Mahabalipuram and the Yonghy-Bonghy Bo

South India is known for its wonderful vegetarian cuisine, but it has other cultural attractions too. Contemporary with the classical period of the Maya civilization in Central America, the temple complex at Mahabalipuram reflects the aspirations of the late Pallava dynasty.

The Coromandel Coast is the name given to the south-eastern coast of India. The land of the Chola dynasty was called Cholamandalam in Tamil, literally translated as “The realm of the Cholas”, from which Coromandel is derived. Aficionados of Edward Lear will recall that “The Courtship Of The Yonghy-bonghy-bo” takes place there:

“On the Coast of Coromandel
Where the early pumpkins blow,
In the middle of the woods
Lived the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.
Two old chairs, and half a candle,
One old jug without a handle–
These were all his worldly goods,
In the middle of the woods,
These were all his worldly goods,
Of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo,
Of the Yonghy-Bonghy Bo.”

Mahabalipuram(1)Mahabalipuram is one of the major centres of the cult of the Hindu god Siva. The sanctuary, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, is known for its rathas (temples in the form of chariots), mandapas (cave sanctuaries), and giant open-air reliefs. Founded in the 7th century by the Pallavas sovereigns south of Madras, the harbour of Mahabalipuram traded with the distant kingdoms of Kambuja (Cambodia) and Shrivijaya (Malaysia, Sumatra, Java) and with the empire of Champa (Annam). But its fame today rests with its rock sanctuaries and Brahmin temples which were constructed or decorated between 630 and 728.

Mahabalipuram(2)An 8th century Tamil text described this place as Kadal Mallai (Sea Mountain) “where the ships rode at anchor bent to the point of breaking laden as they were with wealth, big trunked elephants and gems of nine varieties in heaps.” It is also known as Mamallapattana and Mamallapuram. Another name by which Mahabalipuram has been known to mariners, at least since Marco Polo’s time is “Seven Pagodas”, of which only, the Shore Temple, survives. The others are believed to have been swept into the sea.

Mahabalipuram(3)The carvings on the temples of Mahabalipuram portray events described in ancient India’s Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata. Five monolithic pyramidal structures called the Pancha Rathas (Five Chariots) are named after the Pandava brothers (Arjuna, Bhima, Yudhishthira, Nakula and Sahadeva). Together, the brothers fought and won a great war against their cousins the Kauravas, which came to be known as the Battle of Kurukshetra. An interesting aspect of the rathas is that, despite their size, each is carved from a single large rock.

Edward Lear went to Mahabalipuram when he visited India 1873-75. He met schoolchildren who could recite from memory the whole of The Owl and the Pussy-Cat. Although “The Courtship Of The Yonghy-bonghy-bo” was written earlier (1871), there are eight watercolours of Mahabalipuram dated August 1874 among the 3,500 drawings by Lear in Harvard University’s Houghton Library – which holds by far the largest collection of his works in the world.

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