Mysterious ways in Mamallapuram

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January 16th 2015
Published: March 6th 2015
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We left Mysore at 8.30pm the previous night and embarked on an 11 hour overnight train journey to Chennai. We sat and talked with two young students who were sharing our berth before settling into our bunks around 10.30pm. The gentle rocking of the train had me asleep in no time.

I woke at 6.30am and found some room on my bunk to catch up on my travel notes. We arrived in Chennai at 7am, scrambled off the train, negotiated the throngs of people pouring into Chennai Central and jumped into a minibus to begin our journey south. We were halfway through our south India travels, and we were heading down the eastern coastline of this vast country. We’d barely left the train station before pulling into the Emarald Hotel for breakfast, where we feasted on a buffet of pittu (steamed cakes), rajma curry (black pea curry), naan (leavened bread cooked in a wood fired oven), vadi (lentil fritters) and strong coffee. It was fantastic, and just what the doctor ordered. We’d been travelling for 12 hours without a shower, so we needed something to pick us up and keep us going.

We were only passing through Chennai on this trip. We finished breakfast, jumped into our minibus and headed to Mahabalipuram. As we sped along Chennai’s seafront, I was amazed by the starkness of the beach and surrounds. It’s difficult to get a feel for a place when you spend so little time there. After driving parallel to the coast for about an hour, we arrived at Hotel Mahabs and headed straight for the shower.

At 11am we set out on a bike tour of Mahabalipuram’s local temples, and to say the bikes were basic was a major understatement. We managed to ride all the way to the Five Rathas, rode/walked to the Shore Temple and then rode/walked to Krishna’s Butterball. The chaotic traffic and masses of people made it impossible to ride more than 50 metres without stopping to avoid cars, cows or children. We were still in the midst of the four day Pongal Festival, and it was fantastic (yet slightly unusual) when I realised that we were the only foreign tourists to be seen. I loved the relaxed family atmosphere at the Five Rathas and Krishna’s Butterball, but the walk to the Shore Temple to witness Shiva’s linga in the intense heat of the midday sun was all getting a bit too much – I needed a beer.

We finished our bike tour around 1pm and wandered to the seafront for lunch. We made our way up some narrow stairs to the atmospheric Santana Beach Restaurant, a rooftop restaurant overlooking the Bay of Bengal. The strong sea breeze gusting through this rooftop haven was very welcome, as we’d overheated on the bikes in Mahabalipuram’s hot dry midday heat. We shared a fried calamari masala with chips, and while Ren cooled down with a shandy, I recharged with a cold Kingfisher.

After lunch, Lee and I decided to dive into the surf that was rolling in from the Bay of Bengal. We had to disregard the state of the beach and turn a blind eye to the bloated cat that had washed up just in front of us. The waves were good for body surfing and the water was incredibly warm. It was a great experience and very refreshing. As we walked back along the beach I picked up a necklace and a few bracelets from a beach seller – I wanted something to remember my first Indian surf experience!

We headed back to the hotel and lazed by the pool for the rest of the day. The afternoon sun was searing, so we welcomed the chance to relax and cool down. I noticed a number of decrepit houses behind the hotel where small children were playing in dusty streets. Their poverty was evident, and yet here was I lazing beside a pool in an affluent hotel only metres from their crumbling homes. The social divide has weighed heavily on my conscience since I arrived in India.

We headed out for pre-dinner drinks at 6.30pm before walking to the Blue Elephant Restaurant for dinner. Ren opted for the vegetable noodles while I had the fish curry. The curry was hot and the fish was fresh – straight from the Bay of Bengal. The food was fantastic, and our beer was served in huge metal tumblers (alcohol wasn’t meant to be served, so beer bottles were not to be left on the table). We finished our meal around 8.30pm and wandered back to the hotel in the balmy evening air. We were leaving Mahabalipuram in the morning and heading to Pondicherry, so we decided on an early night.

Even though we officially stopped in Chennai (formerly called Madras), it was just a stepping stone on the way to Mamallapuram (also called Mahabalipuram) which was two hours away by minibus. We arrived on the overnight train from Mysore at the crack of dawn – well, 7am – but it felt like the crack of dawn. The Chennai train station was a mass of teaming humanity, and it looked and felt like something out of a post-apocalyptic film. Masses of people were camped on the floor, covered from head to toe in blankets, and even more were trying to move around the sleeping bodies, or simply hanging about. Everyone was waiting...clearly waiting for trains...but my tired mind’s eye thought it saw a more ominous motive. I needed more sleep!

