Travel stories and inspiration

Mahabalipuram – the rock cut wonders

Mahabalipuram also known as Mamallapuram is a stunning example of rock cut temples and stone carvings. Located around 60 km from Chennai, this UNESCO world heritage site is perfect for a day trip.The shore temple, the descent of the Ganges, the pancha rathas and the many cave temples are the highlights of Mahabalipuram”

I have to start this post with a confession. Even though i lived in Chennai for 4 years i had never once been to Mahabalipuram. So this time when we were visiting India i was determined to make it to Mahabalipuram even though my stay in Chennai was for a mere 4 days. More importantly i also wanted to be there for the sunrise. Yes, i am a bit crazy about sunrises and sunsets. As per my husband they happen every day but i still am crazy about them. Thankfully Sridhar being a sport that he always is, supported my whims in spite of him being a bit sick. Of course, he only supports my whims when it comes to some travel related stuff. Given the short time we had we decided to do it as a day trip since Mahabalipuram is just on the outskirts of Chennai. We rented a car and a driver and set out around 5 in the morning. Tamil Nadu tourism’s website has no mention about opening timings but according to my research the shore temple complex at Mahabalipuram opened its doors at sunrise(around 6 am) every morning. I also called the tourism office diligently the previous day to confirm it, so now you know.

Shore temple at sunrise

We drove in the dark while many temples in the city were trying to wake up the non-religious citizens with their blaring loud speakers. Yes it was the 1st of Jan and temples welcome devotees to make a head start into the new year with some auspicious rituals even though this day has no significance as per the Hindu calendar. Be that as it may, we reached near the shore temple complex just a little before 6. I was anxious not to miss the sunrise. After walking around a little bit i realized there was no way i could see the sunrise from inside the shore temple complex because the whole thing is surrounded by a fence. Somehow in my head i imagined that it would be possible to walk to the beach right from the shore temple. Knowing my concerns Sridhar dutifully found a nice spot on higher ground for me from where i could capture the sunrise. So all was not lost even though the sun was already a bit up. So if you do want to see the sunrise on the beach then head to the side road along the market.

Mahabalipuram shore temple at sunrise

Shore temple at sunrise, Mahabalipuram

The shore temple is an impressive structure made out of blocks of granite. But much of the details in the carvings are lost due to the temple’s close proximity to the the sea. The salt laden winds have not been very kind to the finer details of the stone sculptures. To top this, the temple was in a state of neglect by the local authorities for a long time. Thanks to UN declaring it a world heritage site things are in much better shape now. This area was also battered badly during the tsunami of 2004. As a first timer i didn’t realize that all the rock cut monuments are scattered in the area. We did buy a guide book showing the highlights in the area from the ticket office. But unfortunately it didn’t have a self directing map. Our knowledgeable driver more than made up for the lack of the map. Based on his suggestion we headed to our next stop, the pancha rathas.

Mahabalipuram shore temple

Finer details of the sculptures have eroded due to exposure to elements

Pancha Rathas

Pancha means five and rathas means chariots. There are five monolithic chariot-shaped temples each with an unique dome inspired by ship, rocket, etc. Technically none of these monuments can be called temples because they were never consecrated. Work on the temples was also never finished as the king who commissioned this project died and then war broke out. Such a shame, as it was such an unique way of carving an entire structure out of a single rock. We learnt many such interesting facts from our guide. We usually rely on Google for such things but this old guy was very eager to share his knowledge. So we decided to give him a try. Besides it was not that expensive. When you are there do go into the inner sanctum of the ganesha temple and try speaking or shouting. It is designed in such a way that in spite of the tiny confined space you will still be able to hear an echo. Many of the temples here are also bearing the brunt of being exposed to the elements for so long. Some of the pillars in these temples are now supported by new pillars as the old ones are falling apart. But it is heartening to know that these preservation efforts are now in place.

