Saturday, October 15, 2011

India! Chennai and the Temples of Mahabalipuram

The Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram
Blog Entry #30: India!  Chennai and the Temples of Mahabalipuram

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

India!!  How to even begin to write about what we have been experiencing here in this land of ancient rhythms and contemporary rich diversity?   

The Chennai skyline beckons from the harbor
We arrived yesterday morning in Chennai, formerly Madras and the major British colonial port on the east side of India.  Chennai is India’s 4th largest city and capital of the state of Tamil Nadu, the largely Tamil-speaking region in south India.

Our trip to the north did not leave until the afternoon of the following day, so Pat and I decided to take a quick trip south to the coastal village of Mahabalipuram – known locally as Mamallapuram – to see some of the famous Dravidian temples and architecture of southern India.

Driving through Chennai
Cow in Chennai
Our first adventure was simply getting out of Chennai.  We ventured out of the port and into Georgetown to find an ATM and the post office; simply negotiating the traffic as a pedestrian sharpens the senses, as there is a steady stream of taxis, buses, “autorickshaws” (3-wheeled taxis), motorcycles, bicyclists, wheeled carts, and the occasional cow (really!) with a chorus of different pitched horns constantly interweaving with pedestrians.  Somehow it all works, and somehow we found the PO and a taxi, and by mid-day we were on our way south.

Mahabalipuram: Granite boulders & fishing boats
Mahabalipuram was the seaport for the Pallavas, a Dravidian people who ruled this part of India between the 3rd and 8th centuries CE, and left behind an amazing legacy of temples and artwork.  The town sits adjacent to low hills of granite from which several generations of kings had monuments and caves carved out of the rock, and later built temples from the granite quarried nearby. 

Our first task, however, was to find the Siva Guesthouse, highly recommended by our trusty Lonely Planet guide to India.  Our cab driver was from Chennai and unfamiliar with Mahabalipuram, so unintentionally we had a tour of nearly all of the town before we finally found the guesthouse on a small street a block from the beach.  By then we were famished, and made our way to the recommended “Moonraker Inn” for what Pat describes as the best Indian food he has ever eaten (it was delicious!).

We then set out to explore our surroundings, beginning with the beach, site of several fishing boats and the gentle surf of the Bay of Bengal.  This area was hit by the 2004 tsunami that devastated Indonesia, but fortunately damage here was fairly small. 
The Shore Temple with Nandi (bull) sculptures, Mahabalipuram
At the southern edge of the beach on a prominent bench is the famous Shore Temple, the only remaining temple of an original group of seven; the rest claimed by the sea in the intervening thousand years.  In the temple are two shrines  -- one to Vishnu, the protector or sustainer god of the “Hindu Trinity” (Brahma – Vishnu – Shiva), and the other to Shiva.  Surrounding shrine to Shiva are rows of “nandis” – bulls – the traditional mount of Shiva.

Krishna Mandapam carved in granite wall, Mamallapuram, India
Krishna Mandapam & Arjuna's Penance bas relief
Elephants approach Lord Shiva and Ganga in Arjuna's Penance
I am having to scramble to re-learn the rich and detailed stories of the many Hindu gods and goddesses, and the temples and carvings here at Mamallapurem narrate many of them, with their traditional symbols.  Inland from the Shore Temple we came to the Krishna Mandapam, carved into the granite walls, and next to a fantastic set of bas relief carvings know as “Arjuna’s Penance”, Arjuna the famous warrior who meets Krishna in the Hindu epic, The Bhagavad Gita. Pictured here are Arjuna in a posture of penance, Lord Shiva, a rift in the rock representing the Goddess Ganga (the Ganges River), and a fantastic array of elephants and other figures.

Varaha Mandapam
Morgan explaining stone carving technique
Behind and above this amazing carved wall are several other carving, structures, and caves, all preserved now in a park with winding paths.  As Pat and I made our way through, we met a local stone carver, Morgan, who has a small school for stone carvers nearby.  He accompanied us through the park and explained the meaning and figures in the different monuments, from “Krishna’s Butter Ball,” a giant balanced rock, to the Varaha Mandapam and the Tirumurthy Cave.

Pat and Dilip survey the stone carvings in Mamallapuram
After our walk, Morgan took us to his stone carving school where he works with several young people from the village who are learning the art of stone carving while attending the local university.  The money they earn from the carvings supports their tuition costs.

Dilip calculating our total
We met Dilip, a young carver and student who showed us many of his carvings.  It was a repeat of our rug-buying experience in Marrakech: soon we were seated inside the small shop and being attending to with soft drinks while they showed us several of their carvings.  It became clear that we were not going to leave without buying a sample, but really, that wasn’t a problem, because the artwork was so beautiful and the afternoon conversing with Morgan and Dilip so pleasant – and a nice change from the constant attention of vendors as one walks through the town. 

Dinner along the Bay of Bengal: Santana Restaurant in Mamallapuram
Eventually as night fell, we made our purchases and bade our goodbyes to Morgan and Filip, and made our way back to the Siva guesthouse.  We enjoyed a relaxing dinner in an informal balcony restaurant along the beach, watching a nearly full moon shimmering on the Indian Ocean to the east, and casting shadows on the fishing boats below.  The end to a rich first day in India.
Evidence of an emerging environmental ethic in Mamallapuram!
This morning we had a relaxed breakfast in Mamallapuram before taking a cab back to Chennai.  Our cabdriver was a delightful young Tamil man who enjoyed explaining much of what we were driving through, and had many questions about the United States.  Chennai already seemed much more familiar than the previous day, and we made it back to the harbor in time for lunch on the ship and a quick shower.  Now we are headed to the airport and our trip to the north: Delhi tonight, Agra and the Taj Majal tomorrow, and then on to Varanasi.  To be continued!


  1. I'm so glad you stopped at Mamallapuram! I hope you & Pat are, too. So cool to see photos and remember.... :-) Have fun on your trip north!

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