Why Mahabalipuram is a constant source of wonder for tourists

Why Mahabalipuram is a constant source of wonder for tourists

Since the pandemic seems to have put a lid on our extensive travel plans, most of the people on social media are finding refuge in their throwback travel pictures. Actor Kaniha has shared her Mahabalipuram travel pictures on Instagram.

From Mamalapuram to Mahabalipuram
One of the oldest cities in India, this place, which was originally known as Mamallapuram, was named after the Pallava King Mamalan. It is an important landmark of classical monuments, the monolithic and cave temples. Mahabalipuram lies on the Coromandel Coast which faces the Bay of Bengal. This was a well-established seaport during the 7th to 10th centuries of the Pallava dynasty.

It was during the reign of King Narasimha Varman I (630 - 668AD), that Mamallapuram was changed to Mahabalipuram and there is a story behind it. King Narasimha Varman I was a valiant warrior who was given the title Mamalla which means ‘the great wrestler’ so the name was converted from Mahabalipuram to Mamallapuram considering the great king and his achievements.

After the decline of the Gupta Dynasty, the Pallavas rose to prominence and ruled from the 3rd century till the end of the 9th century AD. The best period of their rule was between 650 and 750 AD and this period were called the Golden Age of the Pallavas. The Pallavas were profound thinkers and during their rule, great poets, dramatists, artists, artisans, scholars, and saints emerged. They were the forerunners of diverse forms of art and architecture, resulting in new sculptors and unique paintings. Mahabalipuram became a foundation to explore the various forms of art and architecture. But this sheer artistry of the place was not known to many as the Pallavas hid these from the outer world. It finally came to light after the 18th century. Be it their rock-cut caves, temples carved from a single rock, it can be referred to as an open-air museum.

7 places we think you should visit on your next Mahabalipuram trip
Those who visit Chennai cannot skip this exquisite beauty in Kanchipuram, the temple town. Most of the temples and historical monuments in the city are dedicated to Lord Shiva. Mahabalipuram has a moderate and humid climate around the year. Though it can be visited throughout the year, summers get pretty hot. Some travellers venture out in monsoon, as monsoon brings in a fresh look to the place. But by most votes, the best time to visit is during the cooler months of October through March.

1. Heritage Museum: The Maritime Heritage Museum is an interesting place to visit. On its display, it has a few working models of the Egyptian papyrus boats, wooden, steel and diesel ships, maps of ancient sea routes, and detailed information about lights, buoys and various devices used for communication and navigation purposes. Those interested in marine technology will find a visit to this place informative.

2. Shore Temple: At Mahabalipuram, this is one of the most photographed monuments in India. Built during the 7th century, Shore Temple is also one of the oldest South Indian temples constructed in the Dravidian style and depicts the royal taste of the Pallava dynasty. The work of the temple has been listed amongst the World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. Shore Temple was given the name 'Seven Pagodas' after they saw this tall structure standing alongside the seashore. This temple was like a landmark for the navigating ships. Also, this was the first stone structure consulted by the Pallavas and it resembled that of a Pagoda and hence the familiarity. This is a structural temple built with blocks of granite and is so named because it overlooks the Bay of Bengal. It is a five-storey structural Hindu temple rather than rock-cut as are the other monuments at the site. Its pyramidal structure is 60 ft high and sits on a 50 ft square platform. There is a small temple in front which was the original porch. This temple has three shrines out of which two are dedicated to Lord Shiva and the other one is dedicated to Lord Vishnu. Recent excavations show that many unrevealed structures are still lying deep under the sand. It was designed to seize the first rays of the rising sun and to catch hold of the waters after sunset due to which it served as a landmark by day and a beacon by night. Mandapas and compound walls surround the grand temple.

3. Five Rathas: Panch Rathas, denoting five chariots, are magnificent stone structures, each carved out of a single huge boulder. There is one structure each for the five Pandavas. Each monolithic structure showcases intricate carvings and fine works of art by the skilled artisans of the 7th century. They are excellent examples of the evolution of Dravidian-style architecture. These temples are built in the same shape as pagodas and greatly resemble Buddhist shrines and monasteries. The rathas are associated with the Mahabharata. The first ratha that is located right by the entrance gate is Draupadi's ratha, shaped like a hut and is dedicated to the goddess Durga. Next comes Arjuna's Rath. This one has a small portico and carved pillar stones and is dedicated to Lord Shiva. There are no carvings inside this temple, but many are on the outside. Directly in front of Arjuna's Rath is the Nakula Sahadev Rath. This ratha has some huge elephant sculptures included that are a huge draw for the Five Rathas. It is dedicated to the God of Rain, Lord Indra. The Bhima Rath is huge. It measures 42 ft in length, 24ft in width, and 25ft in height. The pillars there do contain lion carvings even though the ratha as a whole is incomplete. The largest of the Five Rathas is the Dharmaraja Yudhistar's Rath. This rath is also dedicated to Lord Shiva.

