Sunday, November 24:
Madras to Mahabalipuram

Being that our room didn't have any windows to speak of, we woke up to the sounds of people as the rest of the Broadlands hotel began to stir. As I got up and took a walk into the courtyard, I realized that this was actually a cute little hotel, despite the poor room we received. The hotel boy brought me a flask of tea, and we tried to pack up so we could be on the road by noon.

We walked outside to see if the roads were traversable. Somehow the water had subsided and the damp pavement had reasserted its dominance. We ate at the Tirumali hotel cafeteria, a pure veg place down the street. They served what must have been the largest dosas in India - nearly two feet in diameter. The tea was so black it was undrinkable, and I really didn't trust the milk. After eating, I arranged for a taxi to take us on the two-hour ride to Mahabalipuram (also known as Mamalapuram, depending on who you ask). The ride would cost just under $20 dollars - a fortune by budget traveler standards, perhaps, but this way, we avoided taking the likely chance of having our backpacks strapped on top of a rickety bus, only to get soaked in the midday rain.

The first hour of the trip to Mahabalipuram was pretty straightforward - we headed south down the coastal road. The further down we went, the less traffic we encountered, which in turn meant less noise and less smog. As a light rain began to fall, we could see that the road ahead of us had been washed out by the monsoon. We bumped and banged along the semi-paved remains at about 10 kph - no wonder it took two hours just to go 30 miles. I wish I had brought some dramamine, though. The road remained sketchy til we reached the outskirts of Mahabalipuram. We then arrived at the Tamil Nadu Beach Resort, our destination and home for the next few days.

The resort lay on a beach about a mile north of Mahabalipuram's shore temple. We checked into a small cottage in a wooded area, surrounded by pine trees - about 100 feet from the beach. The rooms were clean and comfortable, and at $20 a night, it seemed like a reasonable way to wind down on the beach. The rains had stopped by the time we had settled in, so we hit the beach and walked south to the village. The beach and its isolation was a bit of a shock to the system - for the first time in weeks, we were outside, yet completely alone, apart from the occasional cow grazing on sea grass. It was such a marked contrast to Delhi or even Kathmandu. But there was the unfortunate tradeoff- the hot, humid, wet weather. Mahabalipuram is on the same parallel as Panama, so the beach and its climate made it feel like we were walking along the coast of Haiti after a nasty hurricane had passed.

Activity on the beach picked up as we got closer to Mahabalipuram's best known landmark, the shore temple of Shiva and Vishnu, which was built by the Pallava dynasty in the 7th century. From the distance, it looked like a stone Christmas tree, but on our approached it began to take on the recognizable form of a southern Indian temple. We walked by several groups of fishermen and their boats, which were basically three or four three trees bent and mounted together to form a gondola. I imagined that this coastal way of life had changed very little over the centuries. And looking at these primitive boats, I wasn't at all surprised that over 1000 fisherman had been killed just weeks earlier during a massive cyclone that hit the land just north of us, along the coast of Andhra Pradesh.

We reached the temple complex and began to explore it. 1300 years of sea and monsoons had taken their toll on the fine architectural details, but most of the basic stone figures and shapes remained intact and recognizable. Each side of the temple's pyramid-like main shrine was lined with rows of great stone bulls, and we could easily make out images of Shiva and Vishnu, as well as several elephants and monkeys. The inner shrines of the temple were in particularly good condition. We then sat for a while on the barrier rocks that had been placed along the shoreline to protect the temple from the battering waves.

shore temple

It was getting very breezy and the salt spray was strong, so we headed inland past the temple and down a street lined with small restaurants and stalls of stone cutters. Stone carving and masonry is still alive and well in Mahabalipuram, and each shop would show off its artisans' work, from small soapstone paperweights to massive marble shrines of Hindu gods, which were sold to temples around the world. As you walked down the unpaved road, it was impossible to not notice the constant clicking of stonemason's tools patiently pounding on rocks of all sizes. There were so many sculptors chipping granite, the staccato sounds of their work continuously swirled around you like some strange John Cage performance art piece. But such hard work would never get in the way of the hard sell - from within every shop, the carvers would yell out to you, "Mister, please, come and see my statues. Very good work...." Often they would have their children come out and try to bring you inside, but unlike in other cities, these kids would just as soon give up their charge and spend their time playing and running around rather than escorting dumb tourists like us back to father's showroom.

