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Monday, Jun 24, 2002

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History, just a drive away

Lalitha Sridhar

What makes a drive up to Mahabalipuram from Chennai memorable is the ancient port city's sheer beauty, and the road itself, says Lalitha Sridhar.

The Shore Temple, Mahabalipuram.

If you believe the journey is as important as the destination, then drive yourself from Chennai to Mahabalipuram. It is a road often taken these days. Yes, the recently commissioned toll gate has made it rather (in)famous; an expensive road and therefore, a controversial one.

Nonetheless, it is also an incredibly beautiful road. If the East Coast Road (ECR to Chennaites) is a bit of a show-off during the day, it fairly dazzles in the night, with luminescent signboards and glowing barriers. Add a liberal dash of weekend resorts and theme parks, artist communities and heritage centres, multiplexes and restaurants, bowling alleys and discotheques.

Before you know it, the journey itself becomes a series of destinations. Mahabalipuram shimmers in the distance. A mirage, no less. But one which does not disappear.

The ancient city, the second capital and principal port of the Pallava kings of Kanchipuram, at its political and artistic pinnacle between the fifth and eighth centuries, is now a tourist town. It continues to thrive on the steady influx of the bemused, the besotted and the brash. It greets them all with the same ritual entrance fee, the familiar stringers and touts, the unavoidable curio shops who pitch their sales by accosting the stranger and welcoming him too much. The congested streets don't offer too much of a clue as to what is where. Arjuna's Penance? The Butter Ball? The Light House?

All down the same road, which begs you to disembark and discover. Mamallapuram (the official, but infrequently used name) is also credited with featuring some of the earliest Indian attempts at monolithic stone carving.

Arjuna's Penance showcases this amply. The carving on the face of a huge rock seamlessly assimilates a long vertical fissure where from water was known to have flowed down. You don't even need to close your eyes to imagine the venerable Ganges gushing forth, drawn irrepressibly by King Bhagirath's beseeching penance on behalf of a water-starved land. Or was it Arjuna who had prayed ceaselessly to Lord Shiva here?

Folklore and myths pepper the landscape in as much abundance as the stones and sculptures. Animals, deities, stories from the Panchatantra, scenes from everyday life leap out, communicating something that is beyond language. The stones seem to speak.

The nearby Mahishasuramardhini Mandapam and Olakkanneshwara Temple offer some splendid views too. The sea-winds whip up more than just a nippy breeze; they flutter over a town to which the centuries have not always been kind. The sculptures turn formal now, the wrathful Goddess Durga and the scenes from the Puranas are etched brilliantly. Serenaded by the sea, this hilltop is an easy place to linger, to rest your feet and never want to get up again.

But move on you must, to be rewarded in more ways than one. Back on the path to the Krishna's Butter Ball — a huge, spherical monolith that is suspended impossibly on a slanting granite hillock, as if held by some invisible giant hand. The Ganesha Ratha, once a Shiva Temple, is now dedicated to the ascetic God's son.

The Trimurti Cave lauds the holy Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Some, like the Dharmaraja Mandapam and the Ramanuja Mandapam, have not survived the intervening millennium with quite the same fortitude (the former is acknowledged as the oldest surviving monument in Mahabalipuram).

Browse for stone sculptures and other curios in the many shops thriving on tourist trade before you move on the mid-seventh century Shore Temple. Ringed with casuarina trees and granite boulders, the sea so close by that you can smell the salt and hear the waves, the setting of the Shore Temple is utterly magical. The structure is a jewel in the crown that Mahabalipuram wears so graciously. The pristine beach close by is known to be home to treacherous currents but remains a favourite spot for picnickers to stop and catch their breath.

The Pancharathas (or Five Chariots) are temples, which emulate the style of rathas or chariots. Until about 200 years ago, they had been lost to time, consumed by the sands upon which they had been set. The British excavated these beautiful examples of Pallava architecture, dedicated to the famous Pandava brothers and their equally legendary wife, Draupadi.

The Draupadi Ratha is dedicated to Goddess Durga, the Arjuna Ratha to Lord Shiva (whose lingam has since been destroyed), the Bhima Ratha honours Mahavishnu in repose or Ananthashayanam, the Nakula-Sahadeva Ratha is the abode of Indra, the Rain God, while the tallest Dharmaraja Ratha salutes Harihara (the genesis of the omnipotent Shiva-Vishnu) and Ardhanareeshwara (the Shiva-Shakti embodiment of true equality between the sexes).

Standing at a strategic focal distance is the finest, life-size sculpture of an elephant, possibly anywhere in India.

With that, the visitor has been there and seen all places that Mahabalipuram is so famous for. But the whole is more than the sum of the parts. Mahabalipuram is lauded as the forerunner to grander ambitions, greater heights. But the imagination of its creators blessed it with a longevity they might themselves not have foreseen. Buffeted by the winds, never forgotten by time, Mahabalipuram will remain on your mind.

Picture by Bijoy Ghosh

Fact file

How to get there: Mahabalipuram is 50 km from Chennai, the nearest airport, down the southern East Coast Road. Plenty of public transport available though a personal drive is recommended.

Where to stay: A day-trip is ideal, though there are many lodges and hotels catering to any budget in Mahabalipuram itself. Just over 12 km away, on the road back to Chennai, is the swanky Taj Group property, Fisherman's Cove, which occupies a restored ancient fort near the old Kovalam fishing settlement.

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