Pondicherry to Chennai - with a stop at the sacred site of Mamallapuram

As we prepare to leave south India, we stop about 60 km south of Chennai at the site of Mamallapuram. We are first greeted by this monolithic balanced rock. It is completely natural and cannot be moved. They tried to unbalance it, but nothing will budge it. The site is a popular park – especially on a Sunday afternoon.

The huge natural granite rock boulders inspired the cultures from the 7th to 9th century to carve entire rocks as one piece - such as this, which held rooms honoring Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. The carving is of a style similar to the Ellora Caves, which we visited last year. The shrines were carved during the reign of King Mamalla, after whom the site was named. Mamallapuram, which is also known as Mahabalipuram, was a 7th century port city of the Pallava dynasty. This was a time of Dravidian architecture that was beginning to be influenced by Buddhist elements of design too.
Here is the inside of one of the small rooms...

Some of the rocks still show the technique they had for splitting these huge masses. They would drill a line of small shallow holes, as in the rock below. Each hole was then filled with wood, and then soaked with water. The wood then expanded and started to crack the entire boulder. (Those of us from Salt Lake remember seeing the granite rocks that were split by the Mormon settlers using a similar technique: they would fill their drilled holes with water, and in the winter the water would expand as it froze - thereby splitting the rocks they used to build the temple and other buildings.)

There are many distinct areas throughout Mamallapuram. This was another - and is known as the Varaha Cave Temple. It too dates back to the 7th century.
The inside was carved to show many of the incarnations of Lord Vishnu, such as when he took the form of Varaha, the boar. Here he is holding up Bhudevi, the earth goddess...

Below you see an entire 96 foot long wall which was carved from one piece of granite. There are two interpretations of what is going on here..

In one interpretation, a figure in the bas-relief who is standing on one leg is said to be Arjuna performing an austerity to receive a boon from Shiva as an aid in fighting the Mahabharata war. The boon which Arjuna is said to have received was called Pasupata, Shiva's most powerful weapon.

The bas relief is situated on a rock with a cleft. Above the cleft was a collecting pool, and at one time, water may have flowed along the cleft. Figures within the cleft are said to represent Ganga or the River Ganges and Shiva. Rather than Arjuna, the figure performing austerities might be Bhagiratha. Bhagiratha performed austerities so that Ganga might descend to earth and wash over the ashes of his relatives, releasing them from their sins. To break Ganga's fall from heaven to earth, she falls onto Shiva's hair, and is divided into many streams by his dredlocks.

This carved area was another long wall in yet another area of the site, built-in deeply into the rock..

And yet another area was the Shore Temple. It is unusual to find a temple built so close to the ocean. Much of the statuary here was badly weathered...
And finally we came to the area known as the Five Rathas. Ratha means chariot, and they've been named for the five Pandava brothers in the Mahabharata. But they really have nothing to do with chariots or the Pandavas. Still, they were neat to see. Each temple was carved from one granite outcrop, not assembled from separate pieces.

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