Mamallapuram, also known as Mahabalipuram, is a small coastal town some 55km south of Chennai. When we planned our recent trip through South India, we picked the town largely because we did not want to stay in a huge city like Chennai. We also knew that there were some interesting sights here. However, we were astounded by the wealth of historical treasures that we encountered.
The 'Pancha Rathas' (Five Chariots) complex is only one example of the many fascinating landmarks in the town. Together with others they constitute the 'Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram', a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1984.
The name derives from the fact that each of the five monuments resembles a temple chariot. They were created using the natural landscape of the site. More specifically, they are monolithic, i.e. all hewn out of huge boulders which once sat here: truly remarkable craftsmanship, especially if you consider that they are thought to date from the 7th century.
The precise purpose of construction is not known. All five 'chariots' are richly carved with wall panels and recesses etc. depicting Hindu deities and the rulers who presumably ordered these monuments to be created.
Upon closer inspection, however, it becomes obvious that the construction process was never fully completed. There are many niches along the walls, for example, which are only roughly cut out. Presumably it was intended that they would ultimately contain more elaborate carvings, but they were left in an unfinished state. The photo below shows some of the empty recesses quite clearly.
The reason why the construction was halted is another of the many mysteries associated with this site. One plausible theory is that the ruler died and his successors were simply not interested in continuing the work.
The site was quite close to our hotel and we were among the very first visitors on that day. As we were about to leave, several coaches arrived and hordes of noisy school children poured out. They then proceeded to chase each other round the monuments. I do not know whether this is a regular occurrence, but it is advisable, in any case, to get here as soon as you can after breakfast (or even before).