In spite of the latest flood fury in Chennai, the temple town of Mahabalipuram — situated 60km from the city — continues to see pilgrims flocking to this UNESCO heritage site in Kanchipuram district of Tamil Nadu.
Constructed with formidable finesse by the Great Pallavas in 7th century BC, Mahabalipuram symbolises the confluence of Indian history, geography and ancient Indian economy. Historical relevance of Mahabalipuram dates back to the ancient days of Sangam literature and Bhakti movement that flourished here, eventually contributing to the development of Dravidian architecture in Tamil Nadu.
History shows that traders and communities such as the Chettiars from down south travelled to parts of South East Asia, from the ancient port of Mamallapuram (as Mahabalipuram is also known). In fact, it is known to have been an important (erstwhile) gateway fostering Indian trade and cultural links with eastern countries.
There are a few star attractions such as the ‘Varaha’ rock-cut cave temple, or the grand Krishna statue carrying the giant mountain. An outstanding idiom among them all is the ‘Descent of Ganges on Mother Earth’, tracing the beginning of civilisation, and prosperity. Commonly known as ‘Arjuna’s Penance’, depicting origins of Bhagirathi, the entire narrative is depicted out of ‘Bas-relief’, that is, sculptures protruding from rocks, almost lending a three-dimensional semblance on stone.
In fact, Mahendravarman Pallava — who called himself a ‘Vichitra Chitra’ or the ‘Unique Artist’ — introduced the art of sculpting gods and goddesses in granite. Legend has it that this uncommon imagination, emanated from the fragility of materials like wood, and sandstone structures, which couldn’t stand the test of time. Experts and archaeologists attribute the longevity of the present monuments to the robustness of granite used in these sculptures.
A natural edifice famously called ‘Krishna’s Butter Ball’, defying the test of gravity, is another favourite among tourists. Almost 5m in width, this huge boulder in granite has been at the same spot for more than 1,400 years. Famous monolithic style of architecture — that is, structures carved out of a single stone — is demonstrated through the ‘Panch Rathas’ of Pandavas or the ‘Five chariots’.
Because of these facets, Mahabalipuram contributes to scholarship in the field of architecture, sculpture, and showcases the scientific prowess of masonry of ancient times.
For instance, most of the eastern coast of India is dotted with sacred structures. Experts believe temples like Jagannath Puri, Konark, and others were scientifically designed to receive the first rays of the sun. The Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram was designed just for this purpose. Modern-day planners, with respect to the ambitious smart city project (for example), may take important lessons in sustainable architecture, scientific planning and aesthetic acumen, from this repository of Indian heritage.
How Art Travelled from Stone to Fabric
From carvings on stone to modern-day fabric, human expression has always found a medium to emote and convey imagination. Our heritage is replete with such examples. Wherever we have marvels in stone, textile designing and painting have flourished in those areas. In fact, Kanchipuram is home to the ‘Banarasi silk of south India’. Modern Kanchipuram silk designs take cue from carvings, floral designs, motifs, and other miniature art. Locals say that the ‘Vaikuntha Perumal’ temple in Kanchipuram has been a source of inspiration to indigenous artisans engaged in silk weaving. It is not surprising, therefore, that Kanchipuram silk enjoys the Geographical Indication status from this area.
The might of north-eastern monsoon (witnessed in the Chennai floods recently), tropical cyclones and oceanic fury that our vast coastline is subjected to make these structures very vulnerable to natural disasters. The tsunami waves of 2004 washed away sand from the Shore Temple, which uncovered an amphitheatre and underwater structures of Nandi. In order to explore the vast oceanic treasures, the Tamil Nadu government has been working towards building an oceanarium to promote tourism and heritage here.
But the aftermath of disasters needs to be assessed — especially in the context of vagaries of nature and climate change — so as to preserve this legacy for posterity. Consider the 2015 Nepal earthquake that left certain heritage sites devastated. Incorporating an element of disaster management in heritage conservation is, therefore, an important policy concern for planners.
Towards this, coastal communities such as fishermen may be engaged in conservation projects, putting their indigenous knowledge to use. Policymakers may also explore the culture ministry’s latest project ‘Mausam’, in this regard. A robust convergence model could be envisaged between disaster management schemes, tourism and livelihoods sectors.
One such local community-driven approach is to capitalise on mangrove plantations engaging local people. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has undertaken casuarina tree plantations in a few regions of the eastern coast. These trees guard coastal areas from wave, sand and wind erosion.
How to Reach?
Mahabalipuram is well-connected by road and air from Chennai. Enthusiasts may purchase miniature sculptures and artefacts from local artisans in the town.