As we departed from the ECR Dhaba, we cruised along the road passing by lovely streams, huge salt beds, tiny huts and prosperous fields. I tried to capture as much as possible, grievously aware of the limited battery power and the constraints of the tape.
Soon the winding road took us to Mahabalipuram. It is a little sleepy place that seems to have nurtured its old world charm with care. I have to say, this is where I literally saw art and creativity lazily scattered on the road, in the form of statues, temples, half-finished busts, idols of sandstone, marble etc. sitting unceremoniously outside the huts and little workplaces that lined the 'kacche' bylanes there, each of the artifacts made so dedicatedly that they demanded a second look. As we cruised along the road, the sight of the temples, flashing by, were a delight. They were built with such delicate and measured accuracy and aesthetics that they were just 'stunning', not to mention gloriously colorful, with imagery from the mythological genre of the Ramayana and the Mahabharta.
We decided to go see this ancient lighthouse, situated in one corner of the city, boasting of a glorious view of the area around for miles together and the deeply peaceful ocean beyond. As we were moving up the hill that housed the lighthouse at the top, I noticed very unique, marked crevices in the rocks that ran from one end to almost its mid-portion and sometimes well below it too. My friend offered a very interesting explanation for it: In the ages when the funda of dynamite and explosives was an alien concept, the builders needed some kind of break-apart mechanism to burst the huge rocks. So they managed to make small crevices in the rocks, inserted long pieces of wood in them and watered it regularly. Faithful to its biological property, the wood would bloat up and the rock would be burst apart. Now that's what I call smart and also an economical way, not to forget, pollution free.
Still marvelling over the age old wisdom, we climbed the stone stairs to the top. After shooting a 360 degree view of the area, we moved over to the light house. The light house was nothing like I had envisaged. It was just a doorless single room, extremely well decorated with sculptures and carvings, that was used to burn logs of wood that served as a signal to the ships at sea. An old artist sat right outside that place selling small art works in marble and moonstone pendants. He told us that the lighthouse was built by the Palava dynasty. He also showed us another similar structure, mostly in ruins, atop a distant hill that he claimed had been a temple built about the same time. There is also a modern lighthouse built next to this old place which is about a 100 years old.It is built in the typical architecture fashion that the rest of them are built. The small lavishly decorated lighthouse stood in stark contrast to the plain but tall architecture of the modern times, with pride. I just watched fascinated by the ethereal difference, trying not to be biased or judgemental.
At the foot of the same hill, was a sanctorium-like entity carved out of the hill itself. They must have used that wood-bursting-rock technique, I thought as I gazed at the sheer power of the craftwork inside. There were carvings of gods and goddesses all over the place. The ceilings, the walls were endlessly dripping of great artwork. It is so hard to describe what I say, but all I can say it was almost like God's work, flawless (except for the areas where the sands of time had eroded the structures) and bewitchingly beautiful. It was a demostration of an artist's prowess to please the king. Dude, those kings did have some life!! Just for one glance from them, just one word of praise, artistes would slog their entire life out and create these marvels of beauty. I felt insanely jealous for a while, of the kings and queens...:)
The artist that I previously mentioned now began to pester us relentlessly to buy some of his artwork. They were great actually; there was this sandstone globe that had carvings of gods, moonstone lockets and a very special thing that I later purchased from him. It was a decorative, marble elephant that housed another smaller one, inside it. The best part was that this whole structure was carved out of a single piece of marble, which implied that the bigger elephant was first created, then the smaller one was made inside it, through the circular sieve pattern, made on top of the first one. It was just amazing to look at; the intricacy, the effort laudable. The artist later showed us the marks of his craftsmanship, visible as wounds on his hands, at the sight of which I winced.
As we steeped down that hill, we saw some artistes' huts nearby. We went on to see a work in progress; it was a statue of Brahma, being made for an Indian museum in France. Already five months of work had gone into it and there was still one more month to go, the artist informed us. It had been ordered for about Rs. 75,000/- but one look at that nearly 51/2 feet work and you could say that it wasn't a fair deal. Clearly it was worth lakhs!!The beauty of that half-finished statue was so radiant that I couldn't take my eyes off it. However there were many others demanding attention too: Buddhas, Mahaviras, Hanumans, Sarawatis, Ganapatis and so many more.The place was overflowing with charm and grace of those idols.
The artist's family traditionally praticed that profession and from the looks of it, were quite something to reckon with. Then he showed us another little workshop where there were countless little idols and artworks, some of them might even be called 'modern' and 'abstract'. The best part was when he showed us almost identical idols of Ganesha, one costing Rs.100/-, the other Rs.1000/-, where the difference wasn't that obvious except when he told us that one was created by the student, the other by the master. A closer look justified the price, for the work of the master was that artful and perfect to the last indentation.
After chatting some more and marvelling at other beauties, it was time to leave. On the way out, we saw the majestic Panch Pandava ratha, a monolithic marvel set in sand. So much beauty and culture in an hour's time; it was overwhelming. A quick look at it and we were ready to proceed. The town still seemed a little sleepy to me, maybe because I am so used to the hustle-bustle of the city and its ever resonant conundrum, but I couldn't shake the deep sense of tranquility that had quietly enveloped me while I was there, in the presence of beauty and sanctity.
I promised myself that I would go back again and this time would most definitely have more leisure to revel in the divinity of Mahabalipuram.