Subject: Mahabalipuram's sculpture
This is the first article I wrote in a series about places I visited in India.

Mahabalipuram: Working the Stone for 1400 Years by George Panaghi October 20, 2000

The East Coast of the Indian subcontinent is littered with small communities that depend on fishing for their sustenance. At first glance, Mahabalipuram, or Mamallapuram, appears to be another such village.

The 15000 inhabitants of this small town on the coast of Tamil Nadu, however, live a very different life to that of the people in the neighboring villages. Mahabalipuram's men are not only fishermen, but also highly skilled artisans. They are some of India's most ingenious sculptors.

Their art is a longstanding tradition in Mahabalipuram. The shore temple and the other monuments of the Pallava dynasty date from the 7th and 8th centuries CE. However, what makes Mahabalipuram special is neither the romantic site of the shore temple complex, nor the spectacular panel of Arjuna's penance, carved on the face of a huge rock.

Sculpture in Mahabalipuram is a living art. For most households, it is the main source of income and fishing is only used to supplement the family's diet.

Boys begin to study the craft at a very young age, and it is inherited from father to son, in the tradition of the Hindu caste system. Nowadays, however there is a big, modern school of sculpture, where many of Mahabalipuram's native artists perfect their skills. The site where the school was previously located has been turned into a museum of contemporary local sculpture.

The sound of the chisels, always at work from the early morning, is a testimony to the village's industry # though it soon becomes irritating to visitors, the locals somehow seem to have got used to it.

Though they mostly work with traditional themes and motifs, the artists of Mahabalipuram have been commissioned for large-scale projects by many architects in India and abroad. Traditionally committed to the construction and decoration of Hindu temples, they now produce secular art, for Indian customers as well as for export.

Combined with the wide beach and the spectacular sites of Pallava architecture and stone masonry, Mahabalipuram's reputation as the home of accomplished sculptors makes it very popular with visitors. The tourist industry is growing parallel to sculpture, and there are many good places to stay. Mahabapalipuram is 56 km from Madras (or Chennai) and there are regular buses several times a day (2 hours, 12 rupees).