Mahabalipuram – An Ancient Port City

Like Diwali 2018, this time too, I had planned a Solo Trip to Tamil Nadu, covering Northern Part of Tamil Nadu – Mahabalipuram, Pondicherry, Chidambaram, Gangaikondacholapuram, Vaitheeswaran Koil, Mayiladuthurai, Kumbakonam, Tanjavur, Tiruchirapalli, Kancheepuram & extended it till Somnathpura in Karnataka from 26th October 2019 to 03rd November 2019 . Somanthpura was in my wish list after visiting the Hoysala Architectures during last Solo Trip.

Trip began on 26th October, 2019, early morning at 4:00 am, leaving for airport from home, reaching by 4:45 am, checked – in. The Mumbai Airport was nicely decorated for Diwali.

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Bird’s View from Plane, while nearing the destination!

As usual, I kept peeping through the window for that bird’s view.

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The beautiful Natraja (reminded me of impending visit to Chidambaram) welcomed at Chennai Airport. Plane landed at Chennai by 08:00 am, I came out of the Airport, booked Ola (Rs.280) to go to Central Bus Stand (Couldn’t find the Airport Buses and with luggage, I preferred to start with relaxed transport), Buses to Mahabalipuram can be boarded from CBS (that’s what I read before coming here). Unfortunately, I didn’t notice that the pick- up was marked somewhere else and had tough time making the Driver understand, where I was actually waiting (He spoke Tamil and I tried English, Hindi, even used some Tulu words). I passed on my phone to a passerby, requested him to speak to the Driver and give the current location. Thankfully, Driver got the location. From here on, the Journey starts with “language barrier” experience.

I asked the driver, if going to Central Bus Stand will help me to go further to Mahabalipuram. He asked me to change the location drop to Thiruvanivur. I usually keep GPS on, to check, whether suggestions given are correct or not. Suggestion was genuine.

He dropped me at the Thiruvanivur Bus stop, which was a Coastal Town. He suggested me to catch Bus no. 588, which will take me to Mahabalipuram. After waiting for 10 minutes, with my luggage, bus arrived (Rs. 43). I reached Mahabalipuram in next 2 hrs. The route was beautiful coastal road, sea on one side, interrupted by few villages in between.

Mahabalipuram also called as Mamallapuram is located on a strip of land between Bay of Bengal and the Great Salt Lake in Chengalpattu District of Tamil Nadu. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Origin of name has many versions. Most popular being  based on  ancient text “Vishnu Puran”, mentions benevolent King named Mahabali, who sacrificed himself to Vaman (Lord Vishnu incarnation), attending liberation. Puram is a Sanskrit term for City or Urban dwelling. Mamallapuram is the Prakrit version of original Sanskrit name. Most of the monuments belong to Pallava reign. The Tsunami in 2004 created lots of substantial damage to this monumental town, yet, while receding, it unearthed lots of Granite sculptures and ruins.

By 11.00 am, I was in Mahabalipuram. The hotel (Living Dreams Residency – Rs. 820 including Breakfast for 1 night) was at 500 meters from the Main Bus Stand. Rain was still drizzling all along the way. It looked like Rain was following me all the way from Mumbai. I was hoping, the sky would clear out, when I would actually start sightseeing. I checked in. It was newly built, room was clean. I called in for Breakfast, so as to avoid lunch, since it was already noon. I carried my small bag, hired an auto (Rs. 750 including waiting) for local sightseeing.

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Mukunda Nayanar Temple

First spot, the driver took me was Mukunda Nayanar Temple, the gate was closed and no one was around to request, to open the door of this ancient temple, for this lone traveler. It was on the way to Tiger Cave, which was bit away from main Town towards Chennai side.

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Tiger Cave

There was an entrance ticket (Rs. 25) as well as “Photographs not for commercial use” declaration to be signed, This declaration paper was to be shown at security at most of the Monuments in Mahabalipuram.

Tiger Cave Temple also known as Yali Cave Temple was built during the Pallava Regime by King Rajasimha, dating back to early 8th Century. The cave was surrounded with Rainwater, hence I couldn’t go in. Clicked from outside. There are carvings of Tiger’s face (or Yali) on the Porch. The main carving here is of Goddess Durga riding a Tiger. Beautiful Park surrounds the temple, which is used as Picnic spot by families and some tiktokers were filming some dance sequence. There was beach on the other side. The driver had warned me to avoid the beach side. I paid heed to that and went further to explore the Atiranachanda Cave.

Atiranachanda Cave is also located in the same Complex, There were two pillar and two Pilasters, supposedly built in Mahendravarman style (Octagonal shaft with square base at the top and the bottom).

