Tamil Nadu contains only four of the 29 World Heritage Sites in India currently inscribed with UNESCO, but they are a splendid four. Just down the road from Chennai is one of the easiest to access, and one of the best – the collection of monuments around which the town of Mahabalipuram is spread.
The monuments are sufficiently well known, I think, not to need a great deal of description from me. The variety is stunning: majestic temples constructed from finished stone; sanctuaries and shrines hewn out of the living rock; carved monoliths; and elaborate friezes with both serious and amusing characters. These are mostly distributed around the town and the rocky hill along its western side, but there are others a little to the west and north of the main group.
But the experience is not always what it could be. We are saddened to see Mahabalipuram so often sandwiched into a trip from Chennai to Pondicherry which probably takes in Dakshina Chitra and the Crocodile Bank en route (both worth visiting, needless to say), plus 4 hours on the road.
Mahabalipuram is at its best at dawn. The two sites for which you need a ticket open at 6am for that very purpose, and the experience of visiting the Shore Temple (today’s picture) as the sun is coming up out of the Bay of Bengal is unforgettable. You can then take in the Rathas – five temples in the form of free-standing chariots which have each been carved out of a single rock – and then go round to see the Penance Panel, the largest rock-relief of its kind, before the sun gets too hot.
This means staying the previous night locally which is perfectly easy as there are a large number of hotels to suit all budgets. If you arrive around 4pm, you then can take in some of the cave temples and sanctuaries (which are often omitted) – take a torch for the painting and carving in the darker inner recesses) – and climb to the top of the hill to watch the sun go down over the plains. Don’t miss the bath carved into the summit and the children’s slide on the way down below an enormous perched granite boulder, known as Krishna’s butter-ball.
Mahabalipuram has a long and respectable history. It was an important port from ancient times – at least the 1st century BC when there was documented trade with south-east Asia. Spices were transhipped here to move across southern India to ports on the west coast and onwards to the Middle East and Europe. Then it was called by a different name – there are a number of possibilities. But in 624AD Narasimha, a king of the Pallava dynasty, was victorious over the Chalukyan kingdom, and moved his headquarters and a number of artisans down to the port. His nickname was Mahamalla – the great wrestler – and the port was renamed Mahamallapuram (ie Mahamalla-town) and later shortened to Mamallapuram. Mahabalipuram is a modern name probably dating from the Raj.
The sound of chisels is a constant background to your visit. Stone sculptures can be commissioned and delivered anywhere (we have a Ganesh outside the door of our flat in Glasgow), and many of the workshops are happy to have visitors. I shudder to think of the conversation which one day will happen between a Mahabalipuram craftsman and his son – “what do you mean, you don’t want to be a stone-carver when you grow up? Our family has been carving stone for 1300 years and if it was good enough for me and my father and his father and …..”.