Tsunami reveals ancient ruins

Published: March 20, 2005

MAHABALIPURAM, India — For a few minutes, after the water had receded far from the shore and before it came raging back as a tsunami, the fishermen stood along the beach and stared at the reality of generations of legends.

Or so they say. Spread across nearly a mile, the site was encrusted with barnacles and covered in mud. But the fishermen insist they saw the remains of ancient temples and hundreds of refrigerator-sized blocks, all briefly exposed before the sea swallowed them up again.

“You could see the destroyed walls covered in coral, and the broken-down temple in the middle,” said Durai, a sinewy fisherman who, like many south Indians, uses only one name. “My grandfathers said there was a port here once and a temple, but suddenly we could see it was real, we could see that something was out there.”

Whatever they saw is back under water and out of sight. But a few hundred yards away, something else came to the surface. The tsunami scrubbed away six feet of sand, uncovering a small cluster of long-buried boulders carved with animals, gods and servant girls.

Mahabalipuram, capital of an ancient kingdom and famous for its elaborate Hindu temples, escaped the Dec. 26 tsunami mostly unscathed, with only three dead and limited damage.

And there’s something else the tsunami gave back — tourists, drawn by heated headlines in the Indian media about a rediscovered Atlantis.

Nearly everyone around here knows the stories of the great port city that traded with China and Southeast Asia some 1,300 years ago.

This town is home to dozens of Hindu temples, baroque stone structures often covered with carvings. But legend speaks of its most famous temples, the Seven Pagodas, named for the vaguely pagoda-like style of Hindu temples in this part of India. Those temples, which are said to have once lined the shore, were so beautiful that the gods destroyed all but one — the so-called Shore Temple, a magnificently carved complex that is now considered a national treasure.