CLINK, clink, clink. The sound of hammer on chisel is everywhere in Mammallapuram. It follows me around as I walk from one street to the other of the tiny coastal town in Tamil Nadu—home to over a 1,000 stone-sculpting shops.
Incredible as it may sound, Mammallapuram, also known as Mahabalipuram, is filled with sculptors in its six-kilometre stretch who do little else but cut, saw, and chisel stones into every possible figure imaginable.
It is lunchtime as I walk toward Five Chariots, one of the many famed tourist destinations of the town. On the street leading to the monument, a group of five sculptors are loading onto a truck a particularly heavy statue that they produced out of granite. A tourist from Europe commissioned them to make it. Now ready, it will travel on the truck to the state capital, Chennai, 65 kilometres north of the town. There, it will head for the port to be loaded onto a ship bound for Europe.
It is a paradox that the statue should travel to the port in Chennai, for Mammallapuram was a port before it became a sculpting centre. Trade flourished here from AD 600 to AD 800 when the Pallavas held the throne. Their capital was nearby Kanchipuram (renowned today for its silk sarees), but their port was this tiny strip of land along the coast. From here, ships laden with spices and textiles traveled to places as far away as Athens and Rome.
Mammallapuram was once known as Kadalmalai (in Tamil, kadal means sea and malai means mountain) because the sea and the tail end of the Western Ghats flanked it. The sea had a more imposing presence—it sent its waters inland to form a shallow water body on three sides, thus making the place into an island.
The Pallavas found the land suitable for a port and nothing else. Men would come here by boat to work in the port and leave at sunset; they did not bother to inhabit it, for it was a jungle with rocks and small mountains jutting out.
It was Mahendravarman Pallava who while on a tour of the land, one day, visualized the rocks and mountain as sculptures. It was a defining moment—one that would lend the place as much historical significance as the Pallava capital, Kanchipuram.
Under the king’s orders, men came with their chisels and hammers and set about giving shape to the mountains. They were no ordinary men. They could work hard and for long, but more important, they had the ability to visualize a mountain or a rock as a piece of art even before they laid their chisels on it. They were meticulous in their planning and steady in the implementation of their designs.
Perhaps nowhere is their sense of artistry and conviction more obvious than in the Five Chariots, a series of five monuments dedicated to the Pandavas of the epic Indian tale, Mahabharatha. Cut and chiseled out of a single long mountain, each of the five imposing monuments, dedicated to Draupadi, Arjuna, Bhima, Yudhistra, and Nakula (Sahadeva’s monument is in another part of town) is distinct in shape and in the mood it evokes. Each is so distinct that it is hard to believe that it emerged from the same mountain.
The sculptors took 24 years to almost complete the exteriors of the monuments. Those were the days when dynamite was not available to cut a swathe through unyielding mountains; the story goes that the men bore holes into the mountains, sowed seeds in them and watered them till they became plants. With the passage of time, the plants became sturdy enough to create breach after breach in the mountain, after which the men took over the task of further breaking it into massive rocks each of which they carved out as a monument.
The men began work on the interior and actually completed one monument, that of Draupadi, when war broke out between the Pallavas and the Chalukya king, Pulikesi. The hammer stopped hitting the chisel and it stayed that way.
The same fate befell several other structures, like the Varaha Caves and the Raya Gopuram. In the case of the Raya Gopuram, the men could work only on the basement and the entrance before Pulikesi attacked. The pillars of the entrance stand tall today, opening out to nothing in particular!
The sculptors, however, managed to finish Arjuna’s Penance, arguably the biggest base relief carving panel in the world. Based on the mythological tale of the Pandava warrior, Arjuna undertaking a penance to propitiate the Rain God to bestow rain, the panel is intricate and striking in its detail. It contains 154 sculptures, each sharp and distinct.
Arjuna is seen still standing on one leg, though rain has at last come to the land. All its inhabitants, including demigods, human beings, elephants, dogs and cats are expressing their gratitude to the great warrior.
