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Mahabalipuram is a pleasant 56-kilometer (35 mile) drive from Chennai into a world of sculptural monuments that lay carelessly tossed on a sun-kissed shore. A little coastal town, perhaps as long as a kilometer, it opens up a scenery of opulent monolith temples thick with life-size carvings of deities, human figures and animals. These 7th century Pallava structures are a tribute to the Dravidian school of tradition and bring out the miscellany of South Indian rock-cut temple art. Look up Krishna’s Butterball, a massive natural boulder that perches at an angle of 45 degree on the edge of a smooth rocky slope. Walk some more and you will be faced with a giant wall of open-air bas relief depicting the ‘descent of the Ganges’.
Mahabalipuram’s architectural temples were built largely during the reign of Narasimhavarman and his successor Rajasimhavarman. This period clearly brings out the transition from rock-cut architecture to structural complex. The various mandapams (pavilions) and the rathas shaped as wooden chariots were etched out from a single piece of rock, while the famous Shore Temple, built half a century later, was carved out of stones of different dimensions, and assembled together later. The Shore Temple has beautiful bas reliefs including the 100-foot-long and 45-foot-high one carved out of granite. All the rathas except one are from the first phase of Pallava architecture, and are modeled on the Buddhist monasteries and Chaitya halls with several cells arranged around a courtyard. Art historian Percy Brown referring to Narasimhavarman’s victory in 642 AD over the Chalukyan king Pulakesin II, said that the Pallava king may have brought the masons and sculptors back to Kanchipuram and Mahabalipuram as ‘spoils of war’.
You can easily get around the town on foot or by hiring a bike. Mahabalipuram is a relatively small town, and all the historical landmarks and points of sightsee are within walking distance of each other. There are paid parking areas near the famed Shore Temple and the Pancha Pandava Rathas.
Tourist Traps in the City
While souvenir shopping, do strike a bargain with the local vendor, for the prices quoted are always on the higher side. Other than this, none of any note.
Mahabalipuram is a small, conservative town where the locals are very simple and always ready to help (given you understand their language!). So, when visiting a temple, however big or small, dress up modestly, and avoid wearing short or revealing clothes.
Mahabalipuram is an interesting shopping destination; people from afar come here to handpick exclusive stone and wooden sculptures among other fascinating memorabilia. Here soapstone, granite and wood are popularly used to carve out deities, celestial beings, human figures, animals and birds. Some elaborate sculptures depict scenes from country life or an episode from the great epic Mahabharata. The local shops here house a motley collection of little soapstone idols of gods and goddesses, wooden and seashell jewelry, silver antiques, cane artifacts, bronze art, woodcarvings and a range of other handicraft. Mount Road in Mahabalipuram is the place to find all this and more. However, it is advisable to buy sculptures and other such souvenirs from a government emporium as the prices quoted are fixed and reasonable.
You could even give a hand to the local sculptor and learn a few things about sculpting. It is a good idea to pick up sculptures from one such workshop as you can get it at a reasonable price, and not to mention, experience statue-making first-hand. Sculptures from Mahabalipuram are popular in countries such as UK, Germany, Denmark and Singapore. You will also come across a few Kashmiri shops here in Mahabalipuram; they sell local Kashmiri handicraft such as souvenirs of papier mash, threadwork-rich stoles and traditional dress material.
The street just outside Arjuna’s Penance is full with workshops of granite carvers who have on display enormous Lord Shiva sculptures among other deities from Hindu mythology. You can even try out the Poompuhar Handicraft Emporium on the Shore Temple Road. It has a range of antiques, soapstone statues of Hindu deities, woodcarvings, jewelry, and seashell handicraft. It is not a very big place, but the collection is interesting and one-off. Poompuhar is a government emporium.
Stroll down the Shore Temple Road and keep and eye out for quaint little shops. Some of them have a truly impressive collection of silk cushion covers with zari work, papier mash jewelry boxes of varied shapes and sizes, shawls, wooden, bronze and granite idols, bigger stone sculptures, and antique jewelry. Always remember to bargain when buying souvenirs from any place other than a government emporium.
Phones: The prominent GSM service providers include BSNL, Airtel, Vodafone, and Idea among others. CDMA service providers are Reliance Communications and Tata Indicom.
Internet: There are only a couple of cyber cafes in the entire town from where you can browse the net, send emails and upload your travel photographs.