A travelogue of Mahabalipuram and Kanchi
I have always neglected visiting Mamallapuram and Kanchipuram even though I have been to Madras countless times. I suppose one takes things in one’s own backyard for granted, sometimes until it is too late. “Next weekend, next vacation…what’s the rush? It is here wonly, no?” Last weekend, I finally resolved this lacuna and am glad that I did. Both Mamallapuram and Kanchipuram are near Madras and there are plenty of good accommodations available at both the tourist towns. However, I preferred to operate out of Madras for personal as well as logistical reasons.
Everyone like to make fun of Madras because…well, it is Madras. The North mocks it because they do not know better and the South mocks it because it is jealous; I mock it out of frustration for having so much quality literature inaccessible to me via that undecipherable language of theirs. The fact is, however, and I would deny ever writing this, that it is not a bad place – it is on the coast, it is well connected, it has decent public transport, it is not criminally expensive, and it pulls off an interesting balance between traditional and hipster. That said, I was greeted by the stench of urine the moment I stepped off the bus at Koyambedu that warm Madras dawn!
My first stop was Mahabalipuram, as Mamallapuram is also called. The place is named after the famous Pallava king Narasimhavarman I, who defeated his arch-rival, the Chalukya king Pulakeshi II in 642. Mahabalipuram was a bustling seaport even two thousand years ago and served as the second capital of the Pallavas. Today, it is a small town 60 kms south of Madras and its temples and cave sculptures have been on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1984. Connectivity to Mahabalipuram from Madras is not bad – several city buses as well as state transport buses ply the route, some of which are even air conditioned. We, however, chose to go by car as the buses take longer than we were willing to dedicate to the trip.
Despite being on the UNESCO World heritage list, many people are dismissive about Mahabalipuram and its historical sites. This is unfortunate, for there is actually much of value to see. Admittedly, the town stands in the shadow of Kanchipuram but that is not a fair yardstick by which to judge Mahabalipuram or any other place. Naturally, we alighted at the famous bas-relief panel depicting the elephants going to drink water. However, the descent of Ganga and Arjuna’s penance to Lord Shiva for the Pasupata at Indrakeel Mountain is perhaps the key takeaway from this monument.
Several other sculptures on the panel illustrating little-known events in the great Indian epic also indicate that the subject is indeed Arjuna and not anyone else. Particularly interesting is the way the river Ganga has been shown on the panel – one would imagine that during the rainy season, water would follow the same tracks on the panel as that of the Ganga and collect at the bottom. This makes the panel feel dynamic rather than simply another rock sculpture.
Right by the panel is the Varaha cave. As in so many royal houses of South India, the lion is an important motif and can be seen incorporated into the base of the pillars by the entrance.
The cave contains four panels – Bhuvaraha, Trivikrama, Durga, and Gajalakshmi. What makes this cave temple most interesting is that the Gajalakshmi relief shows the goddess being bathed by two elephants while four maidens stand by with flowers. Lakshmi’s hair is in jata bandha while her hands are in kataka mudra and both her feet are planted firmly on the ground instead of her usual padmasana or with only one foot on the ground.
Compared to the fine work at Belur, Khajuraho, or Rani ki Vav, the sculptures here appear clumsy and it must be remembered that the stone used in these other sites is softer and significantly more amenable to sculpting. As a result, the Pallavas abandoned the idea of carving cave temples and went for standalone monolithic rock temples instead at Mahabalipuram.
This cave also has, allegedly, carvings of the Pallava kings. If true, this is extremely rare indeed – nowhere that I have visited in Tamil Nadu do monarchs trumpet the glories of their dynasty on temple walls. These carvings can be found on either side of the Gajalakshmi panel and the inscriptions above indicate that the Pallava kings in question are Simhavishnu and Mahendra. These monarchs may have been father and son who started and finished the temple but where they fit exactly in the Pallava genealogy is beyond me.
Without doubt, the finest of the cave temples at Mamallapuram must be the Mahishasuramardini cave. The shrine in the cave is for Shiva, which is discernible, despite the missing lingam, from the Somaskanda on the back wall of the garbhagudi. On the left wall is a magnificent and large Vishnu reclining in the anantashayana pose. Half asleep, Vishnu is unaware that two demons, Madhu and Kaitabha, are about to attack him. The relief shows Adishesha hissing at the demons and scaring them away as Vishnu taps the snake to calm him down. Interestingly, Vishnu’s equipment – gada, shanka, chakra, and khadga – are all personified.
