Mamallapuram's Shore Temple & Panch Rathas

  • Posted on: 1 April 2013
  • By: Aline Dobbie

I would like to share with you aspects of one of my favourite UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Mamallapuram which once was the great port city for the 7th century Pallava king Narsimha Varman I, also known as Mamalla the ‘Great Wrestler’. The Pallavas were the first kings to build temples in the whole region of Tamil Nadu.

Special protection of The Shore Temple

After the 2004 tsunami the myth and legend surrounding the temple again gripped people’s imaginations and in fact thankfully, though the tsunami’s towering waters did come half way up the height of the Shore Temple, no real damage was done. It is heartening that the authorities maintain all these sites well and the atmosphere is one of seaside charm, sand, casuarinas trees, neem trees and grass.  I would have hated it if the village had been allowed to encroach on these wonders, but the village exists in harmony with all this amazing architecture and carving. 

Panch Rathas

We first went and visited the Panch Rathas (five processional temple chariots) which are outstanding monolithic carvings  It is the story of the rivalry between the five heroic Pandava brothers – Yudishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakul and Sahdeva and a hundred members of the Kaurava clan.  The story culminates in a great battle and various other fables and legends are woven into the main story. I just loved the elephant carvings and one other in particular of a cow being milked with the calf standing by in the Krishna Mandapa, where there is also another huge bas relief showing the god lifting Mount Govardhan to protect the people from torrential rains.  There are  stories from the Panchatantra, the Indian version of Aesop’s Fables also carved in this rock.

Every year from mid January to mid February there is a Festival of Dance held against the backdrop of the bas reliefs.   A little to side is Krishna’s Butter Ball, which is a natural boulder of immense size seeming to be precariously balanced on a slope.  In fact on closer inspection it is not that round at the rear so one can understand how it has withstood the attempts of various kings to unseat it.  In the late evening sunshine we watched as all the young children slid down the rock face under Krishna’s Butter Ball – just simple fun.

A moving experience

I had promised the management I would go on their bullock cart ride.  The bullocks had been brought in with their owner and were waiting patiently for us to use the cart.  Usually one would make this trip at sunset but because I had gone to my massage it had to be fitted in after supper.  Frankly after the relaxation of a wonderful massage and a good meal I was not looking forward to be jolted about in the dubious delight of a bullock cart ride – but – I am so glad that we did it!  The bullocks had the normal huge horns and are powerful beasts.  One enters from the rear of the cart and I took two cushions to help protect me. 

The peace and quiet of a simple most ancient form of transport in the silence of the village night was incredible.  Indian villages settle down to sleep much earlier than we do in the West and so all the shops were shut and the streets had minimal lighting; there was however enough lighting to see through open front doors and windows and catch a glimpse of a community settling down for the night.  The bullocks’ owner took us on a circular drive.  When we came to the huge beautiful bas relief of Arjuna’s Penance we could see it in the light of one street lamp, and something special happened.

The shadows and silhouettes of the covered bullock cart with the two bullocks and their massive curved horns, and indeed our own heads, all showed in this clear shadow upon the bas relief; somehow it was very moving – us, in the twenty first century in a most ancient form of transport throwing a shadow on this ancient rock carving with its still perfect depictions of god and man and animals – with the elephants being my favourite. I just loved the silence, the shadow, the symbolism for me of us in a thrusting modern India sitting in a bullock cart that was around thousands of years ago.

My recommendation where to stay

We stayed at the Radisson Blu Temple Bay Resort which is outstanding with well appointed rooms and bathrooms, a stunning location right on the beach with the Shore Temple easily in view and beautiful maintained spacious gardens with trees, shady areas, bougainvilleas and two of the finest pools I have encountered.  The one is the largest meandering pool in the whole of Asia and the other the infinity pool looks onto the sea shore and its infinity links with the Indian Ocean.

Every morning I would rise at watch the sunrise at 06.10 hours whilst drinking a welcome cup of tea.  The food, the Staff, the facilities are all excellent with a very spacious efficient business centre and two Spas.  The Wharf is the a la carte restaurant right on the beach and the seafood is delicious. I will definitely return to this outstanding well run hotel in its beautiful location just 50 minutes down the coast road from Chennai.  Chennai's new international airport means one can fly straight there and have a hotel car meet one.  There is a lot to see in the area; Tamil Nadu is known for its great temples and other heritage sites.