On the east coast, signposts to history arrive with impressive frequency, some bearing indelible clues into it and others offering just vague reminders of it.
Belonging to the latter category, a mandapam from many centuries ago stands on East Coast Road in Mamallapuram town, something anyone travelling from or towards Chennai cannot miss even with a half-closed eye.
This mandapam is one of those structures believed to have sheltered travellers — largely traders and pilgrims heading towards markets and places of worship respectively. However, going by the carvings it sports, a greater significance to this mandapam is likely encrypted into its walls. These carvings encapsulate the grand and the quotidian, and one of them has piqued considerable curiosity.
“It is believed to be a carving of a Dutch traveller,” says Ramanujar Maulana, a chronicler of heritage sites in and around Chennai, one who undertakes these exercises usually on a cycle.
Last year, Ramanujar Maulana wrote about this mandapam as part of his regular weekend chronicles on social media, calling it an “eclipse mandapam” because the engravings on its ceiling depict solar and lunar eclipses.
That is a conclusion apparently bolstered by observations made by others who have studied it.
“Temples in Thiruporur, Mamallapuram, Thiruvidanthai and Thiruvanmiyur do have mandapams, but these serve a different purpose, mostly being put to use during annual festivals in the form of mandapa padi,” says Ramanujar.
In that account penned in September 2021, Ramanujar noted that as it stood, the mandapam was safe, but might require a stronger ring of protection.
Towards the end of this September, the mandapam was as safe as ever, though the ECR expansion work was passing close to its toenails. The vegetation nearby had been cleared, but the facility seems to be in no danger. However, the fact that the stone-walls at the mandapam bear lazy scrawls encourages heritage enthusiasts to strike a note of caution loud enough for authorities to hear it.
During any development work, the arm of an earth mover or any other machine should not inadvertently disturb any stone in this mandapam.