I have had, during the month of January, 2011, extensive trip of South India primarily of Kerala and Karnataka and but for Kanyakumari I had not touched Tamil Nadu and hence a desire persisted to explore through Tamil Nadu too, and the opportunity was bestowed with my transfer to Chennai in the month of March this year. I thought too often to visit Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram) being very near to Chennai but the plan kept on deferring for one reason or other, even though once I visited Pondicherry crossing Mahabalipuram. However, on the 6th of October at around 08:15 hrs, I set out for Mahabalipuram.
I boarded a suburban train from St. Thomas Mount (Parangimalai) suburban Rly. Stn. (this Rly Stn. is less than 10 mins of walking distance from my residence) for Theagaraya Nagar, popularly known by its abbreviated form, T.Nagar. T. Nagar can well be said as commercial capital of South India and big shops, especially of silk traders and Jewellers, are located here. Several of them are multi storied looking like and not less than a mall making available almost all the items, house hold or otherwise, we can think of under one roof to a name of few are Nalli Silks, Pothys, Saravana Selvarathnam etc. Though I am not sure but it is regarded as the biggest market of South India. I chose this place to board bus for Mahabalipuram. The train dropped me at this station (the railway station of T.Nagar is known as Mambalam) within 10 minutes, in between two stations are there Guindy and Saidapet.
The train fare is Rs. 4 only. However for me the ticket was not required as I was having monthly pass for the suburban Rly from Chennai Beach to Tambaram which costs Rs. 115 per month, which I keep on renewing. Although in Guindy also has a big city bus station and there lot of buses are available for Mahabalipuram but as the walking distance from Guindy Railway Station and Bus Stand is bit more as to that of T.Nagar, so I opted for T.Nagar. After a little walk I reached T.Nagar at around 08:45 and boarded an AC Bus (Route No. Z599). It started at 09:00 hrs and the fare up to Mahabalipuram was Rs. 68 only and also the frequency of the buses of good (for the non AC, Route No. S599, the fare is Rs. 25). The bus takes ECR (East Coast Road) from Thiruvanmiyur and after some distance the scenic beachway starts. The road runs almost parallel to the Bay of Bengal. And driving on the ECR route is a nice experience too. However, unfortunately, lot of constructions viz. Restaurants, amusement parks, resorts and like alongside of ECR stand diminishing the natural beauty of Bay of Bengal and the Greenery. Once almost for the entire route one is able to see the sea but now you can have is glimpse only while approaching Mahabalipuram. Even then it is suggested to enjoy the ride take left side window seat to have the look of the sea.
The journey of little less than 60 kms completes in about 90 mins. At about 11 we reached Mahabalipuram Bus Stand.
The Bus Stand of Mahabalipuram is just outside the Sri Sthal Sayana Perumal Temple (one of the 108 Divya Deshams). Getting down, first of all, I set for Shore Temple which is some ten minutes walk from the Bus Stand. Little before the temple, the way is bifurcated and the right one goes to the beach. I proceeded towards the temple side, paying Rs. ten as the entrance fees.
Lot of literature is available on Shore Temple and its history in various books, travelogues and sites easily available courtesy our genius genie Google devta. However, throwing some light on the facts will not be out of place here. The Shore Temple is dated back to the reign of Narshimhavarman – II (700-728 AD) of Pallava Dynasty. The twin temples of Shore Temple has been so name as it being overlooking Bay of Bengal and is dedicated to both Lord Shiva and Vishnu. Mahabalipuram is famous for (i) one of the oldest free-standing structures made out of finely cut local granite (Shore Temple) as well as (ii) Monolithic rock cut structures (Five Rathas and other sites). Both Shore Temple and Five Rathas have been enlisted in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Shore Temple had around it a series of sculptures of bulls and Yalis and Varahas. For the last 1400 years the temple is braving the erosion being caused by rough sea there and its salt laden winds. To check this erosion, a groyne wall, made of big blue metal boulders, was built in the year 1970 by the ASI. It is pertinent to mention that had not the base of the Shore Temple rose from the bed rock, we would not be able to see the temple in its present form as on 26th of December, 2004 the giant waves of Tsunami smashed the groyne wall, tore down the fence, flooded the lawns and entered the Shore Temple. This wall was also instrumental in saving several visitors too. The waves dislocated the foundation of the bali peetam(sacrificial altar) in front of the Shore Temple. The boat jetty/flight of steps and the miniature shrine and the Varaha sculpture at the basement of the Shore Temple, which were discovered by the ASI between 1990 and 1993, were flooded. Controversies and debates among the archaeologists and historians still persist on the existence of similar structures, submerged into the sea. Authenticity of the fact emphasises in the wake of receding of sea up to 500 mts from its original shoreline, when the visitors and ASI employees witnessed some structures.
