26.12.2009 - 31.12.2009
Mamallapuram, also known by its other harder to pronounce name Mahabalipuram which tends to lead to some confusion when asking for a bus ticket, is a tourist town about 60km south of Chennai (about 100km north of Pondicherry), and was our next stop on our tour of India. Its very quiet and laid back, even compared to Pondicherry, at first glance there does seem to be more tourists and locals. We splashed out a bit here to get a nice hotel with a swimming pool, Hotel Mahabs, so we could do some serious relaxing. Its set back off the main road a little so it was pretty quiet, the room was big, the TV had 99 channels, a nice balcony, a massive turkey (no, not me, but we were pleased to see that it had survived Christmas) and a couple of big ducks just inside the front gate, a decent restaurant that included free breakfast and a good view across town from the roof. Only problem was a bit of a smelly bathroom which was not, as we had to explain to the hotel guy, due to either of us having an ‘upset tummy’. In the end we resorted to burning incense, it got rid of the bad smell (no, not me) and helped keep the mozzies at bay.
After a good sleep we were both starting to feel a little better, so we grabbed our Christmas cake and a couple of apples and sat out on the balcony to enjoy them and a bit of sunshine. I ducked back inside to get a knife and some water, when seconds later a hear a scream from Nee on the balcony then she yells “Ger-ard”. My first thought is ‘oh, what have I done now’. When I get to the door all I see is a monkey walking off with our apples. I didn’t even get to see the first monkey that took off with the Christmas cake under its arm. For those that don’t know, Nee has a healthy dislike for monkeys so when not one, not two, but three monkeys hopped out a tree onto the balcony rail, practically jumping over her onto the table to nicked our food, I’m surprised that the language was not perhaps a little more colourful. Oh well, there’ll be a couple more fat monkeys in Mamallapuram tonight.
To best describe just how lazy we were during our stay here in Mamallapuram, I should say that we were here for 5 days and only on the seconds last day did we venture far enough to find the main part of town. The part where everyone else stayed, with a good selection of restaurants and with a lot less through traffic. Ah well, we had a pool and sun lounges and books to read, and we made good use of all of them. Its not to say we didn’t get out at all.
Mamallapuram along with its chilled-out vibe, has two main attractions - the beach and the rock carvings. Coming from where we do (being spoilt for choice when it comes to good beaches) it takes a pretty amazing beach to impress us. Well, in Mamallapuram, we were not impressed. There were quite a lot of people on the beach, a tired looking market along the path down to the beach, even a dreary old fair ground complete with merry-go-round, shooting gallery and horse rides; there was rubbish everywhere on the beach (perhaps more rubbish than sand) and the murky looking water looked less than inviting. But there were a couple of things interesting enough to hold a attention for a short while. What is the one thing you can think of that looks most out of place on the beach? I’ll tell you - cows. They truly do not look like they belong on sand, yet there they were, chilling on the beach, chewing on rubbish. Clearly they had spent too long sun tanning though, because their skin had gone all leathery (ha ha ha - oh, that’s good). The next interesting thing on the beach was photography - the little fair was so dull that for amusement (I cant think of any other logical reason) the local came up to us to have their photos taken. Just bizarre! By now we will be featuring in several Indian slideshow screensavers. Finally, possibly the funniest thing you will find on an Indian beach…is Indians. They dart in and out of the water, splash about fully clothed in shirts and jeans. Maybe the older they get the more pleasure they seem to get from the experience, a freedom or a loss of inhibitions, I’m not sure exactly what it was, but there was sheer joy in their smiles and laughter (there is something very captivating about the unbounded smile hidden underneath an Indian man bushy moustache). It was great to see such carefree delight when so often you see faces full of struggle.
The beaches may not have been anything too special, but the rock carvings were fascinating. There are a number of different site around town, within an easy walk (any time other than the oppressive midday heat). Hundreds of years ago when they were chipping around in the rocks, they obviously were thinking ahead to he tourists of today, because most of the interesting carvings are lined up along a pretty grass covered field of boulders stretching about a kilometre. We are not talking little scratches in a few stones either, Ajunas Penance for instance depicts numerous Gods and animals and is a good 20 metres high and 50 metres long. You can only imagine how many years, blisters and black thumb nails it must have taken a man with a hammer and chisel. Other carvings are full temples dug into the rocks, complete with internal rooms, walls, doorways and pillars - no quick fit, pre-fab concrete construction in those days. It did make for a very interesting and relaxing days walks around the boulders, excepts for the occasional monkey leaping around hassling tourists for their lunch. This history of rock carvings here has spawned a major sculpting business here. On every street there are shops selling carved everything, Shiva’s, Ganesh’s, cows, elephants, crocodiles - even kangaroos. Late at night we everything else dies down and a degree of quiet descends across town, you get to fall asleep to the faint ‘tink…tink…tink’ of chisel on stone, the only problem these days is the pleasant ‘tink’ of the chisel is too often interrupted by the scream of an angle grinder, I guess that’s progress for you.
We had the good planning (or more correctly, good fortune) to land in town while the Tamil Nadu Dance Festival was on. Basically every night for about 5 weeks a show was put on featuring various traditional dance forms from all over India. The night we went was a riot. There were 2 forms of dance on, first was a soloist who performed what we might recognise as a traditional Indian form of dance. She was incredible. She looked amazing , her dress and make-up were stunning. The dance was beautiful. Full of smooth movements between intricate poses, all depicting something very meaningful I’m sure. And it was so long (she performed 3 dances that ran for a good half hour), but in a good and interesting way. How she remembered the complete routine is beyond me. Every move appears so detailed, from the movement of the fingers right down to the position of her eyes. It was impressive, and the accompanying music from the orchestra of the quirkiest looking instruments you could find set a great scene in the dark with Ajunas Penance lit up spectacularly in the background.
Next came some light hearted fun in the form of folk dancing. An odd collection costumes including ladies with pots on their heads, peacocks, a man on stilts (unfortunately for him he took the showbiz term “break a leg” a little too literally and snapped one of his stilts) and horses on stilts came out and pranced and jumped around stage. There did not seem to be much organisation or choreography to it all, but it was a laugh to watch, especially after a little while when the dancers had clearly had enough and wanted to stop, but the muso’s just kept on playing, so they just kept on jumping around stage. The whole show however was upstaged by a performance that wasn’t even listed on the programme. As I mentioned before, Ajunas Penance provided an amazing backdrop to the performance. Tonight a couple of the local goats who freely and happily roam the Mamallapuram boulder fields decided to put on a bit of a show themselves. Initially, a couple of groups of the were perched high in the rocks, apparently amusing themselves watching us watching them. As the dancing kicked off, a couple of young goats decided to put on a bit of a rock climbing exhibition. They climbed up and down and all over the Ajunas Penance carving. The crowd was really getting into it, every time one of the goat looked like it was about to fall off, or do something stupid (well more stupid) the crowd collectively held its breath. No one wanted to witness billy goat suicide. Who knows what the dancers thought of it all when there would be a gaps from the crowd mid performance? No goats were harmed that night, everyone got a good laugh and went home happy.