How this walk around Mahabalipuram can help you explore temple architecture like never before
A little over two hours from Chennai, sits Mahabalipuram, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Tamil Nadu’s most prized possessions with 40 ancient monuments and Hindu temples. Often a weekend getaway for tourists, it is also an attraction for devotees around India, who are looking to explore temple architecture, specifically by the Pallava dynasty. I recently had the opportunity to experience the same and more, thanks to Airbnb, who are shifting gears to create curated art and travel experiences (read: walks) for art and travel enthusiasts in different parts of the country. This day-long adventure turned out to be a fulfilling experience, and even though I have visited the temple town on many occasions, this particular walk turned out to be a really different one for me.
I was greeted by an enthusiastic Chennai-based filmmaker Sadhu Burlington, who turns into a storyteller during the weekend. As we make our way to Mahabalipuram from Thiruvanmiyur, Sadhu tells us that it was his interest in sharing stories about India that led him to host people from all over the world to his house, a little over two years ago. As we stop for a delicious meal at A2B to sample some local Tamil cuisine, he adds that Mahabalipuram and St Thomas Mount are among his most favourite places around the city and that is why he started taking people on heritage walks recently.
We start our walk with the Arjuna’s Penance monument from the Mahabharata, also popularly called Descent of the Ganges. Sadhu tells us that the structure has been carved into a monolithic rock but unfortunately, a section of it was also defaced earlier on. “This particular rock depicts how Arjuna took different difficult tasks upon himself to earn Lord Shiva’s weapon — the Trishul,” the heritage enthusiast explains. Interestingly, he also adds, “If you see, there is also a cat at the bottom, who poses like Arjuna to attract the rats,” leaving us spellbound with this observation, which I had never noticed on my earlier visits.
Even though we had the sun over our heads, being surrounded by the cave temples kept us cooler than we expected, as we walked to our next cave temple. The Panchapandava Mandapam is a monument that is dedicated to the five Pandavas; it is also the largest cave temple in the whole of Mahabalipuram. “The cave temple is unfinished but it does have a mark of Pallava architecture in the lion bases, which is very unique to the region,” Sadhu adds. However, that is not the only unique aspect of the mandapam, as it also has the longest cavern going as far as 50 feet.
On the other hand, the Krishna mandapam is one of Sadhu’s most favourite spots, he tells us, because it is really descriptive. Taking us hurriedly towards it, Sadhu says, “You have to be amazed by the detail in this stone carving as Krishna carries the mountain over his head, daily life is depicted too in authentic details.” Sadhu’s fascination is undoubtedly visible as he explains that it shows the typical day in the life in a village — women carrying pots of water, men milking the cow, and even the cow showing affection for her calf.
A visit to Mahabalipuram is incomplete without stopping at the Pancha Ratha complex, one of the most iconic heritage structures in the town. The Five Chariots (Pancha Rathas) represent the five Pandavas (Arjuna, Bhima, Yudhishtra, the twins Nakula and Sahadeva) and Draupadi. While they are not all together, each of them has been carved on one rock each (monolithic structure). Interestingly, they were never completed because of the death of King Narasimhavarman I, during whose reign it was under construction.
While they are most often referred to as temples, they did not achieve the status because of the incomplete structures. Our three-hour walk ended at the magnificent Shore Temple on the outskirts of Mahabalipuram. Named solely because it is on the banks of the Bay Of Bengal, the site is ideal to visit at dawn or dusk, but we were lucky to witness the beauty of the temple at twilight. We were left extremely marvelled at the different shades the temple turned into before our eyes, but also sad that we couldn’t stay any longer. As the complex closes at 6 pm, we had to make our way back, but not before sipping on chilled lime soda and experiencing the urge to come back the next morning.
(The writer was in Mahabalipuram on invitation by Airbnb.)