This is also seen in the central Shiva shrine – one of the dwarapalaks has horns protruding from his conical helmet at an awkward angle but this depiction is meant to indicate Shiva’s trishul. However, by far the most magnificent of reliefs in the cave – and in my opinion, the entire Mahabalipuram – is the Mahishsuramardini on the right wall. Unlike the usual depictions of Durga stomping on the figure of a half-bull-half-man while thrusting a trishul into it, this relief shows Durga in the middle of a battle with the demon.
It was here that I found my episode for this travelogue’s ode to the Indian tourist: we spotted one climb onto the figure of the reclining Vishnu and replicate his posture for a photograph. The tackiness aside, the tourist paid no heed to either the sacrilege of stepping and climbing onto a religious symbol or the historical value of the sculpture! Another blood boiling incident occurred at the Varaha cave: an Italian tourist was standing timidly by a sculpture for his companion to take a photograph. His local guide urged him to get closer to the statue and finally physically moved him to appear as if he was swinging on Varaha’s left arm as Bhudevi was held with the right. In case someone has the sense and respect not to endanger a historical artifact, natives are always at hand to encourage such vandalism!
Several of the monuments at Mahabalipuram have been damaged due to neglect and prolonged exposure to the elements. In addition, many of the structures were left incomplete which may give the impression of shoddy workmanship, erosion, or damage to the inattentive eye. However, even these incomplete structures are worth a quick dekho for the simple reason that they reveal how the finished caves were worked on.
There are a few stalls near the historical compound where one can avail of tender coconut water, sugarcane juice, ice cream, and other such drinks and snacks. However, if you want a decent restaurant, you will have to leave the area. There are a couple of decent places around and auto rickshaws should not be difficult to find either. Depending on how much time you have allocated to Mahabalipuram, you may choose to rehydrate and press on. We gave the place a day and I think we should have been more judicious with our time or scheduled a visit the next day as well. We skipped several points of interest such as the Trimurti cave, the Kotikal, Krishna, Koneri mantapas, and the new excavations such as the Mukunda Nayanar Temple. This was partly because of time but more because of mental fatigue – it is difficult to digest so much new and detailed information in a day on a topic entirely alien to you. India is new to me, and there is so much I learn on each of my trips.
After lunch, we went to the Olakkanneshwara temple. It is situated on a hill but there are steps up to it. From there, I caught my first glimpse of the Bay of Bengal, for that trip. As a lover of maritime activity, I measure time by the last time I had salt spray in my face. Given its height and unobstructed view of the sea, the temple could have easily served as a lighthouse back in the day.
Another famous set of monoliths at Mamallapuram is the Panch Pandav Ratha. This has nothing to do with the Pandavas, obviously, but have been associated with them since they are five in number. The rathas have been carved from top to bottom as is evident from the elaborate gopuram but incomplete bases. The Draupadi ratha looks like a small hut and is the least ornate, with a smooth and sloped, curved roof; the Dharmaraja ratha is perhaps the most impressive, with its tritala vimana; the Bhima ratha is rectangular, indicating a potential plan to depict a reclining Vishnu inside the shrine. Around the rathas are also two elephants. The rathas are in different stages of completion – while some are almost complete, others appear to only have the outer work done. Together, the five rathas appear to be part of a framework of a larger temple. They stand alone, perhaps inspired by Buddhist architecture, but slope from the shortest to tallest ratha.
There is no leaving Mahabalipuram without visiting the Shore Temple, which is actually two shrines to Shiva – Kshatryasimheshwaram and Rajasimheshwaram. Built by the Pallava king Rajasimha, they are the newest of the Mahabalipuram stone works at about 1,300 years old.
The shrines are surrounded by a wall that is topped with Nandis. Despite the hard rock, the temple appears severely eroded. There is an old myth about the first foreigners who sailed to Mamallapuram seeing seven temples on the shore. The Seven Pagodas, as they were thought to be, were assumed to signify the presence of Chinese civilisation in the area. Of course, a vimaana looks nothing like an East Asian slightly upturned pent roof but try telling that to those early visitors!
