Mahabalipuram- The Splendor by the Sea

It is shocking but Goats have a free run of the UNESCO world heritage site at Mahabalipuram. I saw them trample all over the bas-relief sculptures then urinating and ejecting its pellet like excreta all over the epic gods depicted here. Will the ASI men come out of the museums? (sanjay austa austa)

It is shocking but Goats have a free run of the UNESCO world heritage site at Mahabalipuram.

(Published first in Mail Today, Aug 2014)

Nothing seems to have changed in Mahabalipuram since the days of the Pallava Kings. Wherever you turn, you see men chipping away relentlessly at stone, covered completely in white dust. Some use the drill but most still yield the good old hammer and chisel. Littered on the beaches, on the pavements, in the backyards of shops, are Gods and goddesses, in various stages of completion. Those that are ready for sale, overflow from the shops on to the roadsides, making for an interesting drive-by exhibition of sorts.

This is just as well. Mahaballipuram – today an UNESCO world heritage site- was said to be a school for sculptors during the reign of the Pallavas. And all the bas-relief sculptures, rock-cut temple, rathas, built largely during the reigns of Narasimhavarman 1 and his successor Rajasimhavarman in the 7th century CE, were said to be products of that ancient school. Unfinished sculptures and rock-cut temples here, point to that theory.

Mahabalipuram (also called Mamallapuram, after King Mamalla or Narasimhavarman 1) carries that legacy forward, being as it today, a virtual sculpture factory, churning idols for the thousands of temple and curio shops across India.

 (sanjay austa austa)

The Shore Temple, Mahabalipuram

The tourist guides, however, are a new phenomenon but unlike their northern counterparts they are far from pushy, displaying the typical South Indian reserve.

But at the Arjuna’s Penance area, a spectacular tableaux of bas- relief sculptures,  the guides open up and tell you details you could easily miss. The bas-relief is a mish mash of stories from the Mahabharata, the Panchatantra, and local folklore.

The most famous relief is of course of Arjuna,  standing on one leg, hands overheard   joined in prayer – a story of Arjuna’s penance to God Shiva seeking his weapon as boon. At the center of this rock face is a cleft with nagas representing a descending Ganga. It is believed that water once flowed though this cleft. The most prominent bas-relief are the life-size reliefs of two elephants.

But there are other lesser know but brilliant reliefs from the panchatantra- for example the relief of a praying cat, imitating Arjuna with an aim to hoodwink the mice into believing it has reformed.

A recumbent Vishnu resting under the protective hood of the five-headed serpent. A Pallava dynasty masterpiece (sanjay austa austa)

A recumbent Vishnu resting under the protective hood of the five-headed serpent. A Pallava dynasty masterpiece

One can admire these delicate stories in stone for hours not only for the exquisite craftsmanship , but also for these stories emblazoned on them.

But it’s perhaps a reflection of our apathy towards our cultural heritage that herds of goats are allowed to walk all over these stories in stone. They shockingly trapeze all over these bas-relief sculptures, trampling all over Arjuna and over the limbs of scores of devas to perch a while on the elephants to urinate and eject their pellet like excrement. Astonishingly their presence hardly registers any concern.

The Rathas dedicated to the five Pandavas are thankfully fenced in as is the Shore Temple. However over the centuries, the ravages of the brackish sea has swallowed up the fine features of the Gods, represented on the lower frieze of the Shore Temple.

The sea, in the shape of the devastating 2004 Tsunami also unearthed a new group of monuments, including a temple that is said to date back to the 1st century BCE. Excavation on this newly discovered site is still underway.

The most famous structure at Mahabalipuram is however not manmade. It’s Krishna’s Butterball- the large boulder, perched precariously on a rock face. Tourists love to pose Atlas-like under it, holding the boulder up on their backs or fingertips for the cameras.

Fishermen in Tamil Naidu as in other parts of India are very poor. Nothing has really changed for them over the decades. They have the same methods of fishing. They go at 4am in the morning almost 20 kilometers into the sea and fish among dangerous waters. (sanjay austa austa)

Fishermen in Tamil Naidu as in other parts of India are very poor, Mahabalipuram

Mahabalipuram, also has its beach, which is not much but is good enough for a quick swim. Fishermen’s boats and nets are strewn about on the sand. Mahabalipuram,  had once been an important sea port with trading routes all the way to the South East Asia. But it has also been a fishermen’s paradise. However for the fishermen time has stood still. Like centuries ago, they sail out deep into the sea, in their rag-tag boats at 4 am, looking for a catch, often gambling with their life.

Mahabalipuram, is barely 60 kilometers from Chennai and presents the first of the architectural jewels as you work your way southwards not straying too far from the Coromandel Coast, passing Pondicherry, Chidambaram, Kumbakonam, Madurai, Thanjavur, Madurai to finally reach Kanyakumari on this almost linear journey. But the splendors of Mahabalipuram stay with you, having set the right tone for the cultural extravaganza that Tamil Nadu offers.

This huge bolder amuses tourists the most. It is a big, irregular piece of boulder which is precariously perched on the rock ledge. (sanjay austa austa)

A fine balance: Krishna’s Butterball, Mahabalipuram

Mahabalipuram gets its fair share of foreign tourists because of its beautiful beach. (sanjay austa austa)

Mahabalipuram gets its fair share of foreign tourists, Mahabalipuram


Indian tourists at Mahabalipuram Beach. (sanjay austa austa)

…and the Indian tourists


 (sanjay austa austa)

Sculptor at work, Mahabalipuram



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