A Travellerspoint blog

Mahabalipuram

Our last stop turned out to be one of the best in terms of ruins, particularly the almost 3D reliefs carved out of rock.

"Founded in the 7th century by the Pallavas sovereigns south of Madras, the harbour of Mahabalipuram traded with the distant kingdoms of South-East Asia: Kambuja (Cambodia) and Shrivijaya (Malaysia, Sumatra, Java) and with the empire of Champa (Annam). But the fame of its role as a harbour has been transferred to its rock sanctuaries and Brahmin temples which were constructed or decorated at Mahabalipuram between 630 and 728." http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/249

Our original intent was to go to the ruins yesterday after we arrived, but the heat acted as a soporific, and we fell asleep until 6 PM. By then, it was too dark. We awoke early the next morning, and got there before the heat of mid-day. Considering their age, they are in pristine condition, and in many respects, they are the equal of anything we have seen thus far. The shallow caves are carved out of solid rock, as are the relief figures of Hindu Gods, animals, demons, etc. And to think that they did it all with hammers and chisels.

Arjuna's penance, was the most incredible of the lot. It is described as follows:

"This magnificent relief, carved in the mid-seventh century, measures approximately 30m (100ft) long by 15m (45ft) high. The subject is either Arjuna's Penance or the Descent of the Ganges, or possibly both. In additive cultures like India's, logical alternatives are often conceptualized as "both-and" rather than "either-or."

Arjuna's Penance is a story from the Mahabharata of how Arjuna, one of the Pandava brothers, performed severe austerities in order to obtain Shiva's weapon. The idea, which pervades Hindu philosophy, is that one could obtain, by self-mortification, enough power even to overcome the gods. In order to protect themselves, the gods would grant the petition of any ascetic who threatened their supremacy in this way - a kind of spiritual blackmail, or "give to get." (This meaning of the word "penance," by the way, is specific to Hinduism. Unlike the Catholic rite of penance, it is performed to gain power, not to expiate sin.)" (www.art-and-archaeology.com/india/mamallapuram/ap01.html)

I found this explanation quite interesting, assuming you can believe the internet

"The Ganges story is of the same kind, in which the sage Bhagiratha performs austerities in order to bring the Ganges down to earth. Shiva had to consent to break her fall in his hair, because otherwise its force would be too great for the earth to contain.

The symbolism of the relief supports either story. Furthermore, both stories were interpreted in a manner flattering to the Pallavas; the heroic Arjuna as a symbol of the rulers, and the Ganges as a symbol of their purifying power."

It was impossible to capture the whole relief with my camera. Here are some details.

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The rock sanctuaries were also impressive. And they too had intricate bas reliefs.

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There were still other temples and statues.

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As well as Krishna's butterball.

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Mahabalipuram is still home to many rock carvers, who sell ornate, and often huge rock statues. Of course they have the benefit of electric tools, but perhaps they are related to the ancient Pallavas? The shopkeepers on the other hand, all seem to be Kashmiris. Like the Chinese, they are the businessmen. They come down for the winter and spring months, and most will head back up in the next few weeks, as will I. We considered buying a large statue of Shiva and Parvati dancing together, but we don't really have a place to put it, and so we opted for a much smaller one of Parvati.

The town at sunset, from a rooftop beer garden
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Our trip is rapidly winding to a close, at least Nanette's portion of it. Tomorrow we taxi to Madras (Chennai), and then fly to Mumbai, where Nanette flies back home after lunch with Pramilla. I will stay the night and then fly on to Srinigar in Kashmir, to meet Tashi. The next part of the journey promises to be very different than the first half, as well as much cooler, which I am really looking forward to.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:18 Archived in India Tagged tourist_sites buildings_postcards Comments (0)

Pondicherry

Taken over by the French in 1674, and briefly occupied by both the Dutch and the British, Pondy was not formally reunited with India until 1962. We stayed in the old French quarter near the sea, which has many old houses, a number of which have been renovated, but with the rest in various states of disrepair. Nonetheless the whole area has a certain charm, and a vaguely French air about it. There were even several French restaurants as well as Italian and Vietnamese, but we opted to stay with Indian food.

