Positioned at the foot of the low-lying boulder-strewn hill, Mahabalipuram lays bare the fascinating remains of an ancient Indian kingdom.
World famous for its shore temple, Mahabalipuram was the second capital and a sea port of the Pallava kings of Kanchipuram-the first Tamil dynasty of any real consequence to emerge after the fall of the Gupta empire. Known in those days as Mamallapuram or the city of the great wrestler after King Narasimha Varman I (630-668), the place is home to some of the earliest Dravidian style Hindu temples. The early Pallava kings were followers of the Jain religion but Mahendra Varman I adopted Shaivism. As a result, most of the cave temples shaped from rock are either dedicated to Lord Shiva or Vishnu.
Today, it is impossible to view these sculptures without being overawed by a sense of divine inspiration, which must have struck the craftsmen with each blow of the hammer on the chisel.
The beauty lies in the shapes. For example the five Rathas, the architectural prototypes of all Dravidian temples are named after the Pandava brothers-the three-storeyed Dharmaraja Ratha has an octagonal Sikhara, the two-storeyed Arjuna Ratha stands apart with its pavilion and sculptures, and the Bhima Ratha looks like a house.
The majestic shore temple, as the name suggests is right on the coast of the Bay of Bengal. The eastern side of the temple facing the sea and the inner passages stand worn down by wind. With its commanding silhouette against the sea and sky, the temple is a prayer in stone. It was granted World Heritage status some years ago.
The Pallava sculptors reached their creative crescendo when the concept of Arjunaís Penance took shape in their minds. It is carved in relief on the face of a huge rock. The craftsmen also carried on their experiments, in both sandstone and granite, in the shrines of Thiruttani, Takolam and Alambukkam.
The Brahma stone image built in the 9th century in Nageshwara temple, Kumbakonam, district Thanjavur, must have filled the hearts of devotees with rapture. The delicacy of the chisel in the elaboration of the crown, the jewellery and the garments, brings to light the amazing skill of the bronze-makers of that era, who were probably sculptors themselves.
The Nataraja in the 11th century Shiva temple at Gangaikondacholapuram, district Tiruchi, creates the dramatic twists and turns of the dancing Shiva in a drama which is as forceful as in the great bronze Thirvelangadu Nataraja in the Madras Museum.
Another composition of skilled Chola workmanship is displayed in the relief of Shiva as Chandesanugrahamurti. The great god, with the demure Parvati by his side, is wrapping the folds of floral garlands. Shiva portrayed as Gajasamhara, in the 11th century Shiva temple in Darasuram, district Thanjavur is a testament to exquisite chisel work of a distinguished era.
The sculpture in the temples here defies the trend as seen in other temples in the state. Scenes of day-to-day life are the cornerstones of all sculptures here-women milking buffaloes, city dignitaries exuding ostentation, young girls posing on street corners or gyrating in tandem. Stone carving is still a living craft in Mahabalipuram. Anyone visiting this place cannot miss the scores of sculptor workshops that throng in and around the town.
Mahabalipuram is an hourís drive from Chennai on the Bay of Bengal coast. There are regular bus services from Chennai as well as day tours organised by the operators. The accommodation available suits all pockets, there is a lovely beach and handicrafts besides restaurants offering Western cuisine.