Indian Travel Diary Chapter 7: Mamallapuram
February 16th, Chennai/Mamallapuram
I sleep badly. I get up at 7 a.m. Feeling poorly. I go down to the restaurant next door for a coffee with my biscuits for breakfast.
I complete my packing and go to the travel agent's office to await the bus to Mamallapuram (formerly known as Mahabalipuram).
ITDC (Indian Tourist Development Corporation) buses arrive, full of Indian tourists. Confusion. No-one seems to know what's happening. There are four other Western tourists also going to Mamallapuram, an Australian couple and a Dutch couple. We're told to board a bus, which we do, one of those already full of Indian tourists. The bus travels down the lane for a hundred meters and stops. We get off. Some Indian tourists also get off, and transfer to another bus.
I'm thirsty, but I haven't brought a bottle of water. I can't leave my rucksack to go buy one. The Dutchman kindly offers to go buy me a bottle of water, which he does. Cold water, what I need.
Eventually we get on the bus again, find seats at the rear, and the bus leaves. It's headed for Pondicherry, but we're to be dropped at Mamallapuram. After an hour or so we reach the outskirts of Mamallapuram, and the bus pulls into a motel for a fifteen-minute break. Fifteen minutes turns into thirty-five, then we continue on for the few kilometers to Mamallapuram village. But about a kilometer before reaching the village the bus stops a the point where the highway bypasses the village and we Westerners are told to alight here. We're not pleased about being dropped one kilometer short of the village.
A couple of autorickshaws are waiting. Apparently their drivers know about this trick played on the Western tourists. We get two autorickshaws into the village. I share one with the Dutch couple. I tell the rickshaw driver I want to go to Ottavadai Cross Street, where (the Rough Guide informs us) hotels are to be found. The driver says he knows this street but insists on taking us down a parallel back lane to the Lakshmi Lodge, where he is hoping we'll stay so he'll get some commission. It's badly located and has no appeal. Without even bothering to check the rooms I pay the rickshaw driver his ten rupees (may he be reborn as a dog!) and I lug my rucksack back along the lane to Ottavadai Street, near the intersection with Ottavadai Cross Street, where I wanted to go. There's a sign up, "Rooms will cost more if a tout takes you."
I check the Tina Blue Lodge, but although the rooms are not expensive I'm not impressed. I then go down Ottavadai Cross Street and find there are some decent hotels, and after checking a few I take a large and pleasant-enough room for 250 rupees (about US$5). The newer and better-quality hotels seem to have gone up since the Rough Guide was written.
Ottavadai Cross Street
(Click on images to enlarge.)
I'm sick and exhausted from hard travelling, from five days in polluted Chennai and from lugging my rucksack around looking for a hotel. I lie down even before taking a shower and sleep. I wake, take a shower, then sleep for another four hours.
Around 5 p.m. I wander down toward the beach. The travellers' section in Mamallapuram, with its small hotels, arts and crafts shops and restaurants, is quite pleasant, very much so after coming from wretched Chennai.
The beach is also pleasant enough. As usual the Indians piss on the beach wherever they feel like it, but otherwise there's not much to object to. A few fishing boats are hauled up on the sand, and a hundred meters away some are putting out to sea. It's a long beach, not a tropical paradise, but pleasant, with light surf. The Shore Temple is visible a couple of hundred meters to the right. A few Indians are wandering around, and the occasional Western tourist passes by.
I roll up my trousers and wade a bit (it's a pleasure), then return to the village. There are plenty of restaurants catering to Westerners and around 8 p.m. I go to one next door to the hotel, where I have fish soup with fruit salad for dessert, together fifty rupees.
It's very nice to be sitting in this restaurant, so different from your typical Indian restaurant. It has a thatched palm-frond ceiling, there are plants around, strings of colored lights are flashing like it's Christmas and there's relaxing music playing. After five weeks on the road in India, this is heaven.
There are some pictures of Jesus placed discreetly at various places in the restaurant. Apparently the manager is a Christian. There's a book lying on a table, seems to belong to the restaurant. It's called Jesus Lived in India, written by a German theologian, Holger Kersten. It's about Jesus's travels to India, where he first lived from the age of 14 (two years after the last mention of Jesus as a child in the Bible) to the age of 29, just before he returned to Palestine to begin his ministry (where the story in the Bible resumes again). After the crucifixion (he only apparently died) he returned to India, eventually dying in Kashmir and being buried near Srinagar. I've been aware of this story since reading of it during the 1980s in a book called The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, but Kersten's book provides the scholarly support.
