Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu, India

Stuart Forster visits the coastal town of Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu, India.

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The coastal city of Mahabalipuram lies 60 kilometres (40 miles) south of Chennai. Known as Mamallapuram in Tamil, the principal language of Tamil Nadu, Mahabalipuram is a popular destination for backpackers and heritage lovers touring southern India.

Mahabalipuram is a place that I grew fond of while living in the neighbouring state of Karnataka.

I first visited Mahabalipuram shortly after the Sumatra-Andaman Earthquake that resulted in the Boxing Day Tsunami of 26 December 2004. In total, around 230,000 people died in that natural disaster. Entire communities were destroyed. Mahabalipuram looks out onto the Indian Ocean and was badly affected by the tsunami.

Destruction of the fishing fleet

The fishing fleet, of traditionally built wooden boats, was largely wiped out. One local fisherman, standing ankle-deep by his red-painted boat in the mild Ocean water, told me he would have been unable to start again if it hadn’t been for the help of charities and Non Governmental Organisations. Both his boat and his home were destroyed by the waves. He was one of many people whose livelihoods were impacted. Three locals died that day.

I remember how souvenir sellers, hawking decorated seashells on the beach, grumbled ‘business is bad’ and ‘tourists do not come’ while trying to muster sympathy for a sale as I walked barefoot along the golden sand.

Normality returns to Mahibalipuram

Yet normality quickly resumed. It had to. Structural damage was visible but there was no discernable spirit of sadness hanging over the town, nor any negative legacy of disrupted services. People were getting on with their lives rather than dwelling on the fact that Mahabalipuram had been affected by the biggest natural disaster in living memory.

These days the beachfront is once again popular with walkers and bathers, most of whom appear in the last hour or so of daylight when the sun’s rays are softening. Unlike Western beaches, people maintain their modesty. Women enter the ocean still dressed in their flowing salwar kamizs. Sun tans are not desired.

Seafront restaurants with terraces

A reconstructed seafront restaurant bears a sign recalling the impact of the tsunami. It serves fish and seafood freshly landed by the town’s fishing fleet; the wooden boats unload their catch on the beach, just a cricket ball’s throw distant from the restaurant’s open terracing.

It was important that Mahabalipuram recovered quickly, for tourism plays an important role in the local economy. A plethora of ancient monuments and bas relief stone carvings are clustered around the town. Many date from the eighth and ninth centuries, the period during which the Pallava dynasty was at its most powerful.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site

Mahabalipuram was the Pallava’s main port.  The landmark Shore Temple, five storeys high, was built during the reign of King Nirimhavaram II. It is one of the oldest stone-built structures in the country’s south and among the reasons why Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu, India, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The tsunami’s waves also uncovered a number of long hidden monuments on the beach, close to the Shore Temple. For centuries they had lain covered in sand.

For at least four centuries, rumours of the existence of buried temples known as ‘the seven pagodas’ circulated among locals. The story was long dismissed as a myth but, since the tsunami, seems to have contained an element of truth.

Work by the Archaeological Survey of India

In recent years archaeologists from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) have examined the remains of a temple approximately one-and-a-half times the size of the Shore Temple, plus a smaller structure on the same excavation site. Additionally, several submerged man-made structures and stone blocks have been found out in the sea.

Until 2009 Dr Alok Tripathi was a Deputy Superintendent Archaeologist at the ASI and headed its Underwater Archaeology Wing. Since 2001, under his guidance, the Underwater Archaeology Wing of the ASI conducted excavations both on and off Mahabalipuram. Dr Tripathi dispels the idea that the structures were found only because of the tsunami and points instead to a successful series of cooperation between the ASI and Indian Navy.

Findings from archaeological excavations

Dr Tripathi rates the finds of 2004 and the excavations of 2005 as “very important.” Unlike the Shore Temple, which was constructed on rock, the larger temple was built directly on the sand. This could have well been a contributory factor in the survival of the Shore Temple. The excavations have also helped provide new details as to the chronology of the settlement at Mahabalipuram, valuable architectural information relating to aspects of temple building and information as to how the shoreline and sea levels changed during the course of history.

Walking around the city, years on from my first visit, confirms my impression that Mahabalipuram has fully recovered from the tsunami’s damage and has much to offer casual visitors. The impressively carved Five Rathas and Tiger Cave Temple are among the chief attractions. Possibly the best place to appreciate the intricacy and detail of Pallava era stone sculpting is in front of Arjuna’s Penance – which is inspired by an episode from the epic Mahabharata – the largest bas-relief sculpture in the world.

Photogenic monuments and temples

The town is said to be home to ‘the most photographed monuments in India after the Taj Mahal.’ Whether that is a recommendation to take a camera or simply to enjoy the over-snapped sights is open to question.

The skills of the stone masons from the Pallava period, over a millennium ago, have not been lost. I could hear chisels chipping away as I wandered through the town. A local craftsman explained that local masonry schools teach exactly the same techniques as those used centuries ago, to create the temples and stone carvings.

He promises me a good price on a knee-high statue of Ganesha – the pot-bellied, Elephant headed god of wisdom and good beginnings – and I sit down to negotiate. Time has helped mend the wounds of the tsunami and will also be needed before we strike a deal. The ticks of chisel strike mark time as we negotiate and, eventually, I take home my heaviest souvenir ever.

Further information

For more on Mahabalipuram and the surrounding region take a look at the Tamil Nadu State Tourism website.

For information on India as a whole, see the Incredible India! website.

Thanks for visiting Go Eat Do and reading this post on Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu, India. If you enjoy travelling in southern India you may also enjoy my post about houseboating on the backwaters of Kerala.

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