On December 26, 2004, a massive tsunami hit the Coromandel coast. Mahabalipuram was also affected. The horrific loss of life in the region and the great damage to property, however, had a silver lining: several structures off the coast of Mahabalipuram were revealed as the force of the tsunami waters washed away the detritus that had gathered over them. Sonar exploration since has revealed at least a couple of temples and caves less than 500 metres from the shore. One exciting discovery was of a 2,000-year-old shrine belonging to the Sangam period. These discoveries have also impelled excavations on land in the vicinity of Mahabalipuram with several interesting results already.
On Sunday, we went to Kanchi. “The best among cities” is how the great poet Kalidasa described Kanchipuram and it is difficult to disagree with him. Wrote the mahakavi of the city, pushpeshu jati, purusheshu Vishnu, narishu Rambha, nagarishu Kanchi – like the parijat among flowers, Vishnu among men, and Rambha among women is Kanchi among cities. A medium-sized town today on the banks of the Vegavathi river some 70 kms west-southwest of Madras, Kachipedu, as it was once called, still attracts pilgrims, tourists, and scholars in droves. Like Mahabalipuram, Kanchipuram is a very old town with the first mention of its name during the Maurya period some 2,300 years ago. The town was part of a busy network of cultural and economic activity with Cambodia, Sumatra, Java, Champa, Thailand, and China; its wealth attracted scholars, priests of various traditions, and merchants from the entire Southeast Asian region.
There are dozens of temples in town and even the absolute must-see ones will easily take a serious tourist a couple of days. We had but one day; this does not mean that we skipped any of the important temples but just that we spent less time in all of them. There was just too much to consider in each temple that multiple trips were a foregone conclusion; for those living further away – foreigners or northerners, I would recommend at least three days for a leisurely visit to the key destinations of Kanchipuram. And I cannot stress this enough – do your homework before coming!
Our first stop was the Vaikunta Perumal Temple, one of the 108 divya desams mentioned in the Divya Prabhanda by the azvarkal, revered Tamil poet-saints of the 6th to 10th centuries. These saints are considered to have been very influential in several aspects of Tamil culture, from language to religion. Believed to have been built by Nandivarman II in the early 8th century, Vaikunta Perumal Temple has served as an inspiration to temples all over the state.
According to the late Dennis Hudson, the elite of Kanchi were highly literate and the Vaikunta Perumal Temple was meant not to teach my means of depiction but to remind devotees of what they already knew, to transform the consciousness and to awaken them. The temple has also had later additions from Chola and Vijayanagara kings as is evident from the several inscriptions around the building.
I was surprised to find that Vaikunta Perumal Temple shares a water tank with the Nawab Sathathullah Khan Mosque next door. This is because Kanchipuram, like so many Indian temple towns, also fell to Islamic forces and was looted and desecrated. The first Muslim ruler of the town was the Bahamani sultan Muhammad II who captured the town in 1481 and the last to rule were the nawabs of Arcot. The mosque contains within it a shivalingam as it stands atop a Hindu temple.
The temple has three shrines to Vishnu; in the first, on the ground floor, he is seated; on the second floor, open only on ekadashi, he is reclining; and on the third floor, which devotees have no access to, he is standing. There are, of course, the usual depictions of the dashavatara and various other myths but there are also a few panels some scholars believe depict the history of the Pallava dynasty. If this is true, it is revolutionary indeed and Vaikunta Perumal Temple will join a handful of temples where there is any acknowledgement of the kings who built them. There are also plenty of inscriptions for those who can read the Pallava grantha.
Like any state funding from any period or region in the world, there was a lot of politics and symbolism involved in the construction of the Vaikuntha Perumal Temple. For example, it has been suggested that this house of Vishnu was built in competition with the older Kailasanatha Temple built by Nandivarman II’s ancestor, Rajasimha. Not just cosmology and theology but also lineage played an important part in the saga – that of pure and impure (offspring with non-Pallava women) Pallava blood.