In the final pages of the book Kersten points out that Christianity as it has come down to us is nothing like what Jesus himself taught. Official Christianity is almost entirely the invention of the apostle Paul, who preached that all men are born sinners, that Jesus died on the cross to expiate the sins of men, and that salvation is possible only by believing this. This, of course, is a complete perversion of what Jesus taught, which was a form of early Buddhism (which he had studied in India), as exemplified principally in the Sermon on the Mount. It is interesting to note that Paul's invented religion, far from emphasizing the peace and tolerance that is characteristic of Buddhism, gave rise to intolerance, religious fanaticism and warfare, and that the perverted teaching of one man, Paul, has been responsible for the violent deaths of hundreds of millions of people in religious wars. Christianity, or "Crosstianity" as Osho called it, has from the beginning been a sick and perverted religion whose principal effect has been to shut down people's spiritual awareness rather than to open it, a religion which is useful to those who wish to control the mass of the people for their own purposes. As Nietzsche said, it is a religion fit only for slaves, or those of slave mentality.
February 17th, Mamallapuram
A western breakfast: fried eggs, toast and coffee. Then some time on the internet.
Around midday I go to the beach and actually take a swim in the ocean for the first time in about a year. The water is warm, the surf is light, it all feels great.
I walk back to the village and get a lemon soda and banana pancake for lunch.
On the way back to my hotel, at the start of Ottavadai Cross Street, I pass the pigs and cows devouring garbage. As noted earlier in Bhubaneshwar, this is the traditional Indian method of disposing of garbage. The problem, however, is that the pigs and cows can't eat the plastic bags and plastic water bottles produced in such abundance by modern India.
I sleep in the afternoon. I'm slowly recovering my health, although still coughing up phlegm as I've been doing for the last week.
Around 5 p.m. I get up and go next door for a pot of coffee. Here you get real coffee, not instant coffee. The mosquitos are a nuisance. I return briefly to my hotel room and spray on some DEET repellent. I spend some time reading more of the book about Jesus in India.
Darkness has fallen. I explore the village away from the beach. It doesn't take long to reach the "Indian" section of Mamallapuram, which you immediately recognize by the presence of many more people, piles of garbage, tatty shops and rickety old buses.
There are lots shops selling stonework, which is a speciality of Mamallapuram, with men sitting and chipping away at carvings. There are also lots of arts and crafts shops in both the Indian and the travellers' sections of the village, with many shops selling bronzes and thankas (Tibetan paintings). I notice an interesting thanka in a window; the central deity is Mahakala. I talk to the proprieter, who turns out to be a Ladakhi, whose brother purchases bronzes and paintings in Ladakh, Nepal and India and brings them to Mamallapuram to sell to tourists, except that these days there are few tourists. I enter the shop and visit the upstairs section, which has lots of things in addition to paintings and statues, including jewelry and carpets. But customers seem to be in short supply.
Back in the travellers' section I stop at a restaurant which has fresh fish (which only very recently have gasped their last) laid out on a table in front. You can pick your fish and they'll take it away and grill it. I select a moderately-sized fish and bargain the price down from 125 rupees to 100 rupees. A bottle of beer (my first beer since reaching India) costs 80 rupees.
While I'm waiting for the fish I'm joined at the table by a Dutchman and we talk about various things. It seems he's retired and is now travelling the world with no fixed itinerary, planning to visit China then Australia.
The beer (Kingfisher) is quite good, the fish is even better. When the owner brings me the bill he has charged me 125 rupees for the fish and 85 rupees for the beer, but when I point out that he said 100 and 80 rupees respectively he happily corrects the bill.
February 18th, Mamallapuram
I sleep OK, except for waking a few times. The room has a fan. It's a bit warm without the fan, but with the fan on the lowest speed it's a bit cool, so I spend some time alternating between two, which is not very satisfactory.
I dream of old friends in California with whom I've had no contact in ten years. Pamela urges me to "Vow to marry the 17-year-old daughter of Jim Morrison!" What?! Later we and a large number of people are sitting around a table, perhaps about to eat. Pamela's husband gives a short speech, something about funerals.
I get up at 8:30 a.m. and go out for breakfast: fried eggs, toast and a pot of coffee. Quite good, but I have to share the table with lots of flies.
