Legions of giggling schoolchildren, high-spirited college students, trysting lovers, coy honeymooners, and tourists, both frivolous and serious, have traveled the 60 odd kilometers from Madras to Mamallapuram. I have made the trek, too, several times, in all these capacities, the first over four decades ago.
I remember those early journeys quite vividly. The city of Madras faded away gently just past Adyar, and the road to Mahabalipuram, or Mahabs, as it was known then, stretched on endlessly, narrow and bumpy, into the hazy heat, with very little to break the views of the vast sand dunes to the left, the thrilling glimpses of the shimmering sea glinting through the groves of casuarina, the little fisherman's villages with their thatched huts open to the elements, and the emerald-green paddy fields and banana plantations to the right. It was a landscape of timeless beauty, with only the odd house that broke though the mirage of heat. Along the way there was the Cholamandalam Artist's Village, Muttukadu, with its creaky, leaky row boats, Silver Sands, Fisherman's Cove, the Crocodile Farm with its blood-tinglingly sharp-toothed crocodiles that lunged just out of harm's reach, and later, in the 1970s, the first of the eyesores, the VGP Golden Beach Resort, the sight of which would be hilarious if it were not so ugly.
Today, there is little that the traveler of the 1960s and 1970s would recognize on that drive. The East Coast Road, a spanking new four-lane highway, is a joy to drive on. But now dozens of water parks, shops, hotels, restaurants of every stripe, many of them proudly sporting the "multi-cuisine" label, cinema halls, names like Prarthana, Maayajaal, Ahaa Water Park, Dizzee World, Little Folks, Marrybrown, the lovely, must-see Dakshinchitra, dozens of bill-boards, more, so many more, rush by in a blur. Countless new houses dot the stretch of land between the highway and the sea. The old haunts are still there, VGP looking even louder and more garish, if that were possible, Fish Cove, as posh and desirable as ever, the crocodiles of the Crocodile Farm as heart-stoppingly fierce as always. Right next to Mamallapuram, there is now the GRT Temple Bay Resort, a worthy rival to Fisherman's Cove.
Trips to Mahabalipuram were always great fun. But really, thinking about those visits now, what amazes me is how little I knew about the place, and the wonders I gazed at. So, looking through some photographs from my most recent visit, I was inspired to dig a little deeper, and learn more about that beautiful place that my history books and lessons taught me so little about.
Mahabalipuram was the maritime capital of the Pallavas, a Tamilian dynasty that ruled in today's northern Tamil Nadu and parts of Andhra Pradesh. Travelers from Europe have been visiting Mahabalipuram, as they did nearby Madras, Pondicherry and Poompuhar (which lies further down the coast), since at least the 1st century AD. The Pallava Dynasty may have come into being then, but its real flowering took place in the 7th and 8th centuries. Their capital city was Kanchipuram, but Mahabalipuram, an important sea port for the Pallavas, gained in importance because of the extensive sea trade that took place with the kingdoms of South East Asia. Many of the beautiful monuments and temples that were carved out of the granite and stone that lay abundant in that area, date from around the 7th century.
For many centuries, there have been rumors and tales of temples submerged in the sea - of which now, just one, the Shore Temple, stands visible, lovely and lonely, gazing out to sea, its stark beauty enhanced by the barren vistas of sand and stone and wispy wind-swept casuarina all around. Marco Polo is said to have visited Santhome (now in modern-day Madras) where he was regaled with tales of the lost temples of Mahabalipuram. His descriptions found their way, in part, to the Catalan Atlas of 1375. The Catalan Atlas is one of the most important atlases of the medieval era, and was put together by a Catalan Jew (from Spain) called Abraham Cresques. It shows India in peninsular form, and Mahabalipuram is mentioned there as "Setemelti", which is assumed to be an erroneous version of "Sette Templi" - or seven temples.
Map of Central Asia and India, Catalan Atlas, from the Bibliotheque Nationale de France
The legends, rumors - or facts - of the Seven Temples captured the imagination of the Britishers and Europeans who visited Mahabalipuram in the 18th century and beyond, and they often referred to Mahabalipuram as Seven Pagodas. It even made its way into English literature in Robert Southey's epic poem The Curse of the Kehama, which was written in 1810. Robert Southey was an Englishman who never visited India, but he did not let that faze him. He was endowed with a vivid imagination, which he employed in full measure in The Curse of the Kehama, a tale filled with extraordinary melodrama and a twisting, hard-to-follow plot. It is a classic example of Orientalism at its most flamboyant, dramatic and graphic, with all sorts of absurd and titillating details about the Hindoo and his monstrous fables and mythology. Here is an excerpt, set in Mahabalipuram. Imagine the protagonists, standing at the seashore and gazing out at the submerged pagodas.
