Tamil Nadu: First Mahaballipuram
After a night's rest in my dirty hotel room, I set off to an itinerary of Mahabalipurum, Pondicherry and Thiruvannamalai. Mahaballipuram is one of India's famous beach resort areas (along with Goa and Kovalam), as well as an important temple site. Pondicherry is the site of the Sri Aurobindo ashram, and Thirivanammalia is home to Arunachala mountain and Ramanasramam, the ashram of Ramana Maharshi, the major destination point for my journey.
The ride to Mahaballipuram hugged the eastern coastline of India, passing through many small villages. It was a beautiful ride, palm trees, rice fields, cow and goat herds, blue skies. Pictureseque. Though Mahaballipuram is only 90 miles from Chennai, it still takes 3 hours, since these taxis really don't go over 50 miles an hour. But the road was excellent, a new highway built with funds from the World Bank. No bumps, potholes or broken sections. Such a treat. But we did, at one point cross another major highway leading to Bangalore, filled with trucks, busses, cars taxis, etc, backed up for miles, another definition of hell.
Arriving in Mahaballipuram, I stayed in the Hotel Veeras, recommended by the guidebooks, and a very pleasant place. the fan and the air conditioning both work, but alas, no hot water, despite the 'geyser', a small hot water heater that you find in many Indian bathrooms. Using my trusted taxi driver, I quickly found a guide for 5 bucks, which is still a rip-off, and went to see the temples and rock carvings of the town. Mahaballipuram is just the right size, bigger than a village but smaller than a city and I found that very comfortable. You can walk from one end of town to another, but it has facilities like a big city.
It is also famous for its stone carvings, and the artwork created in town is exported throughout the world. You can hear the sounds of chisel going from a long distance. I saw numerous rock carvings, carved into the huge boulders that comprise the western slope of the town, really detailed and unique carvings. And there is one of those teetering rocks, similar to what can be found in the American west, but people have tried with elephants to knock the rock over, but failed. Associated with Krishna in some way.
Passed through the stone masons' area, which actually has a university specializing in carving. Found a couple of French folks working on statues, and congratulated them on France's World Cup Victory, which is a way to a Frenchman's heart these days. There was some great work there, and I regret not purchasing a large statue, but my bags were weighing enough at the time.
The most famous temple is the the Shore Temple, one of 5 temples built near the beach at Mahaballipuram, and the only one not washed away by the ocean. It is pitureseque, but nothing spectacular in any other way I thought, worth visiting however. Right next to the shore temple is the beach at Mahaballipuram, truly a picture postcard of a scene if I ever saw one - curved coastline, palm trees, perfect lines of breaking waves, and many colorful fishing boats on the beach, reminiscent of one Van Gogh painting.
On the road back to the beach, I noticed it was lined with hotels chock full of Europeans, and the guidebooks told me that Moonrakers was the place to eat and hang in Mahaballipuram. Sure enough, a total European scene. Sitting at my porch table, looking out onto the street, it felt like I was in Europe. Eating alone, the woman at the table next to me struck up a conversation. She was a schoolteacher from Switzerland who saved 30K dollars and is taking an entire year off from her teaching to travel the world. She told me one interesting fact, that there are more people in Madras than there are in the entire country of Switzerland.
I also met a Swiss couple (have some kind of Swiss karma) at an internet cafe, and we waited for over an hour for an internet connection, but to no avail. India is not there yet, in the villages, at least.
If you're interested in other pictures and accounts of Mahabalipuram, check out Jennifer's India Travel Diary.
Next day was a nice drive down the southeastern coast of India to the town of Pondicherry, a town with much French influence, and the home of the Sri Aurobindo ashram. Sri Aurobindo, if you don't know, was both a revolutionary for India's independence as well as one of its most famous Gurus of the first half of the 20th century.
Pondicherry is nicely laid out in a grid formation, and by far, the nicest part of town is the eastern area near the shore, though the western part of town is not bad, just a bit busy. But even that is not nearly intense as a large city in India.
