It was our second day in the coastal town of Mamallapuram (aka Mahabalipuram) in Tamil Nadu, South India, and we had yet to explore its famous temples. The historical town of Mamallapuram has a collection of temples and other religious monuments, which have been quite unimaginatively labelled as the Group of Monuments. This Group of Monuments was built during the 7th and 8th century by the Pallava dynasty and has been declared as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Most of these monuments are located within a few kilometers of each other, and on a pleasant day, you can easily stroll from one to another. However, as this was a hot evening, we engaged a tour guide to pick us from our hotel and take us around in his auto.
Of all the landmarks that we visited in Mahabalipuram, here are the top five.
5. The Krishna and Panchapandava Mandapas
At number five on my list is the Krishna and Panchpandava mandaps, which are part of the Group of Monuments. The Krishna Mandapam shelters nine reliefs carved on rock surfaces dedicated to Lord Krishna. Notable among these are carvings of gopis (milk-maids) dancing, a standing bull, and Krishna lifting the Govardhana Hill.
The Panchapandava Mandapa (also known as the Panchapandava Cave Temple) is the largest cave in Mahabalipuram. The front facade of the cave comprises of columns resting on seated lions.
4. Arjuna’s Penance OR Descent of the Ganges
The Panchapandava Mandapa continues on to the open-air bas-relief of Arjuna’s Penance, which is next on my list. Measuring 29 by 13 metres, Arjuna’s Penance is a magnificient open-air bas-relief, carved on two monolithic boulders.The relief is an ensemble of more than a hundred figures of gods, humans, half-humans, and animals. There are two popular interpretations, and thereby two popular names, for this landmark. According to the first, this giant bas-relief depicts the legend of ‘Kiratarjuniya’ from the great epic Mahabharatha. While exiled in the forest, Arjuna, the third Pandava, pleases Lord Shiva with his penance or tapasya to obtain the powerful Pashupatastra weapon. The panoramic view of forest life, with sages engaged in Yoga and Tapas, is sculptured on the two large boulders.
According to the second interpretation, the relief depicts the story of the descent of the sacred river Ganga from heaven to earth, led by Rishi Bhagiratha. The natural fissure between these two boulders is brilliantly utilized to depict the cosmic event of the Descent of the Ganges, witnessed by dozens of gods, goddesses, animals and mythical figurines, all admiringly looking up at the scene.
3. Pancha Rathas
At number three on my list is the Pancha Rathas, a group of five monolithic structures carved out of naturally occurring blocks of granite and diorite in the sand. The structures are considered symbolic of the five Pandavas and their wife Draupadi. However, like some other Mahabalipuram landmarks, the Pancha Rathas too have been named keeping tourists in mind rather than historical accuracy. In reality, these structures are neither true rathas nor dedicated to the Pandavas; they are temples dedicated to the deities Shiva, Vishnu, and Durga.
2. Krishna’s Butterball
Next on my list is Krishna’s Butterball, a gigantic granite boulder resting precariously on the slope of a hillock in Mamallapuram. Of course, there is nothing buttery about this boulder. It is a solid 250 ton rock, 20 feet high and 5 meter wide. Yet it miraculously manages to balance perfectly on a base less than 4-feet wide on a downward slope. Originally called, Vaan Irai Kal, tamil for Stone of Sky God, a tour guide apparently came up with the fanciful name ‘Krishna’s butterball’ in 1969 while showing off the landmark to Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India. According to Hindu mythology, Lord Krishna as a baby was fond of stealing butterballs. As the guide pointed out, the granite boulder resembles a butterball from certain angles.
It is believed that in 1908, then-governor of the city Arthur Havelock made an attempt to move the boulder due to safety concerns. He used seven elephants to try and move the boulder from its precarious position, but with no success. This butterball has managed to remain in place for more than 1200 years, despite a tsunami, cyclones, and earthquakes.
1. Shore Temple
Finally, at the top of my list is the Shore Temple, so named because it overlooks the shore of the Bay of Bengal. Built during the 8th century AD, the Shore Temple is one of the oldest structural temples in India. As part of the Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram, it has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984. The Shore Temple survived the tsunami of December 2004. The Shore Temple comprises three temples built with blocks of granite on the same platform. The main temple faces east so that the sun rays fall on the Shiva Linga in the shrine.
The temple has a huge lawn where you can relax and watch the sunset. We spent more than an hour in the gardens. I felt at peace here.