We headed to Emarald Hotel for a quick buffet breakfast. I thought I couldn't even consider having anything more than a cup of tea. However, when I got there and saw the breakfast buffet, I felt a ravenous hunger come over me. Guess who had steaming pittu (rice flour and coconut rolled into cous cous like balls and steamed in a cylindrical shape) with rajma curry (black peas in a thick gravy sauce), dosa (thin pancakes made from fermented rice and black lentils batter) with coconut chutney, and a freshly fried egg with toast to go with their cup of tea? Of course, the boys didn't let me live that one down. 😊

Chennai was humming on that Friday morning, even though (or maybe because) it was a public holiday for the Pongal Festival. The minibus took us through the city, which was lined with advertising boards – mainly for a heavily moustachioed man who seemed to be running for office. There was evidence of a thriving economy – it is one of the Indian cities which has benefited greatly from the IT and Call Centre boom. The cars were flashy, the hotels and restaurants looked upmarket, the buildings were large and the gardens were manicured. The young women were noticeably more cosmopolitan in the way they dressed and the sari-ed women were in a minority. However, the slums along the river were hard to miss and the whiff of sewerage was the worst it's been on this trip so far. But given that Chennai is the fourth biggest city in India (after Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi), it's not that surprising.

We drove along the foreshore where a sea-misty Indian Ocean was the background for a popular but drab beach front area. We continued on to Mamallapuram along a coastal road besieged with hotels. As we drove away from the big city, I could feel the city hum starting to dwindle – the shops got smaller, the cars got older and the mammoth advertising boards decreased in size and number. However, the humidity and temperature started to increase exponentially. The roadside became one long stretch of just-harvested rice fields, which were now filled with grazing cattle and cranes fighting over the grains of rice dropped by the harvesters. I slept for most of the two hour minibus drive, so I don't have much more to share about that journey.

Hotel Mahabs in Mamallapuram was just lovely and right in the centre of town. The rooms were old-school, but they were large and came with a welcome balcony – and we promptly lowered the tone of the neighbourhood by hanging our laundry on it. We were surrounded by beautiful trees which unfortunately supplied a brilliant environment for mosquitoes, so the mosquito repellent got a good workout.

Mamallapuram has ancient origins, and it is sold as being a laid-back town with nice beaches, good restaurants and intricately carved architecture from the 7th Century. Modern day Mamallapuram is a tiny town, mostly supported by tourism due to the group of World Heritage-listed stone temples in it. So as you would expect, there are lots of touts about.

We were supposed to wait until the heat of the day had subsided, but Karni thought the weather wasn't too bad, so at 11am we ventured out for a cycling tour of the World Heritage-listed collection of 7th and 8th Century temples and stone architecture. Our bikes looked like 1960’s models with loose handlebars and questionable brakes. Even though the round trip was only 7km, I don’t ride very often and I wasn’t sure about riding through the town on an ancient bike...especially in traffic with trucks, cars, motorbikes, cows and massive groups of people wandering around celebrating Pongal. But I had a sudden case of FOMO (fear of missing out) and decided to do it. I was also safe in the knowledge that Andrew and Kim were happy to shepherd me (thanks guys!).

The first stop was at The Five Rathas (Five Chariots) which illustrates early South Indian Dravidian architecture. These are five monolithic structures, each carved from a single piece of solid pink granite, and each sculpted in a different style. There is a theory that this was part of a sculpture school and that they were scale models (based on wooden chariots) for full scale temples. A lot of literature refers to the Rathas as temples, but they were never finished and therefore never consecrated.

A few minutes away, on the edge of the sea, sat the Shore Temple. Given the complete lack of any recognisable road rules, I found negotiating the streams of traffic a challenge. The only road rule at play seemed to be that whoever was smaller and/or blinked first, lost (and that was me most of the time). Surprisingly, it was more of a challenge navigating the meandering people than the traffic, especially when we had to cross a market full of them to get to the Shore Temple. By now I was so hot that rivulets of sweat had begun to wind their way down my back, and I was struggling to stay on the bike at such slow speeds.

The Shore Temple was built with blocks of cut granite. The temple is a combination of three shrines – the main shrine and a small second shrine are dedicated to Shiva, while a small third shrine (between the other two) is dedicated to a reclining Vishnu. The pillars and carvings have sadly been eroded by the salt from high tides and occasional floods. There are numerous mandapams (carved pillars in front of temples) still remaining. There are theories that this temple was part of a ‘Seven Pagoda’ complex, and that all but this one have been eroded by the elements or submerged by the sea. We were on the shores of the Coromandel Coast of the Bay of Bengal, and this area was hit by the tsunami in 2004. It is a World Heritage site now, and the temple is protected by sea wall defences.

