We had left Chennai behind and were heading south on East Coast Road towards Mahabalipuram (District Kanchipuram). The concrete clusters of Chennai were thinning down, and we were now driving past the cosy little coconut groves dotting the landscape, conspiratorially huddling with small clusters of low-rise housing and hutments. The hawkers along the road were selling fresh produce like mangoes, tender coconut, bananas of various varieties and tadgodas (fruits of a native palm that once peeled, resemble litchis in their texture and translucence and are refreshing when freshly peeled, but are intoxicating once allowed to ferment).
Somehow, the drive was confusing. Even though we were on East Coast Road, we couldn’t see any sea to our left – a trifle uncharacteristic for a coastal road, I would say ! What became even more perplexing after a while was that sometimes we would see the sea to our left while at other times we would find the water on our right. I fished out the GPS app on my iPhone and figured out that the sea was on the left, but the water body on our right was the backwaters. Our hotel – Fisherman’s Cove – was an hour and a half away from Chennai. This property is about 20-kilometers short of Mahabalipuram (Chennai-Mahabalipuram total distance being 74 kilometers). We then headed off for a much-recommended seafood lunch at Moonrakers in Mahabalipuram. The place was modest in ambience, but offered a wide range of seafood – prawn, lobster, squid, molluscs and a variety of fish. To say the least, the food was delicious and did justice to the restaurant’s excellent reputation. We then made our way towards the famed World Heritage structures sprinkled haphazardly across the small township of Mahabalipuram. Our first stop was the famous Shore Temple. A Pallava king built the temple in 7th century CE. The construct of the temple is slabs of granite placed one on top of the other cemented by a mixture of egg white, limestone and palm sugar. The entire structure had been beautifully carved post its construction, though these wondrous carvings are now eroded, thanks to the elements. Still, I couldn’t help thinking about what would be the condition of my apartment block if someone were to look at it 14 centuries later ! It is said that this temple is one of the 7 that were built by the Pallava king. Though the others have now vanished, locals shared that after the disastrous Tsunami that hit the Indian shores 10 years back, the seawater that had receded about a kilometer or so beyond the shore had revealed 2 more temples (which are now submerged again) – one, about 500 metres into the sea, and the other approximately a kilometer into the sea. Near the Mahabalipuram bus stand, there is another imposing work of art from the same era – Arjuna’s Penance. This basrelief work has scenes from Mahabharata and from other ancient tales. Besides many other scenes depicted here, you will be able to spot Arjuna standing on one leg – ostensibly doing penance for killing his near and dear ones during the epic war. Just about 200 metres away, on the slope of a granite hillock, lay a huge oval rock.
Despite being on a slope, it hasn’t slipped down and apparently has stayed in the same position for centuries. This natural phenomenon has been christened as Krishna’s Butter Ball. To give you an idea about the gradient of the slope, let me share that kids from Mahabalipuram use that incline as a slide provided by nature. Nearby, there’s another remarkable heritage site – the 5 Rathas (5 Chariots). These seem like 5 distinctly different buildings with walls, chambers, verandahs, etc., but the fact is that all five have been carved out of the same rock. While Shore Temple is much more talked about and famous, in my view this carved marvel is the most majestic of the various heritage sites in Mahabalipuram. While you make your way up a hillock to approach the old and the new lighthouse, you will pass through the cave carvings referred to as Cave Temple. While a lot of these carvings are complete, there are many unfinished ones as well. Apparently, this was the school where senior craftsmen gave practical lessons to their mentees – hence the unfinished carvings. While the modern lighthouse – a stone minaret with a bright red dome – looks picturesque, the 7th century lighthouse is a real work of art. A 2-storey structure carved out of granite, the figurines on its façade are simply breathtaking. Every night, to warn the ships of the rocky shoreline, huge lamps were lit here using coconut oil.
Even though this town today has deteriorated to being an insignificant little place swarming with tourists and discarded polythene bags, the heritage it houses makes it still worth visiting. Also, while there, do remember not to venture out into the sea, as the beaches here are as dangerous as they are in Chennai, with sudden sheer drops.