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Published: April 18th 2016
Having “three” days to chill before the boat to Andaman we decided to kill the time in nearby Mamallapuram, an hour and a half bus ride from Chennai. Mamallapuram is home to some of the oldest architecture in India, ranging from circa 1500 - 500 years ago.
The Pallava dynasty (circa 1000-1200 years ago) had an architectural impact throughout southern India, going north as far as Ellora (Near Mumbai, we'll be heading there on our way north), and due to their excellent maritime capabilities their influence even reached parts of South East Asia. Ankgor Wat in Cambodia (One of the wonders of the ancient world) was influenced by the Pallava dynasty. Although today it's a Buddhist monastery, I believe (I'll find out in a few months time), it was originally built as a Shiva temple.
The town itself is quite nice, it's been a tourist destination for quite a while, so it's well set up. There's WIFI readily available in most places, you can get all the western food you want, and it's not bad! We ate beef burgers almost every night we were there.
It seems like it's a popular destination for holiday makers and, as is becoming quite common in the south, the mature “Indiana Jones” traveller crowd. There's loads of resorts between Chennai and Mamallapuram, even a Raddison Blue! Spoiling the area somewhat.
The bus from Chennai left pretty regular and cost 29rs each. The moment we stepped off the bus a man approached us and offered a room near the beach within our budget, so get in his tuk-tuk and head to the guest house. When we pull up there's very promising signs, literally. The beach is less than 100m walk away and
the sign says there's a pool! A fact backed up by the guy who took us there. We check in drop our stuff in the room and head to the “pool” to check it out.
Turns out the pool is in a “cleaning” process and we couldn't go near it, typical India. So a few days later when the guys running the guest house aren't around I took a look at the pool, if it had any water in it it would've been class! It was a massive pool and full of broken bricks from the construction site next to it! Unfortunately we had to be content with the Bay of Bengal.
Consulting the guide book to see what ruins to see first etc we see there's a big enclosure just to the back of the town full of old temples and monolithic caves, and best of all....it's FREE!
We decided to check this out first and leave the ones you had to pay entry for 'till the day after because one ticket gets you into both.
Just to the back of the bus stand was the start of the temples/caves etc. The first thing we came across was a monolithic cave, with an amazing wall carving on the outer wall (bas-relief), this is called Arjuna's penance. It appeared to be a depiction of a war or something...in an attempt to do it justice I'm going to quote the guide book: “On the left side, Arjuna, one of the Pandava brothers (who ruled the Pallava dynasty) and a consummate archer, is shown standing on one leg. He is looking at the midday sun through a prism formed by his hands, meditating on Shiva, who is represented by a nearby statue fashioned by Arjuna himself.”
The story depicted is one where Arjuna has gone to the ganges to do a penance, in the hope that Shiva will relinquish his favourite weapon to Arjuna (Shiva is one of the gods, if you're unaware). Arjuna has a fight with an old man over a boar they both claimed to have shot. After Arjuna cannot overcome the old man he realises it's Shiva, who eventually gives up his weapon to the noble warrior. I'll also upload a picture if that's^^ not helping.
There's quite a few caves/temples/bas-reliefs of varying degrees of quality, some of which haven't been finished properly. Some of the rocks just lying around have the distinct evidence that someone has started to carve something and then left it. We were told this was because whoever the dynasty of the time had been, they'd entered a war so had to stop building/carving and then when they came back from the war they didn't have enough money to finish them.
I absolutely love anything ancient, the freedom you get in India to walk around and explore ruins is amazing. Unfortunately the Indian tourist don't seem to have the same kind of respect for things, so the carvings of names etc into the walls spoils the experience slightly, but still not one to be missed out on.
Not only this but because of India's taboo on sex and young Indian couples, you often see used jonny's on the floor and couples sort of hidden away in the bushes. I think some of these Indian parents need to sort their priorities out, because some poor girl has definitely had her first sexual experience on a dusty rock.
The second day we headed out to the Pancha Pandava Rathas and the Shore temple. If you're going to Mamallapuram make sure you do these two in the same day as one ticket gets you into both for 250rs.
The Pancha Pandava Rathas are allegedly 1.5km out of town, so we got a tuk-tuk. Turns out this was some classic Indian overestimation of distance! It's like a five minute walk from the bus stand.
It wasn't quite what I was expecting, but still really cool. A stunning set of monolithic structures from circa 630-670 AD, a set of five free-standing sculptures that imitate temples and some well carved “life sized” animals, I hope I never see a bull that big!
These structures also appeared to be unfinished, even more so than the others. The rocks they were cut out of were still there, and the middle of the temples hadn't been carved out, so it was more like rocks with carvings and little patios, rather than an actual temple.
You can also find one of the earlist depictions in Tamil Nadu of a dancing Shiva, Nataraja.
The design of these temples has been replicated throughout the south even into modern times as the “template” design of a temple, in terms of the carvings and they style they've been done in.
The shore temple, with it's silhouette that can be seen along the beach for miles, dates from the early eighth century. It's considered to be the earliest stone built temple in south India. Unfortunately due to it's positioning wind, salt, and sand has eroded most of the finer details away, but still leaving a pretty impressive structure.
On the last day we decided to head to the nearby tiger cave, 5km away. I wouldn't recommend going here unless you're really into your ancient Indian architecture, the 200rs return tuk-tuk fee wasn't worth it, and apparently we got that price because the guy hadn't had much business.
It was still pretty cool though, a monolithic cave in a similar vein to the others, again not finished...or it looked that way. Massive lion heads surround the entrace to the cave, which did actually make it one of my favourites in Mamallampuram.
Given the lack of tourist here I seized my opportuity to climb on top of the cave and posed next to one of the great lion heads. I wanted to do this at the other places but sensed there would be judgement...or security would get involved.
We spent the afternoon on the beach being pestered by gypses (they're here too) who were walking up and down the beach selling trinkets and necklaces etc.
The current in the sea was too strong to comfortably chill in the sea, although it did make for a decent suft which some people were taking advantage of. I think I'll save that for Andaman, which is apparently a new found surf hub.
We got the bus back to Chennai that evening, ready for the boat the day after (6th
). In hindsite we should've stayed put and got the bus to Chennai the morning of the boat, because in true Indian fashion I got a text the day later saying the boat's been delayed 'till the 8th
! Nice one!
It's a good job we love Chennai so much....or not.
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