Our street sign in Tamil, English, and French
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Our Street, partially renovated
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Another street, this one in even better shape
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The restaurant scene
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In the evening, Nanette and I walked on the promenade facing the sea, and stopped for mushroom dosas in a very local place. In addition to the promenade, the adjoining road was closed to traffic on Saturday night, and there was an endless parade of Indians of all ages, strolling along the wide boulevard. In the middle was a large statue of Gandhi, which kids were using as a kind of slide. It seemed to us that Gandhi, looking very much like Ben Kingsley, was smiling down on the scene below. It was a great place to rollerblade, and no sooner had I said this, then two kids showed up who were doing exactly that. We walked back to our guesthouse accompanied by the sounds of a police band sitting opposite Gandhi, and dressed to look like French gendarmes.

Promenade in the morning
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In the morning we had breakfast at our guesthouse, Les Hibiscus,

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and got started talking to Monia, a French traveler in her 30's, who has been teaching in India for the last four years. She was actually born and raised in Belgium, and didn't move to Paris until she was about 18. Her parents, if you can call them that, more or less abdicated all responsibility for both her and her younger, autistic brother. As a result she was in charge at a very early age. Her parents hardly worked, content to reap the benefits of the Belgium social services system. Luckily that system provided well for her brother, and he is now living in a program for adult,severely autistic persons. Monia was an excellent student, and for a while was training to be a neurosurgeon and paying for it herself. In the end, she was forced to drop out because of having to earn money to take care of her brother. She did manage to finish her undergraduate degree in psychology. Unable to get a job in that field, she found an IT position in a bank ,where she worked for several years. She didn't like it, and eventually moved to Kerala to take a job as a French teacher. She has also managed to travel extensively in South America and other places. In a few months she is moving back to Mumbai, where she has a much better job.

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She came with us on a visit to Auroville, the communalistic community based on the teachings of Sri Aurobindo, and the Mother, a French woman who helped to start the place in 1968. The only place they really let us see, and that only from the outside, was a large gold dome, that is their meditation hall.

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The residents houses, gardens, and schools, which we were more interested in, were more or less off limits to visitors. To some degree this is understandable, though I can't think of any reason why they should tell you this in advance.

Returning in the heat of mid-day, we showered and then went off to a veg meal in what, thankfully, turned out to be an air conditioned restaurant. Afterwords we went to sample the pastry and coffee at Baker Street, Indian owned and run, but French trained despite the British name. By far the best pastry, well really the only pastry since the start of our trip, but it really was excellent, and there was ac to boot. We spent most of the afternoon talking to our new travel bud, before returning once again for one of our many daily showers. Later we went out to LeClub with Monia for beer and pizza. The day passed by too quickly, and we said our goodbyes the next morning before heading out to our next destination.

Posted by jonshapiro 06:57 Archived in India Tagged people buildings_postcards cities_postcards Comments (0)

Tranquebar

After three days of furious temple gazing, we were more than ready for Tranquebar. This small town by the Indian Ocean began as a Danish trading port in the 1620's. The old Dutch Fort is still standing, a tawny stucco and brick building just by the sea, looking very much like the Moroccan forts on the hill sides of the Atlas Mountains. The Danes eventually sold the place to the Brits, and it remained with them until Indian gained Independence in1947.

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We are staying in the old commissioners house, also dating from the 17th century. This house, with it's two foot thick walls managed to survive the tsunami, which killed 800 people here in tranquil Tranquebar. It was not tranquil on that fateful day.

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The remains of other brick walls jut directly into the water in front of us.

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Somehow, the old lamp posts leading up to the beach are still here, as well as several other large buildings with walls as thick as the commissioners house.

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In the rest of the town, there are much smaller houses with tile roofs and low doorways, also obviously quite old. Some of these are slowly being rebuilt or renovated after the flood. A number of NGO's have been active here, helping to rebuild. Around town there is much hammering and sawing going on. There are also small lanes of thatched roof houses that have obviously been built more recently, with goats and chickens here and there, eating whatever they can find. This was, and is, a poor town of fishermen, most of whom probably barely eek out a living.

