Mahabs Magic.

Kalki Krishnamurthy, the famous Tamil Novelist is widely known for his magnum opus ‘Ponniyin Selvan.’ Actually one of his other novels – Sivakimiyin Sapatham (Sivakami’s Vow) relates more to us because the novel is based in Mahabalipuram, the village/town where we grew up.

Kalki’s narration about any ancient city is so powerful it brings to you live, how the city looked like eons ago. He brings Mahabalipuram of eighth century to life, in his novel Sivakamiyin Sapatham, where he describes how the artisans were making all those famous monuments of Mahabalipuram. You could imagine the sound of chisel, smell the puff of stone dust, feel the humid air, visualize the ships coming in to take berth and the King Pallava riding his horse with an entourage to see the progress of the construction.

For centuries it remained a sleepy village with tourism, fishing and stone carving were the only activities. Two things changed the face of Mahabalipuram. Will come to that in a moment.

The thrill of seeing any monument or an ancient city is enhanced multi fold during the journey you take to get there. A sense of excitement builds up while you are travelling to get there. It is the same whether you are driving from Delhi to Agra to see Taj Mahal or from Bangalore to Hospet to see the ruins of Humpi or making the long journey to see Machu Picchu.

Now imagine Taj Mahal is in Faridabad or Gurgaon, or the Konark Temple is in the heart of Bhubaneswar City or Humpi is just beside the electronic city in Bangalore or for that matter Stonehenge is near Croydon, a suburb of London. Not only the excitement of seeing these majestic monuments and places is gone, but also, these world heritage sites would have got destroyed in the rapid industrialization and urbanization. This is what happened to Mahabalipuram or Mamallapuram. And Mahabalipuram predates, barring Stonehenge, other places by few centuries.

What was a boon for Mahabalipuram also became a bane. It was just 50 odd kilometers from Madras (Chennai) so you could get there easily unlike Agra from Delhi. But the city expanded rapidly in the last twenty odd years and Mahabs is almost a suburb of Chennai now. And like other suburbs of any decent sized city in India, it has all the problems associated with this rapid expansion: traffic snarls, unauthorized construction, poor sanitation, too much crowd, too many eating places and shopping malls.

The atomic power station in Kalpakkam was built just 13 kilometers south of this ancient city whih is also a UNESCO certified world heritage site. I don’t know why it was built there; they could have built the Atomic Power Plant may be 40 kilometers down south. Now there is a satellite town South of Mahabalipuram and from the North Chennai is closing in on it everyday so it is sandwiched between the two.

Enough of bashing my favourite place; let us get back to the magic of the city. The atomic power plant was the reason we moved to Mahabalipuram from the village we were growing up. The construction company where our father worked, built the plant and he was posted there for two years. So in the summer of 1973, forty six years ago, we moved there. There was just one Government School in Mahabalipuram then, which had till Class VIII and the head master assured my dad that Class IX was already sanctioned (my sister was getting into Class IX) and we could definitely move in. Even Kaveripakkam, the village we were studying had a good high school but not Mahabalipuram. So the readers could imagine how small this ancient town was when we moved in.

We lived there for just one year before we migrated to Chennai but that one year was perhaps the best in our school days. Our school was just beside the Arjuna Tapas (Yes, where our PM Modi and Mr. Xi Jinping was photographed couple of days ago). Even today when I think that we went to school which was next to a rock sculpture carved 1300 years ago, I get goosebumps all over.

We lived in a place perhaps ten to twelve minutes walk from the school and we could go through one or more of those rock caves every day.

Sea shore temple 1928
Sea Shore Temple Circa 1928

The sea shore temple what we were seeing every day in 1973 looked the same as it was photographed in 1928. There was no fence, no entrance fee, no crowds and no trinket selling shops, which, today block the view of this magnificent monument even from few yards away.

