Kanchipuram & Mahabalipuram, The land of temples…

Finally and literally finally, year “2020” is done and dusted like Thanos and his army. And like Iron Man, many frontline heroes sacrificed their lives for the betterment of humanity. Hope 2021 brings much awaited joy, happiness, love and success for all those who struggled during the ruthless 2020.

So, let’s leave behind the ghost of 2020 and start a new phase of life in coming time ahead.

The trip to Lepakshi, Kanchipuram & Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram) was planned from 6th February to 8th February 2021. It was decided that we would travel to Lepakshi from bike, come back to Bengaluru and travel to the other two cities by bus. Seems like a hectic plan, but believe me it wasn’t hectic at all.

Okay!!!, let me take you directly to the trip.

Day 1 LEPAKSHI (02062021): Lepakshi is a small village located the Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh around 120km north of Bengaluru. It is believed that this was the place where Ram had met the dying Jatayu and had helped him achieve salvation by uttering the words ‘Le Pakshi’ or “Rise, oh bird” in Telegu. This is how the place got its name. Me and my cousins never thought of enquiring about the bus to and from Lepakshi, since 120km could be easily covered by two wheelers. This makes one of the best 1 day trip from Bengaluru. We left Bengaluru around 0730 hours, and by 0830 we reached the outskirts of the city and also had our breakfast at the Udupi Hotel which falls on the way towards Nandi Hills. It is a single highway connecting to Lepakshi from Bengaluru, the Bengaluru-Hyderabad highway. We reached Lepakshi before 1100 hours. A calm village with not much tourists. Strange!!! as it was Saturday.

The temple at Lepakshi is called Veerabhadra temple which is dedicated to Veerabhadra, a form of Lord Shiva. It is a fine example of the Vijaynagara style of architecture. The main interest inside the temple premises are the hanging pillar and the paintings on the ceilings. The one pillar among the many other doesn’t rest on the ground. The paintings were made using the natural pigments. It didn’t take much of our time to explore the sculpting since, the temple premises is spread across a smaller area. The temple has also other shrines dedicated to Lord Ram, Lord Vishnu. The sculpture which I liked the most is the Sheshnag protecting the Shivalinga. There is also a Nandi located around 200m away from the temple.

The temple surroundings is well maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). They have a built a paid public bath and toilet and strangely, it is well maintained too. Just at the entrance towards the temple, the Andhra Pradesh tourist department have built a theme part surrounding a huge boulder and installed a statue of a large Vulture depicting Jatayu over it. The entrance fee to the park is INR 10 pax.

Yes that’s it from Lepakshi, we left by 1330 hours. We stayed by the Punjabi hotel near Devanahalli for our lunch. The hotels name was “Gagan – Punjabi Swaad”. The taste was good but the service was pathetic. Would never recommend this to anyone. There are many other better restaurants nearby. We were back to our home around 1630 hours. We indeed took a rest for an hour or so since, had to travel to Kanchipuram, the same night.

I had booked the bus to Kanchipuram through ‘Jabbar, Tours and Travels’ and our bus was to depart at 2300 hours and the pick up point was at the Anandrao circle, Bengaluru. Me, my younger brother (Pranav) and my elder cousin brother (Pramod) left the home early and were present much before the arrival of the bus. The bus was on time. Since, it was a sleeper coach we were about to have enough rest to our body by the time we reach Kanchipuram. Gute Nacht!!!…

Day 2 KANCHIPURAM & MAHABALIPURAM (02072021): Visiting to Kanchipuram was never in our plan at first. Just because there was no direct bus connectivity from Bengaluru to Mahabalipuram, we choose to explore Kanchipuram.

The city is about 280km south-west from Bengaluru. We reached there at 0500 hours on 7th February. The bus dropped us at the Kanchipuram bypass from where the city is just about 3-4km. The auto driver charged us INR 150 to take us near the Kanchi Kamakshi temple. Nearby which there were few lodges and dormitories. We did enquire at 3 places, we just needed the room for toilet and bath and not to stay. We had decided to stay that night in Mahabalipuram. Almost all the places we enquired at were full. At one of the dormitories, the owner allowed us to only bath and get fresh, even though his lodge was full. He just charged us INR 150 including all three of us. We all were ready and fresh by 0545 hours to explore the temples of Kanchipuram.