After visiting the Shore Temple and the Beach beside it, I proceeded for Arjuna’s penance bas reliefs (bas reliefs being a sculptor technique created either by carving away material viz. wook, stone, ivory, jade, etc. or adding material to the top of an otherwise smooth surface) by returning up to the Bus Stand. Located just behind Sri Sthal Sayana Perumal Temple, these bas reliefs, carved in the 7th century, are among the largest in the world, to be precise largest Open Air Bas reliefs in the world, covering two huge boulders 27 meters long and 9 meters high, the reliefs depict the flow of the Ganges down from the Himalaya mountains as described in the Panchatantra. However I stood mulling over as to why this rock had got its name as Arjuna’s Penance. Anyway the intricate carvings on the rock are amazing. A little left of Arjuna’s Penance is Panch Pandav Mandapam, carved with vaults and short pillars, dedicated to Pandavas, the mythological characters. Though unfinished, this cave temple is unique and its sanctum was designed to have a passage all around the exterior.
Then I reached Five Rathas that is about 15 mins walk from these cave temples. There also I took a entrance ticket for Rs. 10 (though I came to know later that the same ticket, purchased at Shore Temple can also work here) (the counter issuing the tickets, both at Shore Temple as well as Five Rathas are closed by 05:30 in the evening).
Narasima Varma Pallavan was popularly named as “Mamallan”. Lots of the monumental and artistic works that are found are done by him and because of this, the place is also called as “Mamallapuram”
These Five Rathas were carved during the reign of King Mahendravarman I and his son Narasimhavarman I and it appears that the structures here as well as that of cave temples have not been completed. The Pancha Rathas, dating little back to that of Shore Temple have also brilliantly braved the constant salty winds from the ocean and havoc of tsunami in 13th Century. Each Ratha or structure (including a Lion is a monolith i.e. carved whole from a rock outcropping of pink granite (very sturdy indeed). The five monolithic shrines are named after the Pandavas (Arjuna, Bhima, Yudhishtra, Nakula and Sahadeva) and Draupadi.
Two of the 108 Divya Desham Vishnu Temples are situated at Mahabalipuram, one, Thirukadalmalai – Sri Sthala Sayan Perumal (just behind the bus stand) and the other, Tiruvedanthai – Sri Nitya Perumal Temple, about 10 kms from this place towards Chennai. It is believed that Lord Vishnu comes here personally to fulfil devotees’ wishes as the legend behind the temple is that Sage Pundareeka was worshipping Lord Vishnu Lotus flowers. Once the Sage Pundareeka started piling water from the ocean in order to get the divine vision of Lord Vishnu. Seeing his devotion, Lord Vishnu came in guise as an old man and asked for food. The Sage went to get food for the old man. When he returned he found Lord Vishnu in an Ananthasayana posture and wearing the lotus flowers which was offered by the sage. He then realised that it is Lord himself had come in disguise to bless the devotee. The Perumal or Vishnu found in this Sri Sthala Sayana Perumal is in Kidantha kolam or bhujanga sayanam (sleeping position) form and facing towards East direction along the sea.
It was around 13:45 hrs when I reached Sri Sthala Sayan Perumal Temple to have the darshanam. However, at the time the temple was closed for darshanam. On enquiry I came to know that the temple closes at 12:30 hrs and reopens at 15:30 hrs for darshanam. On this I regretted on my decision as to why I have not done the darshanam immediately after reaching Mahabalipuram, doing so I would by now be free. Anyway I thought of having some food, being hungry by then. At the crossing I went inside a pure veg. restaurant ‘Mamalla Bhawan’. Despite bleak hope, I enquired about Jaini food there and in negative came the reply. Then I ordered for two Parathas (intricately designed and speciality of South India – the dough ball is flattened and then that is folded and encircled round and round to make it again a ball (in the process it is waved and puffed) after that it is again flattened – now this flattened forms many layers) along with thenga chatni as the only side dish (coconut chatni – a white chatni mostly taken along with Idli, which is not mixed with Onion and garlic). This is the customised menu I mostly prefer during my food taken outside as Jaini curries are very rare here. There was good rush in the restaurant which was very well managed and catered by the personnel.
