What a Pallava!


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April 17th 2017
Published: April 23rd 2017
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When we arrived at the Pallava Dynasty hotel yesterday we wondered why it had been named after what to us means a hassle or a fuss. Today we find out from our guide Mr Shiba that it's not just an unfortunate translation but actually relates to a dynasty that ruled this area in the 6th and 7th centuries - the Pallavas. As seems the norm with such groups I'm guessing they caused a bit of a palava hence their name carrying on into language of today.

The rock carvings I'd seen a bit of on my wanderings the day before are actually part of a huge complex protected by UNESCO world heritage status, such is their importance. Mamallapuram's situation facing the Bay of Bengal made it an ideal trading port and hub hence the reason for the siting of these impressive structures. They are a mixture of styles and techniques, from monolithic (cut from a single stone), to bas relief (carving of a picture or story onto a flat rock face) and some structures made from sections of rock layered on top of each other. There's Dravidian architecture (ancient Indian style) alongside Buddhist styles and even some Roman and Chinese influence. Most of the subject matter is taken from Hinduism however. The vision and time needed to create such amazing rock carvings, particularly​ the larger monoliths, is hard to comprehend. The sound of the chisels and hammers of hundreds of skilled craftsmen bashing rock must have been a constant ringing in Mamallapuram for centuries. It's thought that student stonemasons undertook their apprenticeship​s here and we are shown rock with vertical holes following a dotted line, learning that this was a method used to split the huge rocks in two. Wood was pushed into the holes then soaked with water. When it expanded the rock would split open from the pressures exerted. The Canadians in our group have seen evidence of this method used in their part of the world, but in cold climates the holes are instead filled with water which then expands on freezing. I'm guessing the apprentice stonemasons had to do much of this easier, more monotonous work.

We have a closer look at the large bas relief sculpture noticing first the two huge elephants, beneath them are elephant calves and they're all off to drink water from the river Ganges represented by snake-like ladies 'pouring' down the centre. We see a man in a meditation pose, hands touching above his head and one leg bent up to the side touching the other leg at the knee. This is Arjuna, the eldest of five brothers, who is sent to do penance for his brothers gambling by meditating to Lord Shiva for 12 years to gain extra fighting powers. In the carving Arjuna is very skinny, his ribs clearly showing, evidence of his devotion to meditation. In contrast we see a carving of a cat in similar meditative pose with mice scurrying around at his feet. He is an old blind cat trying to trick the mice into coming close when he will pounce, but they can see his fat belly and therefore realise he is trying to trick them!

We make our way around the site and see many temple shrines carved into solid stone caves some with columns depicting lions. Inside the walls are covered with carvings of Hindu gods and goddesses. It's truly astounding craftsmanship. There are also a few monolith carvings and one structure that is made by piecing together separate layers in different styles with a Buddhist stupa on top, Dravidian carving on another layer and even some Roman columns.

We have fun photographing the large ball of granite rock seemingly about to topple down the hill. This geological feature is known as Krishna's Butterball (Hindu legend tells of Krishna stealing butter from his mother hence its name). It's a massive 6m tall, 5m wide and allegedly weighs 250 tonnes! It's thought to have been in this position for 1,200 years. At various points in history attempts have been made to move the stone, the funniest being the British in 1908 using 6 elephants to try and remove what they viewed as a potential public safety hazard. As we stand at the bottom of the slope taking photos of one of our group shoving the stone like a tiny worker ant trying to moving some gigantic morsel we hope today isn't the day Krishna's Butterball finally rolls down the slope crushing us all!

Next we go to see the Five Rathas, an amazing set of 5 ornate temple structures carved out of a single huge stone. They represent the Hindu legend 'Mahabharaha' with the same guy Arjuna who was meditating in the bas relief carving. Ratha means cart and the five Rathas are laid out in a line. The whole complex was excavated by the British but there are also a couple of huge stone animals that were only revealed after a tsunami in 2004 washed away sand around them!

Our final visit of this morning's tour is to the famous Shore Temple. We now appreciate being dragged out of our beds at 6am as we have the place virtually to ourselves. When I'd walked past it the previous day, on my way to see the ladies swimming in the sea in their sarees, the place was heaving with people.

Before we look around there is a flurry of excitement for the bird watchers among us as we spot not one but two hoopoes and a massive blue and red kingfsher.

The buildings are constructed using carved layers and are arranged in a pagoda style. It is thought to be the oldest temple in India using this structural technique. Some of the original buildings have been reclaimed by the sea but in recompense the sea revealed some previously hidden sections when the tsunami of 2004 hit. The setting is so dramatic set so close to the shore. Many a sailor must have used the temple to help navigate their way. The Shore Temple is also used for artistic effect during the month long colourful festival of dance and Kathkali acting organised by the Tamil Nadu state government during December and January. We see dancers of a different kind, little chipmunks skittering around the main temple building in a choreographed battle to see who can get the strangely desirable tissue they all seemed to want so badly.

What a fascinating and impressive set of rock carvings. Well worth the early morning start. But now it's time to head back to the hotel for a quick swim in the pool before setting off to our next stop on this amazing tour, Pondicherry.


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