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Mahabalipuram Mouments: Ancient stories carved in stone

Bhima Rath

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A beautiful lesson in history you won’t yawn at.

Stories on stone that would impress you.

A piece of our collective heritage.

Whichever way you look at the rock cut monuments, these ancient sites are key places to visit in Mahabalipuram. Rock cut Temples. Intricate carvings on whitish grey granite. Scuplted open-air reliefs. All made under the patronage of Pallava dynasty.

These group of monuments were declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1894 and draw numerous travelers from India and overseas. It is one of the most famous destinations in South India.

Mahabalipuram is a small pleasing town south of Chennai. I visited these heritage sites sites on a recent trip to Mahabalipuram. A comfort stay at a villa with a private beach access and proximity to Mahabalipuram heritage sites made for a great short getaway from Bangalore.

Places to visit in Mahabalipuram

Shore Temple

Go early in the morning before 7 am and you are likely to have the Shore Temple mostly to yourself. It is a beautiful site with the breeze blowing in from the Bay of Bengal shores. It is also hugely popular at sunset time for the right reason, being one of the top places to see in Mahabalipuram. So be prepared to jostle with the crowds.

The entire temple complex is surrounded by an enclosure with rows of sculpted Nandis arranged on top.

Shore Temple is a structural temple belonging to Pallava King Rajasimha (8th century). There are 2 shrines in this temple, one faces east and the other faces west. Both the shrines have a similar plan consisting of a sanctum and porch and both hold Shivalinga sculptures.

Pancha Raths

I went here in the afternoon and enjoyed this beautiful site despite the heat. But it would be better to visit early morning, if possible and combine it with the heritage tour of other monuments in the vicinity. There are 5 structures chiseled from rocks in the shape of ‘raths’ or chariots, typical of monolithic rock cut architecture belonging to the Pallava dynasty.

These ‘raths’ are not temples.

The five raths are named after the 5 Pandava brothers and their common wife Draupadi from the great Indian epic ‘Mahabharata’. 

Arjuna’s Penance or the ‘Descent of the Ganges’

As you exit the Shore Temple and walk to the main road, you will sight an intricately carved open-air bas relief – the Arjuna’s Penance – right on the road. For a moment, you may wonder, like I did, that how is this ancient stone carving from 7th century so close to the road. But then you notice the road is clean and that the traffic is less. Perhaps something more can be done about protecting this heritage site.

Stunning carvings sculpted on stone.

There is a stone sculpture on the side depicting a family of monkeys, an excellent example of Pallava sculptures. It showcases one parent taking out lice from the head of the other, while the little one is resting on the lap. 

Pancha Pandava Cave

To the left of Arjuna’s Penance lies the largest of all cave temples belonging to the Pallavas. It has a unique plan in having a rock-cut shrine in the corner of a facade hall with a passage for moving around the shrine.

Krishna’s Mandapa

This monument belonging to the Pallava period depicts Krishna lifting the mount Govardhana to protects the cowherds from the storm created by Indira. Krishna is shown supporting the mountain in his left hand, the other hand being in Varada attitude. This depiction, possibly of Narasimhavarman I period, has no parallel in India.

Krishna Temple, Pandava cave and Arjuna’s Penance in one shot.

Ganesa Temple

To the right of Arjuna’s Penance, there is a gated entry (ticket checked here). As you walk ahead in the complex, you first come across a monolithic rock cut temple dedicated to Ganesa.

Scholars have identified this temple as belonging to the period of  Paramesvaravarman I (from 7th century).

Krishna’s Butterball

The next natural monument is quite interesting. Krishna’s butterball is a gigantic granite boulder, approximately 6 metres high and 5 metres wide.

Imagine this 250 tons-weighing-boulder perched delicately on the slope of a rocky hillock. I didn’t want to stand under it for sure!

I climbed one side of the Krishna’s butter ball and saw it from the back side. Then continue ahead on a short walk up the straight oath on the rocks, nothing that can’t be managed with sensible shoes. 

Varaha Temple

I first reached the rock cut Varaha Temple, the most complete structure of its kind. This has been dated to the period of Pallava King Narasimhavarman (from 7th century).

The Temple has an arcade hall with a shrine cut into the back wall.

Royagopuram

This gopuram, though incomplete is fairly interesting. There are beautifully sculpted door jambs erected over the summit of a hillock and as you walk across them, you get a sense of what the sculptors were hoping to achieve.

It invites you to walk across!

Iswara Temple

This small structural Temple is built on a hillock, nothing too high. This Temple has been assigned to the last years of Pallava King Rajasimha (8th century)  – or so the board informed me. 

Do climb to see the Temple up close.

Mahishamardhini Mandapa

The next site I went to was a rock cut Mandapa dedicated to 3 forms of Shiva. This has been dated to the period of Pallava King Narasinhavarman (from 7th century). The most significant feature of this cave temple is a sculpture depicting Mahishamardhini fighting Mahisasura.

You get a good view of both the Iswara Temple and the rock cut Mandapa on the side from the Lighthouse.

The giant boulder in which this cave temple has been cut itself is remarkable. There are other boulders strewn around and the whole landscape feels unreal.

Lighthouse

This is a modern structure made of natural stone in 1887. Interestingly, India’s oldest lighthouse made by King Mahendra Pallava in 7th century stands next to this modern structure.

You can climb the steps to the top of the lighthouse for an extra ticket.

The last stretch has very narrow and steep wooden steps, may be difficult for the elderly and those who get claustrophobic. There are nice views of the beach, of Iswara temple, the gigantic rocks and the landscape around but nothing that would be imprinted on your memory for ages, so feel free to skip going up if the lighthouse is crowded.

Tiger cave

This lies 5 km on the main road before Mahabalipuram. This rock cut caves with tiger heads on the entrance is nestled in a beautiful green serene area where few visitors go. It is easy to miss the board on the main road so keep your eyes peeled. Surprisingly there is no entrance fee.

When I went at about 830 in the morning, I was the sole visitor with only a cleaning lady for company!

A common ticket applies for all of Mahabalipuram ancient places to see and can be purchased at any of the venues. It is valid for the day of purchase. Most of the monuments are walking distance from each other, though if you go in the afternoon, it may be exhausting to walk in the heat. It would take you about 3-4 hours to visit all the monuments. There are guides available right outside these sites on hire, though I didn’t take any.


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