Next we braved more crowds through another market area and congested roads to a massive open air bas-relief wall frieze known as Arjuna’s Penance (or Descent of the Ganges). The frieze is carved in amazing detail on two pink granite rocks with a cleft in the middle. A collecting pool at the top of the rocks was designed to cause water to cascade down the cleft – supposedly signifying the Ganges coming down from heaven. The carved scenes have many interpretations, but the most loved theory is that it depicts Arjuna (a figure standing on one leg) doing penance for a favour from Shiva. The other common theory is that the figure is Bhagiratha doing penance to bring down the Ganges to earth for the prosperity and happiness of the people. Either way, the bas-relief carving was beautiful, especially the detailed depictions of kings, holy men, sinful men, nagas (serpent gods), birds, elephants and other animals.

The Tamil people from this region were often referred to as the Venetians of the 3rd – 8th Centuries. They travelled into the SE Asian peninsula spreading the Hindu religion as they went. As a result, the carvings in the temples here are similar in style to those of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but not on the same mammoth scale.

The big draw card of the area is Krishna’s Butterball, a huge granite boulder that is precariously and improbably perched on a sloping rock face – completely defying gravity. It was a pretty amazing sight, and even though it has sat there for eons, I didn’t completely trust that it wouldn’t suddenly dislodge itself and roll towards us like some sort of giant bowling ball (I read a lot of Asterix comics as a child). The lawns surrounding the area were full of big groups of families having lunch in the shade of the large trees. The day was getting hotter, and by the time we got back to our bikes, I realised the layers of sweat, sunscreen and insect repellent on the exposed skin of my neck and arms had acquired a film of road dust. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced ‘gritty’ arms before.

We cycled back to the bike hire shop and that was the end of the bike tour. As much as I was glad to be no longer riding in crazy public holiday Indian traffic, it would have been nice to have had a longer bike ride – perhaps on the network of quiet back streets that radiated off the main drag (rather than on the main road itself). I’m glad I didn’t chicken out of the bike ride and catch an auto rickshaw (motorised tricycle with a passenger cabin), although I had one small moment of panic when a guy walked out in front of me (talking on his phone) and I swerved into a parked car. The guy happened to be the owner of the car and thankfully thought it was hilarious. What was more hilarious was that when I was telling Kim what that happened, I ran straight into the back of Lee... Ah. Good times.

Andrew and I don't like crowds much, so we really should have avoided being in India during a festival. More to the point, we probably should have avoided India all together! But in the hope of experiencing as wide a cross section of humanity as possible, here we were.

We walked to Santana Restaurant on the beach for lunch. While travelling in India, we’d decided to be as vegetarian as possible, but we were making exceptions with seafood in coastal towns. So for lunch I ordered masala calamari which came with chips! This was our first Indian-western fusion meal, and I have to admit it was fabulous. I couldn’t believe I got a side order of chips, but there you go – it’s not all rice in South India.

We were sitting on the top floor of the restaurant with a warm Indian Ocean scented breeze blowing through the open windows of the restaurant. From where we were sitting, we had a good view of the beach below us, including the passing parade of Indian families, groups of young men and herds of cows. It was both cute and slightly weird to see that cows liked the beach.

Given the restaurant only sold beers, Kim and I ordered lemonade and made ourselves a shandy. Brian had never had one before, and he seems to have discovered a new favourite drink.

The beach wasn’t really set up for lounging about, but Andrew and Lee wanted to swim in the Bay of Bengal, so after lunch we found a space on the far end of the beach that wasn't occupied by cows or groups of young guys. The water wasn’t as warm as it looked, but it was quite pleasant (although the water was warm to Andrew who is used to surfing in freezing Tasmanian waters). Andrew was persistently followed by a guy selling necklaces and bracelets, and in the end Andrew relented and bought a beaded necklace and two bracelets. Initially I wasn’t happy about rewarding the persistent seller – but the bracelets were quite cute. Cute enough that I stole one for myself. 😊

We walked back along the main street to the shady coolness of our hotel. There were the usual shops selling beach sarongs and trinkets, but there were also a number of stone-carving galleries and workshops. However, we didn’t shop as much as I thought we would – we couldn’t be bothered fending off the pushy touts.

I probably would have liked Mamallapuram a whole lot more (despite the stifling heat) if not for the disproportionate number of super-persistent touts and beggars. I think it was even more noticeable because it was a small place.