Kanchipuram is a small ancient city in the state of Tamil Nadu. It was ruled by the Pallavas, the Cholas and the Vijaynagara Empire. It is one of the holiest cities and aka. “The City of Temples”. The famous temples of Kanchipuram are the Kamakshi Amman temple, Ulagalantha Perumal temple, Ekambareswarar temple, Varadaraja Perumal temple, Kanchi Kailasanathar temple, Ahstabujakaram temple, Sathyanateshwarar temple, Chitragupta Swamy temple, Trilokinath temple, and many more…

We visited only the top 5 most famous temples because of time constraint. Will narrate about the temples in order which we explored.

  • Kanchi Kamakshi Temple : Aka. Kamakshi Amman temple, was built during the period of Pallavas and is the most famous and religious temples of Kanchipuram. The temple is spread over an area of 5 acres. If you happen to visit the temple during February or March – you will also be able to enjoy the annual chariot festival held here. The temple is located on Kamakshi Amman Sannidhi Street in Periya and is open from 6 am to 9 pm.

The temple was just about 5 minute walk from the dormitory where we took bath. While we reached the temple, the main doors were still closed. They opened the gates exactly at 0600 hours and let us in. The temple complex was beautifully maintained. My first sight of the temple was the Garuda Sthamba (Pillar) painted in golden yellow. Since it was the first hour of the day, there wasn’t much crowd. We didn’t had to wait much in queue to witness the idol of Kamakshi Amman who is the main deity here. The idol is seated in an yogic pose of Padmasana. Not only the exteriors but even the temple interiors was well lit and maintained. There was a sense of calmness inside the temple. On the way to exit, we came across the sculpting on the pillars, walls, the idols of other deities along the way. The entire area was so clean that even the dried leaves were not left behind by the cleaners. There is also a small pond on the left of the main temple. The main gopura of the temple is also lit during the evening and night hours. Within an hour we finished the sightseeing of the temple and left for the next one.

  • Ulagalantha Perumal Temple : This temple lies on the same road as Kamakshi Amman temple. The temple is built over relatively much smaller area than all the temples of Kanchipuram. The main deity is dedicated to Vamana, who is the fifth avatar of Lord Vishnu. The magnificient idol of Vamana is a sight to be admired.

We now hired an auto rickshaw to visit the other three temples. The time was still 0730 hours so the temperature wasn’t soared up yet. Our next stop was the Ekambareswarar temple, the biggest temple complex in Kanchipuram which is around a kilometre and half from the Ulagalantha Perumal temple. We reached there within 15 minutes by around 0745 hours.

  • Ekambareswarar Temple : Spread over 25 acres of land, this temple complex is the biggest in the town of Kanchipuram. The present is known to be built by the Cholas and later expanded during the Vijaynagara Empire. The temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva. It houses four main towers known as gopuram. The main gopuram or the Raja Gopuram is at a height of 192ft. and is one of the tallest in India. The temple complex houses many halls; the most notable is the thousand-pillared hall built during the Vijaynagara Empire. The gateway tower has the shrines of Vinayaka and Murugan on either sides.

The towers, the pillars, the idols are literally gigantic. It is said that the Chola kings build the mud ramps for several miles for the elephants to carry the stones/boulders. The temple floors were beautifully decorated with rangoli paintings, also few of the pillars were painted. The view of the tall pillars converging at a distant point was a sight to behold. The pillars were at least 25ft. tall and all are monolithic. There is also a mango tree inside the complex which is believed to be 3400 years old. And in indeed it does produce four different kind of mangoes from four different branches. The complex itself took us around 80 to 100 minutes exploring. The complex also houses for many other smaller temples dedicated to Lord Vishnu, Goddess Parvati etc…

By 0930 hours we then moved on towards the Varadaraja Perumal Temple which is again just a kilometre away from Ekambareswarar temple and reached there by 0945 hours.

  • Varadaraja Perumal Temple : This temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu is one of the holiest places of worship for the Vaishnavas. The most famous attraction here is the hall with 100 pillars which is at the left as soon as you enter the temple complex. The pillars here depicts the stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata. Keep an special eye on the four corners of the hall, there are 4 circular ringed chain formed through a single stone one on each of the corner. One of the greatest scholar of Vaishnavism, Ramanuja is believed to have resided here. The inscriptions on the pillars or the entire temple is known to have come from various dynasties at various times, from Cholas until the Vijaynagara Empire. Apart from the main stone idol, the temple has the wooden image of Varadarajaswamy made of Atthi or the fig tree and preserved under water in a secret chamber. It is brought out for worship once every 40 years. The temple covers an area of 23 acres.

