One Morning at Mahabalipuram

Mamta Dalal

� Copyright 2006 by Mamta Dalal

If there was an unplanned trip in our lives so far, it had to be the one where we landed in Mahabalipuram. My mother and I actually left for the city of Chennai to attend the wedding of a dear friend. But once there, we decided on the spur of the moment to visit the nearby world heritage site of Mahabalipuram, barely 60 kilometers away. Mahabalipuram, or Mamallapuram as it is also called, was the chief seaport of the Pallava kings who ruled over much of South India between the first century B.C to the eighth century A.D. The place is home to some of the greatest architectural and sculptural achievements in India. Numerous cave temples and gigantic sculptures carved from blocks of granite date back to the seventh century. The Shore Temple, which is one of the landmark monuments of the place, is said to have been built in early eighth century and is said to be the earliest known instance of a stone temple in South India.

We had no idea how we would reach Mahabalipuram; we had no idea where we would stay or what we would do on reaching it. All we knew was that this was one place we�d been hearing of for a long time now. And having come this far to Chennai, we couldn�t return back to Mumbai without visiting Mahabalipuram. But first, we had to present ourselves at the wedding because that, after all, was what we�d come to Chennai for. The wedding was a lavish ceremony and we had a gala time, decked in our finest garments, feeling like royalty, and daintily munching on the delicacies. The dinner had a mix of various international cuisines and was a pleasure to our tastebuds.

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The morning after the wedding, we were back to wearing our usual everyday attire, the silks and jewels safely tucked away inside our suitcases. At first, we were hesitant about approaching strangers to ask for directions. But realizing that we had no choice given the scarcity of time, we put aside our nervousness and affecting some boldness, put across some questions to the locals standing at the nearest bus stop. This was one occasion where knowing the local dialect, Tamil, proved really handy for us, because once we began speaking in their own language, they opened up quite easily. Barely some time later, armed with the requisite information, we were headed off towards Mahabalipuram in a rickety blue bus. Our fellow passengers were mostly hardened and weathered rural folk.

Knowing that time was precious, we�d consciously skipped breakfast, so that we�d catch the bus in time. Now, however, our pangs of hunger made louder noises than the bus�s unoiled wheels (or so it seemed to us).  I then remembered that I�d stashed away some snacks in my tote bag the previous evening. With great relief, we tore open the packets and devoured the biscuits, crackers and whatever else we could find in the tote bag. Hunger sated, we looked out of the dusty windowpanes. And what an enthralling sight it was that met our eyes. The stretch of road from the outskirts of Chennai heading towards Mahabalipuram is called East Coast Road. The coastline was rather distant and there were too many coconut palm fringes along the beachside. Nevertheless, frequent breaks among the cluster of the tall swaying palms yielded to us a spectacular view of the sea, throwing up its frothy foam every now and then. Then on, our eyes were riveted to the window, taking in the vast expanse of the coastline, the little thatched hutments dotting the beachside, and at times the stark seclusion of the coast. I recalled my cluttered office cubicle, harried schedules and wondered, not without some awe, at my present moment. How far away all that hustle and bustle of my job seemed right now! The serene panorama of the East Coast Road was casting a spell over me and I was quite happy to fall under its charm.

An hour and half later, we were standing at the market bus stop of Mahabalipuram. We didn�t intend to stay overnight at Mahabalipuram. It was to be a morning sojourn only. But we hadn�t bargained for the burden of our luggage. Hefting the heavy bags and trudging through the shore town didn�t seem like my idea of sightseeing. Fortunately for us, there were many autorickshaws nearby available for hire. Some quick negotiations with a rickshaw driver and we were off to see the town!

We passed scores of little sculpting shops on our way to the Five Rathas, which is one of the important sights of Mahabalipuram. These shops were freshly carving new sculptures out of stone to be sold to tourists and visitors. The Five Rathas, we learnt from our driver,  were five massive stone chariots, bearing monolithic carvings on each of their sides and surfaces. On reaching the spot, the camera was brought out, pictures taken and then we sat for a few seconds on a boulder to gaze and admire the painstakingly built monuments.
Each had a legend behind it but we had to cover many more sights in Mahabalipuram, so we decided to leave the stories for some other time.  After all, it�s the sights that matter and that need to be soaked in first hand. For the stories, there�s always Google.

At one of the stalls near the monuments, we bought a bunch of long green cucumbers peeled and seasoned with chilli powder and salt.  They were deliciously succulent and served to satisfy both hunger and thirst simultaneously. Unfortunately for us, they were wrapped in just a thin sheet of paper, and in a sudden slip, fell to the ground when the paper tore under the weight. We had hardly munched on two of those. By then we had already neared the autorickshaw and couldn�t go back to the food stall to buy more.

After the Five Rathas, we arrived at the prime spot in Mahabalipuram - the world famous Shore temple. I was more curious about the various implements and reliefs I found in the premises than about the temple itself. There was the primitive bathtub built out of granite. There were the elegantly carved elephant snouts that served as water outlets, there were the cute little footbaths and sundry other such discoveries. All of these, of course, were dry and had not been used for centuries now. While my mother rushed to pay her respects to the reigning deity of the Shore temple, Lord Shiva, I languidly strolled around, capturing some of my discoveries on film. My mother chastised me for not realizing the significance of the temple. The temple, she told me, stood its ground when killer waves of the tsunami swept away thousands of lives in December 2004. While the wall around the temple and some small sculptures were smashed to bits by the force of the waves, the temple itself stood unharmed, arrogantly firm on its footing, holding out against the brute force of the sea. After hearing this, I stared long at the temple with wonder and awe.

By now the sun was up overhead but we overlooked this fact and oblivious to his angry gaze walked down to the beach. Afraid that the sand would stick to our sandals and shoes, we quickly removed them and began walking bare feet towards the beach. But just five strides down the beach, we were yelping and screaming in agony. Sun and sand always make a deadly combination, but absent-minded as we were, we had conveniently ignored this fact. In the time that it took us to put our shoes back on, quite some damage had been done. Two ugly blisters formed on the soles of my feet. The sea, thank god for her, was kind and gracious to us, soothing the burns on our feet with her cool waters. We frolicked in the waves like impish little kids, and marveled at the seemingly endless expanse of the sea. There were a large number of fellow tourists at the beach besides us.
One particular group had brought along a Sony handycam and was filming footage of their revelry in the sea.

The rickshaw driver then took us to visit some more sculptures around the town. These sculptures were not intricate but looked like rough, semi-finished sculptures. People say that the area served as a school for young sculptors and hence many of the sculptures looked half done.

Later, we had a quick lunch at one of the local eateries but it left much to be desired, with its lukewarm broth, tepid semi stale food. What little hunger we�d had vanished away on seeing that fare. For a better lunch, we should have visited one of the more elite resorts in the town but those were way off our meager budget. And after all, we�d only meant to spend a morning at Mahabalipuram. That it would stretch out to noon was something we hadn�t anticipated. After lunch, however, we were back towards Chennai, with a hope and earnest to come back to Mahabalipuram some other time for a more leisurely visit.

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