Destinations: Mahabalipuram (1978)

After a few lovely days it was time for us to move and we travelled back to Madurai to catch a train for Madras (now Chennai). Madras was our last station from where we were scheduled to get back to Nagpur.

I recall having taken a package tour of three places viz. Kanchipuram, Pakshiteertham and Mahabalipuram. Kanchipuram is again a temple town known as the “city of a thousand temples”. The huge temples that we visited were intricately carved, with stone sculptures along the columns.. Frankly, I do not remember much about the temples we were taken to. However, what I remember is that some temple minders were preventing the Western tourists from getting close to the sanctum sanctorum. When I asked the the guide about it he simply said that if one sees the map of India he would find it narrow in the south. That, he thought, explained the whole thing.

We went half way up to Pakshitheertham but then turned back. It seemed there were a million steps to climb to go up the hill which looked impossible for us. A temple has been built on top of the hill (one wonders why ancient people chose only tops of hills for erecting temples) where, according to legends, two eagles land every day at 11 AM and they leave after being fed with jaggery and rice. A huge complicated belief supports the legend which somehow never appealed to me. The legendary eagles travel across the subcontinent during the day to have breakfast, lunch and dinner at different places that are hundreds of miles apart

Two places included in the package were kind of wash-outs. The third one – a visit to Mahabalipuram was interesting. Mahabalipuram or Mammalapuram is a coastal town about 35 miles from Madras which has its origins in hoary past. It was a busy sea port even during the 1st Century of the Christian era. It became a port city of the Pallava Empire in the 7th Century which used to be ruled from Kanchipuram, then the capital of the empire. Apparently, it was the centre of thriving international trade. Trading and diplomatic missions used to be launched from here in the times of the Pallavas.

The place has also been known from Marco Polo’s time as “Seven Pagodas” of which only one survives in the shape of the Shore Temple. Obviously there were seven such temples along the shore which were visible from the sea but time took its toll and six were lost and only one remains. The one that remains is exquisite in its shape and craft. Beautiful figures are etched on the walls of granite which was the building material.

As it generally happens, particularly in South India, temples are dedicated to tales from Mahabharata or Shiva and/or Vishnu. What we have in Mahabalipuram are both, rock cuts and structured temples. According to experts this shows a movement from rock-cuts to structured buildings. The Shore Temple is a beautiful tiered structure with eaves hanging out from each tier. The sculpted panels are deteriorating because of the salt in the air. The most interesting paneling is of several “Nandi” bulls that have been placed on the peripheral wall of the temple. Intrestingly, the 2004 tsunami uncovered a few more remains that had formed part of the temple complex. Among the finds were a few granite lions, an elephant and even a wall that seemingly led into the land.

In 1978 we had found Mahabalipuram a quiet place. On a revisit about ten years ago we found it to be a small township with crowds in a bazaar-like situation. Business in locally made artifacts was seemingly quick and domestic tourism appeared to be flourishing. What stood out was the apparent rise in disposable incomes during the intervening years fostering tourism among common people. Good for the people but, unless managed, bane for tourist sites.


More by :  Proloy Bagchi

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