Dec 2011 and Jan 27th 2012 (I have reworked most of the images on this page from the archived RAW files – March 2014)
There are places that I firmly had in mind to see on previous visits to India but for one reason or another I didn’t get around to it. Mahabalipuram was on that list. This time I made sure I saw it by visiting early on my trip – and I am very glad that I did.
This town contains “World Heritage” status for its famous Shore Temple and amazing Five Rathas. There are some splendid carvings in the huge natural boulders which became temples and works of art in the Pallava Dynasty in the 7th century, although, as they are crafted from bedrock not all were used as full on temples. The huge relief carving “Arjuna’s Penance” is absolutely breathtaking in its scale and craftsmanship. Krishna’s Butterball is just fun. The enormous boulder balancing on a sloping rock is a natural phenomenon. locals and visitors alike have fun finding angles to photograph their family and friends apparently supporting the Butterball on their shoulders.
There is an enormous amount of tourist accommodation in the town, from quite exclusive to quite humble. “Lonely Planet” helped me again and a pleasant upper story room at “La Vie en Rose” was my address in India when I wrote this! The town throngs with visitors from many parts of the world and there is a very sizeable Indian tourist industry with many buses per day clogging the narrow streets and filling both them and the busy bus station with diesel fumes, noise, colourful saris and school parties.
All through the town’s streets leading to the sea and parallel to it, are a multitude of shops selling little, large and enormous stone carvings produced by a workforce glimpsed behind the shops hard at it with angle grinders and power chisels making ever more statues of the Gods and Goddesses, Gandy and whoever else. Occasionally one comes across someone using old technology and the sound of hammer and chisel is a welcome change from the whine and screech of electric tools. Needless to say the persuasion and artifice used by the shopkeepers to part the tourists from their rupees and fill their backpacks with small pieces of stone has to be experienced to be believed. Yes, even I am not immune, after falling for a hard-luck story, a tiny version of my all-time favourite, Goddess Saraswati, resides in my pack ready for Her onward journey.
The standard of food in the cafés and restaurants catering for the western tourist in Mahabalipuram is very good. Many do variations of popular Indian dishes and there are many that cook and serve the fresh fish that are landed everyday on the beach a stones-throw away. Many western tourists demand European style food and local café owners are only too pleased to supply it, along with a cold beer!
I am 100% vegetarian this trip (and most of the time elsewhere) so cannot wax lyrical about meaty or fishy dishes, but I have no qualms about recommending the “Buddha Café” where Imthu and his brother serve excellent food cooked by their father. They are a busy family (mum runs a shop nearby selling jewellery and toys). When the café is not busy, Imthu enjoys talking to his customers. He has a natural charm and worldliness that bely his years. He has plans to expand the restaurant after this season is over and I am sure it will go from strength to strength with his hand at the tiller.
The electricity supply for Mahabalipuram is as problematic as Chennai’s and goes off for an hour at regular intervals. The hotels and restaurants cope with this by having a battery bank charged when the mains is on and a inverter to run lighting when reduced to battery power.
Whilst in Mahabalipuram the sculpture museum is worth a visit, housed as it is in a very interesting building. When I went, the man at the gate could have been having a bad day, or maybe he just presents himself as a grumpy old fart. He knows nothing about the exhibits and seems to care even less; the exhibits have no explanatory captions or notes, so unless you have a fund of existing knowledge be prepared, as I did, to get talking to a visiting student (from Chennai) who with charm and erudition, gave me as much information as I needed. He would be my candidate for a new curator and front of house man.
I am heading for Pondicherry tomorrow to continue my trip but I will return to Mahablipuram before I fly home; I like it – a relaxing time by the sea and stones.
UPDATE – 27th January 2012
Yes, I have returned to Mahabalipuram. Its 49 days since I left for Pondycherry. I can hardly believe it that it is only seven weeks and in that short time the centre has sprouted about 5 new restaurants including one that seems to have 2 floors of dining space and lit up like a Christmas Tree at night and what appears to be a giant carport at street level that will evolve into yet another shop selling stone statues or colourful tat. The builders and fitters have been having a busy time, but I can’t help feeling that the town now has too many cafés, although it is definitely busier than when I left and the hotel prices have risen. The first night I stayed in a room with the required double aspect, bathroom and sit out space for 800rs per night, however it had no mosquito screening over any of the windows, hence I got no sleep in the furnace within, due to both the temperature and the resident squad of flying things that seem to come at no extra charge. I got frazzled and stomped off across the road to a room that I had nearly taken the day before. Just on the off-chance that I would return the management had fitted screening on two of the windows, later I shall see if the hot water works (it did). It didn’t at the other place – I took the first room because it was prettier – when will I learn. I suppose it has to do with being a photographer; seeing everything in visual terms. However the manager of the first place had promised to fit screening but didn’t and hot water, which also didn’t happen. India is turning out loads of new graduates in hospitality studies every year and hotels all over the country are upping their game. Attitudes such as “it was good enough 10 years ago it will do for another 10” and pure laziness are no longer cutting the mustard, thankfully.
Mahabalipuram draws a different sort of western tourist than go to Tiruvannamalai, they are the older generation, perhaps the parents, of the hundreds of eager young spiritual seekers who crowd the satsangs in Tiru, sitting at the feet of rooftop gurus, listening out for wisdom.
Throughout India especially in places like Mahabalipuram, are the New Tourists to India inspired by the Sunday supplements’ statement that “India is Safe” – early retired, ferried by private coaches untouched by the sun or the culture,they are busy eating steak and chips and buying things compulsively as they do in every town on the tourist trail.
Other tourists in Malabalipuram have sun-browned faces lined by cigarette smoke and traces of a dissolute life, aged rock-star types who have survived the drugs and excesses of their younger years, sit in cafés and smoke, revelling in the freedom to pollute the air of their fellow diners in a way they are no longer allowed to do in Europe – after all this is India where men smoke and women are relegated to the kitchen to breath the fumes of kitchen fires and stoves.
A greener culture, promoted by the occasional placard, is a dream of a few highly educated folk beating their heads against the brick wall of an unthinking, ever more acquisitive, majority who are completely unaware that their litter is a problem, after all there has always been a caste of people who’s job it is to clear up after them. The untouchables, Dalits and scheduled castes are awash with plastic. India is awash with plastic. Little fires burn all over as small brown barefoot women feed the flames, breath the highly toxic fumes, sleep in doorways and endure without complaint, another lifetime resulting from the bad karma of past lives where who knows what happened.
I am sad to say that in the west, my generation who once told their parents – “why don’t you all f-f-fadeaway” learned nothing or next to nothing, from the golden opportunities we had. What Masters we had, were marginalised by a media with a hidden agenda of feeding consumption and global economic growth. The message that “all you need is love” just did not go deep enough. Did not go to our very core. We have not yet discovered – REALIZED – that the core of our beings is LOVE ITSELF – We are Gods – that is, and has always been our potential. Society has brainwashed us into being content not with the STUFF of life but the stuff of life.
It is never too late, however. What is not achieved in this life may possibly be achieved in the next, or the next. We are evolving, perhaps not in the single generation that the Aurobindos claim for themselves, but we are and we MUST evolve into LOVE.
Kanchipuram is a few hours away by taxi (share one with friends and the cost is reasonable). It is well worth the trip. Here is a page about my day trip to Kanchi – https://chriswormald.wordpress.com/kanchipuram-temple-city/