Thursday 11 January 2007

Mamallapuram: mosquitoes and monuments

Well last night I needed all the anti-grot and anti-mosquito kit I had brought with me: silk sleeping bag, pillowcase, flip flops for the shower (not that I fancied using it), net (thanks Jude and Ed)and spray.

I just wish i had done a trial run with the mosquito net: I set it up after the rather disappointing prawn and rice supper I had shared with Claire, my New Zealand friend. I had to climb to instal a string line across the room, and first put the net up back to front. It's not the same as the ones I am used to: it only seems to have rings at the top for the head end, so at my feet end the net was clinging to my body. I must get to bed earlier tonight: life closes down at 10 here, but starts up with a vengeance at 6am.

Today was much better weather: blue sky and a light breeze coming off the sea. And my day's sightseeing was far more successful than yesterday, perhaps helped by the weather. My first target was the Pandava Rathas. These turned out to be five magnificent monuments, hewn out of giant granite boulders. They were never actually consecrated as temples and it appears that the seventh (!) century stone masons were trying out various tenchiques before embarking on the first stone temples (earlier ones had all been in wood). They were in better shape than the Shore Temple, as they had been buried in sand for centuries until the British started to excavate them in the 19th century.Each temple or 'chariot' (dont ask my why they are called that) was intriguingly different in style; most of them had splendid figures carved on them, particularly on the exterior - the usual suspects - Shiva etc. , and beside them were some magnificent animals, in particular a giant elephant.

The technique used was impressive. This is an area with huge granite boulders and each temple was in one piece, cut out of the rock. They started the temples at the top apparently, so that the masons did not damage the work done subsequently further down.

The temples were all clustered together and it was a very pleasant site to wander round. At one point I was waylaid by the usual "Where are you from" opening, and ended up having a long conversation with three gentlemen from Orissa. We talked politics and I discovered that they very much admired "Tony Blair" (they didnt understand me when I first mentioned "Blair" - he must be given his full title). But I'm not clear why they admired him because they were absolutely adamant that British involvement in Iraq was a huge mistake. They were delighted to discover that I agreed.

I then strolled back towards the town, through the stonemasons quarter. Apparently the statues they carve here are sold to temples throughout the world. The air resounded to hundreds of hammers, chisels and electric saws, often two or three people would be working simultaneously on the same object. It would have been nice to have been able to buy a stone elephant...

Right next to the town is a large hill, littered with giant granite boulders, temples and monuments. My memory is a (pleasant) blur of numerous carved caves - the temples were literally carved into the granite hillside - with some splendid figures, usually reliefs on the walls or as part of the pillars, which were often of a square form. All these dated from the seventh or eighth centuries.

The hill was also the site for two lighthouses (the original 9th century one and a British raj replacement). Annoyingly my camera was playing up at this point (ominous err 99 messages) so I failed to capture photos of some impressive monkey fights. They were really quite scary for such small animals. Anyhow photography is in theory forbidden here (not that you would have guessed it) as the presence of a nuclear power station just visible on the horizon makes this a high security area. My walk over the hill ended with a view of Krishna's Butter Ball, a giant boulder perched on a slope, as if it is about to tumble down the hill - most impressive. Most of the tourists were Indian and I am amused by the endless taking of photos of each other in front of the various monuments. Very much an international habit these days.

I limped my way back to the guesthouse, stopping off for the invariable lassi on the way. I was now transferring to Green Lands, the guesthouse of my choice. I think I have one of the nicest rooms: a double room (not cheap) with its own balcony (and delightful swing chair) looking onto the garden, with the sound of the surf nearby. Balaji, the extremely efficient and helpful owner, then helped me book a guesthouse in Pondicherry. Once again the change in STD codes and individual numbers has made advance booking very difficult. Once again I was therefore too late to get into the guesthouse of my choice and have had to go for a more expensive one. I get the impression that I have hit peak time in South India.

In the afternoon I walked back to the granite hill, taking a delightful route through back lanes with an entertaining view of everyday life here. I think most people dont have their own water supplies, as there were frequent taps with women filling up large water urns (some traditional brass, most sadly ugly plastic).

My first stop was a bas relief celebrating Krishna lifting a mountain in one hand - made all the more impressive by the presence of the hillside above. It is a much more homely set of figures than the other monuments, with Krishna also milking a cow and of course surrounded by his milkmaids. But the final stop was one of the best: Arjuna's Penance (apparently Arjuna was an archer who journeyed through a forest hoping that Shiva would give him his magic bow and arrow (which he eventually did). There is a natural cleft in the rock representing the Ganges, complete with superb water cobras. The whole rockface of the hillside is a labrynth of figures - over a hundred apparently. On one side there is a delightful family of elephants.

I've written far too much and still havent managed to get any photos up. Tomorrow I have another extravance: I have hired a car to go to Pondicherry via Gingee and Tiruvannamalai. I can't see any other way to get to these without using extremely uncomfy local buses and probably having to stay overnight.

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