At first glance, Mahabalipuram appears like any other small town—narrow streets full of vendors, small shops, bikes, and people. The only difference are the large signs, Arjuna’s Penance, Shore Temple, and Pancha Rathas, indicating the sandstone rock carvings that are its claim to fame. This group of monuments, built by the Pallava rulers and dating to 6th and 7th century AD, have been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Arjuna's Penance
Arjuna’s Penance | Image credits: Mahesh Balasubramanian, Flickr CC

I had reached the town rather late in the evening, and therefore, instead of going straight to the temple carvings, turned left to my hotel on Othavadai Street. A different world opened up–full of guesthouses, cafes, and foreigners mingling with the local population. After a quick meal of soup and grilled sandwiches, I retreated to my hotel room, and rediscovered the joy of tying a mosquito net after many years!

Next morning, I walked through the lanes full of children playing hopscotch and women with flowers in their hair drawing rangolis at the entrances of their homes. A busy road with tourist buses, shops selling hats and coconuts, led to a T-junction, and right at the juncture, a massive boulder with intricate carvings loomed—the famous Arjuna’s penance. Taken from the Mahabharata, the carving shows Arjuna performing penance to please Lord Shiva to obtain the boon of the Pashupata weapon. Gods and Goddesses intermingle with elephants, while a sage (Arjuna as an ascetic) stands on his left foot. A central cleft, representing a river, is occupied with figures of Nagas and Nagis, while a family of elephants are shown on the right.

Mahabalipuram temple complex
Mahabalipuram temple complex | Image credits: Emmanuel Dyan, Flickr CC

Right next to this is a hall showing Krishna lifting mount Govardhana, while gopis stand by. A realistic carving of a cowherd milking a cow, as well as other figures, all sheltered by Krishna, cover the whole wall. This seemed a popular cave, since many tourists start their tour from here.

I followed the crowd of tourists to the ground next to these two structures. The graceful Ganesharatha, a monolithic building, with a wagon roof topped with a trident-shaped headgear is the first temple. A little beyond is a huge ball-shaped boulder resting on a rock base, called Krishna’s butterball. I walked beyond and climbed another boulder to reach the Trimurti cave, a triple-celled temple of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Towards one end is a niche with an eight-armed Durga, standing on Mahishasura.

Mahishasuramardhini | Image credits: Srinivasan G, Flickr CC


Krishna's butter ball
Krishna’s butter ball | Image credits: McKay Savage, Flickr CC

Back on level ground, I crossed over to the other side, taking a quick look at the Varaha Mandapa, distinguished by its intricately carved boar head on a side panel. Beyond this temple is an unfinished gopuram, with tall tower-like gates and intricate carvings on the incomplete walls.

Varaha cave temple
Varaha cave temple | Image credits: Mahesh Balasubramanian, Flickr CC

By this time, the day had become hot, and I walked out to buy a sun hat! Topi firmly on, I walked past rows of workshops with sculptures and figurines at the front and working sculptors inside. Some of the carvers were busy at work, and the sound of chiseling accompanied me to the PanchaRathas’ ground. These five temples have been carved out of a single piece of rock, and represent Draupadi, Arjuna, Bhima, Yudhisthir, and the twins, Nakul and Sahdev. While the Draupadi temple was the most elegant, with a standing lion guarding the entrance, the temple representing Yudhishthir (Dharma raja) had a striking ardhanarishwara towards the end, depicting the perfect balance between masculine and feminine forces within one figure.

PanchRatha temples Mahabalipuram
PanchRatha temples Mahabalipuram | Image credits: Liji Jinaraj, Flickr CC

I came back to the main road to have lunch. After checking various cafes, I settled on Café Nautilus. Owned by a French man, it had bright ochre walls, and traditional musical instruments strewn around it. I ordered the “traditional” prawn curry and rice, and balanced it out with a lime soda. The street is lined with cafes offering a mix of continental and Indian food, and I decided to check some out later. By the time I finished my lunch, the whole street had quietened—it was siesta time—and I followed suit.

Emerging after a couple of hours, I decided to walk to the Shore Temple. By this time, the streets were crowded with many Chennai cars on them as well people milling around, eating, walking, and shopping–the whole atmosphere was rather festive. I weaved in and out of the crowd on the same road I took in the morning, but in the opposite direction. The Shore Temple, as is obvious from its name, overlooks the sea, and the main shrine faces the east, with a broken shivalinga enshrined in the central cell. A smaller cell behind it, pitch dark, has the figure of a sleeping Vishnu, while lions at intervals divide the panels of the outside wall. Opposite the temple is a courtyard, partly surrounded by an unfinished enclosure, along which rows of Nandis are arranged.

Shore temple Mahabalipuram
Shore temple Mahabalipuram | Image credits: Kannan Muthuraman, Flickr CC

The coastline along Mahabalipuram is gradually shrinking due to the effect of sea erosion. Although conservation efforts, in the form of a wall made of rocks around the temple, have increased the lifetime of this temple, and efforts are on to save the surrounding land in a similar fashion, it is an ongoing battle. The fact that one day this temple may not exist made me turn around for a last look.  And as the sun set, I  watched the Nandi bulls guard the temple, and the waves froth around the whole complex, the whole making for a perfect symphony.

Mahabalipuram coastline
Mahabalipuram coastline | Image credits: Prateek Rungta, Flickr CC

Getting There by Train:

The nearest railway station is Chengalpattu Junction, which is 30 minutes away from Mahabalipuram. You can take train 16115, the Chennai Egmore Puducherry Express, for around Rs 50 in the General quota, and be there in an hour (6:10 pm – 7:10 pm). From Chengalpattu, take an auto or bus to reach Mahabalipuram.

Where to Stay:

Daphne Guesthouse has both AC and non-AC room, and is conveniently located.

Feature Image source: FriedWater, Flickr CC

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Symphony of heritage in Mahabalipuram

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