Bliss by the sea

Mahabalipuram

Bliss by the sea

For someone who has always been a fan of beaches, the call for a trip down to the east coast was the perfect getaway plan. A town, not far from the bustling city of Chennai, that will make every other coastal destination look pale in comparison.

My stay was at Mahabalipuram’s first exclusive beach resort — the InterContinental Chennai Mahabalipuram Resort. After a half-hour flight which got delayed, I was bracing myself for another hour ride (about 45 km) to the resort.

Being used to living in a city marred by traffic jams and ugly hoardings, it was heartwarming to witness rows of coconut and casuarina trees and glistening water. Situated right by the majestic Bay of Bengal, InterContinental Resort is a treat to sore eyes. The resort is designed keeping in mind the local weather and climate. So, expect to find large open spaces, which allow the movement of salty coastal breeze.

In order to give us the wholesome experience of the place, our hosts had organised a trip to the town of Mahabalipuram early next morning. After a quick breakfast, we were back on the scenic East Coast Road that can surely be our answer to the popular Great Ocean Road in Australia. Our first stop was the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Shore Temple. A creation of the Pallavas who ruled from the nearby capital of Kancheepuram, this complex now houses three temples. A unique aspect of this 6th century structure is that it has two shrines facing the east and west.

The main shrine, facing east, is dedicated to Lord Shiva. Here, you will find dharalinga made of black basalt stone. But sadly, the top of the linga is damaged. The smaller shrine, facing west, houses a Somaskanda carving, which has Lord Shiva, his wife Uma and their son Skanda carved on granite. But when I couldn’t find Ganesha in the carving, our guide told me that the deity is never a part of Somaskanda panels. The middle portion between the two shrines houses Vishnu in his sleeping position. During sunset, the fading sunlight permeates through a small opening in this shrine and illuminates the space, giving it an ethereal appeal. Apart from the inner sanctorum, the external walls are adorned with carvings of gods and goddesses.

Temple treasures

In the complex, you will also stumble upon a small, circular shrine dedicated to Lord Shiva, along with a well and a sculpture that resembles a boar. On the right side of the temple is a monolithic sculpture of a lion that depicts Mahishashuramardini with a decapitated deer by its side. The gateways leading to the shrines have Lord Brahma and Lord Vishnu on either sides, welcoming visitors to the place. Beyond the gateway is the jetty and some pedestals meant for sacrifices. “This town was known for its animal sacrifices. Hence the name Mahabalipuram, the city of great sacrifices,” quips our guide. They say it took around 28 years for them to complete all the seven temples. Today, only one stands as a mute witness to the glory of the Pallavas. If you walk a little ahead from the Shore Temple, you will find yourself standing in front of a fully-functional lighthouse, which has been in operation since 1904. Its older version, built by King Mahendra Pallava in 640 AD, stands right next to it. I can’t help but marvel at the architectural ingenuity of our great kings.

Our next destination was yet another architectural marvel, the Pancha Rathas or the Pandava Rathas, named after the five Pandavas — Yudhisthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva. You will be surprised to know that all the rathas (chariots) have been made from one single rock! As I stood amazed studying the structure, the guide suggested I start digging the surrounding sand to find the underlying rock that supports all the chariots.

Although Mahabharata had no connections whatsoever to Southern India, it is a story that became popular with the locals. Built during the reign of King Mahendraverman I, these structures were left unfinished after the death of his son King Narasimhavarman I. Most of the rathas have beautiful carvings of Hindu gods on them, and each has been carved differently, showcasing the versatility of the artisans of the bygone era.

One of the most popular sites of Mahabalipuram is Arjuna’s Penance, a bas-relief that depicts the descent of River Ganga to the Earth. Carved beautifully over two big boulders, the creation is separated by a thin line of depression, wherein you can find Lord Shiva. A pool can be found at the top of this separation, and it is said that in the earlier days, water would flow down the separation and emerge from Lord Shiva’s head, giving the viewer the entire picture. Various other deities also mark their presence on this monument. The entire monument is so detailed that one glance won’t suffice. I suggest you sit down and look at every aspect in great detail. Otherwise, how else will you notice a cat standing on one leg, or a woman drying her hair in this amazing work of art?

As long as you are here, do not miss Krishna’s Butterball, a balancing boulder in the vicinity. On the face of it, it looks like it is precariously placed and will roll down the hill with a gentle push, but actually, it has a proper base and is well-grounded. People believe this massive boulder represents all the butter that Lord Krishna stole!

Festive touch

I was lucky enough to visit Mahabalipuram during one of the most auspicious times of the year — Pongal. And to commemorate the joyous occasion, the chefs at the Resort had painstakingly prepared a festive meal, which included sakkarai pongal, mor kuzhambu, pickles, fish delicacies, vegetable sambhar and much more. Walking around in Mahabalipuram in the coastal heat took its toll on my body and mind. But thankfully, Amrtam by Escenza Spa proved to be my refuge. After 30 minutes of rejuvenating head massage, all I could think of was the comfortable bed of my room.

Later that evening, as I sat down to dine by the beach, complemented perfectly by a live band, I looked out at the vast expanse of the Coromandel Coast and realised that there was nowhere else I would rather be. But our hosts had one last trick up their sleeve: fireworks. So, as colourful rockets lit up the starry sky, I bid goodbye to the wonderful town of Mahabalipuram. A perfect end to a perfect journey.

Fact file

How to reach

 Mahabalipuram is 56 km from Chennai &
the drive is about 1 hr 40 mins along the East Coast Road.

Where to stay

There are guest houses, hotels and resorts that cater to all budgets.

What to eat

 Mahabalipuram is a heaven for seafood lovers. Many sellers prepare the day’s catch fresh, right in front of you.

Do try ‘sundal’, a speciality dish of stir-fried spicy and tangy ‘chana dal’, which is sold on most of the beaches.

 If you want to sample traditional South Indian fare, head to the local restaurants for that perfect plate of ‘idli-sambhar’, or to Ananda Bhavan for their yummy meals.
What to shop

This coastal town offers a variety of shell artefacts, jewellery and other décor items.
Mahabalipuram is known for its stone carvings. Stone sculptures are available in most of the stores.

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