjoyed re visiting the place and were able to appreciate the works of art much better now. This place was the seaport of the Pallava Dynasty (7th to 9th century) and a very popular tourist destination today.
Now that we have visited Cambodia and Bali where you can see evidence of Hinduism, India (that these places were part of what was Akhanda Bharat), I was able to see a lot of similarity in the architecture. Having visited Mahabalipuram as a child, I had a pretty much vague memory of it, but it seemed to all come back to me when I was in Cambodia. There were a lot of similarities in the architecture. That the Pallava kings also ruled in Cambodia at a time when their stronghold of Mamallapuram (around 7th century AD) was being lost is something to be noted.
We visited the place on a weekday, summer was just starting to peak. We went with my parents in our car, Mahabalipuram is about 55 km from Chennai. You need to take the East Coast Road, fondly called ECR by the local residents. On the way, on either side, you can see a lot of resorts and private beaches dotting the way. You can hire a taxi or take a bus to this place from the city.
As you enter Mahabalipuram, you need to pay INR 40 as entry fee if you are riding your own vehicle and an additional INR 20 or 30 for parking. Mahabalipuram has been declared a UNESCO heritage site so all the money that you are paying goes towards the restoration works.
What did we see:
There are quite a lot of things you must and will see at the entire site, there has been a lot of changes from the time I last went to this visit. So I was confused quite a bit!
We started with the Krishna Mandapam first, there is a depiction of how Krishna lifted the Govardhan mountain.
Then you have Arjuna’s Penance, that is depicted as a giant bas-relief telling us the story. There are just too many characters on this bas-relief so it is quite confusing as to what it is actually depicting. This bas-relief is also called the Descent of the Ganges – the story goes that Arjuna undertook a penance to bring Ganga (Ganges) to earth from heaven.
After this, you have Krishnar Vennai or Krishna’s Butterball.
This is a giant rock that resembles Bhagwan Shri Krishna’s ball of butter. This rock is said to have been standing the way it is, for centuries and it hasn’t moved an inch all these years, even strong winds from a cyclone or a tsunami haven’t affected it.
Then you have the Varaha Cave, depicting Varaha Swamy (Bhagwan Vishnu in the avatar of a Boar) and Lakshmi Devi. We missed going to the lighthouse about 200 m from this Varaha Swamy Cave.
Now when we were coming out of the Varaha cave, we saw this “Kilijosiam” – astro predictions by a parrot. My dad is very fond of this and wanted to show S how the parrot would tell her, her fortune. So when S went up to the astrologer, he called the parrot and asked it to pick a card.
Based on the God’s image on the card, your predictions will be told. What did he predict? Um.. what he said did seem true and possible, however, I am not giving out any more details, it is a unique experience, do try it out.
On the other side of the Butterball, you have the Trimurti Cave, where you can see temples (unfinished I guess) dedicated to the Trimurtis – Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.
There is also a “well” like structure next to this, however, it was empty.
So with this, we took a break and had lunch at Mamalla Bhavan, a typical mess type restaurant, offering local fare – we had south Indian meals and filled our tummies.
With our tummies full, we moved on to visit the Shore Temple. For this you will need to buy an entry ticket; keep it safe (costs INR 30 for Indian adult tourists and INR 500 for foreigners)
This temple is the last one standing, it is said that there were 6 temples in all, the remaining 5 are said to have been washed away or buried deep in the ocean right next to the Shore Temple. This temple is said to be the oldest structure in the whole area, standing there for more than 1400 years.
Unlike Mahabalipuram’s other structures, the Shore temple is not a monolithic structure. It has been restored because it was damaged during the tsunami and cyclones. Work is still ongoing. So we could only see one clearly, the other 2 are closed. In this one temple, you have 3 deities – 2 of them are Lord Shiva (see below – as lingam and other with his family) while the third is a reclining Vishnu (I vaguely remember seeing this when I went for the first time as a child, I did feel sad that I couldn’t show it to S) which is closed for renovation work.
This temple has a Shivalingam on one side and a carving of Bhagwan Vishnu and his consort on the other. One portion faces the east, it is called the Somaskanda depicting Shivji with Parvati Devi and their child – Murugan. , just behind this shiva lingam (can you squint your eyes and check out the pic below).
These beautifully carved Nandis are seen all around the temple courtyard, what amazing works of art.
This is believed to be a mini version of the Shore Temple that was excavated by accident in the 90s. I have not been able to find much on this structure.
