Question: Where in the world will you find a 250-ton “butterball” that looks like something aliens dropped on earth?
Answer: Mahabalipuram, India
What would you do if you found yourself staring uphill at a 20-foot boulder weighing 250 tons teetering above you on a four-foot base? In India, the answer seems to be this: pose directly in its path for a photo, hoping it never rolls forward to crush you.
Vann Irai Kai, best known as “Krishna’s Butterball,” is a massive (and massively contradictory) stone formation in Mahabalipuram. Perched seemingly precariously on a 45-degree slope, it looks like it might roll forward at any moment. No wonder that local rulers more than a millennium apart both tried to dislodge it and move it to a flat location where it posed no threat. But this is where things get surprising: neither ruler could budge the boulder. For all its apparent top-heaviness, the rock has sat unmoved for at least 1,500 years.
Nobody can explain for sure how it came to be there. Some scientists say that it appears to be a natural formation, while others say that it couldn’t appear where it is and in its current shape without human help. The legends of its origin run the gamut from alien encounters (hinted at by its Indian name, which translates as “Stone of the Sky Gods”) to the Hindu folktale that this rock is one of the handfuls of butter that Krishna routinely stole from his mother.
One thing is sure: it’s a beloved symbol of the region and today’s visitors aren’t worried about danger; they’re worried about missing the chance to take a picture there.
Where the Gods Are: 5 More Unusual Sites in Southern India
- The Tiger Cave Temple is literally a cave, albeit man-made. Hollowed out of a massive boulder, the six by four cave at Mahabalipuram is surrounded with eleven yalis—tiger-shaped mythical animals. But the staircase is flanked by lion sculptures, not tigers. Tigers and lions duke it out for attention in the carvings as well, with both a relief of the goddess Durga riding a tiger and a portrait of a woman riding a lion. The lion motif isn’t as unlikely as it might sound: While India is famous for its Bengal tigers, lions are endemic to the Gir Forest of India as well.
- At Kanchipuram, the façade of the Sri Ulgalandar Temple is dominated by a fearsome looking blue deity striking quite the dramatic pose. Rising 35 feet tall, Lord Vishnu—in his 5th incarnation, as Trivikrama—appears to be stomping on someone’s head. Vishnu appears mid-step in the scene, striding across the sky in one bound, with his free foot firmly on earth, crushing the head of Bali, the demon king. If the pose alone isn’t memorable enough, the Technicolor palette is: the god and his victim are rendered in vivid blue, green, gold, red, and purple.
- In Hindu tradition, Nandi is a bull that was once a boy, and he becomes Lord Shiva’s favorite choice of ride. You’ll find Nandi statues facing many temples, but perhaps the most striking is the glossy Nandi at Brihadishwara in Thanjavur (which used to be known as Tanjore), Tamil Nadu. Nandi is a single block of stone chiseled into a sixteen-foot-long beast rising 12 feet high. It has been oiled and polished for so long that it seems to glow with a dark sheen that makes it look cast from metal, when in fact it is made of granite. Adorned with an elaborate necklace, and a sublimely content look, the Nandi looks less like a deity and more like a dowager presiding over tea.
- The most unusual sight at Sri Meenakshi Temple is actually a ritual involving two icons. The central figure of the temple is Parvati in her guise as the fish-eyed goddess Meenakshi, who is also unique for having three breasts. Meenakshi resides in a decorated chamber, far from her mate, Lord Shiva. Each night, priests hustle a statue of Shiva into a silk-draped palanquin and ferry him to the doors of Meenakshi’s chambers accompanied by swirls of smoky incense and live music. Once Shiva is invited in, the doors to the chamber are closed so the couple may have privacy until morning, when he is banished for another day.
- The Edakkal Caves of Kerala aren’t technically caves; they’re a pair of enormous boulders leaning toward each other with a stone wedged between them 30 feet off the ground. It’s such an unusual natural feature that legend suggests it was the handiwork of Lord Rama. The caves rest upon a hill named Ambukathy, which means “pierced by an arrow,” and the myth is that Rama shot an arrow into the rocks and split them into two. But it’s not just the engineering that is distinct here: The caves are inscribed with the only Stone Age carvings in Southern India. The pictographs feature text, animal figures, and humans—including a man with a cup, another in a fancy headdress, and a third on a winged vehicle. But no sign of Rama and his bow.
Explore a land where the mythic gods are found around every corner when you join O.A.T. on Soul of India: The Colorful South.