We were a couple of kilometres into the sea, enjoying a boat ride arranged by Radisson Blu Resort Temple Bay Mamallapuram, when the boatman pointed to a patch where the waves appeared to knock furiously over an obstruction. In the split second between the movements of an advancing wave and a receding one, we caught sight of what we thought were dark slimy boulders. Gradually, we discerned more such formations spread over a large area. “These are the remains of the six submerged Shore Temples of Mamallapuram that surfaced briefly during the deadly tsunami in 2004,” said our boatman. Although it has not been proven beyond doubt that the submerged structures are the six lost pagodas or temples of Mamallapuram, but experts from National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) have confirmed the presence of ancient structures lying submerged, which could be part of the port city that was likely swallowed by the sea many centuries ago.
Lying around 60km to the south of Chennai, Mahabalipuram is a long popular tourist town whose global attraction increased after UNESCO tagged the ancient group of monuments found here as a World Heritage Site in 1984.
It is said that in the 7th and 8th centuries, Mahabalipuram (or Mamallapuram) was a flourishing port city ruled by the Pallava dynasty. Patrons of art and architecture, they encouraged the construction of finely carved rock-cut temples and other architectural monuments.
A tour of Mahabalipuram typically begins with the Shore Temple. Built towards the beginning of the 8th century, the rock-cut temple lies on the shores of the Bay of Bengal. According to legends, this was one of the seven shore temples built, but there is no account of what happened to the other six. Interest in the Shore Temple renewed after survivors who happened to be along the coast here during the deadly 2004 tsunami reported of sightings of old structures and sculptures on the seabed as the water receded for a brief period just before the tsunami struck.
Explorations by an NIO team and members of the Scientific Exploration Society, U.K., had already recorded evidence of ruins off Mahabalipuram when they carried out underwater explorations in April 2002. And after the tsunami, divers reported finding an elaborately carved lion, a half-completed elephant and a stallion in flight among other things.
Subject to natural erosion, the main Shore Temple is undergoing restoration we found out during our late August visit. However, tourists were merrily clambering over the remaining architectural ruins within the complex.
The five chariot-shaped temples in the Pancha Ratha complex are interesting not only as monolithic structures dating back to the 7th and 8th centuries but also for their style. The temples have been named after the five Pandava brothers and Draupadi. The very first structure, named after Draupadi, is shaped like a thatched roof hut from Bengal. The second, or the Arjuna’s Rath, is shaped like a Buddhist Vihara. In between are large statues of a lion, an elephant and a bull. The one named after Bhima has a vaulted roof.
The cave temples, locally known as mandapas, are stylistically unique. Located on the outskirts of the town, the sculpted Varaha Cave temple dates back to the 7th century. The Tiger Cave, probably an open-air theatre, is also one of the must-see attractions. Other popular mandapas include those dedicated to Ganesh, Krishna and Mahishasuramardini.
Arjuna’s Penance, said to be one of the largest bas relief work in the world, can be seen right from the road. It is said that the 27m x 9m panel contains more than a hundred sculptures. Two of the famous scenes depicted here from the two Indian epics. The one from Mahabharata shows Arjuna performing a penance to appease Shiva and the one from Ramayana shows Bhagiratha praying to Shiva to allow Ganga to descend to earth.
Krishna’s Butter Ball, a huge boulder that has remained precariously balanced on a rocky ledge, for centuries, has now graduated to a merry selfie zone.
But today, Mahabalipuram is not only about history and old architecture. Its tranquil beaches and adventure sports activities are also big draws. Covelong (also known as Kovalam), about 20km away, is a favourite with surfers around the globe.
If you have some time to spare, you may also visit the Cholamandalam Artists’ Village (35km away) and Dakshin Chitra (25km) – both lying between Mamallapuram and Chennai. Dakshin Chitra has a collection of 18 authentic historical houses with contextual exhibitions in each house.
Getting There: Mahabalipuram is about 60km by road from Chennai, the nearest airport and railhead.
Accommodation: There are plenty of hotels and resorts in and around Mamallapuram. The luxurious Radisson Blu Resort Temple Bay Mamallapuram is located on the shore. It can arrange for local sightseeing and adventure activities with prior notification.
When to go: The best time to visit Mahabalipuram is winter.
Managed by the Archaeological Survey of India, the heritage group of monuments are open from 6am to 6pm. However, timings may vary depending on the season and special events. Admission ticket for the Shore Temple is ₹ 40 per head for Indians and ₹ 600 per head for foreigners. Tickets bought here are valid for all monuments in Mamallapuram. Guides are aplenty but not all are officially accredited