We stand; stand strong by the ocean. We have seen countless sunrises with music of waves in the background. We live in a city which once thrived with trade and ruled by a dynasty of mighty kings. Kings who wanted to imprint their imagination in stones and thus leave their mark forever. Centuries have passed but we still stand; stand strong though now we bear the bruises by nature. Today, we are just the beholders of curious sights, touches and questions about our existence. We are a mystery and our truth is buried in the depths of the ocean. We are the grand sculpted temples of what you call as Mahabalipuram or Mammalapuram.
This is a piece from our favorite imaginary conversations. Wish we could make historical sites talk! But till then we have to make peace with several stories woven around this one magical site. Mahabalipuram; a shore town of Tamil Nadu, has an interesting confluence of old ruins, local fishing community, temples, sculpting industry and quaint streets with laid back restaurants serving European cuisine. Now usually one would choose an exquisite nature bound site over a historical site; one reason being such sites are crowd prone. But we turned our Mahabalipuram visit into an exquisite nature bound historical site visit! Added to it, we went beyond the temples, making the trip more enriching. Here is what we did to make the most out of our one and a half day visit to this town-
Early riser gets it all
We reached the beach at the outbreak of dawn, around 5. What did we get rising up so early? Nothing much just miles of beach stretch swept by pleasant morning breeze, with no sight of tourists! We were just gazing at the Shore Temple at distance when a fisherman asked us if we would like to take a boat ride to see the submerged 6 temples in the middle of the ocean. The offer was tempting but we knew that one could just see few boulders there. We saved our morning for the Shore Temple and denied the offer.
We were the first ones to enter the Shore Temple (location) and had this feeling of reigning King and his queen. The browns of the temple were in perfect contrast with fresh greens after the rains. We won’t delve much in its description but it is a complex with 3 temples. Interesting part is that this temple is believed to be one of the seven temples that earlier European traders had quoted in their travel diaries. An outline of the remaining temples appeared during Tsunami of 2004. We can’t even imagine how charming all 7 will look together. In just half an hour time the place was bustling with shutterbugs while the temple maintained its perfect posture for the photos. We kept rest of the sites for the next morning.
Next morning started with visiting the famous Panch Rathas (location) of Mahabalipuram. This site is the most mysterious of all. Nobody knows why these structures have been named after the Pandavas. Often mistaken as temples, these are still unfinished structures. While going out, the guard at the gate became our quick guide. He explained to us how those animal structures are different vahans of different Gods. It’s always amusing to see how each guide, local and tourist imbibes a story and makes it one’s own truth about that place.
After this, we headed straight to Mahishamardini Mandapa (location). For the panoramic view of the whole town, we climbed up the Light House nearby the Mandapa. Though not very high, view is definitely not to be missed. The trail goes straight to Varaha cave, Krishna Mandapa and ends at Krishna’s Butter Ball. The Butter Ball is a masterpiece of nature’s balancing act and has many stories of it being intact despite being pulled by 7 elephants.
Once this track was done, we headed out to reach Arjuna’s Penance. It is like street graffiti. It just stands there witnessing the daily routines. This huge canvas of rock has several characters and thus more stories attached to it. If you know the stories, it can be a fun activity to find the characters in it. Interestingly, the same rock cuttings take over different roles across different stories. Or you can just make your own, we did!
Hit the road
After the morning excursions, we picked up a moped (guess we did not want to come out of the history mode) and headed towards Chennai on one of the best roads in India, the East Coast Road (ECR). Not a single pothole, this road is heaven for driving even in the scorching sun. Our high speed moped running at 40 Km/h, gave us enough time to catch the beauty of a lake and beach running parallel with us.
Crocodiles can inspire too!
Our first stop; the Madras Crocodile Bank; is a huge, well maintained set up for the conservation and breeding of various reptiles. It has a number of species of crocodiles, snakes and iguanas. The first fenced area with over 200 crocs inspired Amar! Crocs were just lying there, sometimes over each other, basking in the sun and appeared to be stoned. In evening food will be served and they will again restore to relaxation. What a life! Amar’s thoughts of being a crocodile in next life were disturbed when suddenly two crocs got into a fight and furiously jumped over each other. So, they are not lazy and definitely not stoned, they just act when needed. Enough for a croc to become a role model!
There are special night tours which can only be booked online. There is also a section for Irula Cooperative, where they show and tell about different snakes in India (including King Cobra) and also educate people about remedies for snake bites. The thick green cover of the park gives respite from the afternoon heat. We spent around 3 hours at the park and it is definitely worth a visit.
Awestruck by South Indian Architecture
Just few kilometers down from Crocodile Bank is a completely different world called DakshinaChitra. It is a living museum showcasing art, architecture, lifestyles and crafts of South India. It is based on a very unique idea. They have a collection of 18 historical houses with exhibits. All these houses were given for demolition by their owners, were bought and reconstructed by DakshinaChitra. The place also hosts cultural performances and has a craft village. The earthen setting, old architecture styles for homes, wooden carvings and rustic exhibits have given us enough reasons to come back here.
We spent nearly 2 hours here and then our legs gave in but hearts didn’t. Time to head back to the town.
Find your own Mahabalipuram beach
On our way back to Mahabalipuram, stretches of beautiful golden sand accompanied us all along. Kovalam is a famous beach on this stretch. We skipped the sign board for Kovalam and took a left in one of the random lanes which was leading to the ocean. We found our own beach.
Stretch your legs
No matter how thrilling our day was, we were dead tired. Luckily, Mahabalipuram is a traveler paradise and has a number of small restaurants with a comfortable open air sitting. We landed at Le Yogi Restaurant and stretched our legs to soft music, dim lights, ocean breeze, hot food and chilled beer.
A perfect end to a perfect day!
How to reach Mahabalipuram
Mahabalipuram is one hour drive (~60 KMs) from Chennai. There are local buses but best is to take ECR (East Coast Road) buses. They have fewer stops and drop on the highway from where the village is at walking distance. Within Mahabalipuram too, all sites are within a radius of 2 kilometers. Best time to visit sites is early morning as it gets really scorching during the day.