Weekend in Mahabalipuram: tales of heritage

5 Jun 2016 by Akanksha Maker

It was a rather early morning. A nip in the air accompanied my Earl Grey tea, as I opened the window that faced the lagoon at my Club InterContinental room in the recently opened InterContinental in Mahabalipuram (ihg.com). Walking pass the coconut trees and granite installations of the property, I quickly made my way to the private beach of the property to soak in some quiet time by the mighty Bay of Bengal. Catching a glimpse of the sun-rays dramatically play with the clouds in the early hours of the day, is probably my favourite thing to do at a beach property. Shades of tangerine blended with those of ochre, as dawn made its rightful presence felt.

There is something about mornings in Mahabalipuram. Fishermen attempting for some early catches and lonesome boats hovering meaninglessly. That one odd jellyfish that washed away at the shore silently spoke of the marine life that may exist in the waters. I joined the other guests try their hand at Suryanamaskar (a traditional Hindu morning ritual to acknowledge the Sun) at the hotel’s Yoga class that takes place at the lawns facing the beach. It was hard to believe I was only 50km from the economic hub of Tamil Nadu, Chennai. Puducherry, India’s French pride, is only another 100km away. “I could get used to this,” I said to myself, as I opened my weather app to check the forecast ahead.

Temperatures in this part of India can soar to a toasty 50 degrees Celsius, and it is best to carry enough liquids to keep hydrated while visiting its iconic World Heritage Sites of this town. My keen interest in history was gratified in this part of India, as we drove about 10km to the heart of Mahabalipuram for a tryst with its antiquity. In a radius of about 5km in this part of town, is where all the relics of the 7th century Pallav dynasty exist. The kings of this time were deeply influenced by the Indian epic — Mahabharata — and carvings, art and mentions of the mythology can be found in almost all significant monuments of this heritage city.

Be it the “butter ball” of Lord Krishna, a rounded piece of rock that mysteriously balances itself atop a hill or the iconic Shore Temple that stands idyllically by the Bay, the structures are monolithic in design, that means they were not assembled but created on just one piece of rock. From rathas (temples created as chariots), to mandaps (cave sanctuaries), the details on these facades are entrenched with fascinating stories that are best understood with a little help. My guide pointed out the attention to detail, especially in the open-air rock relief called “Descent of the Ganges” that depicts how the sacred river arrived from heaven to earth as per the holy book. Notice the dancing mythical figures, mischievous domestic animals and expressions of the monks in prayer; the intricacies depicted on them can enchant even the novices of Indian culture.

Walking into the compound of the Shore Temple (6am-6pm; ₹10 for Indians/₹250 for foreign nationals), I learned that this was one of the few surviving monuments of the 2004 Tsunami that hit this coast. A number of temples are now submerged under the Bay of Bengal and a few illicit agents conduct scuba-diving tours for some unconventional and very unsafe temple visits. Of course, it’s best to leave the under-water edifices to your imagination!

The sun bid adieu early that evening, leaving us with a substantial drop in temperature and we made our way back to the property after the entrancing sojourn with Mahabalipuram’s history. Entering the hotel, the sound of traditional South Indian beats filled my ears amidst swaying trees that almost seemed to celebrate the passing of the sweltering heat. Heading to the hotel’s Ayurvedic spa — Amrtam by Escenza — for a Swedish massage helped relieve my fatigue of the eventful day. It is a crime not to indulge in some quality time by the Bay of Bengal if you’re in Mahabalipuram — and that’s exactly where I headed to after my unruffled spa retreat.

An aficionado of dining experiences by the sands, the hotel’s Dine by Design concept at the private beach caught my fancy. The hotel lays out tables and chairs in the evenings and entertains guests to live BBQ and meals paired with wine. We sat on a table alongside candles and lanterns facing the dark Bay, that made for an endearing supper. I sank my feet into the sand while sipping on some Chilean white wine that paired perfectly with grilled Chilean sea-bass. There’s something perfect about devouring fresh fish that melts in your mouth by the ocean. A relatively clear sky allowed for some introspective star gazing and the rhythmic waves created an ideal ambient sound. Stories and glimpses of Mamallapuram’s (alternate name) abundant heritage made for dinner table discussions. How relics from the 7th century fought against nature and withstood the test of time — their faded details and diminishing features silently spoke of the grandeur of the bygone era. Turns out, I was getting used to this indeed.

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