My 1st solo foray into Tamil Nadu happened on a hot, sunny afternoon when my onward connecting flight to Maldives got delayed. Chennai, the capital city is a pretty vibrant place which I had visited numerous times during my flying days and had many friends who called it home. Unfortunately, that day, it was a Monday noon and all my friends were at work. Now, Monday mornings do not have the reputation of being the most popular day and usually garnered grumpiness in people, who had to drag themselves to work after weekend long fun. Add to that scenario, a nomadic friend who chirps over the phone to excitedly tell you that she is in town because of her delayed flight to Maldives and thought of saying “hi”, and you will know exactly why Facebook introduced the “Unfriend” option.
My constant travels usually made a lot of people, who were connected with me on social networking site wistful and I definitely did not need disgruntled friends sticking pins on my voodoo doll. So there I was sitting on my backpack on the shiny, clean tiled floor of Chennai airport when a sudden idea struck me. Chennai airport is not the swankiest airport in India and can be most politely described as functional. However, it had what most other city airports did not possess, and that was a very helpful tourist taxi stand filled with drivers who were proficient in English and were polite, well mannered gentlemen. While the thick mustachioed, lungi (sarong skirt) sporting, hefty men would not give out the most friendly vibe, the reality is that, the men from Tamil Nadu are shy, mild mannered and extremely respectful to tourists. So when one such gentle mannered taxi driver shuffled up to me and upon coming to know of my delayed flight status, suggested of a short visit to Mahabalipuram, I could not help but readily agree.
Now for those of you, who have had to battle against aggressive taxi drivers of our glorious capital, the impatient ones of our Bollywood city or even the rude, pushy ones from oh so “cultured” Calcutta, would understand why I had hopped on for this short trip. The “Lost City” of Mahabalipuram is one of the most glorious sights of southern India and I had been wanderlusting after it forever. Located just 60 kilometers away from Chennai, Mahabalipuram or Mamallapuram was a pleasant 2 hours drive along the photogenic East Coast Road (ECR). Chennai was shimmering under an oppressive early noon coastal heat, when we started braving our way through its residential blocks. Coconuts gleamed golden, flowers sprang kaleidoscope of colours and old ladies pushed carts topped with pyramids of odorous dried fish as we weaved past noisy raucous music blasting beetle shaped auto rickshaws, flowered coiffures, starched sarongs/lungis and grotesquely large posters of politicians and movie stars (read past middle aged, corpulent men in bizarre sun glasses and gold romancing scantily clad, voluptuous teenage actresses). Big noisy buses thundered down smooth roads and the rest of the traffic meandered dangerously in between, just like in every other part of India. The super smooth tree shaded ECR was an absolute delight and I loved the feel of salty sea breeze in my hair as we zipped on at a break neck speed.
Tamil Nadu’s blessed wetlands started immediately upon leaving the litter choked urban area and painted storks made their presence felt gaudily. The playful blue ocean rolled along the way and casuarinas rustled in the breeze. Resorts, amusement parks, restaurants and empty sandy stretches pockmarked on both sides of the expressway and big violet beach morning glories danced in the sun. Mahabalipuram arrived soon and immediately a mini global village aura took over the intrepid Tamil coast. Mahabalipuram was clearly an international backpacker’s hot spot and home stays, guest houses, restaurants, internet cafes and stores selling knick knacks from all over the world lined its winding lanes. But it was also spotlessly clean, well kept and I stared in awe at rows of stone carvers’ studios. Huge stone statues stared frozen as the taxi trailed along the other tourist vehicles and granite dust filled the coastal air. Mahabalipuram was busy and big tourist buses, taxis, motorcycles and private cars carrying loads of visitors plied down the village lanes daily.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Mahabalipuram is famous for beautiful stone carvings, the stunning “Shore Temple” and too many unsolved mysteries. While many claim that this area used to serve as a school for young sculptors, the origin of the magnificent temples remain obscure. The different sculptures, some half finished and scattered throughout the complex, give rise to the theory that they may have been examples of different styles of architecture, probably demonstrated by instructors and practiced on by young students. Mahabalipuram had been described by an 8th century writer as a “Sea Mountain”, ‘where the ships rode at anchor bent to the point of breaking laden as they were with wealth, big trunked elephants and gems of nine varieties in heaps’. Discovery of megalithic burial jars, cairn circles (pre historic stone rows) etc at Mahabalipuram point towards the city’s existence from the early days of Christian era and it was known far and wide as a busy seaport during the time of Periplus (1st century CE) and Ptolemy (140 CE). Named after the south Indian king, Narasimhavarman I (Mamalla), Mamallapuram/Mahabalipuram is an epitome of architectural excellence of his 7th century dynasty, the Pallavas and the site’s most exquisite temples are credited to the great ruler. The Pallavas too used Mahabalipuram as a trading hub and Marco Polo (and his contemporary mariners) called it as “Seven Pagodas“, thus unleashing an unsolved mystery which lasted for more than 11 centuries.
