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Tsunami Uncovers Archaeological Mystery Temple off Indian Coast

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MAHABALIPURAM, India -- The destructive capacity of last year's tsunami wiped life from Earth in numbers that defy comprehension. Each one gone dramatically altering other lives - friends and families in a chain wrapped countless times around the world. Towns and villages and possessions obliterated. In many parts, the very presence of human beings simply erased, as if they were never there. The tsunamis took a great deal away, but in one tiny corner, they actually gave something back. And it has archaeologists and historians arguing about precisely what it is. It is evidence of a long-lost ancient community? Is there a mystical temple covered by time, or perhaps even an entire city buried beneath the sand and the sea around Mahabalipuram in southern India.

Anne Maria Nicholson travelled to India to piece together a picture from the fleeting glimpses snatched between the tsunamis and the more structured exploration now under way.

ANNE MARIA NICHOLSON: The sea's running high off Mahabalipuram on the Bay of Bengal. 75-year-old Peti Chetia and his grandson Sekdavail are out looking for their daily catch aboard shiny new boats donated by sympathetic Europeans. The ocean is their life, but a year ago it took nearly everything they had. But as stricken communities like this counted their losses and began a massive clean-up, others were diverted by an intriguing revelation. The ocean that had been so destructive offered a sneak peep into the past. Beneath the waves just offshore was evidence of submerged temples, perhaps even a city belonging to a lost civilisation.

One of those to spot them was Kuppuswamy Magesh. He comes to the beach to practise his yoga. Unusually, when the first of three tsunami waves surged across this beach a year ago, he had slept in. The mistake saved his life.

KUPPUSWAMY MAGESH: When the tsunami is coming, that time is perfect time. It is 8:45. That time, not much people, not so much tourists there. Even I can also lost my life, if I come at 8:45.

ANNE MARIA NICHOLSON: When Magesh did reach the beach after the first wave, he expected to see a flood. Instead, the young yoga teacher and his friends saw the most unexpected sight. The ocean had been sucked out, exposing the seabed and a line of rock structures on the horizon.

KUPPUSWAMY MAGESH: From here, you can see straight ahead through nearly 500m, like 1km long. That is a group of rocks. Actually, this looked like old...smashed buildings.

ANNE MARIA NICHOLSON: A short distance away, another man witnessed the same phenomenon in the three stages of the tsunami surges. After the second wave struck, Govindarajulu Baskar, a supervisor with India's archaeological survey, had gone to check that the town's pride and joy, the World Heritage-listed Shore Temple, was safe. He was reassured when he saw the huge rock retaining wall, erected under the rule of Indira Gandhi, was securing the sacred 7th Century shrine to the gods Shiva and Vishnu. It was the site he saw next that took his breath away.

GOVINDARAJULU BASKAR The rocks just take conical shape, because now you see the temple how it is, it is like this. It is in conical shape, not in rectangle or square type. Like that. I have seen like this. Like this I have seen.

ANNE MARIA NICHOLSON: Knowing what would happen next, the men rushed to high ground. Minutes later, the third and final tsunami hit the coast, submerging the structures once more. India's leading archaeologists hurried to investigate the stories of the hidden underwater treasures. These images were shot by divers from the Underwater Archaeological Unit in India, not long after the tsunami.

DR SATCHAMUTI, ARCHAEOLOGICAL SURVEY OF INDIA: At this stage we cannot say that a city was that, but we can say some structures were there.

ANNE MARIA NICHOLSON: So you're definite that there has been man-made structures?

DR SATCHAMUTI: Yes, really, that's true. They are there, they are there.

ANNE MARIA NICHOLSON: If theories developing are to be believed, what lies beneath the sea might be a temple or many temples, not unlike the one depicted in this artist's impression. There were more finds above the sea line - elegantly carved figures, including a lion and an elephant, and nearby, something even more startling. These are the remains of a 1,400-year-old temple that were uncovered as the tsunami swept across this beach. Experts believe that it was even larger than the renowned shore temple behind me. What its discovery has done has re-ignited an old controversy about the existence of seven ancient pagodas. Archaeologists have long debated the existence of the pagodas sighted from the ship of a 14th century explorer. They're hoping this temple may hold some clues.

DR SATCHAMUTI: Of course, earlier also, the seven pagodas theory was there. At this stage we cannot say, but after the tsunami there results started in a good speed. And when in the initial stage, we could find, there is some structures, so something has got buried there. But we have to do further research on this.

ANNE MARIA NICHOLSON: The discoveries add to one of India's richest seats of art and architecture. Mahabalipuram was the showpiece for the Pallava dynasty. At the height of their power from the 5th to 8th centuries, the kings built a myriad of temples, distinctive for mixing images of daily life those of Hindu gods and goddesses. Stone carving is a living tradition, carried on in the town today by several hundred artisans. It lacks the grandeur of the town temples, but Tiger Cave to the north of Mahabalipuram holds other secrets revealed when the tsunami washed over the rocks. The water uncovered inscriptions that pointed to an ancient temple below the earth.

DR SATCHAMUTI: This was the, originally entrance of the temple, which we're seeing it here...

ANNE MARIA NICHOLSON: In fact, according to Dr Satchamuti from India's Archeological Survey, there is evidence here of two temples. A Pallava temple at least 800 years old on top, and beneath, a much older one - around 2,000 years old.

DR SATCHAMUTI This is very exciting and also very important because this is one of the earliest brick temples that was conceived and constructed, about 2,000 years old.

ANNE MARIA NICHOLSON: So what you're saying is that because of the tsunami, you've discovered what could be the oldest temple in India?

DR SATCHAMUTI: Yes, you are right.

ANNE MARIA NICHOLSON: What the archaeologists also discovered is that tsunamis have flooded this region for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years.

DR SATCHAMUTI: Temple was pulled down by these waves. It left this path you see here.

ANNE MARIA NICHOLSON: And this is the evidence here? This is hard evidence?

DR SATCHAMUTI: Evidence, yah.

ANNE MARIA NICHOLSON: Now the scientists, archaeologists and geologists are preparing for further exploration beneath the waves - the search for the lost pagodas. And for Magesh Kuppuswamy, the tsunami brought something he had never imagined - the prospect of a major historical find not far from his favourite beach.

PHILIP WILLIAMS: For far too many - Australia, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, here in Thailand, America, Europe, Africa and beyond - today will always be a day of dark memories. But if there is a positive out of all this, it's that your generosity has made a huge difference to countless thousands of people's lives, on this day, one year after the waves.


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