Mamallapuram and its seaside sculptures have been in the headlines for the last 24 hours. Just as Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been. Wearing a crisp white Tamil veshti and a cream angavastram, Modi played the storyteller to the visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping.
It is a setting dripping with heavy symbolism. Modern leaders of two ancient civilisations meet to discuss trade pacts and border issues. India is not an economic or a military equal to China today. But when it comes to history, India and China are equals. Modi and Xi can sip coconut water as the two contemporary custodians of ancient cultures. And this is the stage Modi has set for Xi Jinping. This is why Mamallapuram is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of The Week.
A date with history
Situated on the outskirts of Chennai, this Unesco World Heritage site along the Bay of Bengal is also known as Mahabalipuram.
The town Mamallapuram derives its name from the word ‘mamallan’ (or great warrior), a title conferred on Pallava king Narasimhavarman I. Famous for its rock-cut caves and art, Mamallapuram was an ancient port city in the Pallava dynasty, which lasted from third century to ninth century AD. Sea trade flourished at Mamallapuram.
It is also said that Mamallapuram, now protected by the Archeological Survey of India, finds a place in the works of Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang. Some even say that the Pallava kingdom had trade relationships with China.
Most of the architecture in Mamallapuram was built during the reigns of Narasimhavarman I and Narasimhavarman II.
The town is best known for the caves and the five monolithic rathas, drawing on the pandavas. The Shore Temple and Arjuna’s Penance, a rock carving, are the other attractions. People in Mamallapuram believe that six other similar shore temples are now submerged in the sea. Arjuna’s Penance is, in fact, the largest bas-relief sculpture in the world.
Playing host to another Chinese leader
Xi Jinping is not the first Chinese leader to visit Mamallapuram. In 1956, then-Chinese premier Zhou Enlai visited the town and even inaugurated a maternity centre at Kuzhipanthandalam village, which is now a full-fledged primary health centre. Kancheepuram collector had received the Chinese delegation at that time.
The Chinese premier during his Tamil Nadu visit toured the Nehru Stadium, the Integral Coach Factory (ICF) and the famous Gemini studio. This was during the heady ‘Hindi Chini bhai-bhai’ years.
After Independence, Mamallapuram became a mandatory tourist destination for foreign nationals and a popular honeymoon getaway for couples in the state. With better connectivity and rapid urbanisation of Chennai, Mamallapuram turned into an easy weekend escape for the city’s youngsters.
While Mamallapuram comes under the coastal regulation zone (CRZ), that hasn’t stopped the tourism industry from setting up fancy resorts and hotels in the area. Taj Fisherman’s Cove is one such resort where Xi Jinping is meeting Modi.
Conquering Tamil Nadu
People are cheering as Modi is reviving the bilateral trade relations from the very place where the Pallava rulers had once established ties with the Chinese centuries ago. This is perhaps one of the reasons why Modi chose this seaside resort as opposed to his constituency Varanasi to hold the second informal summit with Xi Jinping.
Mamallapuram does not see the tourism footfall that Varanasi does. But Varanasi doesn’t have the required logistical amenities that Mamallapuram has – the aircraft carrying Xi and team needed a larger runway, which Chennai provided.
And, Tamil Nadu is a state that Modi’s charm offensive hasn’t conquered yet.