Today we made our way to a new location: Mahabalipuram. Mahabalipuram is a sleepy beach town attracting a variety of tourists and sightseers. We came for the seventh-century (!) architectural structures including caves, temples, and five rathas.
We began our day at the Shore Temple and walked through each of the historical sites. The reliefs intrigued students’ interest in religious symbols and stories. We saw complex reliefs and carvings of a number of figures from Siva in a variety of his forms to the Devi, the goddess. Even these images had a great range. The goddess was seen as the warrior goddess in a relief fighting a great bull and in the anthills we saw as a form of the snake goddesses that relate to fertility. Although many of these massive structures are eroded from being so close to the ocean, they have a plethora of information engraved on them.
Arguably the most important relief was “Arjuna’s Penance.” Here, the story of the descent of the Ganges River is seen amidst a collage of elephants, yoga postures, and symbolic religious figures. This relief, like many at Mahabalipuram, relates back to Siva and myths surrounding him. The story of the Ganges states it was released through Siva’s hair. These texts and stories we all read as we prepared to come are becoming tangible for us all.
A favorite for the students was Vishnu’s Butterball–a freestanding rock that had a great view and exciting hike. Goats and a variety of people including school children were enjoying the site that also holds mythological value relating to Vishnu, another god of the Hindu pantheon.
Not only did Mahabalipuram offer opportunities for great academic discussions and analyses, there was a variety of fun to be had here, too. Students explored shops and bartered to attain some great tapestries and clothing a little different from that available in Chennai. Most importantly, we saw a variety of sculptures–big and small–from the astoundingly large sculpting community, the Shilpis, found in Mahabalipuram. We met a man who had trained for eight years to master the art of sculpting and now works with his brother, an architect, and a small staff to create giant rock sculptures and reliefs that are being exported for Hindu temple construction in Malaysia. He explained his tactics and projects and left us impressed with their work. He and his staff is working on a series of one hundred and eight relief blocks telling stories from the Ramayana. They are thoroughly detailed and take a vast amount of time and effort. Their work looked strenuous and thorough. Each detail was perfectly measured and proportioned. His pride in his work shined through and became a very exciting story for us all. His sculptures became more personal and exciting.
We finished our adventures with a nice lunch in town, each of us branching out with a small group on a quest for some seaside food. Many of the restaurants had fish ready to cook any way desired. Students were excited by the new variety and addition to our course experiences.
Mahabilipuram has been a hit. Students enjoyed journaling and reading course material on the hammocks of this sleepy beach. Our beach side classroom fostered great class discussions with a nice, calm vibe.