Simple structure with some carving and divided in three Chambers. There were some inscriptions on the walls and the floor.

Later, Travelled southwards, first stopping at Vinayaka ratha, a Lord Ganesh stone sculpture.

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Vinayaka Ratha

A paved pathway led further to pre-models of Shore temple called as Pidari Amman Ratha.

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Pidari Amman Ratha

There were two unfinished temples and one almost finished copy of Shore Temple, supposed to be original one. These two small monolithic temples belong to the later years of Pallava King Paramesvaravarman I reign. Their feature are similar to Rajsimha’s structural Temples.

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Valiankuttai Ratha

The another single monolithic temple called as Valiankuttai Ratha was located away from these two, one has to follow the concrete path, towards the huge rocky plateau. There are information boards on both these temples. The unfinished monolithic Valiankuttai Ratha was possibly built during reign of Pallava King Narasimhavarman I Mamalla. This two storied vimana has a Sanctum and Mukhamandapa.

Next stop was Group of Monuments (Ganesha Ratha, Krishna Butterball, Trimurti Cave, Gopi’s Churn, Descent of Ganges Relief, Monkey sculpture, Varaha Cave, Draupadi’s bath, Dharmraja’s seat, Adi Varaha Cave, Krishna Cave, Mahisasurmardini caves, Old Lighthouse – Ishwara Temple) – Ticket Rs. 40

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Descent of Ganges or Arjuna’s Penance

At the entrance itself, you are welcomed by huge open-air bas-relief depicting Descent of Ganges or Arjuna’s Penance (I decided to check in detail later, after finishing the enclosed ones). The entrance to the complex is on the right side, after the ticket counter.

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Monkey Family Sculpture

At the left side near security / ticket counter, there is a stone sculpture of Group of Monkeys. As per the information board, this monolithic sculpture of Monkeys was found while clearing the sand near the Bas-relief of Arjuna’s Penance. The Sculptor tried to depict the delightful delineation of the life in this sculpture by showing a realistic carving of monkey family consisting of Father, Mother and Child. One of the Parent is removing the lice from other while the child is resting on the lap of the Mother monkey.

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Ganesha Ratha

As, I walked ahead, first monument was Ganesha Ratha. The architecture of this Ratha is beautiful. Carved out of Pink Granite Stone during the Pallava reign. It is considered as one of the 10 Rathas in Mahabalipuram.

This monolithic temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva, known as Atyantakama Pallaveswaram, as per the inscription  of the temple. The narrow mukhamandapa had two lion pillar and Pilasters. There is a Ganesh image inside the temple, hence it is called as Ganesha Ratha.

Moving further towards the left, I came across the Massive Boulder stuck on a slant of Rocky surface called as Krishna Butterball.

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Krishna Butterball

Being afternoon, some people were resting under it, while others were posing, as if, pushing the rock. I watched it, in awe, wondering how a small base can hold such a huge boulder.

The area is well marked with names, I moved ahead towards the Trimurti Cave Temple.

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Dating back to 08th Century, built during the early Pallava Period under King Paramesvaravarman I. As the name suggests, this Cave temple is dedicated to Trinity Gods – Brahma, Vishnu & Shiva, each carved in separate chambers. The sculptures are carved marvelously.  There is a pair of Dwarpalas guarding the entrance. The northernmost Cell is dedicated to Subrahmanya in the form of Brahmasasta, The central Standing Shiva & other one to Vishnu. There is a niche dedicated to Durga.

In front of the Cave, there is a huge boulder with perfect circular tank like structure, called as Gopi’s Churn.

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Gopi’s Churn

I retraced my steps back to the Krishna Butterball, walked further towards the other end of the Complex. Dharmaraja’s Throne was the first site. This monolithic edifice consists of a rectangular seat with beautifully carved couchant lion at one end.

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Dharmaraja’s Seat

Next was Draupadi’s Bath. Names have been given without any relevance to the Mahabharata. Like this one, since, the rock was cut into a rectangular cistern like bath tub, hence the name was given as Draupadi’s bath.

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Draupadi’s Bath

There is a beautiful view from this point. There is a man made lake. I followed the path to the next monument.

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There was an unnamed cave in between.

Next was Raya’s Gopuram, looked like an incomplete Temple structure, with four tall pillars, probably built during the Vijayanagara Period.

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Raya’s Gopuram

It is located at the highest point of the hill. Two of these pillars had Dashavtar carved on them and opposite two had various forms of Devi.

Modern Light house is visible from here.

Varaha Cave Temple also known as Adivaraha Cave was built in 7th Century by the Pallavas, dedicated to one of the 10 forms of the Lord Vishnu, with huge beautiful almost 6-7 feet Panels facing each other.

