The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Temple find lifts Ganapati gloom

Mamallapuram (Tamil Nadu), Oct. 2: The Ganapatis have not brought luck to Janardhanan.

A panel of eight intricately carved small sculptures of the god who removes obstacles in different poses on sandstone brought from Agra and chiselled in this once famous port of the Pallava dynasty is being sold for a song.

'I normally sell this panel for Rs 80, but will you take them for at least Rs 40' I need some money for food for my family,' Janardhanan, who hawks handicrafts to tourists, pleads in a hybrid lingo of Tamil, English and Hindi.

A 55-km drive from state capital Chennai, Mamallapuram's potential as a tourist destination is enormous with its famous Seven Pagodas, including the Shore Temple and the Five Rathas (temples). But the graph is uneven. This means a hand-to-mouth existence for many local families dependent on tourism.

This is despite the large project outlay the Archaeological Survey of India sanctioned for landscaping all monuments in Mamallapuram, including the Five Rathas, a 'compact group' hewn out of rock and the 'earliest monuments of their kind in India' according to archaeologist C. Sivaramamurthy. Built during the reign of Pallava King Narasimhavarman I (630-670 AD), they are associated with the five Pandavas of The Mahabharata.

But if the local traders are not smiling, they have plenty of reason not to. They are yet to benefit from the trickle-down effects of all the showcasing being done to attract tourists, both domestic and foreign.

'There are not even basic facilities like drinking water,' says Ramachandran, who runs a small shop that sells stone carvings just outside the Five Rathas complex. 'How can you attract more tourists with this poor infrastructure'

The ASI has put up hundis (ticket counters) near the Shore Temple and the Five Rathas complex. The charge is Rs 10 for a domestic tourist and Rs 250 for a foreign visitor. But that, too, has contributed to the declining tourist traffic, says Ramachandran. 'For western tourists, Rs 250 is nothing, but for Tamils from countries like Malaysia, Singapore and Sri Lanka, it is on the high side. We hope the ASI would take note of this.'

There are other drawbacks, too. The entire row of 17 shops selling all kinds of fancy items and table ornaments, including sea shells, just near the entrance of the Five Rathas, will soon be shifted to a new shopping complex nearby. 'But that will cut us off from the floating tourists,' says a trader.

There are also fears that a new road being laid adjoining this complex would effectively 'shut off entry to six villages' beyond the Five Rathas complex, where mostly fishermen and Dalits live.

'Once the ASI takes full control of the place, people cannot even go to these villages,' says a local ADMK worker who did not want to be named. 'Should they (the ASI) be insensitive to our concerns in the name of beautification and development'

Despite their sombre mood, the local traders and guides have something to cheer about. The ASI recently stumbled on a row of beautiful sculptures of alternating elephants and lions on the plinth of two temples, the Draupadi and Arjuna rathas, in the Five Rathas complex.

Draupadi, the wife of the five Pandava brothers, is identified with Goddess Durga in the Draupadi Ratha. A majestic standing lion in stone faces the temple. Inside stands a beautiful four-armed standing Durga carved in stone.

'The row of sculptures was a chance discovery made a few weeks back,' says an ASI official. 'To find out the original plinth of the temple, an excavation was done. A trial trench was made, which led to the discovery of a row of animal figurines below. This shows these Pallava temples had an 'Upa-Peeta (below the so-far visible basement) level also.'

The excavation was part of the larger conservation effort at Mamallapuram, says T. Sathyamurthy, superintending archaeologist, ASI, who feels the discovery of the sculptures will not only delight tourists but also draw the attention of art historians.

For the locals, it means ' hopefully ' more clients.

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