Mahabalipuram (Mammalapuram)

Good morning (Indian time), Sarah T W here. Greetings to families, friends, and loved ones. Our students are finishing our last morning at the Ideal Beach Resort and enjoying a bit of western food (french fries and chicken) along with more delicious chutneys, fresh squeezed juices, and Indian breakfast breads like idli.  We arrived the day before yesterday and almost immediately jumped in the pool, playing games, splashing, while Kelsie displayed her dolphin noises for us.  We were greeted with garlands and fresh watermelon juice and led to our gorgeous beach-side rooms.  We can all say now that we have all touched the Indian ocean!

Amy lecturing at the Shore Temple

Amy lecturing at the Shore Temple

We woke up early yesterday in hopes of escaping the heat while visiting this town’s ancient monuments: the Shore Temple, the Five Rathas, the Penance Panel, Krishna’s Butterball, and the cave temples.  Mahabalipuram is a unique area of rich history dating back to 7th century.  Our focus was to recognize the mythological representations of these astounding sites. The shore temple depicts Siva’s aniconic symbol, the linga, although originally a temple dedicated to Vishnu. Built in the 7th century, you can still see Vishnu reclining in the inner sanctum, although wind and water have smoothed the once intricate structure.  Archaeologists have recently discovered, in the wake of the 2004 tsunami, two new temples below the shore, which we will visit on our reunion trip in a few years ;).

Women on pilgrimage

Women on pilgrimage

The Five Rathas represent the stories of the five Pandava brothers from the Indian epic, The Mahabharata. We saw depictions of other deities and their vahanas (animal vehicles) carved from the same stone.  Arhdanareshvara, the half Siva, half Sakti (half male and have female) deity

Sophia at the Five Rathas

Sophia at the Five Rathas

graced the backside of one of the rathas symbolizing the balance of male and female energy.  It is said that Siva without Sakti is only a corpse and “she” gives him life.  Charlie and Lauren loved the large stone elephant and leaned against his trunk for pictures.  We also posed with many women who were on a pilgrimage for the Devi (goddess), wearing red and yellow saris.

The Penance Panel was my favorite monuments, as it was pictured in one of the first slide shows Professor Allocco showed in her Hindu Traditions course.  The large, 96 ft long and 43 ft high stone is intricately  carved with images of ascetics, deities, and everyday life.  There is even a cat mocking the yogic pose of an ascetic, a 7th century pun! Krishna’s butterball is a large stone balancing on a stone hill, looking as if it will begin to roll and crush everything in its path at any second.  Much of our group took pictures pretending to hold it up, our own Indian leaning tower of Pisa.  Alanna and I slid down the smooth stone slope together, mimicking the Indian children near by.

Durga slaying the bufffalo demon

Durga slaying the bufffalo demon

One cave temple showed Durga slaying the buffalo demon, Mahishasura, which Miles studied this past semester in Professor Allocco’s Hindu Goddesses course, so naturally he got a picture in front.  After learning about the mythology and history, we visited a sculpting shop and learned about the Shilpis, a group of artists who carve large and intricate deities for temples all over the world following ancient specifications.  We learned about the process and witnessed a statue of Lakshmi slowly being chipped away from a large, black, stone. Afterward, we were sent free to shop and find souvenirs and for many of us, to bargain for the first time.  Nicole is bringing back some shoes; Abbey may have a few gifts as well: her bargaining skills were top notch :).

A few memorable moments:

We have a course pet! No she is not replacing Butters, my Corgie who I have named our course mascot without consulting anyone, but Mama (named for Mamallapuram), a mut who follows us almost everywhere, wagging her tail and watching us journal.

The bug spray and sun block we brought have been extremely useful in this tropical climate, and we consistently have sunscreen parties.

Mahabalipuram’s calmness and tranquility contrast sharply with the atmosphere of Chennai.  It is,  however, quite a tourist location and tends to hide us from “real” India. Some of us are therefore ready to get back into India, while Jay and Shelby think they could stay here forever.

We met our first monkeys yesterday, one of whom charged Abbey, Lauren, and Kegan, but was warded off by a nice man with a stick.  Dr. Pennington had his own meeting with one and bravely utilized his water bottle to protect his belongings (and his students).

Allison and Garret battled the big waves in front of the Ideal Beach Resort, eventually tripping and getting drenched.

Today we are experiencing yoga and take our over-night train to Madurai, the center of ancient Tamil learning. We will update soon!

Sarah Wells


4 thoughts on “Mahabalipuram (Mammalapuram)

  1. Paul Vagianos


    That was an incredible description of the sights you visited. I was especially fascinated by the temples unearthed by the 2004 tsunami (as well as the reunion trip already being planned). I am also grateful to hear that Alanna is showing enormous respect to the temples she visits. Please try to keep her from actually defacing anything (Absolutely no smiley faces. The locals might not find it as adorable as you think.). Perhaps you can adopt Mama and bring her home. I think Butters would be so happy that you brought home a little sister for him.


  2. Valerie Bowen

    Thank you and the others for keeping us updated on your adventure. It sounds like a wonderful experience. I was especially interested in the monkeys, as someone at work helpfully mentioned that he had heard about the “urban, hoodlum monkeys” who are very aggressive. Please tell Charlie his mother said to be careful of the monkeys.
    Please keep up the wonderful descriptions for those of us at home. We love reading all about the trip.
    Valerie Bowen

  3. Genevievedcruz

    How lovely! I grew up with the Mahabharata stories, so it was nice to read about that here 🙂 Hope nobody got slapped by a monkey. Good luck on the train (have you been on a bus yet?)


  4. derylandruth

    Hi Sarah,
    Thanks for the report so far of your experiences. You are having a memorable experience. Assume you taking lots of pictures. May God continue to give you safe travel mercies, and we look forward to hearing more about your trip at our meeting with you in a few months.
    Deryl and Ruth Holliday


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