After finishing my lunch, at 14:30 hrs I again reached at the temple and waited there. At around 15:15 hrs the temple was opened for darshanam with 20 – 30 mins I got the darshanam as there was not much rush. Almost all the South Indian renowned temples, sell the tickets for performing Pooja viz. Archana, Abhishekam, etc. at very reasonable rates, archana tickets ranges from Rs. 2 to Rs. 10. All you have to do is to show the ticket to the pujari and he will do archana pooja on your behalf. As at the moment when I am drafting this story am unable to exactly recollect the amount of archana ticket perhaps it was Rs. 5. The priest there performed archana and afterwards also told some Mahatmya (praising word and history of the temple), albeit in Tamil, and this toddler, toddling with Tamil also, could not follow the pace and just konjam konjam (some – some as is said in Tamil) guessing only. After that the pujari also gave some vibhuti for marking on the forehead. He also exchanged flower and mala offered by the devotees by offering the same to the Lord and flowers already offered to the Lord being given to them as prasadam.
Here in Chennai, some of my friends are quite dedicated and passionate devotees of Shiva or Vishnu or both, who use to give me some tips, as to how they offer their prayers, whenever I use to visit temples with them. Once, during the visit of Trishulamnathar (Shiva temple surrounded by three hillocks) temple, Chennai, with one of my colleague I came to know of the significance of Dhwajastambha (Flag post) found inside the temple. I was told that with whatever wish we are in the temple, we should silently offer it at the Dhwajastambha itself, which will be communicated to the deity or to precisely mention, to the universal soul itself, (the Dhwajastambha here acts as a antenna) and then with the free mind we should have the darshanam of the Lord and do the parikrama (clockwise) and again come to the Stambha and should offer our prostrate salutation (dandawat Pranaam) before it to mark the thankfulness in anticipation. This Dhwajastambha is located after the Gopuram and before the Sanctum Sanctorum.
In the South India temples just after the Dhwajastambha we find Bali Peetham. Bali is a term given for sacrifice of animal. The question here arises whether it is a pious act to offer bali as mentioned in our sacred ancient scriptures like Brahmasutras authored by none other than the universal Guru – Ved Vyasa, also regarded as avatar of Vishnu himself. Maharshi Ved Vyas propounded the theory of animal sacrifice and categorically specified that it is a must for liberation (mukti) of a Jeeva, and during the earlier days animals were sacrificed too. I would take the opportunity and would like to share my personal belief, albeit with limited knowledge, and will say that Maharshi Vyas, the learned one, can not at all be wrong, however we have to interpret as to what the sage is indicating of. We all do possess numerous animals viz. lobh, laalsha, mad, kaamna, vaasna, chal, chaturi, dhokha, beimani etc. etc. Are we not suppose to sacrifice one or all of our animals on the Bali Peetham, and enter before the deity without our pet animals (yes we are keeping these wildest of wild animals as our pets), and thus withholding and authenticating its significance enunciated in the scriptures?
After having the darshanam at Sri Sthal Sayan Perumal Temple, I came out to the bus stand and found there buses leaving for Chennai (to various destinations like CMBT, Guindy, T.Nagar etc) at almost every five minutes. I boarded bus for T.Nagar and reached Chennai at around 18:00 hrs. On the way there are several spots including Muttukadu Boat House, a wonderful and very scenic picnic spot on the backwaters with some water sports too for which I can say it is an impending trip as soon as my family visits Chennai. For the Ghumakkars an excellent option is also there – just try for Hop On Hop Off service offered by Tamil Nadu Tourism Development Corporation. It is one day tour programme, charging Rs. 225 per person, in which all the relevant places of Mamallapuram and well as the on the way spots are well covered by comfortable AC buses.
While returning on the left side of ECR at about 10 kms from Mahabalipuram I saw the way for Tiruvedanthai – Sri Nitya Perumal Temple, which I am thinking of visiting some day.