“The Pandavas never really came here. These caves, carved stones and temples only tell you their stories…” my guide was upfront with the disclaimer as I stared into what were supposed to be the individual living quarters of the Pandavas, carved out of a monolithic stone. Legend has it that during their years of banishment to the forests, the Pandava brothers with their common wife Draupadi, had lived in the picturesque port city of Mahabalipuram.
Like with many of India’s heritage sites religion, mythology, folklore, verifiable history and fertile imagination blend seamlessly into the many stories that surround them.
Honestly, walking around these ruins of Mahabalipuram elicited a mixed bag of thoughts and emotions that ranged from the divine to historical to academic to the mundane, wondering once again about India’s rich and checkered past and if and how much of it has a bearing on my identity today.
The ancient seaside temples and other heritage monuments of Mahabalipuram on the southeastern shores of the country were commissioned and built by the Pallava Kings between 7th and 9th century. Historians will tell you that most of those relics were destroyed or submerged in the sea following tsunamis, notably one in the 13th century.
Explorations did uncover remnants of temples under the sea, some of which had popped up as recently as 2004 when the sea receded just before a devastating tsunami.
But ask some of the old locals and they’ll tell you that it was a wrathful Lord Indra, King of the heavenly devas, who, overcome with jealousy at the beauty of the earthly city being enjoyed by mere mortals, caused a stormy deluge that destroyed most of the temples. To his credit, Indra saved one – the Shore Temple – which, of course stands forlornly even today, mercifully protected as a UNESCO heritage site.
Elsewhere as the guide interprets for me the gigantic rock murals, whether depicting Lord Krishna lifting the Govardhan or the descent of the mighty Ganga, or an ascetic looking Arjuna standing in penance – all artistic renderings of popular narratives from the epic Mahabharata – one realizes how stone as a medium of communication has not only survived through civilizations of the ancient past to the present, but may perhaps outlive the virtual media civilization of the future.
Indeed, as Canadian theorist Harold Innis posited in the early ’50s, applying the dimensions of time and space to various forms of communication media can actually give a better perspective on their significance to civilization, and the rise and fall of empires.
Innis saw stone as a time biased medium, which, although limited in reach, carried its stories over generations, and bolstered stability, community, tradition and religion – stuff that’s so deeply ingrained in the Indian ethos that even in the 21st century we do not know where one begins or ends, incorporated as it is in the form of story, song and myth in our daily lives.
The lack of sophistication in these carvings indicates they were not so much about showcasing artistry as they were about perpetuating legends.
Is it any wonder then that legends carved out on some of these stone mountains are as alive today and might remain immortal as the mountains themselves? Which also makes me bow in deep reverence to all those uber visionary emperors and kings of ancient India who knew the importance of preserving history and how!
… and the mundane:
For all the fuss heritage buffs like me make about preserving these ancient treasures, one has to give space to the young Indian who believes in the here and now. Like the vain among them who think nothing of scratching out their names on these treasures of history, the lovelorn too should be tolerated for finding the conducive nook under the giant rocks of this protected site. The entire area is nothing but a local park for couples attempting to make their own memories not without the blessings of the old kings and gods.
Uncomfortably close, the past here is literally jostling with the present.
My most exciting sighting: The countless small open workshops scattered along the streets of Mahabalipuram producing amazing traditional hand carved stone sculptures. This is sculpture heaven!
My takeaway from Mahabalipuram: The harshness of the salt-laden wind and surf is evident in the sandpapered look of the many indistinguishable carvings on the temple walls, on the parapets, etc. of the Shore Temple. There’s an uncanny eeriness around it, as it stands alone, pining the loss of its companion temples in what was supposed to have been a colossal complex – conveying melancholic whispers over the warm sea breeze, beseeching the sea to part and restore old glory. I dare wish for another tsunami if it can be of help.