The underrated wonder that is Mahabalipuram

I first heard about Mahabalipuram in a chapter of my Class 8 or 9 Hindi textbook. While I don’t remember who the author of that piece was, I do remember that it was about the ruminations of a sculptor who wondered about the glorious temple ruins by the sea-shore and how they came to be.

Though the chapter didn’t mention Mahabalipuram as the place the sculptor was talking about, my Hindi teacher said that is where the story was based. He also elaborated a bit on the history of Mahabalipuram and that had me hooked. My young and impressionable teenaged mind found the description of a bygone era and the desolation of temple ruins by the sea-shore very romantic.

The visual stayed with me through school, college, university… till I actually visited Mahabalipuram in 1996. This was in the summer of that year and the heat and tourist hordes dispelled any romantic notion I had about Mahabalipuram. But the monuments left an impression on me — enough to make me want to re-visit it.

It took me almost 20 years visit Mahabalipuram again.

Mahabalipuram, Mamallapuram, Pallavas, Shore Temple, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Tamil Nadu, Heritage

Mahabalipuram, whose ancient name was Mamallapuram, is about 60 km from Chennai, Tamil Nadu. It has a history of being a commercial centre and also a religious centre as one the foremost Vaishnavaite saints, Bhutattalvar was born here around the 5th-6th centuries CE. Under the Pallavas, Mahabalipuram was developed into a port town by King Narasimha I in c.650 CE. But today, it is the remains of the monuments built by the Pallavas that makes Mahabalipuram famous. There are more than 30 monuments in Mahabalipuram, including bas reliefs, rock-cut cave temples, structural temples and rathas or monolithic structures.

While historians agree that all these monuments were built by the Pallavas, there is some debate over the time taken to build them all and also whether it was during the patronage of one or more Pallava King(s). Though inscriptions found at the monuments indicate that they were commissioned by King Rajasimha during his 40-year reign (690-730 CE), there is speculation as to whether so many monuments could have been built in such a short span of time. What is, however, agreed upon is that building activity stopped with Rajasimha’s death and work on the monuments that were being built simultaneously came to a halt and the monuments were left unfinished for ever.

Over the centuries since the monuments were abandoned, they have fallen into ruin — some of the monuments are even believed to have been claimed by the ocean ! But they never disappeared — literally or from public knowledge (like the Ajanta Caves) — partly because of worship in some of the monuments and partly because of traveller accounts.

The coming of the English to the region brought a renewed interest consistent focus on the monuments of Mahabalipuram. Attempts at understanding, documenting and showcasing the monuments began in earnest. In 1984, when the UNESCO declared the group of monuments at Mahabalipuram as a World Heritage Site, it was brought to the world’s notice as well.

Mahabalipuram, Mamallapuram, Pallavas, Shore Temple, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Tamil Nadu, HeritageEarly one morning in January this year, I set out from Chennai to explore the monuments of Mahabalipuram. It was a good day to visit for there were very few tourists and I (almost) had the monuments to myself. I wandered around Mahabalipuram without any particular plan in mind and would probably have spent the entire day there, if I hadn’t got dehydrated due to the heat forcing me to return to Chennai by mid-afternoon.

Here are some of captures from that day. Please click on the first picture to see the details and the captions and then use the arrow keys to navigate through the rest of the pictures. Do come back to read the rest of the post !

Though this was technically my second visit to Mahabalipuram, it could very well have been the first. The monuments, in themselves, were familiar but the details were unfamiliar. No two monuments were identical and the way the natural rock formations had been chosen to sculpt or the way the monolithic rathas had been sculpted were amazing. Each one was a discovery, a delight and one that led to introspection or wonder as the case may be. Be it the story-telling panels, or the freeze frames or the rathas or the animals, I often lost track of time looking at the details.

What I loved the most among all the reliefs and sculptures were those of animals. They seemed to have a special place and the sculptors have carved them in great detail and with love. I haven’t seen such realistic looking animal sculptures anywhere else. The exceptions were the lion sculptures; their proportions and depictions were not quite right making me wonder if the sculptors had ever seen one !

Here are some details from the monuments of Mahabalipuram. Please click on the first picture to see the details and the captions and then use the arrow keys to navigate through the rest of the pictures. Do come back to read the rest of the post !

The monuments of Mahabalipuram are layered and nuanced and reveal how extraordinary and complex they are little by little. From the grand structures or the larger picture to the little details, they are rather unique — in the sense that the art form and the emotions they evoke take precedence over the theme. For example, Varaha holding Bhudevi the way he does is not just about Vishnu rescuing the earth. It is a depiction of a husband’s (Vishnu/ Varaha) love for his wife (Bhudevi).

The choice of subjects for the panels and their placement is also thought-provoking. For example, the Mahisasuramardini cave has the inert Sheshashayi Vishnu and the full-of-action Durga coming to war with Mahisa placed opposite each other. The concept of balance or opposites — in this case action and inertia — is an important concept in Indian art in temples.

As I pored over my notes and photographs in preparation to write this post, I realised that with the art forms and the emotions they convey assuming primacy over the religious and mythological themes portrayed, I could identify and feel the different rasas… so strong were the bhavas.

Mahabalipuram was quite the surprise for me, in the sense that I expected to see grand monuments, which I did. It also showed me the unexpected nuances and complexity that deserves to be, and will be, showcased separately on this blog. This post was only the curtain raiser, an introduction, to the underrated wonder that is Mahabalipuram. In the coming weeks and months, I will be discussing some of them in greater detail and critiquing them as well.

Watch this space ! 🙂


Notes:

  1. For background information on the monuments at Mahabalipuram, I referred to R. Nagaswamy’s books from the Monumental Legacy Series.
  2. There are many blogs and articles on Mahabalipuram, but none as detailed as this one. I highly reading it.

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21 thoughts on “The underrated wonder that is Mahabalipuram

  1. Pingback: The underrated wonder that is Mahabalipuram — My Favourite Things – The Firebird Fairytales

    • Hello Maria, welcome to “My Favourite Things”. Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. Glad you liked the article. There are more posts coming up on Mahabalipuram, so I hope you will come back to read those as well. 🙂

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    • Thank you, Lata. And I always like travelling with someone – there is so much to experience from another set of eyes, another perspective right then and there. And sharing the joy of travel right then and there with someone and not on social media is indescribable.

      Who knows, we just might travel together one day 🙂

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    • A very warm welcome to “My Favourite Things”, Amy. Thank you so much for your for stopping by and commenting your appreciation.

      I will be posting more from Mahabalipuram in the coming months, so do look out for the posts. 🙂

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    • Thank you very much, Pooja. Yes, we do have lots to see in our country and most of it does not get the appreciation it deserves. Which is why I like to focus on the lesser known things to draw attention to them.

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  2. I absolutely LOVED this post and the pictures. And now I’ve developed a game to browse through your pictures: I’m going to first try and guess what is going on in the pictures myself and only then will I ready your caption to see if I’m right. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Shubham. Mahabalipuram is very atmospheric and in spite of the heat and tourists milling around, you will be able to feel something special. I haven’t been there on a full moon’s night, but a friend who has insists that it is quite something. I can believe that. 🙂

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