The cross-pollination between one line of Pallavas in Cambodia and the main one in Kanchipuram has raised several questions about the influence of the Indian temples of the Coromandel coast on Angkor Wat. For example, both have three levels of the garbhagudi and both have exclusively Bhagavata iconography on the gopuram. If anyone is interested in reading more on this, Hudson’s The Body of God: An Emperor’s Palace for Krishna in Eighth Century Kanchipuram is a lovely read.
After spending more time than we had planned to at Thiru Parameswara Vinnagaram, we moved on to Kailasanatha Temple. Built in the late 7th century, it is the oldest temple in Kanchipuram. Construction of the temple was interrupted when the Chalukyas captured Kanchipuram but continued as soon as it was retaken; unlike other invading armies, the Chalukyas had not destroyed the construction site. Unlike most of the temples at Mahabalipuram, Kailasanatha is one of the oldest stone temples not carved out of rock that is still standing in India.
Occasionally, you might spot him sitting on his peacock but by and large, he his happily settled on his mother’s lap. Another form of Shiva the Pallavas seem to have loved is Dakshinamurthy, of whom there are also several depictions. The temple has 58 shrines in it and Nandi sits on a pedestal far from the entrance across a lawn. However, it is clear that the Cholas and Vijayanagara kings added to this temple as well; the original temple consisted only of the sanctum sanctorum and a detached sabha mantapa. Now, there are umpteen shrines surrounding the temple. Some of these shrines even have some of the original paint intact. This gives an idea of what the original temple must have been like – a white main temple surrounded by colourful shrines.
Usually in my travels, I have little more than scorn for the work of the Archaeological Survey of India. Their maintenance has been found wanting at several places and their restoration work a replay of an Islamic invasion! Yet I must admit that at Kailasanatha temple, they have done some marvelous work in reversing the damage done to the temple by invaders and by nature.
Something else about the ASI I have noted is that every time I have met one of their officials on site, they have been most knowledgeable and helpful. At Kanchipuram, we met one such official who, pleased with our enthusiasm, offered to take us around the city on a tour of temples that are generally closed to the public.
The hall supposedly has a hundred pillars and is a masterpiece of Vijayanagara sculpture. The primary subjects of the carvings on the pillars are episodes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. There is a large stage upon a pedestal, over which is erected the Lord’s jhula on festive occasions. It was only then that I noticed the sartorial choice of the Vijayanagara kings: heavily influenced by the Portuguese and Muslims. Phillip Wagoner argues that the similarities did not stop just there. Even the title many Vijayanagara kings used – Hindurayasuratranai- appears to be a Hindu equivalent of the Muslim Sultan and was probably what Vijayanagara’s Muslim neighbours called its kings. Of course, to understand the cleavage between Islamic religion and Islamicate culture we must keep in mind Marshal Hodgson’s differentiation of the two in his magisterial The Venture of Islam. It is equally important to understand that despite these Islamic influences, Vijayanagara remained a Hindu kingdom. One reason is that Islamic influence did not seep into the state’s image of itself. Vijayanagara made it a point to revive classical Hinduism and its iconography clearly reveals this. Whatever accoutrements the nobility and rich merchants may have picked up from their northern neighbours was merely a passing fad and did not, as far as I can tell, create a hybrid culture as was the case north of the Vindhyas.
This mantapa stands in stark contrast to the Maratha contribution to Hindu architecture. While the former is ornate and exquisite, the latter stands simple and bland. I amnot trying to take away from the work of Maratha rulers like Ahilya Holkar who rebuilt countless Hindu temples all over India but the renovations and repairs do seem like the work a soldier engineer might do rather than a master craftsman patronised by the king. The additions of the Chola and Vijayanagara monarchs vied with each other and tried to surpass the original work but Maratha additions were usually stolid.
We broke for lunch and headed over to Saravana Bhavan much against my wishes. Actually, I was quite surprised and pleased with the restaurant. Imagine my surprise when I realised that I had probably never eaten at a real Saravana Bhavan in my life! Apparently there are many copycat outlets that even imitate the logo of the Tamil restaurant chain and they are not of the same calibre. My experience at the fake restaurants has been that it was dirty, crowded, hot, and specialised in serving mushy rice with dishwater – rasam. The actual place is not a bad option for food while touring.
