The temple kingdom of Mahabalipuram

It was a traffic jam. The bus that I had boarded to go to Mahabalipuram emerged out of the Chennai central bus stand and got stuck in a jam at Saidapet, before it could get out of the city. To make it worse, it started raining rhinos. The bus stood rooted at one stop for more than an hour. One middle-aged gentleman was seated next to me in the bus. He was reading a book on nutrition. I was fascinated.

Most people are happy solving crosswords or reading magazines and newspapers. But here was someone, who definitely didn’t look like a student, reading something far more valuable in life. I didn’t utter a word. Instead, I whipped out my Nikon and started clicking pictures of the rolling greens that passed me by. At one point in the journey, I turned to the man and asked him how much longer will it take to reach Mahabalipuram. “45 minutes,” he said, and went on to tell me something about the places I will run into before I reach my destination.

About 14 kms before we could reach Mahabalipuram, we came across Crocodile Bank. My companion informed me that there are six species of crocodiles bred in captivity. About 5000 Indian and African crocodiles and alligators are kept in open pools that can be viewed from a safe distance. I let it pass, because I had seen a similar one outside Bangkok.

Just 4 kms later, I passed by Dolphin City. Before I could ask my co-traveller, he said the highlight of this is the performance by an American Sea Lion (seal), which is the first of its kind in India. I said, what if the seal falls sick, and he said that there are two more as backups. Balancing a ball on its nose, diving in, diving out… the usual turns of a dolphin were on display at this theme park. I made it a point to get here the next time I am in this part of town. But the gentleman didn’t stop.

He asked me if I had heard of a pyramid marketing company that made people rich all over the world without much effort. I don’t remember the name of the company, but all I know is that it’s not Amway, but it has a revenue model similar to that. And that, its founders are billionaires now, and this gentleman is a direct marketer of their nutritious products. Suddenly, the jiqsaw puzzle fell in place. So the nutrition book he was reading was actually a product brochure! I told him that I was with Amway, but only for a few months before I realised the futility of being a pyramid marketer.

Though marketing guys like him will tell you that you need only spend one hour every day to earn lakhs of rupees over time, it’s never like that. You have to drink, eat and sleep over it, all the time. And suddenly, you realise it’s more than a full-time job. I asked him, how much he makes from it. “My wife and I have only just begun, but are doing well already,” he said. “We make about Rs 3000 a month.” That sealed it for me, I didn’t take much heed to the gentleman next to me. I didn’t even give him my card when he asked for it saying, ‘I’ve exhausted my cards.’ He handed his card, which I threw way when I got down at Mahabalipuram soon after.

The Mahabalipuram bus stand didn’t appear like one. There wasn’t any other bus except the one I took. I looked around, and found many blokes approaching me to ask if I needed a guide. When I didn’t even bother, and kept moving, they took the signal and immediately went behind a few foreigners who had got down from the same bus. I went straight to the flower vendor across the road. He was a boy who appeared about 15 years old. He was laconic: “Go straight, and then go left from there and then come back here and go left again. These are the only three places that you need to see.”

I was shocked for a while. If this is all I have to see, then why do people even call it a tourist place? Later, my question was answered. It took me more than three hours to see these three places. And if I had no plans of reaching Pondicherry by the evening, I could have stayed on for another three hours atleast.

Mahabalipuram is a rock climbers’ paradise. And most of all, it’s every sculptor’s mecca. The kind of rock-cut caves and temples you will see here date back to the Pallava dynasty of the 7th century BC. It is believed to have been named after the Pallava king Mamalla (it was earlier known as Mamallapuram). The monuments are mostly rock-cut and monolithic (built out of one stone). From cave temples to monolithic rathas (chariots), sculpted reliefs and structural temples, it showcases Dravidian pillars and Pallava art through its sculptures.

It is believed that this area served as a school for young sculptors. The different sculptures, some half finished, may have been examples of different styles of architecture, probably demonstrated by instructors and practiced on by young students. This can be seen in the pyramidal Pancha Rathas (five chariots) where each Ratha is sculpted in a different style. These are five pyramidal structures named after Draupadi and the Pandavas – Arjuna, Bhima, Yudhishtra, Nakula and Sahadeva. Despite their sizes, they are not assembled and are instead carved from one single large piece of stone.

Largely describing events from the Mahabharata, watching Pancha Rathas took us an hour. Housed in a sandy compound and built like a pagoda, the rathas resemble Buddhist shrines and monasteries. I loved Draupadi’s ratha. Located at the entrance to the gate, it was spectacular and yet so simple. Shaped like a hut, it is dedicated to goddess Durga. Female door-keepers stand on either ride of the Ratha, one holding a bow and another, a sword. At the eastern wall a bas-relief stands portraying Goddess Durga standing on lotus and two worshippers at her feet offering flowers.

Elephant-shaped sculptures in the Nakul-Sahadev’s Rath are the highlights of the pancha rathas. They face the sea and are huge. And of all the rathas, Yudhistar’s rath is the most huge. It is named after the eldest of the pandavas. One of the guides told me that this is a perfect example of the temples built in south India in the later years. Most of the rathas are incomplete. This ratha’s ground floor is unfinished. And the peculiarity is that there are no stairs leading from the ground to the first floor, though there are stairs from the first to second floor.

What I loved was a carving on the first floor – a bearded ascetic holding a bell in his hands, a devotee with a tuft, holding a flower basket, a temple attendant with a bunch of keys, carrying an offering to god. The Ganesha Ratha is the only completed sculpture of the five Rathas. Earlier dedicated to lord Shiva, it is now a shrine of Ganesha. Talk of one god invading into another’s territory. No wonder Pancha Rathas are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Pallavas did not stop with the Pancha rathas. They went on to build more sculptures. Four are found on the outskirts of Mahabalipuram. Two Pidari Rathas lie side by side on the way to Tirukkalakundram. To the south of these two rathas lies the Valayankuttai Rath and the fourth one which lies opposite to the Mahishasura Mardini Mandap is nameless.

Took three hours to finish seeing everything. It was raining, but I still didn’t want to lose out on pancha rathas and the seashore temple. Gave Rs 50 to an auto driver, and said, I will only take pictures and leave as soon as I can at these two places. The guy left me at the bus stop. Stood there for half an hour. But no bus to Pondy.

Then, I felt thirsty and went to the nearest department store to buy a bottle of mineral water. Back again, no luck. Asked many people who gave conflicting directions. Finally, one guy said I won’t get any bus at this spot,. But there are many buses at the end of the road. Asked him how long it would take to reach. He said, 15 minutes, but it took almost 40 minutes. Cunning auto drivers; walked almost two kilometres to catch a bus at the highway. Stood for half an hour and later got a seat. Reached Pondy by 6.30pm. Finally!

(Published in Windows & Aisles, 2008)