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December 9th 2006
Published: January 23rd 2007
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I’d booked the 8.00am (for a lie-in) train to Chennai not knowing that it would stop at every local station along the way and we didn’t arrive until 4pm in the afternoon, too late to catch the bus to Mamallapuram, so joy of joys we hired a white Ambassador cab, such luxury. All three of us squeezed in the back and we were chauffeured through the beeping traffic of Chennai and onto the coastal toll road to Mamallapuram aka Mahabalipuran or as we pronounced it Mummamallipurammmmum… - a coastal village that promised great seafood and a chance to chill in the surrounds of ancient carvings and temples.

We had been trying to call ahead to book accommodation, but the codes had all changed, I assume a result of the tsunami, so we settled ourselves down for some calamari before Gill and I set off in search of a bed for the night, leaving Sue to guard the bags. Numerous rooms later we settled for Hotel Daphne’s, in honour of Roach hospitality.

It’s a really friendly town and not as developed as the resorts of Goa but with all the essentials to chill out including beer, even if you have to hide the bottle under the table in case of a police raid!

10th Dec

It’s the end of the monsoon, although the rains are markedly later than normal; there’s definitely something up with the worlds weather. I still can’t believe I left London in Oct wearing a t-shirt and I hear there has been no snow in Germany. Still it means the land is lush and there are lot’s of mossies to bite Sue and I. Gill appears to be untouchable!

We set of to explore the area, popping in and out of the little shops selling the usual - jewellery, pashmina’s, fisherman’s trousers, stone carvings and some amazing silks until we met a stone carver with a very posh English accent, who had friends that lived in Wallington (the Ruddies hometown) - it’s a small old world! or “ thaat’s fooking unbelievable’ as he kept repeating and we left each armed with our own free aum pendant and an return invite to tea.

I’d regailed the Ruddies with tales of yoga, so after a few enquiries we found Alan, a newly qualified yogi cum drill sergeant; and we prepared ourselves for our introduction. The first 20mins were spent trying to contain our giggles as he ‘aummed and shanti shantied’ us through the breathing exercises and poja but we were soon huffing and puffing as we entered our 20th repetition of the sun salutation.. apparently 12 is the norm… we straightened our back, straightened our knees, put our legs in the air, head down, twisted our bodies - all this in the humid heat whilst squatting the early evening mossies! But it felt great and the beer tasted even better afterwards!

11th Dec
More rain, but a relief, as it was such a hot humid night, the sweat was literally dripping off our bodies and it wasn’t helped by the fact that we had the dodgiest plumbing - a pipe sticking out of the wall was the shower and the toilet flushed randomly, water everywhere. Still that didn’t stop us rising at 7.00am (yes I know!) for a 90 min session with Alan. We were more controlled this time as there were others in the class. Finishing we set of for breakfast in one of the many café’s that lined the street, eating our muesli watching the monkey’s wedding outside - quite mesmerizing.

I left the Ruddies in search of some paper and went off to explore the actual town, and jewellery shops. The quality and variety of jewels is some of the best I have seen so far, all run by Kashmiri’s of course - they get everywhere. I also had the opportunity to ask about the ‘ladymen’, I’d seen wandering around the town, although this did raise some eyebrows!! I’d thought it might be a characteristic of the town, what with all the travelers and relaxed atmosphere but apparently during festivals they go from town to town asking for offerings from shops. Their appearance is quite astonishing - definitely more Lily Savage than Dana International!

Unfortunately when I returned I discovered Sue was ill and working through a process of elimination of what we’d eaten and drunk, we finally established the possible culprit - tap water whilst brushing her teeth!

Tues 12th Dec
Sunshine and clear blue skies

More yoga at 7.00am, Alan is relentless ‘ put your head on your knees’… I really was trying but feeling less flexible as the regime continued!

Tracking down our owner we managed to work out the water, request new sheets and a bright pink mossie net for Sue and I. Gill just doesn’t appear very tasty, whilst Sue has lost count of the number of bites…. We decided to take advantage of the weather and set off in search of a lovely pool we’d stumbled across in a nearby hotel, the beach was disappointing, more a site for the local fishing industry than sunbathing. We creamed up and must have looked quite a site, three white ladies, all in a row wearing matching black swimming costumes.

