Mahabalipuram; Arjuna's Penance; Rocks, temples, carvings and caves; Krishna's Butter Ball; Swarmed by kids; The Five Rathas and the Shore Temple; Goodbye to the Spaniards

I woke up feeling better this morning - not an awful lot better, and not good, but… better. I’d certainly had enough of looking at the inside of a dingy hotel room. There’s a full day of things to see in Mahabalipuram, so we rousted Rafa and Luis out of bed early in the morning and dragged them out to breakfast.

The village of Mahabalipuram is squeezed between the shoreline and a big, roughly oval archaeological preserve filled with huge sandstone and granite outcroppings. There are dozens of little temples and gateways carved out of the solid rock, scattered everywhere through the park. Some of them have been hollowed out to five or six meters deep and are supported with pillars, all of a single piece with the roof and the floor. They’re quite austere and beautiful in their way. Here and there are actual constructed temples and shrines, including one small one dedicated to Ganesh, and there are random patterns and shapes carved everywhere on the rocks - lines of square holes, for example, girdling a huge boulder for no apparent reason. Maybe, historically, the stonecarvers’ apprentices were turned loose here to practice

Our first stop of the day was the famous Arjuna’s Penance, a huge relief panel carved out of a solid rock hillside on the shoreward side of the park. It depicts an aged and withered Arjuna standing on one leg, surrounded by animals and mythical creatures (including two elephants in the bottom right corner). The carving was impressive and dynamic, stylized without being awkward. Less dynamic was the caretaker with his twig broom, aged and withered himself, who slowly climbed across the face of the carving whisking away the settled dust like a tree-slth on a mission.

Second stop of the day was the Talasayana Perumal Temple, dedicated to Shiva and Lakshmi. It’s not inside the archaeological park, and rightly not. It’s old, but not old enough to qualify as historical - and it’s still in use. It’s run-down and had brick and other building material heaped in the corners, but smear of powdered colour everywhere and lavishly-decorated shrines showed that it has been well-loved. Photography was not permitted, we were told at the door, but Luis, I think, didn’t hear and took some pictures. No one upbraided him, and so I felt it worth the risk to get a shot of one indescribably beautiful moment when a young girl in a purple sari with her hair unbound knelt in front of a shrine.

After that it was back into the archaeological preserve for a few hours of wandering among the rocks and carved temples. We saw Krishna’s famous Butter Ball, a huge round boulder balanced at the top of a hillside. We climbed to the top of a huge hill of rocks to the ruined remnant of a constructed temple with a dead tree growing from the top. Luis couldn’t tear himself away even when Rafa yelled at him to hurry it up (which happened about every two minutes throughout the day). We found out later that photography is forbidden from the top of the hill because there’s a nuclear power plant a few kilometres to the south. In the current political climate we were lucky we weren’t mistaken for terrorists and arrested. Really, they could post a sign or something.

At the bottom of the hill we were suddenly swarmed with three or four school groups, streaming everywhere in demented currents of shrieking voices, level black hair and identical uniforms. All of them had an insatiable appetite for yelling Hello! and having their picture taken. Sheryl herself was accosted by a group of laughing teens who wanted her picture. Turnabout was fair play, I reckoned.

At the foot of the archaeological park is the street of stonecarvers. There must have been a hundred shops and stalls lined up, echoing with the tapping of hammers. The air was hazy with billowing gusts of stone dust and every surface was grey and gritty. All the shops were engaged in creating and selling a thousand variations on twenty or thirty basic traditional forms. The most popular were the Nataraja or “Dancing Shiva” and the seated Ganesh. Rafa bought one of the first and Luis one of the second. Sheryl was sorely tempted by a Ganesh, but she said if she couldn’t have a huge one then she didn’t want to settle for a small one. One decidedly non-traditional carving of Ganesh using an Apple notebook caught my eye. It was funny at first, but given Ganesh’s roles as Creator and Remover of Obstacles, Patron of Letters and Lord of Transitions, who better for a programmer’s deity?

The Five Rathas are chariot-shaped temples at the south end of the village, which were buried in the sand until the 19th century when the British excavated them. The entrance fee was a quite steep Rs250 and we all decided that it wasn’t worth paying since you could see them all perfectly well by looking through the fence. They’re impressively detailed sandstone building-sculptures, and there’s a life-sized elephant statue. Our enjoyment of them was made very difficult by the unbearably persistent vendors. One in particular was so annoying, following us around and shoving random souvenir crap in our faces, that I actually had to yell GO AWAY at the top of my lungs. The Five Rathas, in case it isn’t clear, are one of the stops on the tour-bus circuit. The other major stop is the Shore Temple, two huge slender pyramids covered with thorny carvings situated on a point of rock jutting into the surf. Our thrift at the Five Rathas backfired on us here, though, since it was a combined admission price and we couldn’t get anywhere near the Shore Temple - the fence was too far away. I think it was better from a distance anyway, to tell the truth.

By this point it was midafternoon and there wasn’t much time left before the Spaniards had to leave for Chennai to catch their flight to Goa. We had lunch, and the service was so slow that it nearly made them miss their bus. We said an emotional goodbye and left them to it. They’re very good people, both of them. I’m very happy to have met them and I look forward to seeing them again one day, somewhere out there in the world. Vaya con dios, amigos.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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