Ratha in Mahabalipuram by NatarajaMy mother and I traveled to Chennai for a friend’s wedding. The morning following the post-wedding celebrations, we decided to visit Mahabalipuram, which is about 60 kilometers from Chennai.

Mahabalipuram, or Mamallapuram as it is also called, was the chief seaport of the Pallava kings. The Pallava kings ruled over much of South India between the first century B.C. and the eighth century A.D. Today, it is a classified World Heritage Site. The cave temples and gigantic sculptures carved from blocks of granite date back to the seventh century. The Shore Temple, one of the landmark monuments of Mahabalipuram, is said to have been built in the early eighth century and is believed to be South India’s earliest known example of a stone temple.

East Coast Road stretches from the outskirts of Chennai towards Mahabalipuram. Given its name, we thought the view of the coast would be open and clearly visible on the drive. We were initially disappointed to see that the coastline was rather distant and the abundance of beachside coconut palm fringes blocked the view. With patience, we began to notice frequent breaks in the clusters of tall swaying palms that yielded a spectacular view of the sea and its frothy foam. Upon this discovery, our eyes became riveted to the window, taking in the vast expanse of the coastline, and noting the contrast between the little thatched hutments dotting the beachside and the stark seclusion of the coast. The serene panorama of East Coast Road cast a spell over me and I was quite happy to fall for its charm.

An hour and half later, we stood at the market bus stop of Mahabalipuram. After some quick negotiations with a rickshaw driver, we were off to see the town!

We passed scores of little sculpting shops on our way to the Five Rathas, one of the important sights in the town. These shops enroute to the monument housed artisans that were freshly carving sculptures out of stone to be sold to tourists and visitors.

From time to time, the artists conduct classes in stone sculpting and carving. I’ve known of people who have visited Mahabalipuram that were so enamored with these sculpting shops and classes that they stayed on in the town for weeks and even months to learn the craft from the veterans! For a fee, you can learn how to create everything from simple lockets and pendants to the exquisite large sculptures that represent figures from the eighth and ninth century. As you might imagine, the more complicated techniques require longer stays with the artists.

Beyond the shops, we viewed the Five Rathas shrine and learned from our driver that they were five massive stone chariots, bearing monolithic carvings on each of their sides and surfaces. Each of the rathas was carved out of a single large piece of pink granite.

After the Five Rathas, we arrived at the prime spot in Mahabalipuram – the world famous Shore Temple. I was more curious about the various implements and friezes I found on the premises than the temple itself. The implements included a primitive bathtub built out of granite and elegantly carved elephant snouts serving as water outlets. There were also cute little footbaths (bereft of water, though, as they haven’t been used for centuries) all around the temple courtyard. After a tour of other nearby areas in and around the town, we returned back to where we began, considerably richer in memories and nuggets of South Indian history.

Written by Mamta Murthy

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