It was beginning of November and bright sunshine forced it’s way in our rooms. In Chennai, it does not matter if winter is officially around the corner, the sun and it’s army rule day long. Fuelled with the fantastic breakfast we set out to explore the history, still alive and breathtaking.
Mahabalipuram or sometimes called as Mammalpuram is a township 40 kms south of Chennai metropolis. The town is ancient, believed to be a thriving sea port during the reign of Pallav kings in the 6’th and 7’th century. Pallav dynasty ruled most of the Coromandel coast and Tamilnadu with their seat of power at Kanchi. Kanchipuram is also about a 75 km distance from Chennai and is famous for the temples which are again a feast to the eyes. The Pallav kings, SimhaVishnu, Mahendravarman, Narasimhavarman, powerful and prominent also backed the art and architecture and thus flourished the exquisite temple art we were about to see.
It will be interesting to note that 7’th century saw the reign of three prominent kings of Indian history, contemporary to each other and arch enemies of each other. King Harshavardhan of Kanauj , though expanded his Kingdome in entire region north of Vindhya, he was stalled by equally important king Pulkeshi of Chalukya dynasty ruling from Badami. And Pulkeshi’s advent in southward beyond Kaveri was stopped by Narasimhavarman Pallav and not only stopped but he also invaded and conquered Badami (then Vatapi), the Chalukyan capital for a short time.
Now coming back to the present times, our first stop was the location where the famous ‘Rath’s stood. Close to the ocean in the golden, almond sands, stood 5 magnificent samples of temple architecture.
Technically these are monolithic sculptures, since they are not ‘built’ but ‘carved’ out of single massive stone. The five temples are named in the memory of the Draupadi, Arjun, Bheem and Yudhishthir but these Mahabharat characters have really nothing to do with them. If you think about it, there are several ‘Pandav’ leni in Maharashtra, ‘Ghatotkach Guha’ in North India, ‘Sita Nhani’ at Verul and not to forget several temples dot this land which are built by the famous and powerful ‘Pandav’ in one night. In Maharashtra it is almost an habit to mention a temple with forgotten past to ‘Pandav kalin’. I guess it proves how deep Rmayan and Mahabharat is etched in our mindset.
Each of these temples called as ‘Rath’ or ‘Viman’ are distinct from one another, and one is forced to think, if this was some kind of showcase of monolithic temple architecture. The Draupadi Rath is hut like structure with elegant and minimal carvings on the 4 corners of the hut. Arjun temple is again having a square plan but with Dravid style ‘Shikhar’. Bheem Rath is unique as it has rectangular plan with canopy like ‘shikhar’. Yudhishthir and Ganesh rath are typical Dravid style temples with square plan and layers of structures forming a wedding cake style ‘shikhar’. Also in the premise, there are life-size impressive carvings of lion, bull and elephant. None of these temples have a deity in the sanctum. But one of the Yudhishtir temple walls has a full size carving of king Narasimhavarman Mammal and a line written in Brahmi script with the king’s name. The stone is granite and hence very hard, so it is quite creditable for the sculptors who have carved these massive structures with some delicate designs.
Impressed with the 1300+ year old worksmanship, we moved on. As we walked through the open gates, the vast panorama unfolded in front of our eyes. There it was…The bright piercing blue of the glorious sky, deep green tree tops swaying in light wind, the eternal sea bound by waves lingering near the sands and rocks and to the right a reminder from the past, erect, ornate, soothing the eyes and still standing, the shore temple !
One of the most photographed temple because of it’s location is actually a set of two temples set next to each other with a slight angle. The temple premise is walled with carvings of bulls(‘nandi’) sitting atop. The two temples are medium sized with typical Dravid architecture. However here the ‘shikhar’ is built in such a fashion that overall the temples zoom towards the sky, giving the impression of north Indian style ‘Nagar’ temples. The temple belongs to Shiv and Vishnu both. Close to the shore temple are small lanes lined with shops selling the works of modern workmen in stone, a shoppers’ delight indeed. Overall in Mahabalipuram there are several areas where modern sculptors are giving life and form to stone on the same lines as their ancestors.
There are some other ‘point’s to see for example, a vast stone wall carving called ‘Gangavataran’ and a cave with some rich carvings on the top of a hill, all worth visiting no doubt. Two of the monuments, the ‘Five Rath’ and the ‘Shore Temple’ are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and well deserving too. The 2006 tsunami has also uncovered some sculptures on the sea shore.
But after seeing wealth of temples and art, what remained in my mind was a sculpted cave, a little away from the tourist circuit. The opening of the cave is fully carved with multiple tiger faces, all around it. And the front porch is filled with water that the 2006 tsunami brought in. The cave entrance looks dramatic as if in a movie set, with backdrop of palms and a serene calm that haunts the surrounding.
All in all it was a lesson in how little we know about our past and how much it has to offer to us, to our quest of ourselves!