Wed 13th Dec
Finally a lie in…. but Alan made no bones about letting us know how disappointed he was with us!

Another day by the pool, the Ruddies left me to explore the rock carvings and returned with great smiles, matching bandanas and shopping bags. They were armed with the universal Indian kaftan tops and had been successfully practicing their bargaining skills. Gill’s first attempted rather stumped the shop owner when she upped the price mid discussion… but the tactic worked.

The day was topped off with very strong G&T’s and grilled marsala fish. It’s dawning on us that there may be a Mamallapuram mafia and I think we are bang in the middle of it all staying at Hotel Daphne’s, the owner being one of the brothers. No-one bothers us when they know where we are staying, and it seems that whatever we want appears. Including a new pack of cards during dinner much to Sue and my delight… Gill just groaned.

Thurs 14th Dec
Back to yoga, it is getting easier and leaves you feeling so energized afterwards. I think that also has a lot to do with being with Sue and Gill, it’s great to have old friends around and the pressure of traveling alone has lifted.

Our initial plan had been to move onto Pondicherry today but as we hadn’t even seen the World Heritage ‘Five Rathas’ - rock cut temples that are said to resemble chariots or the Shore Temple we opted to stay and dragging ourselves away from the pool set off to explore the rest of the town.

Walking along to the site, we heard the chipping ting of chisel on rock and more ominous whirr of electric grinders; we’d reached the heart of the rock carving district. Either side of the road was busy with activity and lined with various styles, shapes, sizes of carvings, from 2m high elephants, Ganesh’s (the elephant headed deity), Nandi’s (Shiva’s bull) to intricately carved pendants and the ubiquitous ‘ship in a bottle’ elephant and baby that you see everywhere, but my favourite was a huge (2x1m) reclining Ganesh with his very own rock laptop! That India all over, the old mixed with the new. We spent a pleasant few hours wandering around the Rathas and posing for photographs sitting on the huge Nandi - yoga backs and pointed toes! it’s amazing to think that they produced these beautiful temples and animals but just carving into the rocks where nature had laid them - I wander what they thought when they decided to carve a 3m high rock elephant.

We needed to book our return train and spent rather longer than expected queuing only to be told that the trains were cancelled or full and that the counterman didn’t have any more time to talk to us as he needed to serve other people… ahhhhhhhhhhh. We settled for the overnight bus. Frustratingly the day had gone too quickly and we had to make do with a view of the Shore Temple from the outside, but it’s still an impressive site with the sea glistening in the background.

Frid 15th Dec

Our last session with Alan, we’d all become rather fond of our yogi and were rather disappointed to leave, although the relief when he said “hans maka da pillow and relaaax” will stay with me for a while.

Another day by the pool and researching the jewels. Where-ever you walk there is always some-one calling “Come look, looking is free’, ‘Come my shop’ and as soon as you show any interest the door is opened, lights and fan turned on and they try and lure you inside with the promise of ‘I have more … you want’ but one old chap just said hello, so I opted for his and I don’t know who was more delighted me or him when I spotted the unraveled Arabian puzzle wedding rings. Having spent hours as a child working out the puzzle, I quickly put them all back to together and we sat back chatting as I helped him polish his silver… it was so good to use my hands again.

Our last day and a final meal at Moonrakers - the main mafia joint. We’d been right about the three brothers (I’d asked!), owning and controlling pretty much everything in town and we chuckled to ourselves as we were sent off like royalty with waves and beeps down the road to Chennai.

Driving through the night, with the dashboard Ganesh flashing neon colours, our taxi driver stopped suddenly by the side of the road and joined the procession of worshippers, holymen and a brightly lit garlanded orange statue for a quick poja before continuing our hair-raising journey along the road, built literally around trees. Tamil Nadu is said to be the place where you’ll be swept away by the religious and cultural fervour and it’s definitely everywhere you look; men have the red/ white/ yellow temple markings on their foreheads, groups of people are praying and temples, old and new, dot the landscape.

Arriving in Chennai with plenty of time to spare, we hadn’t realized that we’d opted for a semi-sleeper, no bunks this time just recliner seats, blaring music, videos and beeps. Surprisingly I did actually sleep but the girls weren’t so luck and Gill woke up to find her knee being groped.

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