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Adivaraha Cave

There is a Mandapa, two Pillars & two Pilasters. The Pillar is built on a squatting Lion Sculpture, supposed to be guarding the Cave Temple. There are two dwarpalas guarding the inner sanctum.

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Varaha Panel

Varaha is depicted as a wild boar, as he lifts up his wife Bhumi (Mother Earth Goddess) saving her from Naga or Adishesha, the Snake King.

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Trivikrama Panel

The opposite Panel depicts Vishnu Trivikrama as a dwarf with his one foot on the earth, another one on a cloud and a third one pushing the tyrant Bali, down into the underworld. Standing next to Vishnu are carvings of Brahma and Shiva along with the sun and moon.

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Gajalakshmi

The Gajalakshmi Panel depicts the Goddess of wealth surrounded by her attendants, two of the attendants are holding the Matka (Pot). The left elephant is holding a inverted pot, mostly depicting a bathing / ritual scene.

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Durga Panel

 The Durga Panel represents the Goddess Durga with 4 arms, showing the decapitation scene. The man below on left side is shown with a sword against his own head, as an offering to Goddess.

Following the trail, I reached the starting point – Ganesh Ratha, eventually leading out towards Bas relief of Arjuna’s Penance. Dating back to mid 7th Century, measures approximately 30m (100ft) long by 15m (45ft) high, there are two stories associated with it, with either this or that philosophy.

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First is associated with Mahabharatha, Arjuna’s Penance (Tapasya, as in Hinduism) is a story from the Mahabharata of how Arjuna, one of the Pandava brothers, performed severe austerities in order to obtain Shiva’s weapon.

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Second is associated with River Ganga, in which the sage Bhagiratha performs austerities in order to bring the Ganges down to earth. Shiva had to consent to break her fall in his hair, because otherwise it’s force would be too great for the earth to contain. Both the stories signify Pallavas, Heroic Arjuna was the Symbol for them and Ganga as symbol of Purifying Power.

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(The composition of the relief includes the main elements of the story (left) and scenes of the natural and celestial worlds (right). A natural cleft populated by nagas separates the two halves of the relief. Water was poured down this cleft in order to simulate a natural waterfall (the Ganges’ descent). To the left, just above the shrine, Arjuna (or Bhagiratha) stands on one leg, his arms upraised, in a yoga posture. Behind him appears Shiva, holding a weapon and attended by ganas. To the right of the cleft, life-sized elephants protect their young below a scene of numerous other animals and flying celestials. – http://www.art-and-archaeology.com/)

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Just outside the Group of Monuments, there is a temple, I skipped it, since it was crowded. Couldn’t resist clicking the Shikara of the temple and Garuda.

Further to the Bas relief, on Left side, there is Krishna Cave Temple also called as Krishna Mandapam, one of the largest Rock-cut Cave Temple in Mahabalipuram.

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As per information Board, it was an open air Bas Relief structure, which was enclosed within a Cave or Mandapa Cave temple in later period of Vijayanagara reign in the 16th Century.

The Bas Relief depicts the childhood story of Lord Krishna, lifting the Govardhan Hill to protect the Villager & animals from the wrath of Lord Indra. There are also stories related to Lord Krishna and Gopis, Villagers sculpted on this huge Bas Relief. The Gopika holding sling of Pots, the wood-cutter with axe, cow being milked etc.

Adjacent to the Bas Relief of Arjuna’s Penance, there is an unfinished rock-cut cave, if it was finished then, it would have been a largest Cave temples by Pallavas. Locally, it is called as Pancha Pandava Mandapa.

I came back again to Arjuna’s Penance, took some selfies, since it was less crowded than earlier. I skipped lunch, since, I had late Breakfast, also, had informed the Auto Driver to have his lunch, while I was touring the Complex.

We moved towards the Pancha Ratha Complex which was further South. On the way, stopped at a Museum.

No one was around, I went in, paid the ticket amount Rs. 5/-. The Genleman, who was overlooking the Museum was too happy to see a Visitor, after taking some photos and general introduction, I left.

Pancha Ratha Complex was located on southern part of Mahabalipuram. The ticket that was taken at the Group of Monuments was checked here along with declaration. Pancha Ratha is also called as Pandava Rathas, carved during reign of King Mamalla of the Pallava Reign. They resemble the processional Chariots of the Temple.

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Pancha Ratha Complex (L-R -Draupadi, Arjuna, Bhima, Dharmaraja, on right side of Elephant – Nakula Sahadeva Rathas)

Each temple is a monolith i.e. carved from outcropping of rock. As per the literature, these individual temples have nothing to do with Mahabharatha, but still it is named after Draupadi and Five Pandava Brothers.

