New River Free Press International


The Plastic Flowers of

Mahabalipuram--Gifts of

A Rampaging Modernity


By Michael Chacko Daniels

  • Occasionally, what the sea swallows, rises again, unexpectedly. Besides terror and devastation, the Dec. 26, 2004 Tsunami gave Mahabalipuram on India's beautiful Coromandel Coast glimpses of the reality behind folk legends of ancient temples that the sea had swallowed.

  • A disaster of a different kind, one that takes its daily corrosive toll, may well become the major contribution of our age for posterity.

What the sea eats, periodically resurfaces, sometimes centuries later.

On India's long eastern and western coasts stories abound of ancient cities--their temples, art, and artefacts, their glory and secrets--submerged by gods and goddesses of the sea.

Regarding one of several such legends, India's National Institute of Oceanography, while reporting on its investigations of April 2002, said, "There exists a popular belief in south India that the Shore Temple of Mahabalipuram is the last of a series of seven temples, six of which have submerged."


Occasionally, what the sea swallows, rises again, unexpectedly. And so it happened in Mahabalipuram (aka Mamallapuram) in the wake of the December 26, 2004 Tsunami that devastated South and Southeast Asian coastal communities.

Besides terror and devastation, the tsunami brought the coastal inhabitants glimpses of the reality behind folk legends of ancient temples that the sea had swallowed.

In the mid-1990's, when I visited Mahabalipuram, an ancient center of the Pallava dynasty, it was a small sea-side village that was painfully transforming itself into a town about 37 miles from Chenai (Madras), Tamil Nadu, on India's beautiful Coromandel Coast.

The gods and goddesses, I learned, had endowed it with miles of silver sand beaches, and the Pallava kings of yore, and their successors between the 7th and 9th centuries AD, had venerated these and other deities and given thanks for their own good fortune with an abundance of art and architecture. Pallava art frequently depicted the everyday life of ordinary folk with a wealth of detail in an earthy, robust style.

Besides temples, Mahabalipuram is famed for its bas reliefs, caves carved out by humans, and chariots sculpted from single boulders. Some of the latter stand in the heart of the village.

UNESCO has classified it as a World Heritage Site.

All around, artists and artisans in their busy workshops attempt to keep vibrantly alive, and share with the world, ancient knowledge, skills, and traditions.

Part of the area's invisible halo of attraction was the long-standing legends of the storied glories of ancient south Indian temples and art that had become part of the kingdoms of the sea. Then came the archaeological explorations, and finally--the terrifying tsunami.

"One quirk of the tsunami," reported last month, was that, "in the historic port of Mahabalipuram . . .  several ancient monuments that had been underwater were uncovered and now rest on a sandy beach for visitors to see.

An Archeological Survey of India team, working with Indian Navy divers, reportedly got to work right away to check out those temples and rock carvings that the sea quickly repossessed after offering a brief, tantalizing glimpse.

And tourists are reported to be back, as are religious and secular devotees of Pallava temple art and architecture. Which bodes well for the many people who depend on tourist traffic--including fisher folk, artisans, sculptors, and small business owners and their workers in small shops.


As a confidence-building measure, the state government promptly revived the Mamallapuram Dance Festival, and encouraged repair work on tourist cottages.

The message was clear--tourism is an important component of post-tsunami development as it was before December 26.

Meanwhile, here in San Francisco, news of Mahabalipuram's December 26 tsunami-shock revived my memories of a shock of a different kind that I experienced when I visited the fabled coastal village in the mid-1990's, and observed the makings of a burgeoning town--of people and place being caught up in the onrush to modernity, with all the attendant dangers of air, land, water, and visual pollution that would inevitably wreak havoc on the unparalleled creations of the area's gods and goddesses, and its forbears, as it has in other parts of India.

In my mind's eye, I see once again--catamarans, slim and light, floating on the waves, three to four men on each. Small outboard motors add a dose of power.

On five boats they work their nets in the water, half-way to the horizon. I am told their catch is usually insignificant for the amount of heavy manual work they do.

Under a blue sky, the water is beautiful, the waves powerful.

The scene--except for the small motors, the nylon nets, the little European boy playing in the water, his mother walking up to him--I tell myself, could be from any number of centuries.

The Bollywood music from the Silversand Beach Resort's sound system could only be from the nineties, though the Silversand boasts of decades of experience.

Nature, I reflect, looking at blue sky and sea, is kind to Mahabalipuram, as it was in previous centuries of commerce, travel, and cultural and maritime expansion--beauty abounds, even in this time of ubiquitous tourism.

But the age of humans living in harmony with land, air, and water has ended, I think, noting the sand littered with the detritus of a polluted age, some of which will remain and outlast the creations of the hardworking artists in the village that are targeted for far destinations.

Everywhere, I see the flowers of modern invention, tattered and shredded, spread out in a persistent pestilence--green, yellow, blue, white--unintended but inevitable consequences of the plastic revolution overtaking India in the form of disposable carry-on bags.

Wafted in the wind, light as dandelion pollen, they travel from roadside, village, and urban dumps into every corner the wind seeks out, ending as fruit-like on trees, butterfly-like on flowering plants, bird-like on fences, tell-tale heralds of the dangers of an uncontrolled, rampaging modernity that feeds off the past and is heedless of the future.

Undoubtedly, a disaster of a different kind, one that takes its daily corrosive toll, which may well become the major contribution of our age for posterity in a still beautiful area, replete with unparalleled ancient art and the deeds of ordinary folk, great heroes, goddesses, and gods, all suitable models for this or any period.

About the author: Michael Chacko Daniels, Californian/writer/editor/community worker/former clown, grew up in India. He is the author of two books published by Writers Workshop, Kolkata: Split in Two (1971, Second Revised Edition 2004) and Anything Out of Place Is Dirt (1972, Second Revised Edition 2005). Read all about his Indian and American journey at:

Copyright 2005 Michael Chacko Daniels

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Posted on Friday, May 6, 2005 at 01:42PM by Registered CommenterMichael Chacko Daniels | CommentsPost a Comment