We stopped at a small cafe in a hut across from a stonemason's shop. The Pepsis were cheap and they were playing this odd westernish music that sounding like Prince performing lounge standards. The woman who ran the cafe was striking, yet not particularly Indian. She must have a significant amount of Portuguese or French blood, for both cultures dominated the south for many centuries. After downing our drinks, we continued down the road to the Shiva temple and the enormous bas-relief, Arjuna's Penance. The temple itself was under repair and was completely scaffolded, so we headed straight to Arjuna, which was carved at the base of a large granite hill. 1300 years ago, the sides of the hill were carved into a series of shrines and reliefs. The largest of these reliefs is Arjuna's Penance - at 30 feet high and 100 feet long, it's the greatest bas-relief in the ancient world. Arjuna's Penance is a collage of stories which tell tales ranging from the life of the river goddess Ganges to the epic hero Arjuna receiving a boon from Shiva. But it's probably best known for its mundane characters - life size carvings of elephants, monkeys, children, beggars, all doing everyday things. It's an incredible work for its time, especially considering the vitality and accuracy of the people and creatures. Unfortunately, the weather was just awful, so I wasn't able to get a good picture of it. Maybe we'd get a chance to come back tomorrow.

Beyond Arjuna's Penance and the cave shrines that surround it is a massive expanse of granite that dominates the view to the west of town. We climbed to the top of it and visited a goat that was sunning itself. It didn't seem to mind our company. We climbed even higher and could easily see the rice paddies and palm groves that extended for miles inland. It looked like Cambodia or Vietnam. I half expected to hear the sounds of attack helicopters blasting Wagner. Instead, two different PA systems competed with each other, blaring classical and modern Indian music at the same time. The sounds of the two recordings bounced and echoes across the desolate granite landscape.

After sitting for a good hour or so, we got ready to head back to the beach. We then began to hear short staccato screeches and screams cycling over a period of several seconds each. At first, I thought it was some kids messing around, but Susanne's keener ears recognized it as the bleats of goats in trouble. We decided to investigate. At the edge of the hill, near a fairly steep drop, a mother goat was attempting to at leaves from a tree that stood at the side of the hill. Beyond the edge, about five feet down, a baby goat was stuck in the tree, held up only by the strength of the branches. 30 below it was another goat, bigger than the baby but still quite the youngster, standing on a rock. Apparently the two young goats had extended themselves a little too far in an attempt to eat leaves off of the bush. One of them probably slid down the side of the precipice and managed to make it down ok, while the other one got jammed in the tree and was unable to get back up. They were all screaming, especially the kid stuck in the tree, so I reached down and tried to help it back up. I wasn't able to grab it per se, but I did get down low enough to offer some support while it was able to get a decent footing and climb up on her own, defying both fate and gravity. While Susanne and I fed the goat some leaves, a young farmboy climbed up the hill, having found the third goat and brought it back to mama. Family reunion complete.

We returned to the village by way of several cave-like shrines north of the granite hill. In a field near the beach, several groups of kids played cricket. We watched them briefly and then hit the beach, where we sat for a while on a plank from old fisherman's boat. It was 5:30 and getting dark, so we decided to get an early dinner before starting our long walk back to the resort. The Seashore Restaurant was a quaint little oceanside place with a lovely view of the beach and the shore temple. Mahabalipuram is known for its seafood, so I decided to try the grilled snapper. The waiter brought out three fresh fish for me to inspect. I selected a small one whose eyes were still glassy - always a good sign for fresh fish. To Susanne's disappointment, the restaurant had no chicken that night, and not being a seafood fan, she resorted to ordering a bland bowl of Asian noodles and rice.

My fish arrived about 40 minutes later. The whole fish was on a large platter - head, tail, and everything in between. I don't know why I would have expected otherwise, but at first I was a bit surprised and turned off by the fish. The snapper itself was tasty, but they grilled it in a pungent sweet and sour sauce that I thought was too salty for this particular fish. The highlight of the meal were the chips - crisp German fries that were the best I'd had in ages.

We left the restaurant a little after 7 o'clock and started our walk north along the beach. It was pitch black outside - the clouds and surf glowed dimly from a concealed moon, but that was about it. Every minute or so, we would be swept by a bright beam from the lighthouse, which would blow our night vision and make the beach seem even darker. So we walked blindly along the shore, hoping that our resort would be well lit for us to recognize it. 20 minutes later, we could see a few lights and a fence. We were home again.

Susanne and I hung out for a while at the resort's outdoor cafe, drinking tea, eating cookies, and talking with the entire waitstaff, which had gathered in an semicircle around our table. We chatted about the weather, the climate in the US, and other typical Indian subjects. Though their English was good, their accents were much harder to understand than native Hindi speakers. Unlike the languages of the north, Tamil is a Dravidian language, not related to any of the Indo-European languages. Tamil uses many trills and clipped sounds that are alien to western languages, so when they speak English, the accent provides us with an interesting challenge.

I stayed up late writing in my journal, trying to get caught up. By midnight, I was still half a day behind. Oh well. Sleep began to overtake me, so I went to bed.

Next Entry: Exploring Mahabalipuram

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