Mahabalipuram’s Stories Are Set in Stone

Eighth-century UNESCO temples, a stunning open-air relief, and tales of a kingdom under the sea in this small Tamil Nadu town.  
Mahabalipuram
Believed to be the last of seven temples standing, the eighth-century Shore Temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva and is one of the finest examples of Pallava architecture. Photo by: Created by Swasti Verma/Getty Images

“In a single day and night of misfortune…the island of Atlantis… disappeared in the depths of the sea.”

Plato first told the story of the mythical land of Atlantis over 2,000 years ago, but it has fired the imaginations of hundreds of writers and explorers over the centuries. The legend touched me too—a National Geographic documentary that I watched as a kid, about a band of explorers looking for Atlantis made me dream of being an archaeologist, and I rued the lack of any sunken cities to discover in India. It was much later that I learned that lost kingdoms waited to be uncovered not far from my own backyard, in the temple town of Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram) that I occasionally visited as a child.

The city was a key seaport when the Pallava dynasty ruled much of modern Tamil Nadu between the fourth and ninth centuries A.D. It is mentioned in numerous travelogues, including that of Marco Polo, who wrote about seeing its “seven pagodas.” Historians believed that six of the pagodas or temples were consumed by the sea, leaving behind only the Shore Temple. The theory was somewhat confirmed when the deadly 2004 tsunami uncovered stone remains near the temple.

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The sight of Pancha Ratha group of temples in Mahabalipuram is an open-air museum of architecture. Photo by: Ivan Vdovin/Getty Images

To soak in the legend and reality of Mahabalipuram once again, my mother and I take an early morning bus from Chennai to the city. It travels along the East Coast Road, offering us lovely views of the pinkish blush of sunrise over the Indian Ocean. The town is stirring to life as our bus pulls in—women buying jasmine garlands for their homes and hair, men sipping on their first cup of filter coffee for the day. We step into the first eatery we see, a hole-in-the-wall outlet with a name in Tamil we cannot read, where plates of steaming hot idli-sambar are wordlessly set before us. One bite of the fluffy idli and we realise that menus are not needed here; a plate of vada-sambar later, we joke that we should skip the sightseeing and just focus on the food.

Mahabalipuram’s monuments—rathas (chariot-shaped temples), mandapas, massive, open-air reliefs—were carved over the seventh and eighth centuries, and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Our first port of call after breakfast is the site of Pancha Rathas, the five monolithic chariot-like granite shrines. They are a curious confluence of Hindu and Buddhist architectural styles, with carvings of Hindu gods and goddesses adorning vihara-like structures. The story of the shrines is mostly lost—it is unknown why they are named after the Pandavas and why they remained unfinished and unconsecrated. The naming is apt though—the Draupadi Ratha is small and petite, and stands beside the Arjuna Ratha, their outer walls adorned with carvings of Durga and Indra respectively. The Bhima Ratha is massive, with lion-shaped pillars and a large bas relief of a reclining Vishnu, while the Dharmaraja Ratha towers over the others, three storeys tall and with delicate animal motifs on its gables. The Nakula-Sahadeva Ratha stands apart from the others, and it is the lion and elephant statues next to it— probably symbols of the Pallava dynasty—which tend to garner all the tourist attention. Children hug their legs and leap to touch their flanks.

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The walls in the city depict artworks of mural. Photo by: Frédéric Soreau/Getty Images

A 15-minute walk north of Pancha Rathas lies Arjuna’s Penance; I find it fascinating, and not just because it is an open-air rock bas-relief. It is believed to depict the story of the epic Kiratarjuniya, where Arjuna prays to Lord Shiva to grant him a divine weapon for battle. Surrounding this inscription are numerous stunning carvings—gods performing divine acts, sages praying, animals frolicking. Arjuna’s Penance reminds me of a giant jigsaw puzzle, its different sets of carvings coming together to portray a message of universal harmony.

The sun is now nearing its zenith, so we walk about seven minutes north of the bas-relief to take refuge in the cave temples. Each structure has fluted, lion-faced columns, with giant wall panels depicting different tales from mythology—Vishnu’s Varaha avatar lifting the earth out of the sea, Durga slaying Mahishasura, Krishna lifting Govardhana out of the flood waters—common enough sights in Indian temples, except for the fact that each temple here is hewn out of a single rock. Monolithic architecture is a marvel—if you make a mistake, you cannot throw away the rock and start again—and thinking about the construction of such elaborate structures with the simple tools of those days leaves me in awe of the sculptors’ dexterity.

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The city is dotted with eateries serving delicious, no-frills breakfasts of dosas and fluffy idlis. Photo by: dbimages/Alamy/IndiaPicture

Finally, we head a kilometre east, to the Shore Temple at the beach, which forms a lonely silhouette against the blue sky, as if calling out for its sisters lost in the sea. We have eaten a traditional banana leaf meal—rice, rasam, poriyal, and lots of curd to beat the heat—but the temple’s classic beauty rouses us from post-lunch stupor. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, the structure has five tiers of exquisite animal and deity carvings tapering upwards in the form of a pyramid (which is probably what gave rise to Marco Polo’s pagoda misconception). A ring of seated Nandis encircle the temple, and while the sea’s salinity has damaged many of the structures, the contours of the carvings entrance us. The waves lap at the temple boundary walls, and further out, a group of surfers try to ride them. I learn that there is a surfing school nearby, and I rue the fact that my inability to swim leaves me a spectator instead of a conqueror.

Sitting on the beach with the Shore temple behind me, I try to picture Mahabalipuram in its heyday. I don’t see it as obscenely grandiose, rather as a bustling city, peopled with merchants and masons, priests and poets, its life revolving around the sea and the structures beside it. A microcosm of the erstwhile city lives on in the town of today, standing proud against the roar of the sea, enshrining the legend of the kingdom by the shore.

  • Arundhati Hazra works a 9-to-9 job so that she can indulge in her three key vices - traveling, eating and buying lots of books. She'd like to go from aspiring writer to aspirational writer sometime soon.

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