From the guidebooks, it was said that the best places in town to stay in were the Guest Houses run by the Aurobindo ashram, and the best of those was the Park Guest House. And the books were certainly right! The Park Guest House is a most beautiful place to stay. It is right on the ocean, and contains the most beautiful garden I've seen in India, lying between the building and the ocean.
The rooms are spotless and large, containing photos of both Sri Aurobindo and his partner 'The Mother'. The rooms come with mosquito netting over the beds and other assorted niceties that you will not find in a hotel similarly priced for 300 rupees a night (or 7.5 US dollars). It is a place where you can hang or do a retreat, as there is a meditation hall and dining room open for breakfast and lunch on the ground. It is also situated in the southwest corner of town, in a quiet area (relatively speaking).
However, I arrived just at the beginning of a fierce rainstorm with thunder and lightning that seem to be, for several minutes, directly overhead. I could feel the intensity of the crack of thunder generate basic mammalian fear in me. It was intense! And it also knocked out the power station nearby, so that for the entire time in Pondicherry, there was no power in the Guest House, which makes you go to bed much earlier. It is interesting how technology has altered our sleeping patterns for the worst, staying up too late, usually due to television or more recently, internet surfing.
But the rest of town had power, so I was able to make my way, once the rain died down, to the 'samadhi' site of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother. The actual ashram grounds lie in several nondescript buildings in the eastern center of town, which is one of the cleanest, and wealthiest towns in India, mainly due to the ashram.
After checking into the Park Guest House, I proceeded to the Aurobindo Ashram. Entering the main gate, I was directed to a courtyard on the right of the main building, which contained the samadhi site of both Aurobindo and the Mother. It was a white marble tomb almost completely covered in flowers, creating a most wonderful fragrance, overshadowed by a large tree. The aura of peace around the samadhi was palpable and strong, immediately filling my body with joy. It was different kind of feeling than what I expected from the Aurobindo site, but nonetheless wonderful. Many devotees walked around the tomb, laying their hands and head on the white marble or bed of small white flowers that cover most of the surface. One attendant was there to remove old flowers, as the site receives so many flowers that it cannot keep them all.
After a while, since it started raining, I went inside to the bookstore, which was fully stocked and did a lot of reading on Aurobindo. I like for the most part what he says, though it is difficult reading him at times - lots of long, run-on sentences and tightly packed with ideas and concepts. I also explored the town, and it was much more noisy and intense on the west side of town. I also went into a 'bazaar' or market that is common to all Indian cities. These are tightly packed markets with narrow aisle, for only foot traffic, selling everything under the sun. As I walked through the fish market section, no sooner than I had looked at a display of fish, the vendor, usually a woman, said "Yes! Fresh Fish". Now what would a tourist do with a raw fish, I don't know, but the women kept trying to sell me fish. About 15 minutes in the cramped, intense bazaar was all I could stand so I walked home, and actually ran into the three Swiss people that I met in Mahabalipuram, which is not that big a coincidence actually. These are small towns indeed.
That night, since there was no power in the guest house, I decided to go to the movies - there was one English movie theatre in town and it was playing 'Armageddon'. It was loud, the words barely audible and total obnoxious a movie. There was one scene in the movie that showed people gathered at the Taj Mahal, which got shouts and cheers from the totally packed audience. But apparently it had only one projector, and when the first roll ran out, they had to start the next which had more previews of movies, which was really weird. I decided it was time to bail from this awful movie, and had a real hard time getting out of the front gate - the guys kept trying to tell me in Tamil that if I left, I couldn't come back in, and I was trying to communicate that that was fine with me. Eventually we worked it out and I went back to a restaurant near my hotel. Pondicherry is filled with really good restaurants to cater to the French palate, and lots of good seafood dishes, which I took advantage of.
The next day I went back to the samadhi site before my journey to Thiruvannamalai and the Ramanasramam. This time there were many, many more people, and I had to wait my turn to pass by the white marble tomb. Though there were mostly Indians, I noticed many people from all sorts of Western countries paying their respects and milling about the well-run bookstore and library. The books were very cheap by American standards and I bought a number of books, taking the hit on a much heavier luggage.