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Despite the poverty and the destruction, the town has a relaxed and charming atmosphere, with a near constant sultry breeze that takes the edge off the relentless sun. Unlike in Kannur, the sea is gentle here, or has been, with small waves and little undertow. Perhaps for this reason, we see more Indians in the water, though almost all are fully clothed, and seem to prefer the safety of swimming within the old brick walls,where even the small waves are absent. The locals are very friendly, smiling and saying hello,and even asking for us to take their picture.

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Moods can change quickly at this age
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We were told that our hotel had just been renovated and opened the day before the great wave. They rebuilt once again, and fortunately managed to preserve the character of the old place. Our room, Princess Louise, with its 25 foot ceilings and windows almost as high, is a study in green. Our old brass canopy bed, felt like it might collapse as we made love this afternoon.

"The Bungalow," as it is called, a relative splurge, is the only upscale place in town, and seemingly has the only restaurant, which unfortunately is not particularly good. An interesting mix of people are staying here, including several Indians from the states, a doctoral student from London, with her Tamil translator, who is doing research on how people were effected by the tsunami. There is also a British couple, our age, whom we sat with last night for dinner, as they proceeded to fight about the spiciness of the food. George is an old India hand, and went to boarding school in an Indian hill town, while his father served in the military in India. He comes back every year for several months, and seems to feel quite at home, although his wife clearly does not.


The Bungalow has a wide veranda which overlooks the sea. Sitting here and looking out at the many fishing boats, I am reminded of other beach vacations in the Caribbean.

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Even the small palms and Norfolk pines are similar. I can almost picture one of the English commissioners, sitting in a wicker chair similar to the one I am now in, sipping a gin and tonic, and discussing trade with the Nawab of Tamil Nadu. Perhaps it was the same Nawab, or his relative, who encouraged the Danes to set up shop here before the Brits arrived.

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View from the veranda
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As the breeze picks up there are small whitecaps. Several Muslim women, all in black, are standing near the beach, and a group of Indian men, all in white, are walking on one of the brick walls heading toward the water. There is an ice cream cart, Arun,parked nearby, and another one selling fresh oj. Other women in brightly colored saris walk by in groups. Opposite the old fort on the other side of the veranda, is a small Hindu temple, recently painted and repaired.

These women in pink and yellow shawls were enjoying the sea view
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Despite what happened here some 10 years ago, there is nothing depressing about the place, even with all the destruction that is still present. Life clearly goes on, and it may be that one day Tranquebar will regain much of what it lost. The people here seem quite irrepressible.

Looking up at the sky inside the fort
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Posted by jonshapiro 09:00 Tagged buildings people children photography Comments (1)

Return to India: Temples of Trichy, Thanjavur, and Kubakonam

We have been on a temple whirlwind. Flew from Colombo back to Madurai, and then a hot 2&1/2 hour bus ride to Tiruchirappalli, or as it is more commonly known, Trichy.

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In the AM we hired a tuk- tuk to take us first to the Rock Fort Temple, and then to Sri Ranganathaswamy.

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Rock Fort involved a lot of steps cut out of solid rock and many variations of Shiva.

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And no, this is not Mary and Jesus
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Good view of the city, but even though we went early we were dripping with sweat.

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The piece de resistance however, was the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple. Dedicated to Vishnu and as large as a small town, many shops are located in the outer walls.

Not everyone takes their religion seriously, or lets it interfere with a nap
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We hired a guide for this one as there are as many as 49 separate shrines, according to Lonely Planet, and it would have been easy to get lost. There are also many towers or goparums, where there is a mass of humanity, Gods, demons, and animals, all climbing on top of one another, procreating, sometimes dying, destroying, etc. These Goparums seem to be the perfect religious symbol for India, in this crowded, sweaty, grungy, but incredibly colorful and vibrant country.

