Day One in South India: Tricky Gods
Having survived entangled traffic jams in Delhi and an emotional visit to the Taj Mahal, I took off for adventures in southern India. I flew to Chennai (formerly called Madras) and then a driver transported Ranjit, one of my Indian hosts, and me to Mamallapuram, also known as Mahabalipuram. (India likes to keep you guessing.) The Pallava dynasty reigned there in the 7th-9th century and the town is famous for its stone carvings. In fact, the area’s structures are among the oldest existing examples of Dravidian (South Indian) architecture and were added as an UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984.
We drove along a coastal road encountering hundreds of makeshift barriers every mile or so. Our driver was forced to slow down in order to circumvent the blockades. Occasionally we would see the police, but apparently the obstructions were there to deter speeding. Seemed a bit odd to me, but this was India and I’d already learned that driving in India is insane.
The Radisson Blu Resort Temple Bay became our lunch spot and I would have sworn we were in the Caribbean. Such a surprise to see all the palm trees. Afterward, we toured the lush grounds which featured India’s longest swimming pool, beach access to the Bay of Bengal, and a spa. The guest rooms varied between chalets, villas and bungalows, some with private pools. I was told many Indian weddings take over the entire hotel.
Ranjit and I set out to tour the earliest Shore Temple and the onsite guide was somewhat forced to introduce me to the Hindu gods. But, gods are tricky business. I have never been more confused and I suspect he thinks the same of me. How I wished for a pre-school picture book to help me name these deities , their shapes and strengths. I shot this photo of who I believe is Vishnu sleeping, but then again, I could be wrong. My notes make no sense.
The Shore Temple, however, was enchanting and unlike Mamallapuram’s other monuments, is a two-towered building, not one carved from a single rock. I fully understood the explanation that the current shrine is a partial reconstruction. It reminded me of photos I’ve seen of sandstone temples in Vietnam and Thailand. Many of the carvings have been badly eroded by the wind and the sea, but this adds to the sense of antiquity. A Shiva lingam, a black column, is enshrined in the central building, something I became much more familiar with as my trip progressed. I was told, ” One should concentrate on the lingam as it is a symbol of the energy and potentiality of God.”
Next we visited a nearby site that contains Five Rathas, literally chariots (although they looked like buildings and again baffled me) dating from the 7th century. Each structure was sculpted from one enormous stone and they are joined by equally large rock animals, including a massive elephant. The rathas were hidden in the sand until excavated by the British 200 years ago.
Driving on we came to the superb bas relief known as Arjuna’s Penance or The Descent of the Ganges. Legend says Shiva ordered the Ganges to descend to Earth to nourish the world. The sculptors used a natural fissure in the cliff to suggest this cosmic event, then added a swarming crowd of gods, goddesses, mythical beings, and animals. I was stunned by the near pristine condition of the granite carved frieze. It holds the title of world’s largest bas-relief.
Although we did not stop, I could see Krishna’s Butterball as we drove by. The Butterball is just a giant natural rock perched on a hillside. But, the behemoth boulder seemingly defies all laws of physics. Wish I had a photo of me placing my hands under the stone as though I were holding it from falling!
We then headed onward toward Pondicherry, but I just had to pop out of the car for a sunset shot.
By the time we arrived in the coastal town, it was nighttime. The city known as a trading seaport became a French colony in 1675, however, it always struggled with Anglo-French conflicts. In 1954, the French voluntarily handed over Pondicherry to the Indian Government. It is now officially called Puducherry.
We checked into The Promenade, a boutique style hotel and Ranjit and I enjoyed a fabulous dinner on the upper patio. The rooftop space reminded me of dining al fresco in Spain. We overlooked the Bay and the seafront street where endless groups of people paraded by a statue of Gandhi. The street is closed to traffic from 6 pm to 7:30 am, so the local residents come out for an evening and morning stroll.
My second host, Bhaskfar, finally arrived and by the time he finished his meal, I went straight to bed. More adventures tomorrow.