Pancha Rathas at Mahabalipuram

Pancha Rathas or five chariot shaped temples

Mahabalipuram main complex

Based on our drivers suggestion we started exploring the main complex of Mahabalipuram from its far end. This way we could finish near the entrance where there was ample parking space for the cars. So our next stop was Mahishasura mardini cave. Yes, that’s a long name of an Indian goddess. But before we headed there we decided to have some breakfast. As we sat relishing the home made idlis we were greeted by happy new year wishes from random but very happy visitors. I am one of those who doesn’t understand the fuzz about a new year or a birthday, as it is just another day in my calendar. Believe me, my idiosyncrasies are mellowing down as i get older. But happiness is contagious and it felt really nice to be amongst such cheerful people! We walked all along from Mahishasuramardini cave to Krishna’s butter ball near the main entrance. We took many stops to explore the region and the immensely beautiful cave temples. There are a total of eleven cave temples in Mahabalipuram. I also enthusiastically went up the light house to check out the view from the top. Honestly i have a thing for lighthouses too, so i wouldn’t have missed that opportunity even without the view. Many of the cave temples or mandapams in Mahabalipuram have an entire scene from a mythical tale represented in bas-relief. Indian culture is rich with many epics and mythical tales and i could probably write many a blog posts explaining the scenes depicted in these rock cut temples.

Mahishasura mardini mandapam

Mahishasura mardini cave temple

Detailed carving inside Mahishasuramardini cave

Scene from a mythical tale depicted inside Mahishasura mardini cave

That day the whole place was swarming with men and women donning red clothes and i mean there were buses full of them. I found a group of devotees who diligently posed for me upon request. One of the guys in the group was in jeans and t-shirt but checked with child like enthusiasm if he could still be part of the photo op. I showed them the picture on the camera, they reviewed it and made fun of each others expressions and parted ways happily.  I learnt from our driver that they were devotees on their way to the temple in Melmaravathur. Upon googling it later, i realized the significance of wearing red to this temple. It indicates the colour of blood and hence symbolizes equality. People of different religion, caste & creed being equal just like the colour of blood. Interesting concept isn’t it. Although i don’t know if the devotees wear red with this thought in mind or more as a tradition. Could have been an interesting conversation with some of them if i had known this earlier.

Mahabalipuram visitors

Devotees in red + enthusiastic guy in blue posing for me

The descent of Ganges also known as Arjuna’s penance is an open air relief depicted on two huge boulders. This is rock cut sculpture at its best. Needless to say it is one of the highlights of Mahabalipuram and should not be missed. Next to it is the impressive Krishna mandapam. Krishna’s butter ball is huge boulder shaped like a ball of butter and is perched on top of a wavy bed of rock. Legend has it that Lord Krishna was immensely fond of butter and hence the name Krishna’s butter ball. The boulder appears like it is ready to roll at any moment but thankfully hasn’t done so in centuries. These days it provides interesting photo ops to visitors, respite from the sun to some goats and courageous humans and lots of playing opportunities for kids.

Arjuna's penance or descent of Ganges

Descent of the Ganges also known as Arjuna’s penance, open air relief made of two huge boulders

Krishna's butter ball

Krishna’s butter ball , a huge boulder seemingly defying physics

Tiger cave near Mahabalipuram

On our way back to Chennai, we also stopped at Tiger cave which is a few kms away from the main complex. The tiger cave complex is also located close to the sea. Somehow it was less crowded and more peaceful when compared to the main complex. It was almost noon and the heat was beginning to get to us. We got some temporary respite in the form of sweet coconut water but it was time to head back to city and get some lunch.

Tiger cave at Mahabalipuram

Tiger cave near Mahabalipuram main complex

The whole of Mahabalipuram is strewn with huge boulders and rocks, many of which depict signs of being part of a bigger scheme. I left the place wondering how different it would have looked if the sculptors had finished what they intended, what form each rock would have taken, but sadly we will never know. But i was really happy that i finally made it to Mahabalipuram and it was well worth it!

Unfinished sculpture at Mahabalipuram

One of the many unfinished sculptures at Mahabalipuram

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