Reliving the Mahabharata at Mamallapuram’s Monuments

Shore Temple and Arjuna’s Chariots are the most famous of Mamallapuram’s monuments. But there are other tourist places worthy of your interest as well. This travelogue continues from Pondicherry, where my friends (K, W, and J) and I spent three days. On the fourth day, we decided to have a stopover at Mamallapuram before continuing to Chennai.

Table of Contents
1. History of Mamallapuram
2. Reaching Mamallapuram
3. Shore Temple
4. Arjuna’s Rathas (Chariots)
5. Varaha Cave Temple & Mahabalipuram Lighthouse
6. Krishna’s Butterball
7. Dinner at Moonrakers Restaurant

History of Mamallapuram

Earlier known as Mahabalipuram, the coastal town of Mamallapuram is situated in Tamil Nadu’s Kancheepuram district. It was established in the 7th century AD by a Pallava king named Narasimhavarman. The town is famous because its monuments narrate events from the Mahabharata, one of the two main ancient Indian epics.

Rock carvings at Mamallapuram
Courtesy: Ramnath A. S. on Pixabay

In total, Mamallapuram is home to 40 Hindu temples and monuments, including the world’s largest open-air rock relief: Arjuna’s Penance or Descent of the Ganges.

The cave temples and monolithic monuments of Mamallapuram built during Narasimhavarman’s reign reflect the shift from rock-cut shrines to structural architecture. The pavilions resembling temple chariots have been cut from granite rocks. Half a century passed before the creation of the Shore Temple, which was erected from dressed stone. It features stunning reliefs.

Reaching Mamallapuram 

The night before we left for Mamallapuram, we bonded over generous glasses of rum and vodka, the bliss only marred by a bizarre phone call from Ganesh who claimed that we had damaged the Activas before returning them to him. Yes, it seemed that the scooters weren’t done with us yet.

Me at Shore Temple, Mamallapuram
Me at Shore Temple, Mamallapuram

But J kept his cool and turned a deaf ear to all of Ganesh’s rants. Whether he really thought there was something wrong with the scooters or he was merely taking us for a ride, we will never know. Nevertheless, we headed for the bus stop the next morning and as was our ritual, K and W waited with the luggage while J and I went searching for a suitable bus.

Nearly all the buses from Pondicherry to Chennai pass through Mamallapuram, so we found one without much difficulty. The ride was pleasant and we watched young men relinquish their seats en route to let older men and women rest their tired limbs. Google Maps enabled us to get off at the right stop without even having to bother the bus conductor.

Shore Temple

The ancient town of Mahabalipuram has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And in the span of just two hours, we saw why. The moment we got off the bus, we were accosted by several rickshaw walas. One of them spoke perfect English and told us that he would charge 400 rupees for two hours, in total.

Shore Temple, Mamallapuram

He (Raja) promised to show us all the five great monuments of Mahabalipuram in that time-frame. It seemed like a good deal and we hopped on.

In case you’re wondering how the four of us fit into one tiny rickshaw, K had to sit on J’s lap. Our first stop was the renowned Shore Temple, the only surviving one of the seven Pagodas that once graced Mamallapuram’s shores. Several shrines nestled deep within the cool, silent alcoves of this gigantic stone temple, dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu among other Hindu Gods.

The beach surrounding this temple is a popular picnic spot but we kept away, since we had only twenty minutes before we had to head to the next monument. Raja had given us these strict deadlines because the monuments were open for public viewing only until six in the evening and it was already four when we started out.

Arjuna’s Rathas (Chariots)

Feeling rather like we were running a travel marathon, we hurried back to the rickshaw and crammed in once again. Our next stop was just around the corner, where we beheld the monolithic ‘Pancha Rathas’ (five chariots).

arjunas rathas
Arjuna Ratha

The rathas are named after the Pandava brothers and Draupadi. But wait, aren’t there five Pandava brothers already? The mystery was solved when I realised that the twins Nakula and Sahadeva shared one ratha between them. If you think that’s injustice, you should take a look at Draupadi’s ratha, a mere hutment in comparison to the majestic Pandava rathas.

But if studies are to be believed, these names are misnomers and the rathas have nothing to do with the aforementioned characters from the Mahabharata. I regret that I couldn’t read the inscriptions at the monuments in more detail, hungry as I was for details.

Varaha Cave Temple & Mahabalipuram Lighthouse

We then moved to Varaha Cave Temple and the Mahabalipuram Lighthouse. The five monuments are all located very close to each other and two hours actually proved to be enough time to see them all. Unlike the Shore Temple, the Varaha Temple is a rock-cut cave temple, bearing eloquent carvings and sculptures.

History and architecture at Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram)

The light reflected magically within the entrance of the Varsha Mandapa and it was all we could do to lay our cameras down and feast our eyes instead. We then had to climb a long flight of rock-hewn steps to reach the lighthouse but the panoramic bird’s-eye view of the city we were granted made it seem like a very short ascent indeed.

Mahabalipuram Lighthouse

Time did not permit us to climb to the top of the lighthouse and I envied the circling birds who had reached its pinnacle in a matter of moments.

Krishna’s Butterball

We were nearly at the end of our two-hour whirlwind tour but one monument still eluded us – Krishna’s butterball. The name was so enticing that I was loath to leave Mamallapuram without finding it. And then when we had nearly made it out of the gates to Raja and his waiting rickshaw, we saw it.

Krishna's Butterball, Mamallapuram or Mahabalipuram

Against the descending sun lay a gigantic circular rock balanced precariously on a slope. A signboard pointing towards to it confirmed that it was indeed Krishna’s butterball. Not much to look at besides the fact that it was wonderfully balanced, we turned our attention instead to the kids who were using the slope to play slide.

Several of our attempts at photography were also foiled by a man who refused to budge from his shaded spot beneath the butterball.

The best part of this whirlwind visit was that we didn’t have to wait for a ticket at every monument. One ticket costing a mere fifteen rupees allows one entry to any of the five monuments and also several others in the country.

Dinner at Moonrakers Restaurant

Famished after so much of non-stop walking and climbing, we settled for a late evening meal at the Moonrakers restaurant, famous for its freshly prepared seafood. We ordered two kinds of fishes – masala fish as a starter and fish curry and rice as a main course. The fish curry varied greatly from the kind served in Kerala.

The thick coconut gravy had been swapped for something resembling the Tamil staple of sambhar. The masala fish was spicy and perfectly done. We had our fill of both dishes and left the restaurant, well rejuvenated and ready for the journey that lay ahead. So if you’re looking for good restaurants in Mamallapuram, do visit Moonrakers.

(By Ankita)

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