From 1000 hours onwards, the crowd started to pour in. Now we had to wait for at least 30 to 40 minutes in queue in order to get the view of the main deity. We spent more than 2 hours inside the temple exploring the inscriptions. My elder cousin brother who had accompanied has pretty well known knowledge in sculpting and its art. He himself practises sculpting on rocks. He did explain the various forms, and helped us in identifying various idols, inscriptions etc… And due to this me and my younger brother could find it very easy exploring all the temple premises.

Our last destination of Kanchipuram this time was the Kanchi Kailasanathar temple, the oldest among all in Kanchipuram. We bought some sweets to eat on the way towards the temple. Until now we hadn’t had any food. And by the time it was 1230 hours, we reached the temple.

  • Kanchi Kailasanathar Temple : Built by the Pallavas during the 7th century AD, this is probably the oldest temple complex in Kanchipuram. The temple was built using the Sand stone and much of the carvings have been weathered off over the period of time. This temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva. The Shivalings worshipped here is a 16 sided one and is made of smooth black granite stone. The sub-shrines contain many pillars decorated with sculptures of other Hindu Gods. Facing the temple is the statue of Nandi (Bull).

The temple complex is relatively smaller compared to other temples in Kanchipuram. We did explored it within a span of an hour. The temperature had started to sore and was getting hotter and hotter as the minutes passed by. The auto rickshaw driver then took us to one of the famous wholesale ‘Kanchipuram Silk Saree’ dealer. In two years of my corporate life, I had gifted nothing to my mother. This day I bought 4 silk sarees for her. The saree were of different kinds ranging from INR thousand to INR few hundred thousands.

By now, we were literally hungry. The driver took us to one of the famous pure veg. restaurants of Kanchipuram, “Upashana Hotels“. The food served was pretty good. We finished having our lunch by 1400 hours. The restaurant was just 500m away from the bus stand. We had to travel to Mahabalipuram for the remaining part of our trip. After reaching the bus stand we discovered that there is no direct bus connectivity from Kanchipuram to Mahabalipuram. We need to catch a bus from Kanchipuram to Chengalpattu which was about 40km and then a bus from Chengalpattu to Mahabalipuram which is about 30km.

We boarded the bus to Chengalpattu at 1430 hours. The bus driver took about 90 minutes to reach. Huh!!!… Fortunately we weren’t standing during the journey. We immediately another bus to Mahabalipuram from Chengalpattu at 1610 hours and were at our destination around 1700 hours.

Until 1800 hours we visited a small Vishnu temple and an art & artefacts store nearby. Since we still has ample amount of time until the days end, we decided to visit the world famous “India Seashell Museum” which was 2.5km away from the bus stand. We hired an auto rickshaw which dropped us at the entrance of the museum.

  • India Seashell Museum: It is the largest seashell museum in India which has a collection of approximately 40,000 seashells & marine fossils from around the world. Mr. Raja Mohammed has put 33 years of his life in collecting these shells, oysters, snails etc… who happens to be the founder of this museum. There are miniature sized car, ship, train, plane, etc. made from shell, which has been put on display. The museum itself is bifurcated into four divisions mainly Mini Asia & Mineral Museum, Seashell Museum, Pearl Museum and Aquarium. The entry fee for the former two are INR 100 each for per person and the latter costs INR 50 each per person. The combined entry fee for all the four parts is INR 200. This museum also houses a shopping centre called Maya Bazaar where shells, pearls and materials made from them can be bought. Photography is extra charged at INR 100. The museum is open to public on all days from 0800 hours to 2000 hours.

We reached the museum, bought the tickets and went on with our business exploring it. Mine and my elder cousin brother’s mobile battery had dried up. I used my younger brother’s Redmi Note mobile to capture the moments from the museum. The museum is indeed beautiful. The first one was the Mini Asia & Mineral museum, it has a nice collection of things decorated using seashells. To name a few, a 15ft. seahorse, four 2 ft. eggs etc… The Seashell museum had a enormous collection of shells, oysters, snails and many more. This itself took about 45 minutes to explore. The presentation of the shells made is in itself very attractive. The Pearl museum had various types of pearls in all colours, shapes, sizes, pattern etc… Lastly the aquarium had a small collection of fishes and eel.

