Tourists visit the Shore Temple on the coast of the Bay of Bengal in Mamallapuram. Built during the second half of the 7th century, it is one of the oldest stone carved temples in southeast India. Photo: Cao Siqi/GT

In the southeast coast of India, there is a small town called Mamallapuram, also known as  Mahabalipuram or Seven Pagodas. The town, located near the Bay of Bengal in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, became a center of Hindu activities as early as the 7th century. The ancient temple complex in the town was built during the 7th and 8th centuries, and is famous for its stone carvings. 

Under the rule of King Pallava, the town has established cultural, commercial and trade contacts with China. In 527, the third son of King Pallava, Bodhidharma, arrived in China and became the 28th Patriarch of Buddhism. Historian K.A. Nilakanta once wrote that Bodhidharma has become a symbol of Chinese civilization.

In 1984, the temple complex in Mamallapuram was listed as a world cultural heritage site. 

Despite its rich connection with China, the town, full of south Indian customs and embodied with sculptural history, is not well known to Chinese tourists. 

It was not until earlier this month when Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a second informal meeting in the ancient town that Chinese travelers began to take notice.

Cave temple

On the way to the town’s ancient temple, I heard and saw seagulls flying over lowland coconut trees, making the temple feel quiet and peaceful. Running through a group of monuments was a narrow main road that felt just a touch commercial. All I could see were some local residences, small shops selling daily necessities and some stone carving shops stacked with unfinished works. Most of the tourists were locals although I could see a few Western and East Asian faces here and there. 

The first temple on the main road was the Sthalasayanaperumal Temple. The roof of the temple hall is painted with bright religious decorations. I could see some faithful heading into the hall to burn wax and pray.

Behind the temple was a huge open-air stone embossment about 10 meters high and 30 meters long. It is called Arjuna’s Penance, also known as The Origin of the Ganges. The stone relief is carved out of a granite rock with a naturally formed crack in its center. The locals said the crack represents the water of the Ganges River that descends from the sky. Around this rift are humans, Hindu gods, snakes and other animals, manifesting a sacred moment of the testimony of all beings. The animals – sly deer, scratching monkeys and hordes of elephants – looked very lifelike. Locals said these vivid images showed the worship of the goddess Shiva.

Next was the Unfinished Rock-cut Cave Temple North of Krishna Mandapam. A sign claimed it was the largest of all the cave temples of the Pallava Dynasty.  

Walking along the road is another temple complex the Five Rathas. Inside were five stone towers that resemble the processional chariots used by temples. They were built during the reign of Pallava King Narashimavarman  I (630-668). These five chariots are the best example of 7th century Pallava architecture. They were carved from a single piece of granite, symbolizing the chariots of the five ancient Indian heroes. The five temples are lined up side by side, with the middle one standing in front. My tour guide said this was a very typical form of Indian architecture. 

Mysterious giant boulder

There are many interesting stone attractions around the world, such as the Norwegian Trail Stone, the Feilai Stone at Huangshan Mountain in China’s Anhui Province, and the Fengdong Stone in Fujian Province, but Mamallapuram’s Krishna’s Butterball is particularly amazing.

Weighing 250 tons, the huge boulder is situated on a smooth rock slope. Only about 0.4 square meters of the boulder’s surface is in contact with the ground. Although it seems ready to roll away at a moment’s notice, locals told me that the stone has stood still for about 1,300 years. According to local legend, King Pallava asked his strongest warriors to move the stone but they eventually failed. A second attempt was made in the early 20th century when local rulers worried that the boulder would fall down and destroy the town at the base of the hillside, so they dispatched seven elephants to move it. Even though a single elephant is capable of pulling around six tons, the seven together still failed. Over the past 1,000 years, even tsunamis and earthquakes have not been able to move this huge stone.

There are many theories on how the huge Butterball was formed. Some people say that the gods themselves put the rock there, while more scientifically-minded people theorize that it was formed by natural erosion. 

Some people say the natural erosion theory is unlikely since while the stone looks like a smooth sphere from one side, the other side is flat and smooth as if it has been cleaved by a huge knife. 

So far, there is no agreed-upon explanation for how it got where it is though.

Golden beach
 

On coast of the Bay of Bengal is the Shore Temple. Built during the second half of the 7th century, it is one of the oldest stone-carved temples in South India. The granite temple is not very big, but it has a distinct elegant style. There are two towers at the site. The tall one has seven heavy gongs while the lower one only four heavy gongs. Each tower has a garlic-shaped pavilion at the top. 

Perhaps due to the constant breeze blowing in from the ocean over the years, many of the carvings on the temple have begun to lose their definition. However, I could still make out several stone lions on platforms to the east of the two towers as well as some stone elephants under the stairs. 

There are three niches in the temple dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu. 

Renowned sculptors

The local stone carving culture has also produced a group of outstanding sculptors. Villagers’ homes usually display many stone carvings and some make a living through carving. Throughout the town, I saw many shops selling sculptures. Locals said there are thousands of sculptors in the town, in some cases entire families are dedicated to the art form. 

On the way to the village, I saw a stone carver’s shop on the side of the road. It was a small room with a tent that extended the shop space. The owner told the Global Times that he makes about 800 rupees ($11) a day, which is a relatively high-paying job in the local area. 

Villagers were very proud to tell me that the town of Mamallapuram is already a famous hometown for carvings in India. Their works are not only purchased by tourists but also exported to other countries. The owner of one shop said that they hope the recent summit will bring in more Chinese tourists looking to learn more about the town’s local carvings and eventually lead them to export their works to China.
Newspaper headline: City of stone