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Sex plays a prominent role in many of the Hindu temples with lingams, aka phallic symbols, both short and fat, and tall and skinny, some reaching up to the ceiling. Our guide pointed out that Krinshna was quite a playboy and had more than 16,000 girlfriends. How they arrived at this number I don't know. On one spot on the biggest goparum, he showed us a frieze of Krishna watching women bathing. They had left their saris on the shore of the river, and before they returned, he stole their clothes so that he had a good view of all them naked. There were sacred statues of bulls ,many Ganeshas, Hanumans, and of course, Brahmin priests, dressed in white, waiting to bless us in exchange for a small amount of money.

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They didn't want us taking pictures inside the temple, and I noticed these two cute girls. They didn't seem to mind having their pictures taken.

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On the way back we noticed a ceremony taking place on a side street that looked like a marriage. It turns out that it was a kind of coming of age ceremony for Brahmin boys of around 15 years. Similar, it seems, to a Bar Mitzvah. At first we stood in the back taking pictures, but it wasn't long before we were ushered to the front and warmly welcomed. Many people seemed eager to have us there, and to explain the ceremony, which involved the boy and his father and many other men of the community. When we left they gave us a bag of party favorites, consisting of a scarf, a sweat rag, very necessary here, and a bag which said construction and catering and the name of their company. Obviously not a poor family.

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Then it was back to our hotel, where we showered for the 3rd time of the day, and then took the bus to Thanjavur. Once again, we spent the afternoon by the pool before getting up early to see the Brihadishwara Temple, built by the cholas around 1000 AD.

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There were many big stone walls around the temple. Shiva's bull was once again in evidence, as well as this giant lingam.

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At one point there was a yellow liquid pouring forth from the lingams that looked very much like sperm. Fertility it seems,is prized here, despite the overcrowding.

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The architectural details and statues were brilliant.

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Next was Kubakonam, where we are now. Our hotel is quite comfortable, which is a contrast to this obviously very poor town with many temples. Our favorite was Airavatesvara, which was built by RajaRaja's son around 1146 AD. Similar to Brihadishwara, it had the feel of spiritual mystery about it, with dark colonnades, many candles, dark Ganeshes, and wonderful, detailed sculptures. It was also surrounded by granite walls, which were reddish in color in the fading daylight. Even though our tuk-tuk driver took us on a temple dash through the town and we saw five others just before sunset, none of them had the character of Airavatesvara.

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Posted by jonshapiro 14:04 Archived in India Tagged buildings photography tourist_sites Comments (2)

Anuradhapura/Negombo

Anuradhapura proved to be the most interesting of the ancient cities, as well as the oldest, dating to approximately 400 BC. The city was abandoned after an invasion some 1300 years later, and the jungle took over until the British rediscovered it in the 19th century.

Nearby to Anuradhapura is Mihintale, one of the holiest sites in Sri Lanka, where King Devanampiyatissa was converted to Buddhism in 247 BC, by Mahinda, an Indian missionary. However, we got there around high noon, and you know what they say about the mid-day sun in the tropics, only mad dogs and Englishmen, etc. As with many sites that are considered holy, we were not allowed to wear shoes or hats, and the hot stone literally burned our feet on the way up. I managed to cut my toe while attempting to move faster from step to step. We therefore did not spend a lot of time here, and skipped over several stupas or dagobas, as they are called. Perhaps the locals have more calluses and are able to handle it, but it seemed crazy to insist that we remove our shoes just to walk up to the base of the stupa during the hottest time of day in the hottest time of year.

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So, we went from there to our hotel, and spent the rest of the afternoon cooling our sizzling feet in the pool, before heading for the Bodhi tree, in the center of Anuradhapura. This tree was supposedly grafted from the fig tree in India, where the Buddha first reached enlightenment,and said to be the oldest continually tended tree in the world, dating back some 2500 years. The cutting was brought to Sri Lanka by Sanghamittra, an Indian Buddhist nun. Actually, it is not just one tree, but several, and although spread out, none of them appeared to be that large.

