I came to Mamallapuram (formerly Mahabalipuram) to learn. After my initial thrill at sculpting clay in Kerala, I decided to make a more concrete venture into the the world of sculpture and try my hand at stone. Fortunately, a mere google search and email later, a kind man by the name of Baskaran invited me to come learn whatever I wanted at his stone sculpting atelier. I took a local bus up the East Coast Road, scanning the horizon for any indication of my destination, even though I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking for. A solid week of chiseling away in a sleepy beach town would give me a good grasp of whether stonecutting was a path worth journeying.
I stayed for two months.
Before all of that, though, some context and an admission: I had clearly not done my research. Mamallapuram is an astonishing architectural ruin with a sleepy town nestled around it. There is good reason why this city is chock-full of stone sculptors: its in the land’s DNA. The ancient Pallava Kingdom (ca. 3rd-9th centuries CE) built immense monolithic structures— entire temples, even— out of freestanding boulders. Elaborate stories are inscribed on the sheer faces of cliffs that jut up from the surrounding cell phone and trinket stores. Along the beach, temples and shrines meet the sunrise; some were cocooned in sand for over a millenium before being rediscovered by shore erosion or tempest.
Most interestingly to me was the quotidian nature of it all. These were not like the Acropolis or Coliseum, swarmed by tour buses and the usual trappings of “Very Important Historical Architecture." Rather, for the locals, at least, they are simply part of the environment. “Arjuna’s Penance,” a historically impressive bas relief on a cliff facade, is simply one of several ruins in the beguiling town park. If I allowed myself a circuitous morning walk to the sculpture studio, I’d find myself communing with a pack of curious goats among towering boulders, surrounded by the remains of roads, stairs, and water tanks—all hewed from the stone.