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World famous for its shore temple, Mahabalipuram was the second capital and sea port of the Pallava kings of Kanchipuram, the first Tamil dynasty of any real consequence to emerge after the fall of the Gupta Empire.
Though the dynasty’s origins are lost in the mists of legend, it was at the height of its political power and artistic creativity between the 5th and 8th centuries AD, during which time the Pallava kings established themselves as the arbiters and patrons of early Tamil culture. Most of the temples and rock carvings here were completed during the reigns of Narasimha Varman I (630-668 AD) and Narasimha Varman II (700-728 AD). They are notable for the delightful freshness and simplicity of their folk-art origins, in contrast to the more grandiose monuments built by later larger empires such as the Cholas. The shore temple in particular strikes a very romantic theme and is one of the most photographed monuments in India. It and all the other places of interest in Mahabalipuram are floodlit each night.
The wealth of the Pallava Kingdoms was based on the encouragement of agriculture, as opposed to pastoralism, and the increased taxation revenue and surplus produce which could be raised through this settled lifestyle. The early Pallava kings were followers of the Jain religion, but the conversion of Mahendra Varman I (600-630 AD) to Shaivism by the saint Appar was to have disastrous effects on the future of Jainism in Tamil Nadu, and explains why most temples at Mahabalipuram(and Kanchipuram) are dedicated to either Siva or Vishnu.
The sculpture here is particularly interesting because it shows scenes of day-to-day life-women milking buffaloes, pompous city dignitaries, young girls primping and posing at street corners or swinging their hips in artful come-ons. In contrast, other carvings throughout the state depict gods and goddesses, with images of ordinary folk conspicuous by their absence. Stone carving is still very much a living craft in Mahabalipuram, as a visit to any of the scores of sculpture workshops in and around town testifies.
Positioned at the foot of a low-lying, boulder-strewn hill where most of the temples and rock carvings are to be found, Mahabalipuram is a pleasant little village and very much a travellers’ hunt. Here you can find an excellent combination of cheap accommodation, mellow restaurants catering to Western tastes (especially in terms of seafood), a good beach, handicrafts and the fascinating remains of an ancient Indian kingdom.

Carved in relief on the face of a huge rock, Arjuna’s Penance is the mythical story of the River Ganges issuing from its source high in the Himalaya. The panel (27metres by nine metres) depicts animals, fables form the Panchatantra, and Arjuna doing a penanace to obtain a boon from Siva. It’s one of the freshest, most realistic and unpretentious rock carving in India.

There are eight mandapams (shallow, rock cut halls) scattered over the main hill, two of which have been left unfinished. They are mainly of interest for their internal figure sculptures.
    One of the earliest rock-cut temples is the Krishna Mandapam. It features carvings of a pastoral scene showing Krishna lifting up the Govardhana mountain to protect his kinsfolk from the wrath of Indra. 

These are the architectural prototypes of all Dravidian
temples, demonstrating the imposing gopurams and vimanas, multi-pillared halls and sculptured walls which dominate the landscape of Tamil Nadu. The rathas are named after the Pandavas, the heroes of the Mahabharata epic, and are full-size models of different kinds of temples known to the Dravidian builders of the 7th century AD. With one exception, the rathas depict structural types which recall the earlier architecture of the Buddhist temples and monasteries. Though they are popularly known as the Five Rathas, there are actually eight of them.

This beautiful and romantic temple, ravaged by wind and sea, represents the final phase of Pallava art and was built in the late 7th century during the reign of Rajasimha. The temple’s two spires,
containing a shrine for Vishnu and one for Siva, were modeled after the Dharmaraja Ratha, but with considerable modification. Such is the significance of the shore temple that it was given World Heritage listing some years ago. Following that, a huge rock wall was constructed on the ocean side to minimise further erosion. It’s hardly the most sensitive of structures but at least the temple is no longer in danger of being engulfed by the ocean.
temple is approached through paved forecourts, with weathered perimeter walls supporting long lines of bulls, and entrances guarded by mythical deities. Although most of the detail of the carvings has disappeared over the centuries, a remarkable amount remains, especially inside the shrines.

On Saturdays there is sometimes a free dance programme at the shore temple. For details, check with the tourist office.

The village itself is only a couple of hundred metres from the wide beach, north of the shore temple, where local fishers pull in their boats. The local toilet is also here, and a walk along the beach is an exercise is sidestepping the turds. South of the shore temple, or 500 metres or so north, it becomes cleaner. 
From January to February there’s the month-long Mamallapuram Dance Festival. Dances from all over India are staged here including Bharatha Natyam (Tamil Nadu), Kathakali (Kerala), Kuchipudi (Andhra Pradesh) as well as tribal dances, puppet shows and classical / traditional music. Pick up a leaflet of events at the tourist office in Madras. 


SILVERSANDS BEACH RESORT, (Government Approved)3star 

Mahabalipuram has revived the ancient crafts of the Pallava stonemasons and sculptors, and the town wakes every day to the sound of chisels chipping away at pieces of granite. Some excellent work is turned out. The yards have contracts to supply images of deities an restoration pieces to many temples throughout India and Sri lanka. Some even undertake contract work for the European market. You can buy examples of this work from the Poompuhar Handicrafts Emporium or from the craft shops which line the roads down to the shore temple and to the Five-Rathas.
Exquisite soapstone images of Hindu gods, woodcarvings, jewellery and bangles made from seashells and other similar products are also for sale.


This shady and peaceful place is four km north of Mahabalipuram and signposted off to the right of the road. It’s more a clump of boulders than a cave – its name comes from the shrine (dedicated to Durga) at the entrance which features a crown of carved tiger heads. It’s a popular picnic spot on weekends. 
Fourteen km from Mahabalipuram, this pilgrimage centre is also known as Tirukazhukundram, which means Hill of the Holy Eagles. Its hilltop temple is famous as the place where two eagles come each day, just before noon, to be fed by a priest. Legend has it that they come from Varanasi (Benaras) and are en route to Rameswaram. Five hundred very steep steps lead to the top of the hill; some less-fit visitors get themselves carried up in baskets. The actual village is at the base of the hill and surrounds an amazing temple complex with enormous gopurmas. You can get here from Mahabalipuram by bus or by bicycle. 

This successful breeding farm was set up to augment the crocodile population of India’s wildlife sanctuaries. Visitors are welcome and you can see crocs (some 5000of them) of all sizes. The farm is about 15km from Mahabalipuram on the road to Madras, and is signposted. You can get there by bicycle or on any Madras bus from Mahabalipuram. 

About 35km south of Chengalpattu, this is one of the most spectacular water –bird breeding grounds in India. Cormorants, egrets, herons, storks, ibises, spoonbills, grebes and pelicans come here to breed and nest for about six months from October/ November to March, depending on the monsoons. At the height of the breeding season (December and January), you can see up to 30,000 birds at once. Many other species of migratory birds also visit the sanctuary. The best times to visit are early mornings and late afternoon.     

SILVERSANDS BEACH RESORT, Government Approved) 3 star 

Getting to Vedantangal is not all that easy. From Chengalpattu there are occasional buses to Vedantangal village. Another alternative is to get a bus to Madurantakam, the closets town of any size, and then hire transport to take you the last eight km.

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