Their golden summits in the noon-day light
Shone o'er the dark green deep that rolled between.
For domes and pinnacles and spires were seen
Peering above the sea......a mournful sight!
Well might the sad beholder ween from thence
What works of wonder the devouring wave
Had swallowed here, when monuments so brave
Bore record of their own magnificence.
And on the sandy shore, beside the verge of ocean,
Here and there a rock-hewn fane
Resisted in its strength the surf and surge
That on its deep foundations beat in vain.
In solitude the Ancient Temples stood
Once resonant with instrument and song
And solemn dance of festive multitude;
Now as the weary ages pass along
Hearing no voice save of the ocean flood
Which roar for ever on their restless shores
Or visiting the solitary caves
The lonely sound of winds, that moan around
Accordant to the melancholy waves.
(The Curse of the Kehama, Robert Southey, 1810)
One of the first people to seriously study, describe and analyze the art of Mahabalipuram was William Chambers, a Scottish architect who voyaged to India in the 1770s. He wrote his "Account of the Sculptures and Ruins at Mavalipuram, A Place a few Miles North of Sadras, and known to Seamen by the Name of the Seven Pagodas" in the first volume of the "Asiatick Researches" in the late 1700s, in which he described in great detail, the "stupendous" monuments he saw at Mahabalipuram, and also attempted to delve into its history while bemoaning the pitfalls and difficulties in doing so in a place like India where it seemed impossible to unravel fact from fable, superstition and mythology. Other Europeans who visited Mahabalipuram mention how many of the monuments were submerged in sand, or covered with shrubbery, with pieces of rubble all around.
Today, it is heart-warming to see that the Mamallapuram complex is impeccably maintained, spotlessly clean and without a speck of rubbish in sight. There is the expected gaggle of over-eager guides but by and large they are good-natured and don't push their services too hard. The one who succeeded in attaching himself to us was one Delhi Babu. He had given himself that name, he told us proudly, because he had once visited Delhi, and even knew several words of Hindi to prove it. He offered to demonstrate his proficiency in Hindi, an offer we declined politely but firmly. He next offered us a choice of other languages in which to carry out his tour-guiding: English, Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu and Kannada. We chose Tamil and English, and they were indistinguishable.
The most famous sights of Mahabalipuram include The Shore Temple, the Five Rathas, named after the Pandava brothers and their wife Draupadi, several mandapams, the Butterball, site of countless futile attempts made over the years to move it, and Arjuna's Penance. It is this last one that I wanted to examine in greater detail.
Arjuna's Penance has been proudly hailed as the world's largest outdoor bas-relief sculpture, measuring almost a hundred feet in length, and around 45 feet in height. The name intrigued me. What was Arjuna's Penance? What was the story, the legend, behind that stunning sculpture that teemed with gods, people and animals that took one's breath away with the perfection of the figures, the attention to all manner of details, the wealth of life and activity it depicted? Unsurprisingly, there are several stories that jostle for supremacy. Stories from the Mahabharata, Ramayana, and Panchatantra!
There are many stories in Hindu mythology about penance, or tapasya, the subjecting of the body and mind to severe austerities, pushing aside all distractions and preoccupations, existing in a state of oblivion to everything but the ultimate goal. The goal might be special powers, a weapon, a boon, always something to benefit the seeker. Rarely, if ever, is the penance undertaken as a punishment for wrongdoing or out of remorse.
Back to Arjuna's Penance at Mahabalipuram. The stories about it from the Mahabharata and Ramayana are competing ones, as both refer to the same figure in this sculpture. Look closely at the photograph below, and you will see the figure of a man, standing with his arms held high over his head, balanced on one foot, every bone of his ribcage visibly jutting out. Who is this man? Arjuna, say some. Begone, say others, that is Bhagiratha! Many shrug their shoulders and say, why choose? That is the beauty of this sculpture. Any, or all, answers are acceptable! So, I will present to you both legends. And you decide which one you want it to be - or be a fence-sitter like me and choose both!