Although the present monument complex consists of 1 shore temple, 5 stone chariots/rathas, a handful of cave sanctuaries/mandapas and giant open air bas reliefs, locals along the Mahabalipuram coast, for hundreds of years have believed in a legend which spoke of a magnificent, ancient city getting devoured by a huge flood in a single day, some thousands of years ago. Believed to have been established by the mythical king Bali, the magnificent city was said to have been destroyed by the king of Hindu gods, Indra who got jealous of its earthly beauty and sunk it during a great storm, leaving only the Shore Temple above water. They also believed that there were altogether 7 shore temples out of which only 1 remains today and for centuries local fishermen have claimed to have seen a lost city glittering under the sea.
The mystery of “Seven Pagodas” just like the Great Flood or the Floating Adam’s Bridge (between India and Sri Lanka) had been rubbished by historians as bluff for centuries, because they believed that no culture in India 6,000 years ago was capable of building anything that grand. The devastating 2004 Tsunami however revealed a complex of submerged ruins off the coast of Mahabalipuram, thus sparking off investigation into the legend. Immediately before the tsunami had struck, eye witnesses recount that the ocean water had receded by nearly 500 meters and exposed long straight rows of stone structures. While most of the structures were again claimed back by the ocean after the tsunami, a large lone stone lion was found sitting uncovered on the sandy beach. Post tsunami, when maritime archaeological expeditions guided by local fishermen who had been raised on the legend, explored the dive site where the supposed ruins were located, they discovered a whole new extensive complex of ancient structures (some possibly dating back to 4,000 B.C) similar to those of Mahabalipuram, under the sea. Although the new findings boosted faith in viability of legends, they churned up more unsolved questions about the age of the ruins, their expanse, purpose, their hidden artifacts and how an entire city got submerged under the sea.
Even after wandering around the remnants of the ancient mysterious seaport, the whole afternoon, unfortunately I had not been able to experience much of its mysterious aura. A rather unpleasant start of the complex tour had marred my trip and till today I carry the guilt of not doing the Pallava seaport any justice. The ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) employed ticket seller at the ratha (stone chariots) complex had adamantly demanded foreigner entrance fee from me (owing to my pale colouring and brown hair) and I had to scurry back to the parked taxi to retrieve my passport to prove my nationality. Needless to say, it had flared into a huge argument which not only had completely put me off, but had wasted a lot of time too. Armed with an Indian entrance fee ticket and lacking in time, I had avoided guides, souvenir and water bottle sellers fiercely, only to loiter around the stone chariots aimlessly.
Nestled on a bed of sand, the 5 granite stone chariots (named after 5 mythical characters called Pandavas from the great Indian epic Mahabharata) stood in a row along with large stone statues of animals. Intricately carved, the monolithic (carved out of single stone) structures (the largest of them is deemed incomplete) were not larger than life like other ancient stone temples of India, but were rather more homely looking. Beautifully designed with cut in and cut out decorations, I had felt comforted by their wagon like shapes and the fact that the bordering palm and casuarina trees had towered over them. Although the temples had cast sweet, simple shadows on the burning sand, the fact that they were only a minuscule part of a huge lost city could not be pushed back from my mind.
