(or Mamallapuram, its ancient name) is one of historys intriguing
enigmas. Situated just 60 km off Chennai on the Bay of Bengal
coast in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Mahabalipuram was
a flourishing port town of the Pallava rulers of South India who
chiselled in stone a fabulous open-air museum of sculptures under
the vault of a burning sky. That much is known. But was this sculptural
glorification a kings fancy? A celebration of war victories?
A queens fantasy? No one actually has any answer. The mystery
of Mahabalipuram lingers, unravelled, but its sculptural extravaganza
is a living testament of the virile artistic temperament of the
Pallavas who were trendsetters in South Indian art.
The history of Mahabalipuram dates back to two thousand years,
it contains nearly forty monuments of different types including
an "open air bas relief" which is the largest in the
world, for centuries it has been a centre of pilgrimage, it figures
in the early annals of the British search for the picturesque
in India in the 18th century, today it attracts shoals of foreigners
in search of relaxation and sea bathing, and most strange of all,
it has an atomic power plant for neighbour. A small library has
been written on it.
Over its history and that of its monuments a number of scholarly
controversies rage. Mahabalipuram was already a centre of pilgrimage
when, in the 7th century Mamalla made it a seaport and began to
make temples fashioned of rock. It was through Mahabalipuram that
many Indian colonists, who included sages and artists, migrated
to Southeast Asia. Sri Lanka's national chronicle, the "Mahavamsa"
testifies to this fact.
The Varaha Cave, a small rock-cut mandapam (hall), is a faceted
and finished gem with two incarnations of Vishnu-Varaha (boar)
and Vamana (dwarf). Particularly noteworthy here are four panels
of the famous Pallava doorkeepers. There is about them a mood
of contemplative reverie, a lyrical softness and subtle grace
totally at variance with the primordial machismo their role
as guards of the gods imposes on them. The Dharmaraja Cave,
built in the early seventh century, contains three empty shrines.
The Mahisasurmardini Cave (mid-seventh century) has fine bas-reliefs
on its panels of enduring beauty. The Somaskanda sculpture radiates
peace, power, and wisdom while Lord Vishnu is shown in omniscient
repose in a masterpiece of dhwani (the art of suggestion). On
the opposite side is a huge theatrical panel showing, Goddess
Durga's fight with the demon Mahishasura, an episode culled
from the celebrated Sanskrit poem Devi Mahatmya. About 5 km
north of Mahabalipuram is another cave called Tiger Cave, a
rock-cut shrine possibly dating back to 7th century.
- Shore Temple
The windswept and surf-beaten Shore Temple, the mute tireless
sentinel of the shore, is the ultimate expression of Mahabalipuram.
A three-in-one abode of Goda Vishnu temple sandwiched
between two Shiva templesit is a visual delight, its precincts
abounding in architectural masterpieces. On either side of it
the sea spreads, illimitable and infinite. The compound wall
of this temple is lined with charming sculptures of Nandi the
bull while the figure of Vishnu is present in the sanctum sanctorum.
The Shore Temple forms the backdrop of the Mahabalipuram Dance
Festival celebrated in the month of January/February every year.
This festival is an occasion when artists from all over the
country come together to perform.
- Arjuna's Penance
If a temple by the sea and, at times, in the sea is a tour de
force, the "open air bas relief" is even more so.
In Mahabalipuram alone of all innumerable sites of monuments
in India sculptor was impelled to choose a large cliff face
on which to make his carvings. What is more, he chose a scene
from the "Mahabharatha" (also spelt as Mahabharata),
which a great Sanskrit dramatist, probably then living in Kanchipuram,
Located 53 km from Mahabalipuram, Vedanthangal is one of the
oldest bird sanctuaries in India. The sheer number of birds
that visit this sanctuary is amazing. It is said that almost
1,00,000 avian species of varied shapes, sizes and hues-including
storks, egrets, cormorants, darter, and flamingos-visit this
sanctuary between October and March.