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Modi-Xi Summit: The story behind Mamallapuram's Chinese connection

Mamallapuram, also known as Mahabalipuram, is located on the East Coast Road. The name is said to be derived from the word "Mamallan", which means great warrior, a reference to King Narasimhavarman I

T E Narasimhan  |  Chennai 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of G-20 summit, in Buenos Aires, Friday. (PIB Photo via PTI)
PM Narendra Modi shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of G-20 summit, in Buenos Aires, Friday (PIB Photo via PTI)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President are set to meet on Friday and Saturday for the second informal summit between them after the first was held in in Wuhan, China, in April 2018. The meeting, will not be held in New Delhi, which has been the tradition, but in the coastal town of Mahabalipuram, or Mamallapuram, almost 50 kilometers south of Chennai.

The question is why PM Modi chose this town to be the venue of the meet. While many believe that by choosing Mamallapuram, PM Modi wants to send a message to other Dravidian parties in the state that the BJP is serious about Tamil Nadu, another reason could be the town's historical connections with China.

Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram)

After the decline of the Gupta Dynasty, the Pallavas rose to power in South India, ruling from the third century until the end of the 9th century AD. The best period of their rule, between 650 and 750 AD, was called the Golden Age of the Pallavas. The Pallavas were profound thinkers and were very powerful.

Mamallapuram, also known as Mahabalipuram, is located on the East Coast Road. The name is said to be derived from the word "Mamallan", which means the great warrior, a reference to King Narasimhavarman I of the Pallava dynasty, who ruled the region from AD 630 to almost AD 670, and was also known for his love of art and sculpture. Many of the monolithic rock-cut structures that are now seen in this region were created during his time.

The city has been a point of interest to archaeologists and other scientists all these years. In 2004, when the Indian Ocean tsunami hit the coast, several new scriptures and evidences of the ancient times came out even in the offshore areas of Mamallapuram. Excavations under water, near the famous Shore Temple, also revealed several reminiscences of history, including ruined walls, sculptured stones and other monuments. Some argue that the city was referred by foreign travellers as The Seven Pagodas while five of them are now seen as the Pancharathas (Five Rathas or Chariots). There is another explanation which says that a part of the city might have drowned in the sea following a tsunami, centuries ago.

There are around 32 individual monuments spread over nearly 4 square kilometers and 13 of them are situated in the hillock area.

The Chinese connection

Apart from arts and architecture, Narasimhavarman-I, one of the few kings who was never defeated in any of the wars, was also good when it came to trading and having partnerships with other countries, especially with the neighbours.

According to reports, available literature shows that the Pallava Kings had a trade and defence relationship with China, in which the kings agreed to help China in keeping a check on the growth of Tibet as a powerful nation, during those years.

Bodhidharma, one of the famous Buddhist Monk in China is believed to be the third son of a Pallava king, who travelled from Kanchipuram through Mamallapuram to China in 527 AD.

Various studies by archaeologists and historians show it Mamallapuram had commercial links with countries like China, Sri Lanka, and other South-East Asian countries. Coins from China, Persia and Rome have also been found in Mamallapuram, which acted as trade centre for the Pallavas.

According to Archeological Survey of India (ASI), it was a sea-port during the time of Periplus (AD 1) and Ptolemy (AD 140), and many Indian colonists sailed to South-East Asia through this port town. While there is some evidence of architectural activity going back to the period of Mahendravarman-I (AD 600-30). Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang also mentions the sea port in his travel records.

However, apart from its history, there is one more reason why Mamallapuram has been chosen for the summit.

The aircraft carrying Chinese President and his top officials needs a larger runway, which was not available in some of the cities that were under consideration for the summit, including Modi's own constituency Varanasi, said sources. Chennai has the infrastructure to handle such aircrafts and Mamallapuram is the closest with historical connections with the Chinese.

Whatever may be the reasons, the seed sown over 2,000 years ago from this town is one of the key reasons that brought India-China bilateral trade to reach $60 billion today, though deficit in China’s favour.

Today, China is India's second largest trading partner in goods and India is China's largest trading partner in South Asia. More than 1,000 Chinese companies are doing business in India. They have put in a total investment of $8 billion and created over 200,000 local jobs. Over two-third of Indian companies operating in China are making steady profits.

First Published: Thu, October 10 2019. 09:43 IST