Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram)

Elephant Carvings, Arjuna’s Penance

For all the time that we have spent in Chennai (Madras) and Pondicherry (I can’t quite get myself to call it Puducherry yet), and all the times that we have driven up and down the East Coast Road (ECR), we have never stopped at Mahabalipuram, until today.

I had helped a friend of Tib’s – Roger and his wife Bonnie – plan the South India portion of their trip before they joined other friends for the more traditional North India tour (Mumbai, Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri, Jaipur). They wanted to meet, and rather than having them come down to Pondicherry given the limited amount of time they had (and all the other things they wanted to do), we decided to join them for a tour of Mahabalipuram, a two hour ride north of Pondicherry.

It was strange being tourists again, subject to the throngs of guides, hawkers (“just have a look;” “maybe on your way back?”), sadhus and other beggers, unexpected stops at the suggestion of the driver, who couched the detour to the Shore Temple boutique (where he would get a commission if we bought something) as a stop for some “refreshments”, and differential, “foreigner” price at the national monuments. (Indian nationals pay R. 10 – about 22 cents – and we pay R. 250 or US$5 for entrance to the Shore Temple and the Pancha Pandava rathas. I paid in dollars since the dollar has depreciated to around R. 44.5.)

The group of monuments at Mahabalipuram were designated World Heritage sites by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1984, and as far as I could see, the entire town is dedicated to tourism. I was surprised to find the town relatively clean. I suppose the difference in cleanliness is due to the fact that these monuments are no longer active temples. (Mark and I tend to avoid temple towns when we can, and Bonnie reported that Kanchipuram was the filthiest place she had seen in her travels. We’ll see what she has to say at the end of their trip, as opposed to day 3!) And, compared to the aggressiveness of the hawkers and touts in the North, the ones here were few in number, and easily dissuaded.

We were much more impressed with the bas relief carvings, mandapas (cave santuaries) and rathas (temples in the form of chariots) than with the Shore temple (which has been badly eroded), despite it’s spectacular setting.

Arjuna’s PenanceCat mimicking Arjuna’s pose

In the above picture of Arjuna’s Penance, Arjuna is the emaciated guy in “tree” pose. According to our guide (“I only charge R. 100 while most other guides charge R. 400 to R. 500, but you can give me something extra if you are pleased with my service”), Arjuna meditates in the Himalayas for 12 years without food or water in order to gain strength to fight his 100 cousins. Our Rough Guide to India (Fourth Edition, published October 2001) states:

“The Shiva Purana tells that Arjuna made the journey to a forest on the banks of the Ganges to do penance, in the hope that Shiva would part with his favourite weapon, the pashupatashastra, a magic staff or arrow.”

On the other side of the cleft, filled with nagas, there is a cat mimicking Arjuna’s pose. Our guide tells us that this is a false meditator, evidenced by the cat’s fat belly. The Rough Guide says:

“Not far away, mimicking Arjuna’s devout pose, an emaciated (presumably ascetic) cat stands on hind legs, surrounded by mice.”

I like our guide’s version of the story. Who knows, he may be right – the Rough Guide has an incorrect date (1995) for Mahabalipuram’s UNESCO World Heritage status.

Shore Temple

The Shore Temple, built in the early eighth century, is considered to be the earliest stone-built temple in South India. The Pallava dynasty, which ruled between the fifth and ninth centuries, was a sea-faring dynasty, and exported its temple architecture as far as Ellora in North India and to Southeast Asia (Cambodia). (We did not get a guide for the Shore Temple or the Pancha Pandava rathas since we were running out of time, and we had a pretty good idea of what we were seeing.)


One of the Pancha Pandava rathas.

Krishna’s ButterballKid Sliding

Little boys use the rock under “Krishna’s butterball” as a natural slide.


4 Responses to “Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram)”

  1. 1 Smita December 11, 2006 at 7:41 am

    Beautiful photographs..brings back some great memories 🙂

  2. 2 yoomilee December 12, 2006 at 6:09 pm

    Thanks Smita! Have you done any more touring in the North?

  1. 1 Off to Orissa « Essere Trackback on December 3, 2007 at 6:05 am

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