Chennai Chronicles: Mahabalipuram

18th June 2016

I had been planning to explore places in and around Chennai as soon as my internship got confirmed (which happened to be in Feb). Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram) and Pondicherry had been on the top of the list for a while. I decided to end my 8-weekend long procrastination and finally came up with an impromptu plan with my cousin Rahul.

The weather in Chennai had been pretty windy and cloudy for a couple of days, and this inspired me and my brother enough to take a chance and chalk out a Saturday for a Mahabalipuram trip (or “Mahabs” as he calls it). After much of googling the places worth visiting we came up with a short list. Rahul had already been there a couple of times before, and had a fair idea about the places worth seeing. After weighing the pros and cons of different modes of transport we could avail from Chennai to Mahabalipuram, we zeroed down on renting a car from Zoomcars. We booked a car assumed that 10 hours (10am to 8pm) would be more than sufficient to roam around and get back within time. Well, as I don’t have my license in Chennai, Rahul decided to drive.

We begin our journey to Mahabs from the Zoomcars carpark in Kodambakkam, in a bright orange Ford Figo, and soon realized that 10am was kinda past the ideal time to begin the journey. We got stuck at Nungambakkam High Road signal for a REALLY long time – roughly twenty five minutes and spent the time listening to music. The wait was so long that even the super-long playlist in Rahul’s iPod finished playing! After what seemed like the better part of an hour we hit the East Coast Road (ECR). After another bunch of waiting at the signals, we finally passed the toll-booth, after which the drive was a lot smoother.

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The route was pretty scenic – a beautiful shoreline running parallel to the road. After a nice comfortable drive, we reached Mahabalipuram at about 12.30pm. The first place we chose to visit was the Pancharatha – or the 5 chariots.

The place was really nice, and the weather was decent. Although hot and windy, it wasn’t sunny. The Pancharathas are monolithic temples resembling wooden chariots (rath). They were built in the time of Pallava King Narasimhavarman-I. It was pretty intriguing to note that the temples have been carved out of a huge rock. In addition to that, there were huge sculptures of animals as well.

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The carvings were really beautiful – one of the best pieces of architecture that South India has to offer. I was slightly disappointed to read that the Pancharatha had nothing to do with the Mahabharata – I was under the impression that the place had some link to the Pandavas.

Rahul and I went to the next place on the list – Krishna’s Butterball. Well, this was one of the reasons that got me interested in Mahabalipuram in the first place. The attraction is essentially a huge monolith (weighing about 250 tons) defying the laws of physics. It is a huge boulder sitting on a narrow rocky base. The attraction gets its name from Lord Krishna’s insatiable appetite for butter.

The astonishing part about it is that it is said to have been there since about 1300 years – myth has it that Pallava king Narasimhavarman tried to have the rock moved from its position, but the rock wouldn’t budge. A relatively recent unsuccessful attempt to move the rock was made in 1908 by the then Governor of Madras – Arthur Lawley.

We chose to visit the Lighthouse Museum next. We walked a bit from the Butterball. The lighthouse museum was a nice place – apart from the usual models of boats and ships, the place housed the items which were actually in use. I found the petroleum vapour burner system the most interesting – basic science concepts were used to ensure visibility of the lighthouse from 30 nautical miles! We also saw some of the tools used by the sailors. After this, we proceeded to the lighthouse itself.

Ascending the spiral staircase we reached the reached the top of the lighthouse and walked through the tiny door leading to the deck. The view was memorable – we could see the entire town from the lighthouse – the shore and the endless bright blue sea on one side, and miles of land on the other. We stayed at the deck for about ten minutes admiring the beauty before walking back through the door and down the spiral staircase. En route to the butterball, we treated ourselves to a few slices of raw mangoes, followed soon after by ice cold water. We were intrigued to find quite a few other Zoomcars in the area –

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The last place we visited in Mahabalipuram was the Shore Temple. Well, the temple is said to have been built in in the 8th century during the reign of the Pallava king Narasimhavarman II. Constructed with blocks of granite, the temple overlooks the shore of the Bay of Bengal and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The temple looked great against the backdrop of the clear blue sea. We treated ourselves to a packed of orange juice before stopping for lunch at a restaurant called Border Parotta.

Left with about 5 hours on our hands until the vehicle was to be returned, we wondered what all we could do. We narrowed it down to 2 options – Crocodile Bank and DakshinaChitra. As we weren’t sure how long the Crocodile Bank would stay open, we chose to visit DakshinaChitra instead. Dakshinachitra is a museum capturing, showcasing and celebrating the essence of the South Indian culture over the ages.

The houses constructed in DakshinaChitra have been purchased (they had been given for demolition by the original owners), taken down, transported and reconstructed. There are houses from the four South Indian states – Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, in addition to other attractions. We spent a couple of hours looking at different houses and admiring our ancestors for the amount of thought they put into designing homes. We left for Chennai at about 6pm.

The drive back to Chennai was pretty eventful – we decided to listen to Atif Aslam. After overdosing on “Aadat” (I guess listening to 4 different versions of the song was really a bit too much for us) we switched back to the rock music we were listening to earlier in the day. I was surprised to find that in spite of really slow moving traffic and really long wait at the signals, we somehow managed to reach the car drop point almost half an hour before the scheduled time! Dropping the car off, we walked a little before bidding each other bye.

If you are planning to visit Mahabalipuram in the near future, here are a few pointers that might help–

  • The afternoons at Mahabalipuram can be too hot. Check the weather conditions before you plan. Sunscreen highly advisable.
  • In Rahul’s words, “The place is best for a school trip or for history buffs.” There are a few places to visit and one can visit all the tourist spots in less than 3 hours on a moderately crowded day. I don’t have much of an idea about trekking though.
  • Carry enough water – 1.5 litres per person should ideally suffice.
  • If you do plan to visit the place just to see the attractions, don’t miss out on the lighthouse and the lighthouse museum. It was the highlight of the day for me.
  • They have one ticket for all the archaeological monuments at Mahabalipuram. However, the lighthouse and the museum are not included in this and tickets for them need to be paid for separately.
  • If you don’t have your own vehicle it might be advisable to rent one. It is more convenient than the buses. Zoomcars offers fairly good deals on cars and is easy on the pocket. The deal we got was ₹1000 for 10 hours and 100km and ₹12 per additional km. The entire trip cost us ₹2200 (including the food, travel and attractions)
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