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Descent of the Ganges and the Temple Caves, Mahabalipuram

By Wednesday, March 04, 2015

We set off at about 7 am, four of us in a taxi, stopping for a traditional Tamil breakfast at a hotel in Pondicherry. It was me, my colleague from Hamburg, the professor we're here on behalf of, and her french husband. We drove nearly three hours, (stopping once for some delicious tea) until we were about 60 km south of Chennai, right on the Bay.
Although Mahabalipuram is quite small now, it was once a rich port city, where both Chinese coins and Roman coins have been found. Here, there are several major monuments and temples, making it an ideal place to visit from Chennai or nearby if you want to see a UNESCO world heritage site.

Once the drive was over and we unpacked our selves from the car, we headed to the Descent of the Ganges (sometimes called Arjuna’s Penance). My co-worker had been telling us about how it was the biggest stone relief in the world - which would make it bigger than the Pergamon, bigger than Petra, bigger than Stone Mountain.

By that measure it was tiny.

Not that it wasn't interesting, the relief includes many figures, animals and creatures from mythology like the half human, half cobra Naga.
After investigating the Krishna Cave Temple (to the left of the relief if you're facing it) we moved on, and I found my self scrambling up rocks in a dress and sandals. From the top of the rocky hill you can see the Bay of Bengal on one side of you, and swaths of grass, trees and shallow marshes to the other.

The cave temples (mandapas) have been carved into the rock, a single chamber behind ornate columns. Reliefs and statues in nooks turn them from simple rooms into shrines. Although I must admit, after the centuries the caves smelled a bit like wee.

The reliefs are quite interesting, but not breathtaking like the Pergamon. The shapes are far simpler and rougher - I suspect this is because of the type of rock they are carved into - I think it's all granite.

There was no information about each temple posted. Instead there was a notice in several languages about the protected status of the site, not to litter, etc. Afterwards I tried to identify what I'd seen exactly (the professor and her husband explained what we were seeing to us, but it can be hard to keep it straight in the moment), but I apologize for any mistakes!

The man in the bottom left corner is about the sacrifice himself to the goddess, Durga (Durga, Devi and Parvati are all manifestations of one entity, from what I understand). In fact, Mahabalipuram means place of sacrifice.
Vishnu in Vamana incarnation - Varaha Mandapa temple
Trimurti Cave Temple


The Mahishasuramardini (another incarnation of Durga ) Temple features first a relief of her about to defeat Mahisha the buffalo demon.
Durga on the left, about to kick some Buffalo Demon Ass.
Then opposite, there is a relief of Vishnu lying on a bed of serpents who are protecting him. Each object, figure and position in the bas-reliefs has significance, and although I tried to research what each meant, it is far beyond my abilities to do them justice.
Vishnu in repose


Shy girls asked our names, young men asked to take our photo with them, and a field trip of school children climbed and slid down the rocks. We saw some cows dozing in the sun in a nearby field.



For lunch we ate at a sort of cafeteria with a set menu for a whopping 65 rupees (1.05USD, 0.92Euro). They bring you a plate of rice with some sauces and chutneys and you eat it with your hands off of a banana leaf. I found the rice wasn't really sticky enough to pick up easily, you'd really have to use your whole hand to scoop up a proper bite, but then it's tough to get it into your mouth and not down the front of your shirt. I suppose some practice is necessary.

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6 comments

  1. Great pictures!

    Are you being sarcastic when you say the lunch was 65 rupees? Is that an expensive lunch? ($1.05 US sounds good to me!)

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  2. I think the carvings are gorgeous. They remind me of those at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

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  3. So how does one get here? Is there a cost to visit? And I guess I've missed a few previous posts, where is this place? Your photos are fantastic and I loved the tale of eating the rice with your hands. Interesting place and interesting piece!

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  4. I love the carvings! They're so intricate. It really amazes me the artistic abilities of people.

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  5. Those carvings would have take s long! And a buck for lunch, ain't bad! Thanks for linking up with us for #SundayTraveler

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