Since we had missed darshan earlier, we returned to Varadharaja Perumal Temple. It is an enormous place, covering some 23 acres and possessing 32 shrines and scores of pillared halls. At the entrance, you are greeted with a 130-foot tall rajagopuram.
This sort of monumental architecture is seen most commonly in the Chola era and is a dead giveaway of the temple’s origins – it was built in 1053 by Rajendra Chola II but expanded greatly by Kulothunga Chola I and Vikrama Chola a couple of decades later. Like Vaikuntha Perumal, it is also one of the 108 divya desams. In 1688, the deity was moved out of the temple in fear of an impending Muslim invasion but was returned after the threat had subsided. Such tales are quite common in the towns and villages of India but this was perhaps the largest temple in the country to experience such an event. I was informed that, interestingly, Robert Clive of the British East India Company presented the deity at Varadharaja Perumal with a valuable necklace. It is worn only on special occasions and is now known as Clive Maharkandi.
One must be alert as to where one is heading at this temple. With so many shrines, it is easy to stand in line at a wrong one as did happen to us! Anyway, we saw the utsava murthi before moving upstairs to the main shrine. There is something very pleasing about a temple with a beautiful idol, I tell you, and Varadharaja Perumal Temple has one of the most beautiful idols I have seen in a garbhagriha. Next we headed to the Lakshmi shrine but got confused and went to a shrine of two lizards first. One is gold and the other is silver and it is said that touching them will wash away your sins. I must say it is quite amusing to see indulgences in Hinduism…the Pope would be proud.
We linked up with our new ASI friend next and he took us to the Matangeshwara, Mukteshwara, Mrityunjayeshwara, and Airavateshwara temples. Some of these, such as the Mukteshwara Temple, is closed to the public while others were closed when we were there. The Matangeshwara Temple was badly eroded. I found this odd, given the hard rock that had been used.
However, I also noticed that some temples were made of soapstone yet stood on a granite base. It appeared as if puja was done at the temple but I doubt more than a hundred people visited that temple each day. The inner walls of the temple had a Nataraja and a Gajasurasamhara that were yet in fairly decent shape though the outer walls might as well have been sandblasted. The Ravana Anugraha and the Descent of Ganga are also depicted but are not in good shape.
The Mukteshwara Temple held a real surprise. It is a small and unassuming standalone temple, resembling a Buddhist chaitya more than the other magnificent shrines in Kanchipuram. Like Matangeshwara, this temple too had weathered badly.
Our ASI guide opened the garbhagriha for us as well and there stood a nice shivalingam Behind it was the typical Somaskanda portrait but it was hard to make out any details. It did not look damaged and so I stepped into the garbagudi and took a photograph, of course, taking care to avoid the deity. The result astounded us: the flash revealed what the naked eye could not see, that there were remnants of the original paint still on the Somaskanda! As per Tamil tradition, the goddess – Parvati in this case, was painted green. What made it harder for us to discern the colours was that during the Raj, the British had whitewashed the whole temple in an attempt to restore the temple. That may have been the best technology of the times but it was no good for the sculptures.
The original colours are important because some entities have taken it upon themselves to revive old temples as part of their philanthropy or goodness tax, also known as corporate social responsibility. Re-colouring the temple murals and sculptures has, so far, been a disaster of epic proportions; the newer paints are gaudy and a sacrilege at best.
We asked the ASI official about such ham-handedness and he informed us that such things are not allowed. We did have to chuckle and I pulled out my collection of photographs detailing ASI’s crimes against history: gratuitous use of cement, unsightly support structures, and atrocious reconstruction to name a few. Our guide also seemed shocked; he informed us that cement is not allowed in superficial restoration work and neither are modern paints. At Kailasanatha, the ASI has taken the pains to create the original paint and construction material for their conservation work. It was indeed odd to see the widely varying practices of the ASI and I am not sure why that is so.
It was the next two temples that introduced a new thought in my mind. The Mrityunjayeshwara and Airavateshwara temples are in such a bad state of repair that it makes little sense for the ASI to maintain them. The latter is actually run by a private concern as the ASI lost control over it in some land dispute in the courts. Ideally, these structures ought to be carted off to a museum and reassembled there rather than be left intact to absorb gardening and security funds. I had really never thought of Indian historical artifacts in such a manner but two things factor into my thinking – the extremely dilapidated state of some structures and their ubiquitous presence. It is simply impossible to retain every temple, tower, shrine, park, palace, and fort and a practical solution is to maintain the important ones while removing others to museums or dismantling them.