The hotel swimming pool provided a great hangout space for most of the boys, while Kim and I reclined in the shade with an adult beverage delivered to us by Lee – so spoilt! Damien and Brian had ended up in a lovely (honeymoon!) suite with a large enclosed balcony, so we gathered there for pre-dinner drinks. I must have got a bit too much sun on the bike ride, as I was feeling very tired and slightly hot and bothered. However, an hour of sitting outside on a balmy night soon made me feel better.

We had dinner at The Blue Elephant along the path to the beach, which was well known for its seafood dishes. Andrew ordered a fiery fish curry. However, given I wasn’t feeling 100%, I ordered from the bland side of the menu – fried vegetarian noodles – which were surprisingly delicious and exactly what my stomach wanted!

As we walked back from the restaurant, I noticed that the town had a very different feel. The traffic had subsided, the touts had gone home and the temperature was very pleasant for walking. This was more like the laid-back seaside town I had been expecting.

This was a quick stop over in Mamallapuram with the main aim to visit the ancient architectural sites. However, if we had stayed a few more days (and had been able to avoid the pushy touts), I think I may have started to understand what attracted so many western hippies here.

Next we travel south along the coast to the former French colony of Pondicherry.


6th March 2015

You had me at bloated cat...
Your india blogs are giving me a yes no yes no but the food looks so good vibe about visiting India one day - keep them coming :) Thanks!
8th March 2015

Re: You had me at bloated cat...
Cindy my stomach flips every time I think about that little cat's face. But India is a big lesson in 'mind over matter' :)
6th March 2015

Awesome blog & awesome pics
I fancy a curry now after seeing the delicious food pics lol.
8th March 2015

Re: Awesome blog & awesome pics
Thanks Chris! One downside of writing these blogs after coming back home is that I'm constantly craving a curry or a masala chai :)
6th March 2015
krishna’s butterball

Two views..
I continue to love and be amazed by your He Said, She Said. Here, you are, two people together forever with such lovely, different perspectives--filling in spaces left by each other. Food as usual looked fab; touts, as usual, sounded awful. Glad you made it through that harrowing bike ride threading through the crowds--a proper adventure!
8th March 2015
krishna’s butterball

Re: Two views..
Thanks Tara! Writing both perspectives does make for a long blog, but we really like reading eacht other's take on our travels. xx
7th March 2015

Lol I agree with a previous commenter that "you had me at bloated cat," So funny! India is full of surprises and requires an open mind to appreciate it. Love all the interesting experiences you are having over there!
8th March 2015

Jennifer you are absolutely right - travelling in India totally requires an open mind (much more than other countries I've been to). When I read your blog on India I got a strong feeling that you will be going back... :)
8th March 2015

India travails
Or is it travels?? Whichever, I am enjoying your adventures for ideas as to where and where not to go!
9th March 2015

Re: India travails
Meryl I'm so eager to see what your south Indian trip will cover... we were quite surprised at the vast cultural differences between the north (Rajasthan) and south.
8th March 2015

Mamallapuram and oh so much more
We've been meaning to try the Indian/Pakistani restaurant down the street. I imagine it will happen this week. I should have learned by now to eat before reading any of your blogs. Plus I'm always amazed at how tiny you are with all the food you consume! India = touts- I"m fairly good at ignoring them and or saying no with a smile. I love the crowds and the festivals. I would have loved it. It is fantastic that you have people delivering drinks to you. I'm certain I would not have gone swimming near the bloated cat. Ready to read more.
9th March 2015

Re: Mamallapuram and oh so much more
MJ if you like crowds, I would highly recommend going back to India during a festival - the crowds are phenomenal! Andrew really loves the sea, and I found out that it takes more than a washed up bloated cat to put him off :)
24th March 2015

Cows on the beach
It's a well known fact that Indian cows love the beach in the same way as Thai dogs love the beach ;). We remember that Mamallapuram had a real mosquito problem and it would have been a lot nicer if (like you say) they did something about the busy traffic. I (Donna) almost got run over walking on the main road up from the beach and lost no time in dressing down the driver who sloped away very sheepish after I'd finished with him. As MJ says...glad I ate before catching up on your blogs :D.
25th March 2015

Re: Cows on the beach
You are right about Thai dogs loving their beaches! We had a few close calls with traffic in India - a motorbike (Ren), a cow (Ren), a tractor (Andrew) and another motorbike (Andrew)... but we survived to tell the tale :)

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