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Published: January 27th 2007
We arrived into Mamallapuram at exactly the right time, in the thick of the annual dance festival that takes place in this small seaside village. Every weekend evening during January, there are traditional Indian dances performed for crowds of dance enthusiasts and pilgrims (as well as a host of travellers like ourselves).
Mamallapuram (otherwise and more correctly known as, Mahabalipuram) is a favourite traveller's hangout and pockets of long-haired, bearded hippie-types appear to have made this place their home. With the dancing it was extra full in the village with many travellers making a beeline to the village to catch traditional Bharatanatyam dancing performed by experts from around India. The dancing was incredible to see and when you get closeup is even better as much of the art is performed by the face and in particular, the eyes. Laura was so chuffed that our visit coincided with the event and even the lack of reasonably priced accommodation in town, was forgiven. We got to see a two hour performance for only 100 Rs. (about a pound), an absolute bargain for such performers in our opinion. Unfortunately some of the aforementioned hippie-types chose not to pay instead watching the show from
behind a barrier for free. They're obviously too poor to cough up the Rs. 100 but still wield their mega-expensive digital SLR cameras nonetheless. Surely one of the reasons for travelling to developing countries is to support their tourism ventures by spending our money, not slyly avoiding such responsibilities!
Mamallapuram isn't just a festival town, it is also home to some of the most important Pallava rock carvings in southern India. We hired a couple of rusty old bikes and employed pedal power to take us around the most impressive.
The relief carving at Arjuna's Penance is one of the best examples in the village and served as the backdrop to the dancing stage. The huge carving is divided by a fissure from which water used to flow representing the Ganges.
The Shore Temple is one of Mamallapuram's biggest attractions with its twin spires set against the backdrop of the Bay of Bengal. The salt air hasn't been kind to the temple as much of the carving now lacks the original detail due to the weathering of the rock.
The 5 Rathas are much more impressive than the temple because they've lasted much better away from
the shore. Each ratha is shaped like a chariot and covered in Pallava carving, some of the earliest examples of Hindu work dating from 630 AD.
We stopped off the mandapams on the hills above the village and watched in amusement as both children and parents slid on their bums along a slippery rock face by Krishna's Butter Ball before heading back to the village followed by the constant tapping of stone masons carving sculptures along the roads around the village.
On a more sombre note, the coastline along this stretch was some of the worst hit by the 2004 tsunami. Many of the fisherman who lived along the coast lost their livelihoods and some even lost their lives. Many of the settlements that were struck have since been rebuilt but many of the fishermen unsurprisingly won't venture out to sea again! This obviously means no income which hits already impoverished families extremely hard. We read in the local rag the story of a woman who had sold a kidney to raise money and frequently see hairless ladies who've obviously sold hair for weave-on use, to bring in some cash! It's pretty desperate but these are desperate people
whose only valuable commodies are their own body parts.
We spent a final lovely evening in Mamallapuram at Le Yogi restaurant with hot milky masala chai, tasty south Indian fodder, some laid-back trippy tunes and a lovely host who has the head wobble absolutely nailed.
Our only hiccup came in trying to leave the town which evidently was harder than we envisaged. All the buses south were full and were not even stopping in Mamallapuram. Regardless, we waited and hoped but to no avail and in the end had to fork out on an extortionately priced tuk-tuk that dropped us off 20km from our next destination, Pondicherry. Cheers mate!!
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