Stunning vestiges of a bygone era – Mahabalipuram

dsc_0275After my recent trip to heritage rich Kathmandu, I was reminded of a fascinating destination just 50 kms from where I stay, no less a UNESCO world heritage site, in the city of Kanchipuram – Mahabalipuram. Kanchipuram itself is by far one of the most culturally richest districts in the world and holds high religious significance to the Hindus. In this part of India, temples adorn every town and district and Kanchipuram houses over a hundred ancient temples, many of which still active today.

Mahabalipuram however, is a historic temple town within Kanchipuram, that was once an active and bustling sea port of the mighty Pallava kings some time around the 7th century. The port town was once a vibrant trading center often serving as a port to depart to South-East Asian countries for trade and cultural exchange. In fact, the port town also shows evidence of active trade with the ancient Greeks and Romans. Most temples are sculpted from monolithic stones. Surely, hundreds of highly skilled artisans must have sculpted the enormous and astounding reliefs. I leave a few pictures here:

Shore temple of Mahabalipuram
The ‘Nandi’, sacred bull of Lord Shiva. The Pallava kings were great worshipers of Lord Shiva.

The place also offers a chance to enjoy the sun soaked beaches along these ruins. It is a common sight to see the fishermen laying their nets at daybreak. I am sure its a tradition that has been carried on for centuries. The sands of these beaches had even buried some of the architectural gems here, only to be revealed after the Tsunami in 2004.


The Pallava kings were great patrons of art and architecture. The whole town is a sort of open air museum that is well preserved even after over 15 centuries have passed. Some of the workmanship here reveals the the deities the people of the time had worshiped, not very different from modern India and the main trades of those times, again not very different from today.

Lord Vishnu in a reclined posture. The Pallavas were not Vishnu worshipers though. Note the hoods of the Serpent on which Vishnu is reclining –  A three dimensional effect can be seen. Such is the craftsmanship.
Recreation of the killing of the demon Mahishasura by Goddess Durga
Lord Krishna’s butterball – An astonishing marvel. Elephants could not budge this massive stone from the inclined slope and yet it balances itself precariously.
Largest bas-relief work in the world
Scenes from the Hindu epics
Chariot shaped Pagodas

The attention to detail is seen in all these works. However, most of these caves were never actually completely built and therefore there is no active worship of Gods taking place here unlike other temples in India which are as old or even older. Some of the most fascinating ones are the bas-reliefs depicting daily life.

Musicians, cowherds, milkmen, traders…why am I not surprised to see active participation of women? Ancient Indians were far more progressive.



It is said that it took over 200 years for the whole town to be planned and built. The dynasty of the Pallavas ruled for seven centuries between the 3rd and 9th centuries. Clearly they were great patrons of art and culture as can be seen from these magnificent remnants. There is still a strong interest in sculpting in these parts, mainly by the descendants of the ones who had created these masterpieces.

It is believed that a great tsunami brought an end to one era in this town sometime around 13th century. There also seems to be a lot of folklore here suggesting that a lot of temples and caves are yet to be discovered…perhaps somewhere deep inside the Indian Ocean.



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