My last stop was the Ekambareshwara Temple – there is no way one can miss this temple on a visit to Kanchipuram. It is the largest temple in town, even larger than the Varadharaja Perumal Temple if you can believe it! Ekambareshwar is one of the pancha bootha sthalam – the five Shiva temples wherein the lingam is made of one of the five elements, air, earth, fire, sky, and water. Here, the lingam is made of earth. Four of these five temples are in Tamil Nadu and one is in Srikalahasti in what is today Andhra Pradesh. Spread over 25 acres, there are dozens of shrines in the temple complex, as well as kalyanis and mantapas. However, not one of the shrines is for Parvati – instead, Shiva’s consort resides in the Kamakshi Amman Kovil next door. It was also quite amusing to see a Divya Desam shrine to Vishnu inside a Shiva temple, that too on the right so that there is no way of avoiding a parikrama around Shiva! Sneaky.
Unfortunately, we could not visit the thousand-pillared Aayiram Kaal Mandapam that has the 1,008 shivalingams because it was getting close to dusk by this time and we had to drive back to Madras on a very accident-prone stretch of highway. We also did not see the sthala vruksham, a mango tree alleged to be 3,500 years old. No one knows when a shrine first appeared on the spot but state funds went into giving it the present form since the early 7th century. A tree factoid relevant to this is that the oldest tree in India is claimed to be a 5,000-year-old banyan tree in Jyotisar, Haryana. Locals believe that Krishna delivered the Bhagavad Gita to Arjuna under this tree.
At Ekambareshwara as well as at Varadharaja Perumal, I felt like I had entered a small township. One reads of the several functions temples used to have back in the day and these temples make it very easy to imagine that world when temples were centres of education, scholarship, horology, counseling, festivals, trade, philanthropy, gossip, and of course, worship. Some might not consider me a particularly religious person but it is in these “township temples,” centuries old and still living, that fills me with an intense sense of contentment. It is a pleasure to see something of beauty and the shacks that pass for temples nowadays are little more than congregation points for transactional bhakti. Temples like some of the ones in Kanchipuram or Srirangam or Thanjavur deliver a dose of spirituality, history, and culture all in one.
If I have persuaded you through my experiences to visit Kanchipuram and its environs, do keep in mind that a proper tour of Kanchipuram and Mahabalipuram would take three intense days of sightseeing. I did not plan my trip thus because I am presently close enough to go next weekend if I so desired. There is, of course, the intellectual fatigue that sets in for newbies like me – if South India is new to you, I strongly recommend doing your homework thoroughly and breaking up the sightseeing into two or three trips at least.
Let us be very clear – Madras has three seasons, hot, hotter, and hottest. Even in early February, the sun was sharp and the days were warm. The temperature gave a little in the evening but it was still short of cool. Beware walking on the stone floors of the temples for the ground beneath your feet can get quite hot! Still, the sane tourist season for Madras would be from November to February. There is only so much pleasant weather one can expect in the tropics.
I came away from this trip with a better impression of Madras – I had not thought that possible! – and several questions about the influence of the Pandya and Chola polities on southeast Asia. It also underscored the tourist bonanza Tamil Nadu is sitting on, exhibiting nothing but firm, masterly inactivity. There are tourists from home and abroad even now, no doubt, but it is nowhere near its peak potential. Despite being World Heritage sites, there is little promotion of Kanchipuram or Mahabalipuram in India or abroad the way Turkey or Malaysia does. As many scholars of the region have conceded, this is where one finds the true history of India. The North was repeatedly invaded, conquered, and influenced by foreign cultures but the South has retained the old – it has evolved, definitely, but with much less influence from non-Indic sources.
Being so close to Madras, the infrastructure – hotels, food, guides, transport – was decent. Unlike many places in India, visiting Kanchipuram is not an ordeal. The city is considered to be a mokshapuri; I don’t know about moksha, but I certainly got ananda upon going there! And like the best of trips, there is something for the eyes, something for the mind, and something for next time.
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