Saturday, February 8, 2014

Mahabalipuram, India

Last week, I documented our road trip from Chennai to Kumbakonam and back.  However, that wasn't the only road trip we ended up doing during our short trip to India.  My mom and aunt wanted to show me and my brother the medical school my dad attended in Pondicherry (about 160 km south of Chennai), which meant another trip by car.  On the way, we made a stop at Mahabalipuram, a heritage site featuring "sea temples" carved from sandstone more than 1,500 years ago.  And of course, this meant enjoying my favorite hobby, the road trip.  The photo above is pretty awesome, but see a whole lot more after the jump!

We were supposed to get going by 7:30, but it was nearly 9 by the time we finally got moving.  I'll just stop by saying being late is a South Indian thing, which drives this particular anal CPA nuts.  It once again took about an hour to clear the city, and reach the scenic East Coast Road.  The backwaters of the area soon came into view.
Our first stop was at the "Tiger Cave" a few miles before Mahabalipuram.  As with the main structures in Mahabalipuram, the Tiger Cave was made out of sandstone, and takes its name from the carvings of tiger heads at the main temple site (see the cover photo).  It was constructed in the 8th century AD by the Pallava kings.  The cave site was fairly recently discovered and is still being excavated, so not much is known about the site.  Because the temples were made from sandstone, the structures have not held up as well as other ancient temples in South India - naturally, sandstone is subject to erosion from wind and rain, which are both plentiful on the Tamil Nadu coast.

Some pretty yellow flowers were also in bloom.
We then headed on to Mahabalipuram town itself, first stopping for coffee and tea at the "Adyar Ananda Bhavan".  This place seemed to be more of a place for sweets, but the tea and coffee were OK, as was the idli.  The grounds are also quite nice.
Our first stop in Mahabalipuram itself was the "Descent of the Ganges", also known as "Arjuna's Penance".  It is a giant open-air bas-relief that depicts the mythical descent of the Ganges River to earth from space, while various Hindu gods and goddesses, along with mythical and domestic animals, watch in admiration.
Below are photos of the intricate carvings within the bas-relief; it is really quite remarkable that this was even possible in the early 7th century, when it was believed that this sculpture was built.

Next to Arjuna's Penance is one of many "cave temples".  These are really artificial "caves" that were carved out of rock.

Back towards the sea is "Thirukadalmallai", a temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu.  My uncle said this structure is "newer", dating to the 17th century, but some information I have uncovered indicates it may also date back to the Pallava dynasty, like the rest of the the Mahabalipuram structures (6th-8th century).

Behind the complex are a series of cave temples, most of which look similar.  Here are some photos of a representative sample.

At the top of the path is another structure at the top of the hill, along with a view of the sea and an old lighthouse (the coastline used to be a couple of miles further inland than today).

Also on the site is a balanced rock called "Krishna's Butter Ball".
Meanwhile my mom, being the animal lover that she is, befriended a stray goat.
We then headed down the road a mile or so to the "Pancha Rathas", a series of five structures representing the five Pandavas, the heroes of the Hindu epic, the Mahabaratha.  As with the other structures of Mahabalipuram, the Rathas were built in the 7th century AD by the Pallava kings. 

Draupadi's Ratha.  Notice that the Kali devotees we saw a few days ago on the way to Kumbakonam appear to have followed us here.
 Arjuna Ratha.
A giant nandhi (Shiva's bull, his protector) and a giant elephant behind the rathas.

Dharmaraja Ratha.
Panoramic view of all of the rathas from the other end of the complex.
Bhima Ratha.
And finally, the Nakula Sahadeva Ratha.

There is one other major structure in Mahabalipuram, the "Shore Temple".  My brother and I actually have visited the shore temple, but it was more than 15 years ago, and I don't remember much about it.  We unfortunately didn't have time to visit it this time.  Given the limited amount of time we did have, I was just glad we were able to see Mahabalipuram at all.

Next week, I will wrap up our trip to India with a post continuing our road trip to Pondicherry, along with a trip report of our flights back home.


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