Fazed by the heat and air pollution of Chennai, most visitors escape as fast as they can, heading down the Coromandel coast to India’s stone-carving capital, Mamallapuram, whose ancient monuments include the famous Shore Temple and a batch of extraordinary rock sculptures. En route, it’s well worth jumping off the bus at Dakshina Chitra, a folk museum 30km south of Chennai, where traditional buildings from across south India have been beautifully reconstructed. Further inland, Kanchipuram is an important pilgrimage and silk-sari-weaving town from where you can loop southwest to Tiruvannamalai, a wonderfully atmospheric temple town clustered at the base of the sacred mountain, Arunachala. On the coast, you can breakfast on croissants and espresso coffee in the former French colony of Puducherry. A short way north, Auroville, the Utopian settlement founded by followers of the Sri Aurobindo Ghose’s spiritual successor, The Mother, provides a New Age haven for soul-searching Westerners and an economy for the local population.
Both Mamallapuram and Puducherry are well connected to Chennai by fast bus services, running along the smooth East Coast Road. You can also get to Puducherry by train, but this usually involves a change at the junction town of Villupuram, from where services are slow and relatively infrequent.Read More
Scattered around the base of a colossal mound of boulders is the small seaside town and UNESCO World Heritage Site of MAMALLAPURAM (aka Mahabalipuram), 58km south of Chennai. From dawn till dusk, the rhythms of chisels chipping granite resound down its sandy lanes – evidence of a stone-carving tradition that has endured since this was a major port of the Pallava dynasty, between the fifth and ninth centuries. It is only possible to speculate about the purpose of much of the boulder sculpture, but it appears that the friezes and shrines were not made for worship at all, but rather as a showcase for the talents of local artists. Due in no small part to the maritime activities of the Pallavas, their style of art and architecture had wide-ranging influence, spreading from south India as far north as Ellora, as well as to Southeast Asia.
Mamallapuram’s monuments divide into four categories: open-air bas-reliefs, structured temples, man-made caves and rathas (“chariots” carved in situ from single boulders to resemble temples or the chariots used in temple processions). The famous bas-reliefs, Arjuna’s Penance and the Krishna Mandapa, adorn massive rocks near the centre of the village, while the beautiful Shore Temple, one of India’s most photographed monuments, presides over the beach. Sixteen man-made caves and monolithic structures, in different stages of completion, are scattered through the area, but the most complete of the nine rathas are in a group, named after the five Pandava brothers of the Mahabharata.
Given the coexistence of so many stunning archeological remains with a long white-sand beach, it was inevitable this would become a major destination for Western travellers, with the inevitable presence of Kashmiri emporia, bus-loads of city dwellers at the weekends, massage-wallahs and hawkers on the beach, and a plethora of budget hotels and little fish restaurants.
Ask any Tamil what KANCHIPURAM (aka “Kanchi”) is famous for, and they’ll probably say silk saris, shrines and saints – in that order. A dynastic capital throughout the medieval era, it remains one of the country’s seven holiest cities, sacred to both Shaivites and Vaishnavites, and among the few surviving centres of goddess worship in the south. Year round, pilgrims pour through for a quick puja stop on the Tirupati tour circuit and, if they can afford it, a spot of shopping in the sari emporia. For non-Hindu visitors, however, Kanchipuram holds less appeal. Although the temples are undeniably impressive, the town itself is unremittingly hot, with only basic accommodation and amenities. Some people prefer to visit Kanchipuram as a day-trip from Chennai or Mamallapuram, both a two-hour bus ride away.
Established by the Pallava kings in the fourth century AD, Kanchipuram served as their capital for five hundred years, and continued to flourish throughout the Chola, Pandya and Vijayanagar eras. Under the Pallavas, it was an important scholastic forum, and a meeting point for Jain, Buddhist and Hindu cultures. Its temples dramatically reflect this enduring political prominence, spanning the years from the peak of Pallava construction to the seventeenth century, when the ornamentation of the gopuras and pillared halls was at its most elaborate. All can be easily reached by foot, bike or rickshaw, and shut daily between noon and 4pm. You might need to be a little firm to resist the attentions of pushy puja-wallahs, who try to con foreigners into overpriced ceremonies. If you’ve come for silk, head for the shops that line Gandhi and Thirukatchininambi roads.
- Puducherry and Auroville