The Tale of Arjuna's Penance
The Pandava brothers, along with their lovely wife Draupadi, had been cheated out of their every single material possession by their venal, greedy, conniving, cheating cousins, the Kauravas. The punishment: banishment from their kingdom, and exile, for 13 long years, in the forest. Needless to say, it was a bitter pill for them to swallow, and life in the forest for these princes, accustomed as they were to the luxuries of their palace and position, was one of unyielding severity, harsh and arduous, particularly for Draupadi. But, endure they had to, and endure they did. In the fifth year of exile, Arjuna, the strong, handsome, brave, loyal third brother, who had no doubt spent countless sleepless nights mulling over their plight and thinking about what would need to be done to reclaim their kingdom once the period of exile had passed, decided that he would need the most powerful weapon that existed in all the worlds, in order to defeat his evil cousins in the war that would surely follow. That weapon was Lord Shiva's weapon, the Paashupata, a divine weapon with terrible powers, invincible and all-powerful, a weapon against which nobody, and nothing, stood a chance.
Arjuna climbed high into the Himalayas, clad only in the skin of a black antelope. With the frigid winds howling around him, subsisting on nothing but the sharp mountain air, he prayed, standing on one foot, arms raised above his head, to Shiva, to grant him the use of the Paashupata. He became gaunt, but was oblivious to the pangs of hunger. Eventually, Shiva was satisfied that Arjuna was sincere in his purpose, that he had suffered enough. Still, he wanted to put him through one last test before granting him the use of the Paashupata. He wanted to make sure that Arjuna possessed the right spirit of humility, for such a weapon as the mighty Paashupata in the hands of one who was vain and proud could cause destruction and disaster beyond repair.
Shiva sent an asura (demon), disguised as a wild boar, near Arjuna. Arjuna, annoyed at being disturbed, shot an arrow at the boar. At that exact instant, another arrow came whistling through the air, and struck the boar. Wheeling around, Arjuna saw a hunter, and the two of them came to blows, each claiming that he had shot the first arrow that struck the boar. The hunter was none other than Shiva, and Arjuna, valiant and strong though he was, was no match for the mighty lord. Battered, bruised and unable to take any more, he lay down his bow and arrow and humbly told the hunter that he, the hunter, was the victor, and that he, Arjuna, was but an insignificant, powerless person who conceded defeat.
In a flash, Shiva, pleased that Arjuna was great enough to recognize a power and force greater than himself, revealed himself as who he really was, and blessed Arjuna and granted him the use of the great Paasupata.
The Tale of Bhagiratha's Penance
This is a story of long, long ago, when the earth was still young and ruled by kings of unearthly power, when the river Ganga flowed high up in the heavens, a river of light, lovely and purifying. King Bhagiratha, a wise and generous king, ruled over his kingdom with a just hand, but he was troubled, as evil was brewing in the land. Evil that bubbled from deep within earth, from the restless souls of his 60,000 ancestors, whose ashes lay trapped in a cavern in the netherworld, unable to obtain release from the shackles of the mortal world. These 60,000 ancestors of Bhagiratha had, aeons earlier, ranged across the world in search of a stray horse that belonged to their father who had used it for an Ashwamedha Yagna (a horse sacrifice ritual common in ancient times). This horse had been captured by lord Indra who spirited it away to the cave of a meditating rishi. The 60,000, commanded by their father to find the horse, set out far and wide, wreaking havoc and terror wherever they went. All over the earth they roamed, over high wind-swept mountains and wild jungles, across raging rivers and barren deserts, and finally, they entered the domain of the underworld, a mysterious, murky world filled with strange and wondrous sights. And deep down, near the very core of the earth, in a cave, dark, dank and damp, they finally found the horse, tethered behind the maharishi Kapila Vasudeva, who was immersed in a profound mediation. Into this cave the 60,000 rushed, roaring, horse hooves thundering, the clash and clang of their spears echoing deafeningly through the hollow cave. The maharishi snapped out of his meditation with a start, and, furious at having been disturbed in this manner, reduced the 60,000 to ashes. In his rage he cursed them: their souls would languish there, writhing, trapped, and only the waters of the Ganga would release them from their earthly captivity.
Many generations passed, and still the ashes remained, unblessed and unreleased. Bhagiratha knew that the time had come for him to act, and he also knew that he had his work cut out for him. Merely bringing the river Ganga down to earth would not be enough. Ganga, vain, swollen with the knowledge of her power and beauty, would come crashing down to earth, and the force of her descent would shatter the world into a million pieces. No, he would have to request lord Shiva, the only one who possessed the power to contain Ganga, to somehow control her fall.