Most of them seemed incomplete. Each of them has different structures with intricate sculptures etched on the outer walls and shikharas (tower).
There is a huge lion, Nandi & Elephant Sculpture. Draupadi Ratha houses an idol of Goddess Durga.

These Rathas were excavated during the reign of Pallava King Narasimhavarman -I (630 – 668 CE). Draupadi Ratha is smallest and enshrines Goddess Durga.

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Draupadi Ratha with Goddess Durga

Arjuna Ratha consist of Sanctum with Pillared Mandapa in front with two tiered Vimana. Bhima Ratha has country wagon roof, Dharmaraja Ratha has three storied square Vimana with octagonal shikhara. Nakula Sahadeva Ratha  is located in front of Arjuna Ratha and is apsidal (large semicircle or domed) on plan. There was crowd here, mostly weekend picnickers.

Next stop was Mahisasuramardini Cave Temple, built during the same period by Pallava Dynasty. This Cave is located at the base of the Hillock on which the Iswara Temple (Old Light House) is located on top.

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Mahisasurmardini Cave

There are Two amazing Panels facing one another, One with Mahisasurmardini and another Panel shows Lord Vishnu in his Ananta shayana pose (Aanatasayi), where he is sleeping on the coils of Sheshanag. This form represents his deep slumber after the start of the universe when he is resting in the primordial ocean while Brahma creates all the objects in the universe. Two demons near his feet are shown trying to disrupt his sleep. Mother earth is worshipping him and the other four human forms can be interpreted as the humanoid forms of his usual adornments, Conch (Shankh), Discuss (chakra), Mace (Gada) and Lotus (Padma or Kamal).

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Aanatasayi Panel

Another Somaskanda Panel of Mahishasurmardini, vanquisher of the demon Mahisasur (buffalo headed demon) depicts Goddess Durga like a warrior, riding her mount, lion and aiming an arrow towards the demon. The demon army is shown as retreating and Goddess’s army is in the aggressive attack mode. The interesting part to note was the six pecs abs of the female warrior, I was amazed at the intricate detailing with regards to the expressions on this huge Panel.

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Somaskanda Panel

I climbed the rock cut stairs adjacent to the Cave, which had railings on both side, leading to Ishwara Temple / Old Lighhouse also called as Olakkanneshvara Temple.

Entire Town was visible from this place even the Ocean. The temple was locked, and there was usual crowd. There were carvings on the Walls of this temple.

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Iswara Temple / Old Lighthouse

Built on a hillock, during last years of Pallava King Rajasimha (700-728 CE) with whitish grey Granite with images of Yoga Dhakshinamurti (South), Tandavesvara (West) and Ravananugraha (north) in the niche (Devakoshta). This is also called as Olakannatha Temple – Third eye of Lord Shiva. Auto Driver informed me that in olden days, this temple also served as lighthouse to the distant voyagers in the Sea.

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Pancha Pandava Cave

On the way out, on the left side, a trail leads to the Pancha Pandava Cave. This was unfinished Cave, simple in structure, huge boulders lying around. This is similar to the unfinished Cave next to the Arjuna’s Penance. Both of these Caves, shows an attempt to chisel the temple on an elongated Granite by cutting three bays leaving a rock mass for two pillars in between and two pilasters (one at either extreme).

Travelled back to the City, to visit the last monument for the day – Shore Temple.

Shore Temple had more crowd compared to all other places. I kept this place for evening for the sunset hues over the Coromandel Shore.

DSC_9451Overlooking the Bay of Bengal, built from cut stones rather than carved out from rock like most of the monument in the area, dedicated to Lord Shiva, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Standing on a 50 ft platform, it is a wide Complex, with 500 mts walking distance, from Parking.  In the Garbha Griha, sanctum sanctorum, a Shivalinga is worshipped. At the rear end, there are two shrines facing each other. One shrine is dedicated to Ksatriyasimnesvara and the other to Lord Vishnu. In this shrine, Lord Vishnu is seen reclining on the ‘Sheshanag’, which is a symbol of consciousness in Hinduism.

I spent the remaining time here to watch the Sunset. I went back to Hotel, decided to go for lavish Dinner.

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Sunset at Mahabalipuram

The dinner was better, being coastal, I decided to check the Calamari dish and Fried Rice, both was excess for one person to eat – one of the disadvantage of going solo (Rs. 600). I had to parcel the remaining and give it to someone, rather than just leaving it and eventually wasting it.

Next day, early morning had to leave for Pondicherry. I had informed the Auto Driver, to come at 07:00 PM, to drop me (Rs. 50) at Mahabalipuram Bypass, wherein many buses from Chennai go to Pondicherry.

Youtube link – https://youtu.be/FnMb4jwwy-Q

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