The road from home to school was dotted with those sculpture workshops and we could watch plain stones turning into beautiful Gods, Goddesses, danseuses and Kings. We could see the puff of dust coming out from the stones when the artisans banged the hammer over the chisels. At first you would see only a figure drawn with a charcoal on the stone slab. Slowly you would see, a face, a hand, a flower coming out of the stone as you walk back from school. We would stand for few minutes, mesmerized, watching the magic happening just in front of our eyes.

And also our friendship with Nandagopal happened in Mahabalipuram. His story is one of those inspirational stories you often read in a newspaper or more likely in an autobiography.

Nandagopal is a native of the town. An intelligent student, he excelled in studies in primary school before he was forced to give up studies and take up a job as his father became seriously ill. So he became one of those tour guides who could speak two dozen sentences in half a dozen languages.

Louis Pamplume, was a Frenchman and a professor in Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York. In the winter of 1971 or 1972 he came to India and was visiting Mahabalipuram. He was in a tour bus from Chennai with forty other passengers. Somehow Nandagopal became their tour guide and ended up telling his story to Mr. Louis Pamplume. He bid him goodbye after the guided tour and started back to Chennai. During the bus ride he started thinking about Nandagopal. He just could not think about anything else.

As soon as he arrived in Chennai, he said he would go back to Mahabalipuram to search for the guide. Unfortunately he could not recollect the name or nor remember the face. He came to Mahabs the next day and started searching for him. He met so many young guides but none of them was Nandagopal. He searched for him by hanging around every monument to see if Nandagopal comes as a guide with some other travelers. After four days he found him and formed a friendship which forever changed the life of Nandagopal.

He made him to get back to studies; Nandagopal ended up getting a Masters in Geography. He came to see him at least twice in a year. I could understand the difficulty of travelling long distances in cramped air crafts only twenty five years later. India was not connected so well with rest of the world in 1970s, the huge Boeing Aircrafts were just getting introduced which cut travel time. This was probably before that.

Louis Pamplume near Sea Shore Temple (L) and with Nandagopal (R).

Mr. Pamplume’s affection to Nanda was beyond description. He would fly all the way to India, travel to Mahabalipuram, stay in a hotel for a week and walk down to his house every day. He would travel when it was school holidays for Nanda so his studies would not be interrupted. He spent considerable time in choosing the right gifts for him. It was Louis who found our there was a Children’s encyclopedia in Tamil and brought a set. He would take photographs, develop the negatives in NY and send them. Developing colour photos were beyond the reach of common men in India even if you found a lab. It was Mr. Louis who introduced us to ViewMaster, Slide Projectors, Sketch Pens and Puzzles (a passion JK follows to this day). Ball point pens were a novelty and the foreigners always carried those Bic ball point pens. After many years I saw that in a shop in Dubai. One of the brands still alive after decades.

Nandagopal is a successful hotelier today and his hotel is very close to the sea shore temple.

It was also the city where for the first time, we spent time with our dad during school days. We were brought by grandma The Family Autocrat – Tribute To My Grandma during first few years as dad was getting transferred all over the country. Every Sunday, he would invariably take us to the beach or for seeing those monuments. Mahabalipuram was a famous movie shooting place even in those days. Once while walking with him, he showed us a Hindi movie hero, I think it was Jitendra. He went and spoke to him for a minute. And btw he had a Willys Jeep at his disposal which was as big an attraction for us.

And Mahabalipuram also provided us with the only photographs of our school days, courtesy Nandagopal. See how education was simple in those days. Just a note book or slate; no uniform, no shoes, no school bus and of course no fees, well almost.

The trio with Nandagopal (L), JK and Mohan (R). Yes I was taller than JK and Mohan once upon a time.

Mahabalipuram, thus, helps us, even today to bring back memories of an extraordinary happy childhood. This was one place where we had lot of visitors, mostly relatives. It was the first and last time we saw some of them.

I keep going back to the city whenever I get time. During my east coast ride, I spent some time photographing the school and Arjuna Tapas. “I Thought It was a Youth!” – Notes from the Coastal Ride.

