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.