The main bus station at Chennai is on the outskirts of the city and I wilted at the thought of another battle with the traffic, to be followed by a two-hour trip in a local bus. So I copped out and hired a car to take me the 50 km to Mamapalluram.
What luxury. This is the way to travel, and quite reasonable at 800 rupees (about 9 quid). Even Chennai looked better because I could see more than in the rickshaws, where your head bangs against the roof and you are so busy looking at the one centimetre gap between rickshaws that there is no time to look up. Even in a car it took over an hour to get through the traffic of Chennai and then we were on the straightish highway south, passing through the familiar Indian highway sprawl of shanty towns - and verges covered in plastic... What an ecological disaster the use of plastic has been in the third world.
The landscape was predictably flat, with a generous scattering of palm trees but not much sign of agriculture. The red soil did not look particularly fertile. Maybe there are crops during the monsoon season but just now it looks like semi-desert. I caught occasional glimpses of the sea, which looked incredibly green.
When we arrived in Mamapalluram I was immediately struck by the ubiquitous western tourists, some clad in what I regard as inappropriate wear (shorts etc) for India. A contrast to Chennai where I caught only a rare glimpse of non-Indians. The streets are filled with the usual collection of stalls selling fruit, bottled water, sim cards and internet access. My car took me to the guesthouse I hoped to stay in (my failure to phone ahead was explained by the fact that they have changed just changed the STD code!).
Unfortunately Green Lands (which appears in all the guidebooks) was fully booked, though I will transfer there tomorrow. Meanwhile I am in a much grottier place across the road. I think my silk sleeping bag, pillow case, mosquito net and flip flops for the shower will all come into use tonight... No sign of mosquitoes yet, but I'm not keen on the ants crawling over the floor. Still, its costing 350 rupees (less than a fiver).
This afternoon I walked to the beach - about 300 metres away. There is a line of fishing boats. I don't know whether they went out today, because there is quite a wind and the surf looks quite challenging. I looked to the right and there was the majestic sight of the 8th century Shore Temple, perched on a wave-lashed promontory.
I had of course approached the temple from the wrong side and had make my way through a depressing area of plastic refuse, through a hole in a fence and back towards the proper entrance to get my ticket (turning down the guard's offer to let me in for half-price without a ticket).
This is a region of south India where the Pallavas reigned in the middle ages. Mamallapuram, formerly Mahabalipuram, was an important port at that time and the route by which Pallavian ideas were exported to other parts of Asia.
The Shore Temple - probably the oldest stone temple in South India - is actually three temples, so worn by sand, sea and wind that the figures are rounded, ghostly shadows of their former glory. But still there was something very moving about wandering over this archaological rather than religious site and the temples stood out dramatically against an increasingly menacing black sky. The rows of Nandi (bulls) indicate that Vishnuwas worshipped here. I was tagging behind a group of French visitors in order to listen to their guide, when the heavens opened, cutting short my intended wandering round the site. But it was still very impressive.
On the way back I passed endless workshops where the stonemasons continue to drill, carve and chisel out sculptures. I think the rock comes from the volcanic hill which I will be exploring tomorrow.
I treated myself to another lassi (and unfortunately a dose of mosquitos treated themselves to me under the table) and got talking to a nice young New Zealander from Blenheim. She is taking a leisurely route from the UK to NZ for her sister's wedding and we discussed the pros and cons of travelling on ones own. The freedom to do what one wants when one wants is a great plus, but she agreed that the evenings can be lonely. And now here she is - two seats away from me in the same internet cafe!
I'm just going to have a quick look at my photos so far (not many)and then the idea of shell fish at a shoreside restaurant beckons.
Well I looked at the photos - not great - and failed to upload one. shellfish here I come