ECR holds fascinating glimpses into the past, discovers Sowmiya Ashok

For many, Kalki's Parthiban Kanavu may have been the inspiration to visit the remarkable coastal town of Mahabalipuram with its famous Shore Temple and monolithic Rathas. But, if visitors come looking for signs of the sleepy village that Narasimhavarman I, the great Pallava ruler of the seventh century transformed into a hub of artistic wealth, they will only find a tourist spot buzzing with people instead.

Driving down the East Coast Road that connects Chennai to Mahabalipuram, a visitor is bound to encounter swanky vehicles travelling at great speeds to get to the destination within the hour. This quick connectivity has assured a steady surge of tourists from all over the world to this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Yet, many visitors say a lot can be done to preserve these monuments that fall under the protection of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). For instance, shops have sprouted on either side of the road leading to the Shore Temple “The entire Mahabalipuram town is an eye sore,” says S. Swaminathan, author of ‘Mahabalipuram: Unfinished Poetry in Stone'.

“The town does not have a clear sign to its world heritage site status and there is garbage strewn around, noise pollution and careless ways of parking vehicles,” he says. At several monuments, the explanations etched on the planks are either incoherent or have faded away. “There should be clear explanations at the site so that a visitor gets to know what it is all about. For instance, the Adi Varaha Mandapam is one of the best archaeological marvels in the area but very few people know about it.”

Of the ASI protected monuments, however, the cluster at Mahabalipuram is probably still the most famous. Yet, along a road that was a used as an important route during the Chola period, several other monuments go largely unnoticed and their historical significance unappreciated.

“The East Coast Road was known as ‘Vadagaperuvazhi', which is a route used during the Chola period to connect the kingdom to places in Thanjavur and Andhra Pradesh,” says Pradeep Chakravarthy, a Chennai-based historian.

The historical ECR route, thus, begins from the gateway at the busy Thiruvanmiyur junction. “At the Marundeeswarar Temple, inscriptions can be found in the shrine of ‘Tripurasundari Amman' (Godess Parvati).

These date back to the 11 century during the period of Rajendra Chola,” says historian Chithra Madhavan, who specialises in temple architecture.

“Many of the Chola inscriptions are seen on the base of the north wall of the central shrine of the temple in Tiruvudandai . The inscription of the Rashtrakuta king Krishna III dated 959 A.D. is also on this wall,” she says.

About a kilometre from Mahabalipuram in the village Vedal is the Vadavamukhagnishaarar Temple, which is very badly damaged, says Ms. Madhavan.

Between Mahabalipuram and Puducherry, under the protection of the State Department of Archaeology, Government of Tamil Nadu are two monuments: The Vittal Temple in Vittalapuram and the Alamparai Fort in Kadapakkam.

“The Vittal Temple has been conserved to the extent that it is now currently under worship,” says S.Vasanthi, Deputy Superintending Archaeologist at the Department. “We also excavated the Bhumisvara Temple at Marakkanam and discovered artefacts such as pottery and tiles from the Chola period,” she said about the excavation that took place in 2005-2006.

“We are failing miserably in identifying places with historical significance and bringing it up as tourist spots,” says T.Satyamurthy, former superintending archaeologist, ASI who excavated the ruins of a Pallava Temple in Saluvankuppam after the 2004 Tsunami.

“Many temples on the East Coast Road are 300 to 1,000 years old and they should be repaired without changing their characteristics”, he says “The government should take interest in protecting these monuments.”

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