Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Traveling Back in Time

Early last Saturday morning we hopped the Lalbagh Express train at Bangalore City Junction and headed east to Chenai (formerly called Madras.) We had spent a couple of weeks there eight years ago when John was working in Cisco’s Chenai office. This time our destination was Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram,) a fishing village 60 kilometers to the south.

The car and driver we had arranged to pick us up at the railroad station in Chenai were nowhere to be found when we arrived. We carefully navigated through the folks eating and sleeping on the station’s floor then waited impatiently in the tropical noonday sun. Eventually we made contact and piled into the barely air conned old Ambassador for the ride to Mamallapuram.

Besides the sea, most visitors come to visit the stone carvings created when the region was the capital of the Pallava kings of Kanchipuram. That would make them about 1,400 years old. Because of the influx of international tourists, many of them backpackers, there is one street dedicated to Kashmiri shops, cobblers, western-style restaurants, and tailors creating western garments from sari silks.

We explored the town and rested, but decided to leave the major sight seeing until the next day. We had been unimpressed with the hotel (Sterling Mahabalipuram) that had been touted as a beach resort. The beach was a long way off and the pool we had been promised did exist but had no water in it. At over $100 a night it didn’t seem like much of a bargain. It got worse, however, when we tried the shower and no water came out. We begged them for a bucket of water so we could at least sluice water over us Balinese-style and they weren’t able to comply.

The next day we rolled our bag down the street to a $40 a night hotel, the Mamalla Heritage ( For that price we got a better room, a nice breakfast, a swimming pool filled with clean water, and an accommodating staff. Now we were ready to explore the archaeological sites:
Arjuna's Penance - a giant bas-relief filled with detailed carvings, including a family of elephants and monkeys. (Our guide told us it was the second biggest after Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but that is unsubstantiated.)

An old lighthouse providing views across to the sea.

The most fun attraction, Krishna's Butterball, a giant natural rock perched precariously. On hot afternoons, the kids pour water on the hillside and slide down.

Separate from the rest of the remains and arguably the most dramatic is the Shore Temple, carved from a single piece of stone. Rocks which had been piled around to protect it from a cyclone in the seventies probably kept it from being damaged by the December, 2004, tsunami which affected the entire coastal region.

That night we discovered a fantastic restaurant where we had the regional specialty, tiger prawns. The Moonrakers prepares them with a rich, cooked down for hours mélange of tomatoes, garlic and onions.

Another favorite place in Mamallapuram is a shoe shop owned by Mr. Kumar, a third generation cobbler. I had two lovely pairs of sandals made to order (he drew around both of my feet and archived them in his order book) for under $10. (Professional Cobblers Shoe Shop near Sea Shore Restaurant.)

The next day we continued down the coast to Pondicherry, the subject of the next blog.

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