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Published: December 27th 2015
I spent many hours over several days wandering among the 7th century wonders at Mamallapuram. Carved from single large boulders, stories burst from their surfaces in astonishing detail, rooms chiseled deep into the guts of the rocks appear like naturally occurring symmetrical caves.
The first day I explored, a rock carver tagged along, despite my saying several times "goodbye" and "I want to be alone." When I realized he was not going away until I visited his "shop," I detoured from my tour for five minutes, followed him on stones rising from a cesspool of muck-which I nearly teetered into, entered his shop, and surveyed his quite ordinary inventory. He expressed indignation that I didn't buy, then shouted at me as I walked away. This was my first day touring in this small town. I sighed, knowing he would be the first of many very assertive vendors I would encounter in the days ahead.
I was able to shake off the aggressive vendor. The exquisite carvings captivated me. I lingered as the sun set, marveling at the immensity of the work depicting various deities and moments in their existence. Other tourists, mostly Indians, happily snapped selfies and used the
Stories abound in this exquisitely carved panel.
rock surfaces for climbing challenges. A small child and his father pushed on "Krishna's Butterball", a lonesome giant boulder perched on a slippery rock slope where joyous youngsters used their backsides as temporary sleds. Young couples crept into rock crevices for artful photography work, and perhaps a private space where they could hold each other's hand for a brief moment.
I realized I would never capture photos without human presence at these popular monoliths. So I started to enjoy the human show, and watched and photographed as people climbed upon Nandi the bull, or posed in front of one of the Five Rathas, or sought the perfect selfie with friends, or composed an engaging family portrait. After snapping a family's portrait, they invited me to join them. Me, with my comfortable traveling pants and shirt, amidst Indian women in their gorgeous saris. I heard one of them musing about looking at the photo later and saying "Yaaru?" Which essentially means, "who is that?"
Friend Sanjay took me to the Tiger Cave just outside of town, an unfinished temple with a
frame of giant "tiger" faces around the alcove carved into a huge boulder. I was alone, save for Sanjay and a lone guide waiting for an unlucky tourist. I felt fortunate to have beaten the bus loads of people. Sanjay showed me a nearby smaller temple, and then a building that had been uncovered by the 2004 tsunami. A later temple of granite had been built over an earlier one of bricks, and made for a curious jumble of structures, only recently discovered and excavated from its overburden of sand.
One should visit the temples of Mamallapuram. Capturing a selfie with these remarkable structures is more or less an expected and effortless activity these days. More elusive is capturing the intent, the purposeful rendering of story and life and exquisite structure in huge, once smooth boulders that waited silently for the chisels.
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