Salt wind and stone

I first visited the temples of Mahabalipuram almost thirty years ago. A local bus dropped me at a seemingly empty spot on the beach. I walked towards the shore, spotted the temples in the distance and trudged up to it in the summer’s heat. I was too young to worry about dehydration. I remember very little detail; what remains now is the impression of great antiquity and eroded stone.

Years later, in 2006, The Family and I visited the temples. The small village where I had something to eat decades earlier had grown. There were resorts, workshops of stone carvers, newly trained by the government, and many tourists. There is a certain charm in walking across level sands to find a thirteen centuries old temple. But it is clear that the more interest there is in such places the more likely it is that conservation efforts improve. The salt breeze and the tides of over a thousand years have eroded the sculpted stone, but windbreaks are being built now to protect them.

We walked slowly through the temples and caves and paused to admire the enormous relief sculpture called either “The Descent of Ganga” or “The Penance of Arjuna”. The featured photo of deer and the relief of a cat dancing in front of mice (photo below) are parts of this panel. These sculptures are on shaped faces of two enormous boulders, each almost 10 meters high and 25 meters long. I wished we’d brought ladders to stand on to look closely at different parts of this relief, there was so much detail to admire just in the parts close to us.

We spent a long time walking about the complex of caves, temples and the shore temple. The increased influx of tourists meant that there were many hotels to stay in. We’d found one earlier in the day and deposited our bags there. When we went back it turned out that we could sit out on the beach and watch the sunset with some beer and fish. There are so many advantages to increased tourism.

The kings of the South

When I plan to travel, some parts of southern India slip out of my mind. I recently remembered that Madurai is as old as Ujjain, Banaras, or Patna. This post is an attempt to get the outline of the chronology straight in my mind.

The statecraft of the Pandya, Chola and Chera kingdoms find mention in the 3rd century BCE treatise on administration and economics called Arthashastra. Ashoka’s edicts, from about this time, mention some of these kings. Trade routes linked the northern and southern kingdoms, and Ujjain, which lay on one of these routes, prospered as a result. This early period of Tamil culture was recorded in the literature of this, the Sangam, era. The literary tradition is believed to have continued until about the end of the 4th century CE. Madurai hosted some of these early meetings (called sangam) of poets, playwrights, and writers.

The next records come from the early period of Hindu revival in the 7th century CE. The shore temples of Mahabalipuram (featured photo) were built in the the early part of the 8th century CE by a Pallava king. There was a resurgence of the Pandyas of Madurai at this time. The conflict between the Pallavas and Pandyas presented an opportunity for the growth of the Chola empire. By the 11th century this empire extended all the way to South East Asia. The southern kingdoms were great sea traders, having links to the east as well as westwards to Africa and the Arabs. The earliest known travel guide, the Skanda Purana, from just before the start of this era, lists several sites in southern India as important points in grand religious tours of India. There are scattered remnants of the great architectural works of this time through the south of India, but most of the sites mentioned in the Skanda Purana were rebuilt later.

The medieval period was a time of warring kingdoms. The slow decline of the Cholas allowed smaller kingdoms to gain hold again. The rise and fall of these kingdoms was interrupted by outside events in the 13th century CE. During the Mongol era, the expansion of the Delhi Sultanate was contained within India. Iltutmish of Delhi held off the hordes of Genghis Khan to the west of the Indus, but also sent his forces as far south as Madurai, which his generals sacked in 1316 CE. This led to the formation of the Sultanate of Madurai, independent of Delhi, The subsequent centuries, with their mix of Hindu and Muslim kingdoms saw some of the best of the architecture that we can see today.

In the 17th century CE, the Maratha armies captured parts of Tamil Nadu, and were then displaced by the Mughals. In the power vacuum of the later Mughal period, local kings again held power. Many of the major temples of southern India were rebuilt or extended in the 17th and 18th centuries. After this European maritime powers captured large parts of southern India and launched operations into the rest of India from these bases.