I had a fish pedicure for myself while at the aquarium. They charged me INR 100 for 15 minutes. We then had a cup of coffee with biscuits, chips and then headed towards the city in search of a lodge for that night’s stay. After enquiring at 3 places, we found a decent stay which would charge INR 800 for all three of us included. That night we had North Indian food for our dinner at one of the local restaurants here. We roamed the streets for half an hour until 2200 hours and came back to our room. And by the time it was 2215 hours we were already on the bed.

Day 3 MAHABALIPURAM (02082021): Aka. Mamallapuram, it is a town in the Chengalpattu district in the state of Tamil Nadu, famous for its UNESCO World Heritage Sites for the Group of Monuments present here. This town was known to be a major port during the period of the Pallavas. Pallavas have also built one of the oldest light houses here, besides which a modern light house was built by British in the 19th century.

Continuing from the previous night, we woke up a bit late at around 0830 hours. By 0930 we were ready to explore the town. We packed the bags and while leaving the room, I mean checking out, we left it near the owner so that we don’t have to explore with luggage on our shoulders. We then had our breakfast at one of the famous and one of the oldest restaurants of the town, “The Mamalla Bhavan”. It is just besides the lane to bus stop. Would recommend to try Pongal, Uddin Vada, Puri Saagu and Coffee here.

We hired an auto rickshaw just as we did in Kanchipuram for INR 300, which included pick up and drop to all the monuments of the town. The must visit places of the town are (In order which we travelled)…

  • Pancha Rathas (Five Chariots): These chariots are an example of monolithic rock cut architecture. These are dedicated to 5 Pandavas and their wife Draupadi. The rathas or chariots are in the following order as you enter the complex. Draupadi Ratha, Arjuna Ratha, Bheema Ratha, Yudhisthira Ratha, and in-front/opposite of the Arjuna Ratha is the Nakul & Sahadeva Ratha. There are also the statues of an elephant and a lion carved out. These rathas were excavated during the reign of Pallava king Narasimhavarman-I during 7th century AD. Draupadi ratha is the smallest and enshrines an image of Goddess Durga. Arjuna ratha consists of a sanctum with pillared front mandapa or plan. It has two tiered Vimana. Bhima ratha is rectangular on plan with country-wagon roof. Dharmaraja/Yudhisthira ratha has three storied square vimana with octagonal shikara. Nakula Sahadeva ratha is apsidal on plan.

It is known that, after the death of king Narasimhavarman-I, the structures were never completed and left at the present state. The rathas are built in Dravidian style of architecture. The entire complex can be explored within an hour. The complex has an entry fee of INR 30 per person. The best thing is paper tickets are closed and now the tourists need to scan a QR code and enter their details and pay the amount online. Then the ticket is generated with a unique QR code for every individual. This code will be scanned and the tourists will be allowed to enter the complex. This same ticket is valid also to visit the Shore temple but only on that day itself.

  • Iswara Temple: A small, west facing temple built on top of a hillock. This temple is assigned to the last years of the Pallavas and the Pallava king Rajasimha. Built using whitish grey granite stone, now only the outer walls of the temple is preserved. It also houses one of the oldest light house, which has an entrance through stairs from inside the temple. The temple gates are closed permanently now.
  • Light House: Mahabalipuram ever since the period of Pallavas, was/is a major port. A modern light house was built here during the British era in the 19th century.
  • Mahishamardhini rock cut Mandapa: The mandapa is dated to the period of Narasimhavarman-I and dedicated to the three forms of Lord Shiva. This cave has oblong facade mandapa and row of three cells at the back wall, the central shrine has a projecting platform carrying pillared porch. The pillars are slender and fluted. The most significant feature of this cave temple is the description of Somaskanda, Mahishamardini fighting Mahishasura and depiction of Vishnu Aanatasayi. In the sculpture of Mahishamardini fighting with Mahishasura, even the lion captures the expression of powerful fight and they freeze the moment of victory for the Goddess and that of loss of the devil and this sculpture is remarkable for its beauty, grace and virility.

We explored these monuments within a span of two hour and headed towards the Mahabalipuram bus stand. Here lie the monuments of Arjuna’s penance, Krishna Mandapa and the Krishna’s butter ball. For better understanding of the sculptures, we hired a local guide for INR 600.

