KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
Mamallapuram (formerly known as Mahabalipuram) is an ancient seaport that was established as a centre of sculpture and art in the 7th century AD by a Pallava ruler. It has become a World Heritage site with an abundance of monolithic sculpture - the works are carved from single rocks. There are more than forty carved monuments - the most dramatic being Arjuna's Penance - a 100m x 30m bas-relief carved on the side of a cliff depicting one of the scenes from the Mahabharata. A fissure cuts it in two - incorporated to depict a river. Animals and creatures as well as the gods Shiva and Vishnu are sculpted around Arjuna. Just at the edge of the village, the Five Rathas, a set of temples are each built from a single rock and are unique in design of Indian temples.
We arrived by hired car from Chennai in the late afternoon. With the upcoming festival called "Pongal" starting in a few days, we found almost all the decent rooms in Mamallapuram already taken. The driver was in a hurry to get back to Chennai, but we asked him to keep driving us around the town as we checked in one hotel after another. Then Anil spotted a sign with an arrow pointing down a small side street. We thought we would try one more hotel before letting the car go. We were lucky to find that the Mahabs Inn had one non-AC room left for the night and that they would be able to move us to an AC room thereafter. The place is delightful and the staff very friendly. They even allow guests to use their computer for access to the internet and I learned that they have a great website. Here is the link to their site. You can easily see why we have decided to chill out for a while and plan to stay here for at least a week, maybe even two.
Visit Mahabs Inn
The site is very well done and makes the Inn looks pretty spectacular. Just remember, this is India and things are not always what they seem. The room is just like the superior one on the site, but it has deteriorated a little since the photos were taken. The best thing is that it's only about $25.00 CAD per night so it is very affordable. After settling into our room, we decided to take a walk through the tiny town and then out to the beach. The two or three streets in Mamallapuram are lined with small shops, many of them selling Kashmiri jewellery and other handicrafts from the far north. It's tough for them because they have been forced to leave Kashmir ever since the turmoil started there in the late 1980's. They set up shop wherever foreign tourists visit, but there are so many of them that it gets a little tiresome when they are always asking you to come inside their shop "just for a look". The balance of the shops are tailors and local stone sculpture shops. It's great that there isn't much else, there's little temptation to spend time other than seeing the fabulous temples and chilling out.
The beach, just at the edge of town, is the area used by the fishermen and is very dirty. It's not an area that I will return to again. As we walked along the shore we came upon a huge dead turtle. I suspect that it was caught in a fisherman's net and it was so large he couldn't move it. It was so sad to see such a magnificent creature in such an undignified place. As we turned to walk away, I heard loud firecrackers back near the buildings fronting the beach and saw a large group of young boys carrying a huge structure covered with flowers. It must have some religious significance, perhaps a preamble to the Spring Harvest Festival called Pongal. As they struggled to carry the structure up a narrow lane, setting off loud crackers along the way, the flowers fell off and littered the sandy soil. We decided to see if we could catch up to them and find out more. They moved rather swiftly and we never did get near them but noticed that the women of the neighbourhood came out immediately and began sweeping up the flowers with their brooms. The lanes are pretty well littered with lots of plastic garbage so I wondered if perhaps it was bad luck to walk on the flowers and that is why the women seemed in a hurry to sweep them up. They don't seem to pay the same attention to the usual litter in the alleys.
When we arrived in Mamallapuram, we learned that there was a Dance Festival going on for the entire month of January. There are performances most nights, with the stage set up right in front of the Arjuna's Penance. This is just a short walk from our hotel; it couldn't be better situated. We attended the performance on Friday night and I took a few photos of the dancers. They move so very quickly it was hard to capture them still for a moment, but I think that you will get a taste of what we experienced. The setting was magical, there was a light breeze and we came early so managed to get seats in the front row. There were dozens of goats climbing all over the top of the rock face before and during the performances. They provided a great distraction while we waited for the dancing to begin. They are almost as agile as the dancers below.
Tomorrow is the beginning of Pongal (January 14th) and we are looking forward to learning more about this important festival. There are busloads of Indian peasants arriving every day, many of them are sleeping in the courtyards we overlook and they are served a communal breakfast before departing in mid-morning. We will soon see if they are here because of Pongal, or if they come regularly to visit the temples in the area.
Yesterday we went to the Tamil Nadu Tourist Office to book a tour to a village for the second day of Pongal. We discovered the hard way that there is a dish made from rice and lentils that is eaten for breakfast. The name of the dish happens to be translated into English using the same letters as the word for the harvest festival. When I inquired about the tour to the village for "pongal" the man at the tourist office was completely befuddled. I kept repeating the word and spoke of a tour to the village. Suddenly the light went on and he said pongal more like "poen-gal" which is the way the festival name is pronounced. They all had a good laugh at our expense but the upside is, we are booked for a village tour to see how the people celebrate, not to see how they eat breakfast!
On our second day here, I spent a couple of hours at the internet cafe working on my journal while Anil returned to the room to watch cricket. When I arrived, I found Anil is a state of alarm. While he was inside watching the television, a couple of large monkeys arrived to play havoc with the furniture on the verandahs. Many of the tourists eat breakfast there and the monkeys must be used to looking for hand-outs. Anil happened to look towards the open window and was startled to find two monkeys looking back at him. They tried to squeeze through the grillwork and when they found they couldn't make it, they reached out their hands and beckoned to Anil. The door to the room was ajar, just inches from where they were sitting. Anil panicked that they would come inside and there was no other way out for him. Just then, the people in the room next door came out and started playing with them. Anil breathed a sigh of relief and quickly closed the door. This was moments before I arrived, there were no monkeys to be seen by then.
Raj knows all about the Indian monkeys. He and his cousin Tanuj were trapped by some large monkeys at a hotel in Jaipur in 1999. They thought that the monkeys would be playful, but instead they were vicious. Indians learn to give them a wide berth, it's only foreigners who start off thinking they are cute. They can be known to carry rabies, so it's best to watch them from a distance.
This was not Anil's only encounter with wild animals on this trip. I didn't mention his adventure with a mongoose in Nagpur. One afternoon, while he was sitting alone in the living room reading a book, he looked up to see a large furry animal emerge from the kitchen and edge along the wall towards the open door. Before he knew it, it was gone. He wasn't quite sure what it was he had seen, but when we told Kamini, the cook, about it, she said there is a mongoose that is often seen in the yard but it had never come into the house before. It seems Anil has all the luck! Whatever will he see next?
We have now been out of our condo for five months. During that time, I have been able to live free of daily chores like cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping but laundry stills needs to be done. I find I don't mind hand washing our clothes in the buckets provided for bathing and in fact, now that I've found laundry detergent scented with jasmine, I quite enjoy the task. Things dry very quickly here and we have few things that need ironing. Anil's heavy trousers and walking shorts are washed and ironed by the local dhobi for about 10 rupees per item (30 cents). What's not to love about our nomadic lifestyle? We are thinking that we will stay in Mamallapuram for a week to ten days before heading south to Pondicherry. I will keep you posted on our adventures here.