Not withstanding my sour mood, I had ended up spending quite a lot of time at the stone chariots and had to rush through the rest of the complex in a daze. Glimpses of the stunning open air bas reliefs of Arjuna’s Penance/Descent of the Ganges had been caught from my slow moving taxi and the play of light and shadow on the boulder’s intricately carved surface had left me spell bound. They had stood grandly under the open sky like large over sized canvases which have been etched laboriously by artists whose sole passion in life had been to create unbelievable beauty, perhaps for appeasement of the gods. They represented the descent of the holy river Ganges as well as many gods, goddesses and mythical creatures like nymphs, snake people etc.
Although the cave temples had stood juxtaposed nearby, large menacing monkeys and racing time, had made me hurry to the last of the “Seven Pagodas”. Located around 2 minutes away on the shifting sands of Coromandel Coast, the Shore Temple had been thankfully void of over excited tourists that afternoon. It had stood lonesome and proud, like a centuries old survivor and although badly eroded by the salty sea air, the rock structure was indeed very grand. It was also pretty diminutive in stature, as if keeping pace with other Pallava structures and in my eyes, looked as mysterious and fiercely possessive of its secrets as the Sphinx of Egypt. Carvings covered its body and unlike the monolithic stone chariots, it was built out of rocks.
Existing on the timeless sands for more than 1400 years, the Shore Temple was the oldest structure in the area and I had loved wandering around its ancient shadows, the solitary “Shiva Lingam” (Lord Shiva’s phallus in stone, an important Hindu idol of worship) and among the row of Nandi bulls which sat guarding their master at the entrance. The deep blue Bay of Bengal had crashed behind us and from the shelter of the cool whispering stones, I had been able spot colourful dashes of the local fishermen’ boats in the distance. The mortal fishermen had looked a part of the timeless templescape and indeed they were too, co partners and keepers of the mystery of “Seven Pagodas” and the “Lost City of Mahabalipuram‘.
TRAVEL TIP – Mahabalipuram/Mamallapuram is on the way to Kanchipuram and Pondicherry and makes a perfect day trip from Chennai. Taxis from airport cost around Rs 2,000 (without airconditioning) for a return trip to Mahabalipuram and its takes around 2 hours to reach there, notwithstanding traffic. Buses to Mahabalipuram are available from Chennai, Pondicherry and Kanchipuram. There are plenty of accommodations suitable for all budgets in and around Mahabalipuram as well as restaurants, shops, pharmacies, money changers, motor cycle rentals etc. Stone carving is a centuries old art of Mahabalipuram and it is possible to learn stone carving at an artist’s studio there. Deep fried fish is a local specialty of the village and can be tried cheaply from any of the small restaurants.
There is a Rs 25 panchayat/municipality fee when you enter the temple area, with additional 10 for parking and Rs 10 for (Indian, SAARC and BIMSTEC visitors) for entrance ticket. The entrance fee for other nationalities is US $ 5 Rs. 250/- per person and this ticket can be reused to visit other temples in that area. The complex is open from 6 A.M-6 P.M and children up to 15 years can enter for free. Apart from the Shore Temple, 5 Rathas, Arjuna’s Penance, Cave Temples, Krishna’s Butterball (a natural precariously positioned boulder) and Thirukadalmallai temple, it is worthwhile to climb up to the Lighthouses for awesome views. For overnighters, do try to check out the nearby Eagle Temple, Crocodile Bank, Covelong etc. Birdwatching, biking, hiking, fishing trips, turtle walks yoga classes etc can also be done at Mahabalipuram. Paranormal lovers can try venturing to the nearby Ghost Beach, which post tsunami devastation has shot to fame for unexplained sightings and activities. Those interested in finding out about the latest development on the Lost City of Mahabalipuram/Mystery of the Seven Pagodas can check out Graham Hancock’s expedition updates on
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE.