We flew into Chennai via Kuala Lumpur –our second transfer here on this trip- on 19th January. We arrived late and went to Raintree, the hotel we had booked, which was lovely. We were collected by a driver the next day and travelled to. Mahabillapurum. We stopped off on the way at Dakshina Chitra – a complex of reconstructed ancient regional houses. It was an open air museum but did show how religion, culture and climate determined different styles of architecture in different areas of South India.
Mahabalipuram (hereafter known as Mahabs!) is a coastal town on the Coromandel coast of the Bay of Bengal, known for an extensive collection of ancient religious monuments dating from the seventh and eighth centuries. It is a UNESCO world heritage site, 60 k from Chennai.
The site has 40 ancient monuments and Hindu temples, including one of the largest open-air rock reliefs in the world, the Descent of the Ganges or Anjuna’s Penance. This carving shows the penance of Anjuna, who in seeking the good will of Shiva, stood on one leg, attended by dwarves, celestial beings flying overhead and many animals, especially elephants looking on. The meeting of the two giant rocks used for the carving shows a snake, representing the Ganges. On the same site were several other caves, carvings and ancient temples cut into the rock. The site was close to the road, within a five minute walk of the hotel and was quite overwhelming for the number of ancient monuments, their good condition and the freedom of visitors to roam all over them. They were not fenced off in any way and people clambered and climbed everywhere. It’s difficult to describe the magnitude of this site and also of the of the one we saw the next day. I don’t think the photos do it justice either.
The following day we visited the Shore Temple and the five Rathas , a short but hot and dusty walk. These five seventh century monuments, grouped close together were all, astonishingly all carved from single large rocks. Each was dedicated to a different Hindu god. They are representations of a hut housing the demon fighting goddess Durga, a temple shrine to Shiva, two colonnaded temple shrines and a life sized elephant, dedicated to Indra. This last was impressive, reputedly one of India’s most perfectly sculpted elephants. I know, too much detail but this is a reminder to myself.
Our hotel could have been great, huge rooms and lovely pool but the place was shabby and the service awful. The toilet of the restaurant had no door handle lock or toilet paper. However snoozing in the shade at the poolside was a good way to pass the heat of the day, much needed after the overload of sun during the morning spent at the monuments.
Later we walked to the beach, not expecting, from the guide book for this to amount to much. In fact the beach was a good one, though the sea was rough. It was most remarkable, for the colourful sight of hundreds of families congregating on the beach, many in the water, including women in full saris. There was a spirit of joyous fun. Ponies cantered up and down, giving harem scarem rides, amazingly avoiding the crowds. There were market stalls lining the path to the beach and vendors of every description. We learnt later that there was a large wedding party in the town and groups of female pilgrims in bright red and yellow saris who were visiting the temples and later having fun on the beach and in the water in all their finery.
We left Mahabs and were driven to Puducherry via Auroville. The journey down was lovely, we headed away from the coast and drove through more rural India, which was flat with paddy fields ready to be harvested, storks, pelicans and black and white Kingfishers and, of course, cows and goats on the road.
Auroville is an international community founded by ‘ the Mother’, dedicated to peace, sustainability and ‘divine consciousness’ ( whilst rejecting all religions!). It put Jane and me in mind of Totnes, Devon but bigger, much bigger and more focused on the mission to build up a community of 50,000 like minded souls working towards world peace and individual self realisation. We could not relate to much of the rhetoric but it is a beautiful place, set amongst gardens with a centrepiece Matrimandir, a dome, reminiscent of, but more beautiful than Birmingham’ s bullring, a very lovely place for contemplation, free for anyone to enter, only if they can demonstrate seriousness of purpose. We were baffled by much of it and did not feel we could reach the required spiritual level for entry to the Matrimandir - it is a challenging and intense venture but with high minded and indisputably laudable aims. More pragmatically, it had some wonderful shops and restaurants, of which we made full use.
From Auroville we continued to Pudicherry. We had booked rooms in a heritage ( as in old, delapidated and requiring much renovation!) house, with beautiful dark wood pillars, evocative if shabby – as is the name, House of Blue Mangoes. We were fortunate enough to have a contact person in Pudicherry, who quickly became a friend. Anandhi is a friend of my friend, Suki, who I had met in Southampton last summer. We met her for lunch on our first day and that evening went together to a performance of beautiful South Indian Kathakali dance. This is dance which tells a story, a single performer who dance- mimed different tales for an hour without a break.
We spent much of our time, only two days, exploring the historic French Quarter and waterfront. The French Quarter has become known as White Town as this is where the French settled. Beautiful French colonial buildings spread amongst the usual melee in Indian cities. The traffic outside of the French Quarter was mad, roads difficult to cross and little heed paid to any rules of the road or intrepid pedestrians. On our final morning we visited a paper factory, with shop selling far more beautiful products than I could ever transport for the rest of the trip. had a final lunch with Anandhi, at her home, experiencing the real thing as regards Southern Indian home cooking and warm hospitality.
Anandhi’s former driver drove us all the way back to Chennai, some three hours