THE gong indicated that the Charminar was about to leave. I was excited at the prospect of having a holiday at my uncle’s place in Madras. While I had been debating whether I should visit my friend’s place and spend the summer in a calm country atmosphere or go to Madras, the invitation came from my uncle. Now there was no choice, I packed off a few things and boarded the Charminar.
What is there for me to see in Madras? The Beach, the Light House, numerable picture palaces, the Snake Park – all are familiar to me. Any way it is not for these pleasure spots that I undertook the trip. For the pleasure I seek, I have no need to leave my uncle’s house. But after a few days of my arrival he suggested that we had better visit Mahabalipuram and stay there for a couple of days. I was at once elated. I have visited Madras umpteen times, but it has never occurred to me that there is a place called Mahabalipuram in its vicinity that merits a visit even from Gods. I know and remember that it has got something to do with the Pallavan art and architecture; but I never expected at that time, that the visit would metamorphose my life and attitude and I would become an archaeologist.
My uncle booked a cottage and we set out in the early morning. The drive along the soft beach road was wonderful,the sea waving roars of welcome. Minutes after our arrival, I changed into blue jeans and a light blue cotton T.Shirt and was off, my loaded camera slinging from my shoulders. ‘Seenu, you look like a pucca foreigner’ said my niece as I was stepping out of the cottage. The chance of meeting some unknown foreigner who came all the way, from thousands of miles, braving the hostile conditions, unmindful of the hardships, seeking that insubstantial thing called beauty, was not completely ruled out, though I did not know why the thought sent waves of thrill across my mind. But at once I dismissed the idea as trash and hopped on. Hours afterwards, when we were really roaming among the ruins, only after seeing pairs of foreign hitch hikers, I understood the full implication of what she had said. I whispered ‘not me alone, but we’ into her ears.
Indeed we saw more foreigners than we had expected. They seemed to be totally absorbed in their pursuit, like butterflies flying from flower to flower drinking mouthfuls of nectar. We turned away to find an inscription that dates back to the early 7th century, still holding the heavy stone beam, like the giant Atlas. The sea reaches the very foot of this mantapam but at once turns back hastily, as if in second thoughts, but again traces back its steps. Is it looking for something that has vanished, wailing all the while?
This shore temple was built by Narasimhavarma – II during the period 695 to 772 AD. It stands as an immortal representative of Pallavan art and architecture. Of the two shrines of Lord Shiva one faces the east and the first rays of the sun, morning after morning, touch it as if in silent salutation. The other one faces the west, but in the middle stands a spacious rectangular shrine dedicated to Lord Vishnu – called Talasayana Perumal proclaiming in unequivocal terms, that it is One, call Him Vishnu or Siva. The Vishnu here is Seshasayee – lying on his serpent couch. The two Siva shrines have separate entrances, but the entry into the one facing the east is difficult at the time of high tide; perhaps it was not, in those days of yore. Two square tapering spires called Vimanas, one big and the other small – stand on the two shrines against the background of the deep blue sea. It is said that the middle shrine too had a vimana once; but no longer there is any now.
The original conception of the great artist Raja Simha was two square vimanas with a rectangular one in the middle, each spire from the land side progressively increasing in height. The Gods here in these temples are not at present offered any worship, but according to the literature, were once alive with devotees. The main shrines and the subsidiary mandaps stood within a walled precinct. The courtyard of the temple could be partially flooded with the sea water through a complex system of channels and ducts. The water collected in the channels was used in the worship of the sea.
The Pallavas were great sea farers and the rulers had, colonised many neighbouring islands. The edifice also had served as a virtual lighthouse to men at sea. A lamp lit on the pillar in the courtyard, would be visible by those at sea through an aperture in the wall.
Though most of the sculptures have been eroded by saline action, vestiges remain here and there depicting their very outlines. Even these outlines have significance of their own, reflecting pristine glory of the Pallavan art and architecture as existed in their may-day of life. The submerged structures, rock cut chariots, dilapidated temples, collapsed columns and the buried relics speak sadly the ravages that the unsympathetic time can make, but still they all have withstood,for more than a thousand years, the fury of the sea that sends wave after wave to pull them down to the very roots. As the sun was setting, we sat in the beautiful beach munching fried nuts but my mind that was filled with such thoughts as these could not but dwell upon the folly of man who thinks that whatever he does will stand the test of time, forgetting that it is the values he stands for, the sacrifices he makes for the happiness of his fellowmen and the good deeds that add to peace and tranquility of his tribe alone matter. Here lived great kings and queens who loved and hated, fought and died.
We do not think of them; but the arts they created, the structures they constructed and the temples they built, inspite of their dilapidated state, thrill us and transport us to invisible shores of happiness. We forget this and try to pull down the temples instead of building them, cut the throats of innocent people, instead of feeding the hungry mouths and add to the misery and suffering instead of wiping their tears. I could not but think of what Wordsworth has said: “Have I not reason to lament for what man has made of man?” In the midst of such thoughts as these, I made a decision – a decision that I should become an archaeologist.