The sun is yet to rise. The darkness of the night though still there, is slowly getting erased. There is a faint reddish tint appearing on the horizon to the east. Heitor has always loved this part of the day. He had been awake the whole night watching over the ship mid sea. It is not long after which Dado will wake up and take over control of the ship allowing him to sleep. The ship does not sail at night. But, the night watch is essential to keep a vigilant eye on the pirates. Heitor, Dado and their 12 crewmates, all trained in warfare, take turn for the night watch. As the darkness of the night was getting removed, Heitor felt the wind. “It is in the right direction”, he thought. He quietly went over and hoisted the sail. Though the day is yet to begin at the ship, there is no harm in letting the wind work in their favour meanwhile.
They should be very near to their destination Mahabalipuram. Heitor and his crewmates had sailed from the Iberian Peninsula 7 months ago. They had crossed ocean after ocean, sea after sea, country after country, stopping by at ports to trade goods. They have been fortunate enough, this far, not to have faced any severe natural calamity. The Sea God has been with them.
Heitor is retracing the path of his grandfather, a brave sea man, who had amassed immense wealth by trading overseas. Heitor’s father was more interested in mathematics, literature, philosophy and medicine and he remained engrossed in studies throughout his life. He serves as the private doctor of the King Chindasuinth himself. Heitor, though good at studies, was never genuinely interested in books. He loved listening to the adventures of his grandpa and dreamed that he will embark on one of his own. He grew up learning to fight and to sail.
Grand pa passed away when Heitor was fourteen, but before passing away, Grand pa had shared with him maps that he had created while traveling across the world.
As Heitor grew up, the urge to explore, the urge to see new countries, new seas, new people, new horizons became all the more stronger. He shared his dream with his best friend Dado, son of the commander of the King’s army. Dado was no less enthusiastic. By the time Heitor was 17 and Dado 18, they approached their respective fathers, asking for permission to sail off. The doctor and the commander, though never liked the idea of it, understood that they would not be able to hold back their sons. They together ensured that their sons have the best ship, the best crew possible, and enough resources on board to make them sustain for months together. It was decided that they will go with a single ship this time and after they return successfully they will take a fleet of ship with them on their next voyage.
And, one fine day, Heitor and Dado sailed off from their homeland. Since then they have visited countries trading for linen, cotton, muslin, dry fruits, horses, precious stones, gold etc. They observed that spices are of very high demand in most of the countries they visited and fetched extraordinarily high returns for the traders. But the land of spices is very far off as grand pa had said. The map given by grandpa has worked wonders for them. And now they were very near to Mahabalipuram, or at least, they should be, as per calculation. They had stumbled upon the port town of Mahavatu, which was not mentioned in the map. However, they could refill their supplies and gather from the locals the direction to Mahabalipuram.
And suddenly, Heitor saw a light , a little above the horizon. Must be the light house to signal the ships. “Yay!!”
He hurried to wake Dado up. “Dado! wake up you bull! It seems to be our lucky day. I think we have reached!”
Dado woke up and rushed on to the deck. There it was. The light glowing brightly saying “Hi! Look no further”, to the bunch of foreigners approaching. They rang the bell to wake up all the crew members.
Within few minutes, all the crew members participated in steering the ship towards the light. There was an air of excitement over the probability of having reached the destination.
The sun rose and the shoreline gradually became visible.
“Wow! What is that on the shore!” Dado exclaimed. Heitor saw that. So did the other crew members.
Majestic structures lined the shore. One .. two.. three.. four.. five.. six.. seven. Seven imposing structures in ascending order of height. The sun rays of the dawn illuminated the top of the towering structures creating a spectacle.
“Grandpa never mentioned about these!,” Heitor exclaimed, “Is this Mahabalipuram or have we again reached a new land?”
Dado said, “Grandpa had come over 50 years back. Anyways, we will see Heitor”.
As the ship moved closer, the temple structures became prominent. Ornately carved towers of the structures spoke of the wealth and strength of the Kingdom.
Their ship reached the port. Dado dramatically announced, “Here, we reach the land of seven pagodas!”
“Land of seven pagodas, well said!” Heitor exclaimed.
A few port-men and soldiers came forward led by a senior person. They had spotted the ship at distance and was ready for the arrival of the ship. The senior person asked for their identity. He spoke in Latin ! “Judging by your appearance, you are coming from far west. I hope you understand Latin. Where are you from? Introduce yourself.”
Heitor and Dado were taken aback. They gave their identity and stated their purpose. They had not expected somebody to speak their language so very far from their homeland, that too quite fluently.
The senior person introduced himself, “Myself Purandar, the Portmaster. ” He then added, “Well don’t be surprised that I know your language, because this is a part of my job to interact with foreigners and traders like you”. He asked a few more questions. The soldiers on being instructed by Purandar, scanned the ship and then after about an hour of exercise, Purandar declared “We are done with our checking procedure. Hearty Welcome to Mamallapuram! You can..”
“But, isn’t this Mahabalipuram?” Heitor interrupted.
” Oh yes! It is! But our King is Mamalla Narasimhavarman. Our warrior King is as much kind as fierce. Nobody can defeat him. He takes care of his subjects like his kin. He identifies and encourages the talented. He punishes the wrong doers. Trade is flourishing. People live in harmony and prosperity in our kingdom”. Pointing towards the seven temple structures along the shore line, he said, “Behold the architectural marvel he has commissioned and created! Mahabalipuram is now Mamallapuram! ” Purandar smiled.
“Very impressive,” nodded Dado. Heitor said, “We would like to visit and pay our respect to His Majesty”.
It was not clear whether Purandar heard what Heitor said. He said, “Dock your ship here. There is a hotel right outside the port where you can get food and accommodation. There are a few more hotels down the street. Freshen up today and tomorrow you can meet the officials at the trade ministry.”
Thanking Purandar, Heitor and Dado gave instructions to the crew members to dock the ship while they go and search for accommodation.
Walking down the port, Heitor glanced at the seven majestic temple structures. He was smiling. “Grand pa, we finally have reached your Mahabalipuram , gateway to the “Land of Spices” or should I say, Mamallapuram, the land of Seven Pagodas.”
The piece is written as a prelude to our travel story “A day at Mahabalipuram”.
There are legends hailing Mahabalipuram as the Land of Seven Pagodas. The ancient port city had trade connections with the South East Asian kingdoms as well as the far off European kingdoms. Today the Shore temple standing on the shore of Mahabalipuram is considered as the last standing one of the seven ‘pagodas’.
As the water receded after Tsunami of 2004, ancient man made structures surfaced on the beach near to the Shore Temple complex. Surveys carried out by the Indian Navy using Sonar technology confirmed the presence of underwater walls and at least one other temple of size bigger than the existing shore temple. Divers confirmed the presence of underwater man made structures. The legend of the “Land of Seven Pagodas” was reborn.