Another structure that the sculptors managed to finish was the Shore Temple. They built seven such structures, but the proximity of the structures to the sea brought about the doom of six of them. The salt in the waters—just 50 metres away—eroded them to their death. If it was Pulikesi who abbreviated the work on some of the structures, the sea claimed as its own some that were complete.
Today, the only remaining structure near the shore fights a daily battle for survival with the sea. It is beautiful and full of carvings of celestial figures. The main tower has wooden scaffolding all around it. The scaffolding looks ugly but is essential. On it sit men trying to contain the damage that the salty wind emanating from the sea inflicts on the structure.
The men are locally based laborers contracted by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). They are applying a chemical paste on the stone carvings. The salt has knocked out the expressions on the face of most of the stone figures. Those that are intact are exquisite in their detail; they evoke awe as well as sadness—what must the others have looked like? What mythological stories must the sculptors have sought to convey through them?
The chemical paste is like a balm. The men leave it on for three days to dry. As it dries and hardens, it pulls out the salt sticking to the stone carvings. The men, then, scrape it off and take it to the lab at the local ASI office, less than a kilometer away. There, experts examine the hard substance for traces of salt. If they find even traces of salt, they instruct the men to once again apply the paste on the structure. They continue with this process till the surface of the stone carvings is free of salt.
Removing the salt is an annual exercise that lasts three to four months. It is vital to the survival of the structure which is today a protected heritage site under the UN Charter.
The ASI, in addition to removing the salt has also planted several casuarina trees on that side of the structure that directly faces the sea. The trees absorb as much of the salt as they possibly can, thus minimizing the quantity that reaches the stone carvings. Beyond the trees is a 10-feet-high barricade of massive rocks. The ASI laid the rocks to prevent the salty waters from planting a deadly kiss on the structure. Today, the barricade is a favorite with casual visitors to Mammallapuram. They sit on the rocks and gaze at the sea and its waves which rise high and fall down with a slapping sound.
The more serious visitors walk all over town, looking at the monuments or bargaining with the sculptors to part with their work for a lower price. A large number of Italians and French descend on Mammallapuram every year. They come to see the monuments; they also come to be close to the sea and to enjoy the rich seafood that the place offers. It is good business for the many seafood restaurants that have sprung up.
K.M. Anbu is the owner of a seafood restaurant in town. Anbu worked at the Alliance Francaise in Pondicherry, so he chose the name New Papillon Le Bistro for his restaurant when he set it up on Beach Road, close to the Shore Temple.
Anbu is particularly proud of the fact that his restaurant finds mention in the Lonely Planet travel guide. He has been enterprising enough to mention it in the name board that hangs over the bamboo stick entrance to his restaurant. He feels that the recognition is an award for his several years of experience as a chef and for his ability to cook anything from Indian to Chinese and from Italian to French.
Anbu is insistent that Western tourists come to town mainly for the seafood. “The sea gives everything—jumbo prawns, tiger prawns and lobsters,” he says. “In whole of India, seafood is cheapest here in Mahabalipuram. A lobster costs just Rs700; in Europe, it is $22.”
Anbu and his tribe of seafood restaurateurs are at a minority, though, in Mammallapuram. Every other occupation is at a minority compared to the community of sculptors. The town has farmers, fishermen and government employees besides people like Anbu, but they together comprise only 10 percent of the adult population.
K. Velmurugan, 24, belongs to the majority population. He owns a shop, the floor size of which is little bigger than a standard size elevator compartment. The board to his shop says, “Rajashekar Arts and Crafts—specialist in stone, stucco and wood carvings.” In the shop, he displays what he has sculpted—elephants, swans, snakes, dancing figures, and mythological figures in green granite, red marble, white marble, soap stone, and cuddapah stone.
His workplace is the mud floor in front of his shop. There, bending over a stone, he works with his tools—a hammer and a collection of chisels. It is hard work. And at month-end, after deducting all expenses, he is able to take home a pay of Rs 3,000 ($64). “The money could be better,” he says, “but this is what I love to do.” Velmurugan loves the feel of stone, and he loves the sound of hammer hitting the chisel. He can have all the sound and more in Mammallapuram.