Arjuna Tapas
Arjuna Tapas – Bike Ride 2013

Every time, when I see the change that has happened in Mahabalipuram over the last few decades, I feel sad. But then, the happy memories of this Pallava city rejuvenates me. The same happens when you see a movie song shot in Mahabs in the sixties and seventies, Mahabalipuram just as we saw it and lived in it.

I took Mike (Grundy) few years ago to Mahabalipuram. The entrance fee for seeing the five rathas was 50 Rupees for me and 500 Rupees for him (foreigner). Mike said, “If this happens in UK, you would immediately shout discrimination.” I said “It is OK Mike. You can pay.”

Couple of days back, I was thinking Thank God, Mr. Xi Jinping is a our state guest, otherwise the conversation would have gone like this:

“What Mr. Modi! 50 Rs. for you and 500 Rs. for me? When you come to see the forbidden palace or the Great Wall, we don’t charge you differently.”

High time we put a stop to this discriminatory pricing.

Mahabalipuram is also the only city JK & I associate with a smell. We grew up in a small village in a neighborhood where people did not eat meat. First time, when we had a different smell of food being cooked we called it ‘Mahabalipuram smell.’ When we moved to Mambalam in Chennai, again it was a vegetarian neighborhood and we did not get that smell. It was only few years later we found out that, actually it was the smell coming from cooking meat. Even today, when I smell a Chicken Tikka Masala being cooked, I remember the street where we lived in 1973 and in a rush all the those images of the Magnificent city and the magic it creates comes flooding in.

Featured Image: Dad with colleagues in Five Rathas, Mahabalipuram 1972. Photo Courtesy Uma & JK. Dad, Second row, fourth from left.

Blog Photos: Courtesy Nandagopal and Renuka official photo preserver of the family













8 thoughts on “Mahabs Magic.

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  1. மஹாபலிபுரம் என்றவுடன் என் நினைவுக்கு இப்போதும் வருவது சாண்டில்யனின் ராஜதிலகம் நாவலின் ஆரம்ப அத்தியாயங்கள் தான் 😃,ஒரு சீனன் தங்கள் நாட்டில் ஒரு கோயில் கட்டுவதற்கு இளவரசன் ராஜசிம்மனை நாடி வந்திருப்பான்.

    இப்போது உன்னால் ராஜதிலகத்தை மீண்டும் படிக்கனும் போலிருக்கு 😊.
    பழைய ஞாபகங்களக கிளறி விட்டாய் உன் அருமையான எழுத்தின் மூலம் 👏🏽👏🏽👏🏽👌🏽👌🏽👌🏽.
    (பொன்னியின் செல்வன் படித்துவிட்டு சிவகாமியின் சபதம் எனக்கு ஏமாற்றமாக இருந்தது )


  2. Excellent write up on Mahabs, urbanization of rural areas has taken pace and some day all the tagged historical places may merge in urban areas… this can be only prevented for some time, like you say nuclear power station should have been 40 kms away, today you may fight but one day some thing else will come… never ending process, at least in India.


    1. Very true sir. We seem to pay no attention to our heritage. Every six month supreme court makes a ruling on Taj Mahal. Even a monument needs supreme court protection


  3. Thanks Ramesh for writing about the most favourite town we lived. As always a superb piece. Great job.
    Just wanted to add some points;
    Our school was some what adjacent and opposite to Arjun tapas.
    Budha was the most often carved sculpture
    As I often think about Our time in Mahabs, I realise that we can connect to many firsts that is associated to this town;
    Concrete house and bungalow
    View of sea shore and stood in sea shore
    Met People from other states of India.
    Met many foreigners
    Got ball point pen which was still very novel in India
    Watermelon and palm fruit
    Cinema shooting
    Hippies (they were everywhere).
    Tasted bread and even fruity bread
    Nostalgic place indeed


  4. Forgot to add ;
    we got a fantastic friend like Nandagopal
    And a life time chance to brag that we lived in Mahabalipuram…thanks to
    Appa and Coromandel 😊


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