Monday, November 25:
Exploring Mahabalipuram

We slept pretty late and had a dull breakfast. The restaurant at the Tamil Nadu Beach Resort was horrendous, largely because of its indifferent service. As a state-run hotel, it doesn't worry much about putting the best foot forward, because no matter what, they'll still get subsidized. The staff was slow and lazy, and only tried their best when they wanted to get us to exchange dollars through them or to arrange a private taxi. While at $20 a night, the resort was still a good deal, but its employees left an awful taste in my mouth.

We walked down the beach in the rain. It was a light sprinkle most of the time, so we didn't need to use our umbrellas for the most part. The cold rain actually felt good in the humidity and 90 degree morning temperature. Susanne commented on how strange she felt needing an umbrella on a beach. Being a Floridian who lived less than a mile from the shore, I just felt like I was at home during the late summer rains. We paused for a couple of Cokes at the Luna Magica restaurant, a new place that had just opened on the north end of the beach. We didn't get any meals, but still enjoyed the cozy atmosphere. A fisherman who was temporarily marooned because of the rough seas entered the restaurant and nonchalantly joined us at our table. At first I assumed he wanted us to change money or something, but he turned out to be a really nice guy who just wanted to talk and practice his English. He was about 25, very thin, and extremely dark, with short curly black hair and thick eyebrows - classic Tamil features, I thought. We talked about the monsoon, fishing, and of course, that perennial favorite topic, the weather in America.

As noon passed we left the restaurant and headed down a small street into town. We followed the sounds of a drum and horn ensemble that was playing up-tempo Tamil music. We were curious to see what the celebration was all about. After snapping a few shots of the band as they stood on a street corner, I noticed that to their right was a lean-to attached to a stone and mud hut. There was a group of four or five women in a circle, sobbing and wailing, and in the center of the circle lay a withered body wrapped in garlands of flowers. We had stumbled into a funeral. I was so embarrassed. It wasn't that I minded walking through the street as the funeral got under way - lots of locals were doing just that as well. I just felt awful about how we approached, cameras planted on our faces, snapping away at the band. I hope no one noticed us. We proceeded across the street and were largely ignored by the families in attendance.

We returned once again to Arjuna's Penance, hoping to get a better look at the details of the bas-relief. There was a break in the rain which was nice, but the thick clouds continued to loom overhead, thus once again preventing me from getting any good pictures. The first thing most people probably notice about the Penance is the herd of large elephants on the right panel of the bas-relief. The two adult elephants were life-size, and they dominated the panel. But just below them, you could make out baby elephants as they played, nursed, and even yawned. The realism undertaken by the creators of the Penance is just stunning. I also could make out dreadlocked sadhus smoking hash. One of them was reaching towards the sky, and his ribs protruded under his emaciated flesh. Not far from him, a woman washed her hair in a steam. The relief also had its share of gods, goddesses and epic heroes, but its portrayal of everyday people and animal life was what impressed me most. I'm glad we returned for a second look. There was so much to see, it would have been a shame to have given it only a single chance.

The rains picked up again, but undaunted, we returned to the granite hill behind the Penance in order to explore the small shrines and temples that had been carved into its rear face. On the far west side we found a semi-flooded dirt path that appeared to encircle the entire hill, se we decided to follow it. About half way round, the rains really came down on us, se we took shelter in a shrine whose stone inner sanctum provided ample refuge for us. From inside our 7th century hiding space, we could see a large flooded plain and hundreds of palm trees in the distance. I really began to appreciate what the monsoons were all about as we sat there, watching and listening to the storm.

We remained in the temple cave for a while until the rain let up, and then continued down our mud path. The large pond next to the path was full of frogs, and we stood by its shore for a brief time, watching the amphibians leap through the water and splash around. On the other side of the path, small trees and bushed served as the home for a variety of butterflies. We actually tried to get a few close-up pictures of them. It was an interesting challenge - all the good butterflies would flutter about as soon as you got close, while the plain and ordinary ones seemed more than happy just to sit there on a branch and strike a pose for the camera.

At an intersection in the road, we were approached by a young man. I figured he was just another stone carver trying to sell his goods, but nevertheless, I didn't shoo him away. He decided to start a conversation with us. As I suspected, he was indeed a stone carver, and he claimed he had studied Italian marble carving in Europe. He soon invited us to his studio at his house down the street to see his work. He said time and time again our visit would be "not business" and "only for fun." I seriously doubted this, but then again, it was our first invite to a village home and I was willing to put up with a hard sell just to get the experience.

We walked further down the path, past the lighthouse and an ancient Shiva that stood on the peak of the granite hill. We then weaved through a series of mud and stone huts, naked children, and women washing clothes, before we reached his house. It was a small brick structure, very modest, but quite clean. He asked us to remove our shoes; neither of us felt too hot about it, but once we did take them off, we only had to step around the corner to reach his studio. Inside it were dozens of granite and marble statues, most of them Hindu gods, each no more than six inches high. The workmanship was truly incredible - you could see the tuning knobs on Saraswati's sitar, or a long string of pearls that were frozen in a wind-blown pose around Parvati's neck. As we admired his work, he then began to quote prices, mostly $40 and up. Ouch. If they had been ten bucks each, perhaps, well I might have considered buying one or two. But at these prices, no way. We politely declined, yet he continued to pitch. After a few minutes of these pressure tactics, we stepped outside and put on our shoes. As we tried to leave, he began a typical Indian merchant guilt trip, to which I responded, "Look, you said over and over that this was 'not business, only fun.' I agreed. Now you are breaking your promise to us." This really ticked him off, but at least he gave up, turned around and went back into his house.

Susanne and I continued onward to the Shiva Temple. It was perched high above us on the granite hill's peak, almost parallel to the top of the lighthouse's observation platform 100 yards away. Like most of Mahabalipuram's ancient structures, the temple itself was from the Pallavan period, 7th to 8th century, but was much more worn away than the other temples in town. We admired the view from the top, but the temple's rock floor was wet from the rain, and I didn't feel very comfortable with the traction. So as the winds picked up, we took it as a sign to get back on flat ground. We headed down and started to make our way back to central Mahabalipuram.

On our way to town, that stone carver guy walked by us. I didn't realize it was him at first, until he said, "Go back to your hotel and listen to the BBC. Cyclone is on its wait. It will hit Mahabalipuram tonight." He then walked off. What? We had heard no news about a cyclone, which are the monsoon season's answer to hurricanes. And not unlike hurricanes, they don't just pop up overnight. But just a few weeks earlier, the worst cyclone in 10 years ravaged the coasts of Andhra Pradesh and northern Tamil Nadu, killing thousands, so we were well aware of the dangers. Assuming he was telling the truth, there was little we could do about it, so we decided to go eat and ask the people at the restaurant if they had heard any news about a storm.

We ate at a nice veg restaurant at a hotel in town. The maitre d' assured us that no cyclone was on its way. This only infuriated Susanne. "How dare that jerk tell us that!" she said.

(a side note: two weeks after returning from India, I read a story on the CNN website about a huge cyclone that was battering Bangladesh. The report said the storm had formed two weeks earlier in the south, off the coast of Tamil Nadu, and then abruptly turned north to Bangladesh, and was now heading south again. So perhaps that stone carver was indeed telling the truth. Who's to say...)

We ended up eating a huge dosa platter, and later, some ice cream. I would live to regret it, though. Back at the hotel, I felt like crap and went to bed.

Next Entry: Mahabalipuram sick day

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