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Nevertheless it was an impressive place, prayer flags flapping in the wind, monks and others chanting at the end of the day, and people silently praying or meditating. So far, of all the places we have visited in Sri Lanka, it felt truly spiritual.

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We watched the special caste of tree tenders, carrying water to each tree as they must have done for thousands of years.

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As noted in a previous blog, even though the Buddha preached against the caste system, there is nonetheless a caste system in Sri Lankan Buddhism, which seems as rigid as the caste system in India. It would be nice to believe that somehow Buddhism is different than the other religions of the world, since many aspects of it appeal to me, but that clearly is not the case. Not only is the caste system proof of this , but so are the war atrocities committed by both sides during the 30 year civil war.

The next day we got up early to visit the other sites of Anuradhapura. We did not see them all. The brick dagobas, enourmous round structures with a squat part near the top, and then another narrrow spire pointing skyward, were especially noteworthy. They are, we are told, the tallest and largest stupas in the world, exceeded in height, only by the pyramids of Gaza. How they built them is still a mystery. The sloping round walls are far from uniform, but rather are undulating forms with indentations and bulges. Perhaps this was not how they originally were built, but a function of the bricks shifting over time. We did manage to circumambulate several of the largest ones, barefoot of course, but this time we came prepared with socks so that we did not burn our feet.

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There were white ones as well.

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Detail from elephant wall
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Detail from step. It looks almost Mayan
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And then we went out again, when the sun was low. We viewed another temple, seemingly built into and on a low rock face.

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Temple detail
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At sunset, we walked up to the large tank or artificial lake, also built thousands of years ago, as were so many of the lakes in this part of the country. There was a nice breeze across the lake and we watched the many birds, as the sun went down.

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In the morning, we got up early for a safari jeep tour in nearby Walpattu National Park. It was mostly several hours of bone rattling riding in the back of the jeep. We did see many deer, their version of buffalo, eagles, some chicken like birds, but the highlight was a juvenile leopard stretching himself out in a tree.

From a distance, I managed to get a fairly good shot of him.

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Back in Negombo, we said goodbye with some sadness to our very personable driver,Lalinda, but coming back to Serendib felt like coming home. Our hosts here, are a rather odd couple. Belinda, (a he not a she) is a 40 year old Sri Lankan, and the much older, and somewhat infirm Hillary, who is from Scotland. It is hard to know the true nature of their relationship, but suffice it to say, that they run a wonderful small hotel, and really make you feel at home. Belinda, it is clear, does most of the work, accompanied by other paid Sri Lankan staff who come in the mornings to clean.

We spent the evening watching, to us at least, the arcane game of cricket. It was the world cup final between Sri Lanka and India, taking place in Bangladesh. Belinda kept us supplied with beer, and gave us a running commentary of the game, attempting to explain how it is played to us cricket newbies. It was not intuitively obvious, but by the end we sort of got it. It was a pleasure to see the Sri Lankan team win, and then to hear the celebratory fireworks in the town afterwords.

Today, we are once again in the small pool attempting to stay cool. I may try to swim in the sea later in the day,but there is not much shade to be had there. The thing about travel, at least the way we do it, is that it forces you to slow down. Way down. I suppose you could choose to rush around from place to place, never staying more than a day here or there, but that is not what we do, particularly on this trip. In places, it feels like one day too many ,but that means you simply have to hang out, and more or less do nothing except read or swim. Maybe the heat also has something to do with it. Who wants to rush around in the day time when the sun is like a knife. Slowing down means relaxing, noticing the crows, the squirrels, the mangoes falling from the tree next to the pool, the clouds building up in the afternoon and the slow approach of a thunderstorm. You don't have a house or anything else to keep you occupied. You don't have people to see and talk to, other than whoever happens to be staying at your guest house. Depending on who they are, this can actually take up a fair bit of time, but other than that, your life is about noticing the things around you before you move on to the next place and do it all over again.

Almost a form of meditation.

Posted by jonshapiro 12:53 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged trees animals postcards photography tourist_sites Comments (6)

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