Bhagiratha went to the Himalayas and undertook an excruciating penance in the icy mountains, enduring endless blizzards and unimaginable suffering. He stood on one foot with his arms held high above his head. His hair grew long and matted, and every bone in his body stood out, stark and sharply defined. Eventually, Shiva appeared before Bhagiratha, and promised him that he would bring the Ganga to earth, and also tame her wild spirit, by trapping her in his matted locks, through which she would have to struggle hard to trickle through.
And so it was that Ganga made her way to earth, a docile, mellow Ganga, a far cry from the giddy, impetuous force she had been, softened and subdued by her journey through Shiva's dense, heavy locks. She flowed as several streams, and one followed Bhagiratha as he journed into the underworld and finally entered the cave where the ashes of his 60,000 ancestors lay. The waters of the Ganga washed over them, and thus purified and absolved of their curse, their souls rose, singing, high into the heavens.
No, wait, don't go away yet. I did tell you that there was a story from the Panchatantra as well! Yes, from that charming collection of animal fables, told to educate a couple of thick-headed and slow-witted princes. And of course, there are two versions to this story as well, one distinctly un-Panchatantra-like.
If you look very closely, near the end of the tusk of of the elephant, you will see the figure of a cat, in the same posture of penance as Arjuna or Bhagiratha above. Here is the tale - or tales - of that cat.
The Tale of the Wise Cat
Once upon a time, there lived a Partridge, who made his home in a hole near the bottom of a tree. Every day, he would fly out, in search of food, and return in the evening to his hole. Once, several days passed, and the Partridge did not return. In his absence, a long-eared Hare found the hole, and discovered it to be cozy and safe, and moved into it and made himself comfortable there. Barely a few days had passed, when the Partridge returned, and found, to his horror, that his home had been invaded! He ordered the Hare out, but the Hare, invoking the Laws of Residence, refused.
It is a well-known fact, said the Hare
And it is true and completely fair
That whoever occupies a place
Has the right to make it his base
Such is the law of the land
So please go away, that is my command!
The Partridge was not one to go away without a fight. He said:
If there be a dispute over house, well or pond,
'Tis best that we go beyond
What you and I have to say
And instead rely on the advice our neighbors convey
Sure, said the Hare, let us settle our spat
Down by the river bed, where dwells that wise Cat
Now, that Cat was a wily fellow, who had put on great airs of piousness and sanctity, and spent his daytime hours in a pose of penance, paws up in the air, balanced on one foot. He had succeeded in fooling several silly mice and birds who hovered nearby and thought that the Cat's pearls of wisdom, which he dispensed at regular intervals, were the most profound things they had ever heard. The foolish creatures, in their zeal to crowd close to the Cat so that they might better hear his hoarsely whispered yarns and fantasies, his parables and proverbs, never realized that every day, a significant number of them vanished, never to be seen again. Naturally, the Partridge was wary about seeking the Cat's counsel. While strolling to the river bed, he told the Hare:
My dear departed mother taught me
That anyone who acts like a hermit is actually quite cagey
I do not trust that Cat one bit
Why don't the two of us just sit
And sort out this mess
I am sure we will make some progress!
By this time they had come near the Cat, who had watched their approach with interest, and whose extraordinarily sharp ears had picked up what was going on. Oh, he was a sly one, alright! He redoubled his expression of piousness, and stretched his arms up still higher, and seeing him thus, with his ribs exposed for all to see, the Partridge began to doubt his good mother's advice and believed that this particular Cat seemed truly wise and sincere. The Partridge and the Hare spoke in unison:
Oh wise one, oh Cat whose suffering is so great
We come to you for an answer to our debate
You, who know so much of the Codes of Law
You fill us with a great deal of awe
Help us decide who in the tree-hole should live
Who is right and who should forgive.
The Cat, seeing these were easy prey, croaked in a feeble, quavery voice:
I am old and I am weak
But I will help you with what you seek
But my ears are wasted and frail
So come closer and tell me your tale
I will give you the justice you seek
Come, come closer so I can hear you speak.
I am sure you can guess the not-so-happy ending! The foolish duo crept closer to the Cat, whereupon he pounced on them and ate them up. There is a less cynical version of this story, based on the sculptures on Arjuna's Penance. That is that the Cat really was earnest about his penance, being inspired to it by the example of Arjuna/Bhagiratha above. The mice frolicking safely at his feet are proof of the Cat's sincerity. Once again, the choice is yours.
I was fascinated to read that during the tsunami of December 2004, the sea near the Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram receded far back enough - almost half a kilometer - to reveal rocks and what might be the ruins and remnants of a lost city. So perhaps the legend of the Seven Pagodas was not a legend after all!
(c) Kamini Dandapani