  • Descent of the Ganges or Arjuna’s penance: The set of sculpting here depicts the story of “Kiratarjuna”, of the great epic Mahabharata . The panoramic view of the life in the forest is aptly sculptured here in the two large boulders. The great event of obtaining the weapon Pasupatha from Lord Shiva by Arjuna is portrayed here. These events are depicted as if they were witnessed by the three worlds namely Swarga (Heaven), Bhoomi (Earth) and Naraka (Hell). Some scholars identified this panel with the story of Bhagiratha bringing the Ganges to the earth.

The real life size elephant sculpting is a treat to watch.

  • Krishna Mandapa: This monument depicts the story where Krishna lifts the mountain Govardhana with his little finger to protect the villagers, and the animals from the havoc caused due to the rains unleashed by the God of rain, Indra. The gopika holding a sling of pots and bundle of fodder, the wood cutter with axe, a cow being milked, and the other animals are depicted with much calmness as if they weren’t aware of the fury of Indra’s storm.

On one of the wall of this mandapa, an unfinished sculpting can be easily identified. They first carved small squares and on that the actual sculpting was done. We then moved towards the Krishna’s butter ball.

  • Krishna’s butter ball: It is a huge granite boulder resting on a short incline. From the bright time of Pallava kings until the dark British era, there were many attempts made using elephants to move this boulder, but none succeeded. The part on the top of the boulder is said to have cut during the Pallava period. The boulder barely stands on the slope and in reality it seems to float. This is a mystery in itself.

By noon we finished exploring these monuments. And our final spot in the town of Mahabalipuram was the Shore temple and the beach.

  • Shore temple: This was again built during the Pallava period and sits on the shore of the Bay of Bengal. Built during the 8th century AD, is known as among one of the oldest rock cut sculpture in India. This temple was built using the granite stone. This temple was named one among the ‘Seven Pagodas’. These seven temples were used or treated as a landmark for the navigation of the ships. The main temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva and the smallest among the three temples is dedicated to Lord Vishnu.

It is believed that the Pallavas had built 6 more such temples on the shore which are now submerged in the ocean. Even though after 1200 years, this temple looks magnificent. Many of the sculpting on the outer walls have been eroded due to rain, weathering and also some parts has been damaged due to the tsunami. But, the overall structure remains intact.

Truly amazed by the structural knowledge our ancestors had. Even the modern buildings which are built using modern technology can’t handle tsunami but, these temples could and probably will for few hundred more years. We then headed towards the beach which was just on the lane besides the temple. My elder cousin and my younger brother had a nice afternoon bath under the scorching sun. I just had a long walk along the shores of the Bay of Bengal.

By 1500 hours, we finished exploring the town of Mahabalipuram. We again visited, Mamalla Bhavan restaurant to have our lunch and had parotha saagu. It was time to leave.

We picked our bags left near the owner of the lodge where we had stayed the previous night, and boarded the bus to Chengalpattu. From Chengalpattu we boarded another bus to Kanchipuram. We reached the Kanchipuram bus stand by 2000 hours. The next bus from here to Bengaluru was scheduled to depart at 2100 hours. We then thought it would be illogical to board at 2100 hours and reach Bengaluru by 0300 hours the next day. We instead booked the Rajhamsa bus through KSRTC app. It is a semi-sleeper bus which was scheduled to arrive at the Kanchipuram bus stand at 2300 hours and depart at 2315 hours. The scheduled time of arrival in Bengaluru was 0545 hours.

Now now, we somehow had to wait and spend around 150 minutes in the town of Kanchipuram until our bus arrived. We explored the options for our dinner for 30 minutes and finally visited Adyar Anand Bhavan (A2B). We took our own sweet time ordering and having the food. The food served here is delicious and the restaurant has branches all across South India.

We then waited our final hour in the town at the bus stand for the bus to arrive. And it finally did at 2305 hours and we were off to Bengaluru. The End!!!…

PS: Just like the temples mentioned above, there are many many more yet to be studied, yet to be discovered, located in the remote parts of our great country, “The India”. Many even fail to get noticed. Pay a visit to such temples/monuments and experience how vast and rich is our cultural heritage. And let me remind you, visiting temples/monuments doesn’t define atheism. You can always visit to explore the craftsmanship, the hard-work behind lifting and building such huge monuments, the precision and accuracy behind each carving and many more. The structures will never ever disappoint.

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