OK so, this boar seems to be butchered in an organised way, don’t you think? There is a symbolic story behind this monolith. It is believed to be a reference to the subjugation of the Chalukyas by Mamallan Narasimha Pallavan. It could have been destroyed by the Chalukyas out of hatred but also could have been restored during Rajasimha’s reign.
This is a fascinating sculpture depicting Durga Devi on her lion. You can see Her on the right leg of the lion, it is believed that she is practicing riding on the leg and would jump over and start riding the lion when she gains confidence. The square niche on the chest of the lion also has a carving which also represents Durga Devi. If you look closely, you will be able to see.
The tsunami of 2004 unearthed a few sculptures and maybe a temple? I am not sure, but all this is very intriguing and interesting. We want more of these mysteries don’t we?
You can also visit the beach and take a dip, but we were warned against stepping in the water due to high tide. The lovely sea breeze makes the weather bearable actually! Lots of shops line the way to the beach, you can have some delicious seafood or buy artwork made of shells, get your name written on a grain of rice or some other knickknacks or souvenirs.
From here we took another break and had a quick coffee (traditional filter coffee at Mamalla Bhavan) and went towards the Pancha Ratham or 5 Rathas (5 Chariots).
This was built by the Pallava King Narasimhavarman somewhere in 630-660 AD. Of all the things you see in Mahabalipuram, this one will evoke a lot of interest. There are 5 chariots or Rathas, one depicting each of the Pandavas – Arjuna, Yudhishtir (Dharmaraja), Bheem and Nakul-Sahadev and one for Draupadi, from Mahabharatha.
So before you read more, here’s an interesting fact – all these chariots were carved out of a single hillock. How does that sound? Marvellous? Astounding? Stupendous? No words to describe this right?
Now, what is the story behind each of these Rathas? If you closely look at each of the Rathas, you will see each one has a deity. Draupadi Ratha has the deity as Durga Devi; Arjuna Ratha is dedicated to Lord Shiva; Bheema Ratha to Vishnu in repose; Nakul-Sahadeva Ratha to Lord Indra and the Dharmaraja Ratha to Hari-Hara (Shiva-Vishnu) and Ardhanareeshwara (Shiva-Parvathi combine). The Arjuna Ratha resembles the Dharmaraja Ratha.
To know what a Ratha looks like, you can read my post about the Things You Can Do In Madras. Check out the Valluvar Kottam, a Ratha is the name given to a chariot or a temple car. So each of these 5 Rathas in the Pancha Ratham complex resembles a temple car/chariot and each one dedicated to each of the Pandava princes and Draupadi (refer Mahabharata epic).
The Nandi is in an unfinished state but even so, it is very majestic and colossal.
These Rathas remain incomplete till today. Whether they were temples or vimanas is still not clear. Now when you see the Dharmaraja Ratha or the Arjuna Ratha, you will find some similarity with Angkor Wat. You can also see a bull (Nandi), a lion outside the Draupadi ratha and an elephant near the Nakul Sahadeva Ratha, just outside Bheema Ratha.
The Rathas are incomplete, you can see Durga Devi enshrined in the hut-shaped Draupadi Ratha. And if you notice, each Ratha has a different roof structure.
With this you can complete your sight seeing tour, you can now proceed to shop!
On the way back, do not forget to pick up some stone-carving souvenirs. You will find people forcing you to buy soapstone carvings, I would suggest you avoid them and make your purchases at legit shops or at the stone carving shops.
For further reading, check this
So with this done, we started heading back to town. On the way, you will find a detour to Kovalam, a small fishing hamlet It has a very lovely beach, unfortunately, the last time I went it was an empty beach with crystal clear waters, it has become crowded over the years.
S, as usual, would not want to stop playing in the water, we had to literally pull her out! With this, we ended our day trip to the lovely and mystical Mahabalipuram.
- It is practically hot and sunny all year-round in Chennai, so also Mahabalipuram. It can get very hot and sweaty during the day, so it is advisable to wear light, cotton clothes and wear hats/caps and/or goggles.
- Avoid weekends and holidays, it can get very very crowded 😀
- Try to catch the sunset or sunrise at the Shore Temple (complex opens at 6 am and closes at 6 pm)
- If possible, hire a tour guide or if you are not comfortable with one, I recommend that you buy the book titled Mahabalipuram – a journey through a magical land by Shrinivaas-J.Prabhakar. Many mobile hawkers would be selling such books, this one was very enlightening.
- Bargain when you are shopping 🙂
Have you visited the place yet? Do make a visit, you will cherish it forever.