Beyond the beaches of Mahabalipuram
January 1, 1970
by Yogini Patil
The sun shone brightly in the clear sky. The breeze got warmer with the rise in mercury. The port was busy with the incessant arrivals and departures of archaic ships laden with goods and wealth. The cargo was loaded and unloaded ceaselessly. The vivid images that my mind created felt so real and I was transported to the 7th century Mamallapuram of the Pallava kingdom. The sea traders trading across the seas with merchants from Egypt, Rome, China, Kambuja (present-day Cambodia) in return for goods or money. Young sculptors practicing and mastering the art at the cliffs near the shores of Bay of Bengal. The car braked suddenly, snapping me out of the reverie and bringing me back to the present day Mahabalipuram. It looked pretty different than the thriving seaport from many thousands of years ago that was still playing in the recesses of my mind.
The historic town of Mahabalipuram is located in the Kanchipuram district of Tamil Nadu, a state in the south of India. It is about 60Km (about 37 miles) drive from the metro city Chennai. This ancient town is a feast for travelers, photographers, art & history enthusiasts, architects & everyone alike. In addition to the ancient archeological wonders and coastal beauty, Mahabalipuram has great places to satiate one’s appetite with delectable seafood. Being a beach facing town on the Coromandel Coast, Mahabalipuram is famous for its sandy shores and long beaches. Yet there’s so much more to this beach town than just the vast expanses of sand and water. Each traveler sees a place differently than the other and there’s always a lot more to a place that needs to be discovered. Here’s a little something to explore about the Mahabalipuram that existed beyond the beaches.
Exploring the town
Group of monuments
Included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Group of monuments is a magnificent structure of stonework. Fabulously carved out of huge monoliths, it is one of the India’s greatest artworks that depict interesting stories from the Indian mythology. Some of the prominent structures are the rathas (chariots), mandapas (cave sanctuaries) and giant open air bas-reliefs. The stunning work of art at these complexes is undoubtedly an architectural splendor.
Built in the 8th century, this beautiful structure consisting of two temples stands calmly overlooking the sea. As per the legends, there once existed 5 more temples alongside the now famous Shore temple. Named as Seven Pagodas by the ancient, foreign travelers and mariners, the structure was so spectacular that it invited the jealousy of the Gods who unleashed the sea on it, taking them beneath the waves forever.
These monolithic structures are named as Panch Rathas meaning five chariots, as each of the 5 monuments resemble a ratha or chariot, carved out of a single huge boulder. With intricate carvings, this spectacular work of art by the fine artisans of the 7th century is actually an unfinished work as the construction was discontinued after the death of the ruling Pallava king.
Maritime Heritage museum
For those interested in marine technology, the Maritime Heritage museum is a perfect place. It displays models of Egyptian papyrus ships, Palmyra ships, steel and diesel ships, maps of ancient sea routes and detailed information about lights, buoys, communication and navigational devices. It is quite an interesting place to learn a new thing or two even for the laymen like me.
Helping and guiding the sailors at nights to safety from long before the era of GPS and other modern day navigational aids, the Mahabalipuram lighthouse stands on the rocky patches offshore. The maritime museum educates you with how the lighthouse works, just in case if you’re like me. The lighthouse optics uses a combination of prisms & array of lenses designed and arranged in a way to capture the light and concentrate it into the main beam called beacon that is many times brighter than the source. The light would reach many miles into the waters dodging away the risks faced by the ship approaching the shores after nightfall. Panoramic views of the town from the dome of the lighthouse are quite enjoyable. The lighthouse was recently opened to tourists.
Mahabalipuram houses Asia’s largest seashell museum. The museum showcases 20000+ kinds of shells, conches, and fossils varying from all sizes, colors, patterns & interesting shapes. One can see a conch almost about the size of a mustard seed and also of unbelievably massive sizes here. A passionate curator Raja Mohamad spent 33 years collecting them from the seas and oceans all over the world. One can visit the handicraft display area that showcases stunning craftwork made from decorative shells, conches and corals and return with a souvenir.
Every year in the months of January-February, a vibrant Dance festival is hosted by the town of Mahabalipuram showcasing classical and folk dances from all over the country. Skilled dancers perform the fine art on an open-air stage against the backdrop of incredible Pallava rock sculpture. The venue – Arjuna’s penance, a bas-relief sculpted on two massive rocks, sets a perfect mood for the performers and creates a great ambiance for this cultural dance festival. It’s a must visit for those who appreciate aesthetic forms of art and culture.
The stonework and sculpting still remain inherited skills of the people of Mahabalipuram. The markets are lined with shops displaying amazing stonework. You can find almost everything that you can think of, made skillfully out of stones here.
There’s a lot to explore for a traveler in Mahabalipuram. Discover new kitchens and satisfy your taste buds. Take leisure strolls into the streets and alleys to feel the essence of the place. Feel the sea breeze as you walk on the long lonely shores. Hear the sounds of the waves, for they may have some ancient story to tell you.
Chennai is the nearest metro city that is well connected by road, train & flight with the remaining part of the country. To travel by road from Chennai, one can drive or take a bus. The nearest railway station Chengalpattu is about 30km away from Mahabalipuram. The train from Chennai to Chengalpattu takes about an hour approximately, after which a cab or bus can be taken to reach Mahabalipuram.