4. Arjuna’s Penance: At a distance of 0.5 Km from Mahabalipuram Bus Station you can see Arjuna's Penance or Bhagirathi’s Penance. It is a massive open-air bas-relief monolith dating from the 7th century CE which is 96 by 43 feet high and this the bas-relief is also known as The Descent of Ganga. It has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of 'Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram'. According to historians, the sage shown standing on one leg is Arjuna, the middle brother of the Pandavas and one of the leading protagonists of Mahabharata. In the Kiratarjuniya chapter of the saga, the great archer-warrior is seen to be practicing severe penance for the blessings of Lord Shiva, standing on one leg at the top of Mount Indrakila in the Himalayas. At the end of his severe Tapasya, Lord Shiva was content with his devotion and rewarded Arjuna with Pashupatastra which was the most potent weapon in the narrative of Mahabharata. The bas relief is situated on a rock with a cleft. Figures within the cleft are said to represent the river Ganges and shiva. This provides the basis for an alternative interpretation, rather than Arjuna, the figure performing this tough Tapas is said to be Bhagiratha. The carvings on the stone relief have been depicted over the years into two different possible interpretations. To begin with, the interconnected presence of humans, celestial beings, and wild animals in the same frame with harmony directs to the 'sublime continuity in all living things' - a cosmic truth the faith of Hinduism is based on. Another interpretation is that the meditating sage is King Bhagiratha, who was praying to Goddess Ganga to come down to earth and bring salvation to the corpses of his ancestors as well as prosperity to his kingdom. It is a known Hindu mythological story that Lord Shiva helped the river goddess to come down to earth and bore her impending force on his jata or dreadlocks, and King Bhagiratha led her out of it to the land where she flows. The depiction of the rocks can be either of these or can be both.

5. Mahabalipuram Light House: The impressive Light House stands on the rocky patches near the Mahabalipuram shore and has been open for the public view since 2011. On climbing the spiral staircase and reaching the top, a panoramic view of the vast seashore, several rock structures, and the town below can be seen. The circular sandstone tower of the Lighthouse is made of natural stones and is fully functional since 1904. Climbing on the stones and atop the Lighthouse (yes, you are allowed to climb) can be a real treat. From the top, the view is capable of captivating its audience. It can be visited between 9 AM and 5.30 PM by paying a nominal entry fee.

6. India Seashell Museum: The newly built seashell museum of Mahabalipuram is the world’s second-largest Seashell Museum and the largest one in Asia. It is a veritable storehouse of various kinds of seashells kept with an aim to educate its visitors. There are over 40,000 different specimens of rare and unique shells in the place. There are seashells as tiny as coriander seeds. It also includes a Pearl Museum, a Virtual reality Show, and an Aquarium.

7. The Crocodile Museum: The Crocodile Bank located 14 kilometers from Mahabalipuram was established by herpetologist Romulus Whitaker in 1976. It holds a varied species of Indian and African alligators and crocodiles. They are kept in open pools that are made to resemble their natural habitat. This Crocodile Conservation Center is the most popular site to visit at Crocodile Bank. Known as the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Centre for Herpetology, the 8.5-acre enclosure is built within a coastal dune forest. Replete with gharials, marsh crocodiles, anacondas, and turtles, the place has an abundant green cover and numerous water bodies, making it ideal for reptiles to thrive. Attractions like holding a baby crocodile, crocodile feeding, aquarium, and snake venom extraction centre are quite popular among visitors. Schemes like ‘Adopt a Reptile’ go a great way in the conservation efforts of these creatures that have been around in some form for millions of years. A snake farm is also located at this site. Anti-venom is produced here in laboratories. The process of extracting the snake venom is a popular tourist attraction, and it allows the Irulas, the snake catcher's tribe, to make a living.

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