HCMC Dining Guide

Friday, July 8, 2011

Mamallapuram: A Giant's Playground

The yellow bus to Mamallapuram
After two days in Pondy, it was time to move on to my final stop on the trip: Mamallapuram, around three hours north by bus. The ride was, for once, pretty uneventful, until we got to the town. I didn't know that the bus didn't actually stop in Mamallapuram, it simply stopped in the middle of the highway outside of the town. I had told the guy next me where I was going and, and about three seconds before the bus stopped, he suddenly told me that I needed to get off. So, I had to rip by bags out from under the seat and stumble off into the blazing heat before the driver decided to floor it again. I hopped into an auto waiting by the side of the road, and within minutes I was at my hotel.

Mamallapuram, though small today (population 12,000), has a grand history. It was the main port of the ancient Pallava dynasty, a South Indian powerhouse. Thanks to its former importance, and the Pallava's fondness for stone carvings, Mamallapuram is home to dozens of incredible carvings and sculptures, mostly created between the 7th and 9th centuries. In essence, it looks like a small Indian town has been plopped down in the middle of an archaelogical playground; on a scale fit for giants.
My first stop, after checking out the beach, was the Shore Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Sight, originally built in the 7th century. Dedicated to Shiva, the temple consists of two shrines and, though they are not particularly tall, they are still quite a sight, and the level of detail is amazing, especially when you consider that they are open to constant wind and water erosion. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which impacted much of the Tamil Nadu coastline, revealed other potential temples nearby, so it seems that there are even more ancient wonders to be discovered in Mamallapuram.

I then wandered over to the hill that sits at the center of the town. This area, spread over several acres, is a visual feast, home to many of the town's most well-known carvings and works. One of these is Arjuna's Penance, a massive sculpture (96 feet wide by 43 feet tall) carved into the side of the hill.

The Penance features numerous scenes of Hindu myth, and is simply incredible to behold. I can't even imagine the skill and dedication necessary to create something so beautiful out of a stone face.
A short walk from Arjuna's Penance is Krishna's Butter Ball, a huge boulder perched precariously on a slope of the hill. For obvious reasons, this was a favorite place for photos amongst visitors.
Here are a few more examples of the carvings and structures scattered about the hill.
the Trimurti Cave, dedicated to Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva
Olakkannesvara Temple
Amazing carving inside the Varaha Mandapam
Walk 15 minutes south from the hill and you will find the Five Rathas, a set of sculptures carved out of single pieces of stone. Covered by sand until excavated by the British 200 years ago, these carvings are meant to be chariots (ratha is Sanskrit for chariot), and each is named after one of the main characters from the Mahabharata, an epic poem. There are also carvings of an elephant and a lion between the rathas. Once again, I couldn't help but be blown away by the intricacy of the handiwork on display.

The only problem with my stay in Mamallapuram was that I was there during the low season. Many of the town's restaurants were closed, and I was one of the few non-Indian tourists staying there. I ended up eating dinner both nights at a tourist-focused place called Moonrakers which, sadly, is not named after the ridiculous James Bond movie. Apparently, in 18th-century England, a group of smugglers bringing bourbon out of France would throw the barrels of alcohol in a lake and remove them at night, to avoid detection by the authorities. One night, a sheriff came upon the smugglers using rakes to try to get the barrels out of the water. He asked what they were doing, and they played dumb, replying that they were trying to rake the cheese out of the moon, which was reflected on the lake. The sheriff, taking them for stupid peasants, moved on. I'm still not sure what that story has to do with a restaurant in a small town in southern India. I also noticed something funny on the beer labels at the restaurant, something that made Tamil Nadu's conservatism abundantly clear: "LIQUOR RUINS COUNTRY, FAMILY & LIFE". I was so depressed after reading that, I almost ordered another.

I really liked Mamallapuram although, thanks to how dead it was, I was ready to go after my two nights there. I had a flight out of Chennai, the biggest city in Tamil Nadu, to catch. The city's airport is just 50 km north of Mamallapuram but, I should've known that India would throw one last crazy adventure at me. My guide book said there was a bus that went directly from Mamallapuram to the airport, but a travel agency I stopped in told me that they couldn't always be sure when the bus would come, or if it would show up at all, so they told me to take a bus at 5:30 a.m. to some town 30 km west of Mamallapuram, where I could finally get a bus to the airport. So I woke up at the crack of dawn and walked over to the bus station, which looked more like a farmyard, with cows, goats, and a limping puppy all wandering around, taking shits wherever they pleased.

I showed up around 5:40, not expecting the bus to have actually left at exactly 5:30, but it had, in fact, left on time. However, several people told me that another one was "coming". I had no idea how long that would take, and at this point I started to get nervous. My flight was at 10, and I needed to be there by 9 at the absolute latest. (I had a flight to another Indian city, then a flight out of the country, so I didn't need as much time to check in.) That may sound like plenty of time, but you can't take any distance for granted on India's abysmal roads.

Almost an hour later, the next bus showed up. By now I was getting very worried. Already 6:30, I only had about two and a half hours to get to the airport. Fortunately, the bus driver seemed to think he was driving a Ferrari. Unfortunately, we had to stop every 10 feet to pick up more passengers. It took nearly an hour of face-smashing braking and roaring acceleration to travel the 30 km to the next town. (I can't remember it's name.)

With 90 minutes to go, I jumped off the bus and started desperately asking everyone in sight, "Which bus goes to Chennai airport!?!?" They all seemed to go straight to Chennai, which wouldn't have been helpful at all, since the airport is well south of the city. Finally, one man told me to take the electric train. I decided to trust him, and hurried to the train station, which was just down the street. I had no idea which train went anywhere, and the security guard I asked pointed to one a few platforms over that had just had its name announced on the PA system. Assuming that meant it was about to depart, I vaulted across the tracks and jumped into the first open door. There was a man sitting on one of the benches in the car, and I inquired if this was the train to Chennai airport: "Yes, this is first class." I wasn't sure what he was implying by that, but I didn't care, and I sat down.

The train ended up sitting there for another ten minutes. I realized I hadn't even purchased a ticket, but I wasn't about to get off and go to the ticket counter. I would just have to hope no one would come through checking. Finally, the electric train pulled away from the station. I examined the route map posted on the wall: 14 stops to the airport. This was going to be close...

Amazingly, it wasn't. The train was much faster than expected and, luckily, no one ever asked to see my nonexistent ticket. With an hour to spare, I sauntered off the train, past the airport security guards armed with heavy assault rifles, and up to the check-in counter, as if I had never been unsure about whether or not I was even going to make it. After a layover in Cochin, I took off for another layover in Kuala Lumpur, the bewildering subcontinent fading in the distance.

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