Last time I was in Mahabalipuram, we were coming from Chennai side and entered the town from northern side and therefore, did not visit the southern-most part of the town—which indeed had even more fascinating monuments and Pallava era structures. This time, I was driving from Pondicherry to Chennai and entered the town from the southern-end. The moment we hit the town limits, there was a small road on the right side which was sloping down towards the town.
We turned on to the curvaceous road and paid the municipality toll. Entering the town, we noticed an arrow mark directing us right towards Pancha Rathas (Five Chariots) and Seashell Museum. My daughter is an avid collector of seashells and she could not miss the museum signboard as well as a big octopus made of concrete on the roof of the museum. We stopped for a moment and debated if we should stop in there or go ahead. Finally it was decided that we will go to Five Chariots and would return to the museum—as both are within the vicinity.
The mysterious name, a seashell signboard as well as a big octopus reminded me of perfect setting of a horror movie. Any budding movie maker can take a note of this place for shooting a movie. There was some mystique around the area. A small deserted road was swirling towards trees. We were just wondering where we were heading, as we could only see bushes and greens ahead. But then we noticed a board asking us to take a steep left turn. We would have driven about two hundred meters, we landed in front of Pancha Rathas, or called Pandava's Rathas (I would prefer calling as Five Chariots). We saw the Five Chariots, we could not resist from stopping there and having a good look. The structure was simply amazing and the view was breath-taking. The whole compound is well maintained by Archeological Survey of India (ASI), the setting provided serenity to the whole place.
It is a monument complex which has five chariots made of monolithic rock-cut architecture. The five chariots were built on single rock during the reign of Pallava King Mahendra Varman and his son Narasimha Varman around 6th century, a period which is part of long era of Pallava Kingdom. These five chariots have been named after five Pandavas and their wife. The whole compound gives a mesmerizing feeling especially when you realize that these were sculpted 1400 years back. The place is very beautiful and has been well maintained. I just sat there for some time with my closed and I was feeling as if I was catapulted to that era. I could visualize an army of sculptors frantically working on creating these chariots.
Sometimes these chariots are referred to as temples but they were never consecrated because the work was never finished on these. Substantial work had been done but somehow it was stopped around year 680 AD after the death of King Narasimha Varman. Though the five chariots are named as Dharamraja Rath, Bhima Rath, Arjuna Rath, Nakula Sahadeva Rath and Draupadi Rath, these monuments have no connection whatsoever with neither Mahabharata (an Indian epic which dates back to year 3000 BC) nor the Pandavas because neither had visited this place as far as known history in concerned. Apparently, these monuments might have been constructed in their memory and named after them.
There is another school of thought around the purpose behind constructing these monuments. This place once was a school of architecture for budding sculptors of that time. Due to its geopolitical importance, this place would have found a big merit for budding sculptors to display their art. If you stroll across the town, you will notice the sculptural footprint all across the place and you are left wondering as to the probable reason behind those. Perhaps, the mystery will take a while to get resolved.
After about an hour in the campus, amidst scorching hot sun, we headed towards Seashell Museum.
My Travel Tips
- If you are travelling to Chennai, Mahabalipuram should be on your bucket list. It can be easily covered in a half a day. If you can start very early in the day, you can be back by 10.00-11.00am.
- Mahabalipuram is very conveniently located on the road towards Puducherry. Both the places can be covered in a day, if you are adventurous enough.
- Chennai to Puducherry is about 170 kms. You have to take East Coast Road (ECR) that passes through Mahabalipuram which is about 60 kilometers from Chennai or about 110 kilometers from to Pondicherry.
- If travelling from Chennai city, it will take about 6-7 hours to complete the trip. Preferably, start early in the day.
- You may want to hire a cab which will help you in planning better as well as you can stop over at couple of places on the way… there is a Crocodile Park on the way which 15 kilometers before Mahabalipuram. You can cover this on your way back to Chennai
- Don't forget to carry a hat as that will be the only savior in the scorching sun.
- In case you prefer to stay at Mahabalipuram, which many vacationers love to do, there are many good hotels catering to wide price range including the one by Radisson. There one another good hotel especially for back-packers which was mentioned to me by one of my friend is Sea Shore Garden Resort though I did not stay there