Lying on the Coromandel Coast of Tamil Nadu 60 kms south from the City of Chennai is the historical town of Mamallapuram, spread over an area of 8 square milometers and with a population of around 25,000. Established in the 7th Century by the Pallava Kings as a flourishing sea port, Mamallapuram has the unique advantage of being already recognised as a UNESCO Heritage Site since 1984. The city has always been a centre of culture, craft, commerce and trade and boasts of an unbroken craft connectivity which can be seen even today in the inscriptions, stone carving and the sculptures that stand testimony to the marvellous craft activities that existed.
The City of Stone Craft - Origin
The artistic marvel of infusing life into rocks and slabs of granite and transforming them into artworks started with the Pallava dynasty. As a result, Mamallapuram is brimming with rock-cut caves and numerous temples. In fact, this region is often referred to as an open museum. Mamallapuram is known specially for its monolithic rathas (temples in the form of chariots), mandapas (cave sanctuaries) and giant open-air reliefs. The influence of the sculptures of Mamallapuram, spread widely to distant kingdoms of South East Asia - Cambodia, Malaysia, Sumatra, Java and the entire Champa empire.
Tradition and Cultural Identity of Stone Craft
Pallava architecture is an amazing blend of Hindu and Buddhist architecture. The Shilpa Sastra (traditional techniques) which served as a base in the education of sculptors, carried a deep understanding of philosophy, science and art, dating back to the ancient times. The Viswakarmas (Master Craftsmen) practicing crafts today are the direct descendents of artisans and craftsmen mentioned in the ancient texts.
India’s legacy of stone products and monuments would have little relevance today, if not for the fact that stone continues to be used across the country in a myriad ways. The stone continues to lend itself for its durability and versatility across a broad range of products and architectural elements.
The economic vitality and sustainability of Mamallapuram has thus been made possible by continuous organic growth of stone craft over the centuries. Stone carving is very much a living craft today. The artisan has been ably assisted by the Government, Training Institutes and a large mass of craft enthusiasts. Handcrafted stone products fall into three categories - products, architectural elements and sculptures. Further there are two distinct categories – products meant for the domestic market and those for the international market.
Stone is the perfect material for souvenirs which are sold at Mamallapuram frequented by tourists. Products have been diversified to cater to the needs of a changing market. Kitchen aids such as cooking and serving vessels, table accessories such as vases, pen holders, ash trays, coasters, boxes, candle stands, photo frames, clocks, lamps, animals and human forms are all being produced today. Furniture and fixtures, plant holders and other decorative items for outdoors are also popular.
Mamallapuram’s craft tradition has proved that the craftsman is the unbroken link in the tradition that embraced both the producer and the consumer within the social fabric. Art and aesthetics are deeply rooted in function. Ornamentation and decoration are not divorced from utility.
Stone Craft Tourism
Mamallapuram is one of the ten most visited places by overseas tourists to India
The architecture is not the only draw for tourists in this city. The area is also nestled in an especially impressive setting. Beautiful white sandy beaches are plentiful, as are the casuarina groves that are found in abundance.
Another source of attraction are the many tourist spots which have been developed on the highway from Chennai to Mamallapuram. The huge tourist influx has turned Mamallapuram into a big market for the sale of stone craft.
Mamallapuram boasts of Government and private museums showcasing the stone craft products from Pallava times to the present. These are used as teaching museums by the School of Architecture and other Institutions.
The Sound and Light show on the history, culture and craft of Mamallapuram is another big tourist draw.
As many as 15 million overseas tourists have visited Mamallapuram during 2013 and the foreign exchange earning has had a healthy growth of 18 – 20% per year.
Craft Cultural Extravaganza
In keeping with the cultural tradition of India, Mamallapuram provides an exotic site for a four week cultural extravaganza of India’s best dance forms. To the accompanying music of the wind and the waves, artists of Indian classical and folk dancers from all over the country come together to perform various forms of dance amidst the beautiful sculptures. This and the colourful harvest festival of Pongal celebrated with a lot of enthusiasm are big tourist draws.