Lunch of fruit salad. Around 5 p.m. I head for the beach. At this time of day the water is not as warm as at midday, but still very pleasant. A couple of fishing boats are setting out for a late afternoon's catch. They have only two or three men. Some boats are basically just logs lashed together and powered by a small outboard motor.
After my swim I walk down the beach toward the Shore Temple. It's situated within a park, which is surrounded by a fence. The temple itself is not large, but very nicely proportioned, with a larger tower and a smaller tower in front of it. In the light of the setting sun it is a fine sight.
I walk around the fence, passing huge piles of rocks which separate the temple grounds from the ocean, and eventually I come out on the far side. I've arrived at the Indian beach, the beach where the Indians hang out, as opposed to the Westerners' beach from which I've just come. On this beach there are a few horses, pigs and cows wandering around. Back from the beach is an avenue of stalls with various paraphernalia meant to appeal to the Indian tourists.
I wander over to the entrance to the Shore Temple. There's a sign up saying that it's ten rupees for Indians but 250 rupees for foreigners. Another Indian government scam designed to fleece Western tourists for all they're worth. I tell the men at the gate that I won't be paying 25 times what an Indian pays to go in. It's not clear whether they understand what I'm saying, but they all smile in a friendly manner.
I wander down some back lanes, back toward the travellers' section of the village. The people here, while poor, are not destitute. Goats, dogs and chickens wander around. A puppy is trying to harrass a chicken. The chicken is larger than the puppy, and is not particularly worried by this.
I come to the end of a lane, almost a cul-de-sac, but to the right there's a narrow gap between two houses, doesn't look too clean, but I see a street at the other end, so I go along and voila! I'm right back at Ottavadai Cross Street directly in front of my hotel!
I go out at 7 p.m. for an hour on the net, to a different internet place. I find that the same thing is happening as at oneof the internet places in Bhubaneshwar: Something is adding VB script to my HTML files. Incredible! I complain angrily to the man at the desk but he doesn't understand. He goes and gets their technical person, who turns out to be a young woman. She's concerned and sympathetic, but has even less of a clue than me as to what the explanation is. (I later discover that this is some kind of virus.) Actually this young woman is really nice, calm and clearly concerned that a customer is upset about something. My annoyance cannot last long in the presence of this gentle young woman.
I go to a restaurant which overlooks the beach. The moon is halfway up in the sky and is reflected in the calm sea, a beautiful sight.
I order grilled prawns (it comes with salad, but no chips) and a lemon soda. The prawns are fairly small and although there are quite a few of them they don't amount to a filling meal. But nevertheless they are delicious. I finish the meal with a pineapple pancake, also good. Ah! So good to be away from India!
I continue reading William Bramley's The Gods of Eden, a good historical read. Written in the 1980s, before the current "War on Terrorism", Bramley mentions that some of the American revolutionaries were terrorists. Under the leadership of Samuel Adams a secret organization called the "Sons of Liberty" (the 1760s American version of al-Qaeda) "burned the records of the Vice Admiralty court and looted the homes of various British officials. They threatened further violence against stamp agents and other British authorities." Later, of course, there was even more overt "terrorist" activity, such as the "Battle of Concord" (later portrayed by the victors, of course, as a "battle" rather than a terrorist action). It was through such acts of terrorism, directed against the British, that the American Revolution, and thus the United States of America itself, came into being, a fact conveniently now forgotten by those in the Bush administration who wish to wage their duplicitous "War on Terror".
February 19th, Mamallapuram
I get up at 8:30 a.m. and go out for breakfast, giving a few rupees to the usual beggars on the way. As soon as I sit down at a table I'm bitten by a mosquito, but squash the little bugger before he can escape. I return to my hotel to spray on some mosquito repellent, then go to another restaurant. I order orange juice with my fried eggs and ginger black coffee, but the OJ never arrives because when the cook goes to buy the oranges there are none to be had.
I talk a bit with the restaurant/hotel manager. He tells me that the number of tourists, from all countries, is really down recently (except for the Christmas and New Year period). It's fear of war, he says. Many Westerners don't feel safe travelling.
I take my two pullovers and my trousers to be dry cleaned. I've been wearing the trousers (custom made in Bangkok) almost every day since I arrived in India, and they're filthy. Dry cleaning for all three will cost me sixty rupees (US$1.20).
I walk further to the bus station to check the buses to Kanchipuram. There's one every morning at 9:45 a.m. I think I'll stay there one night just before going back to Chennai to catch the train to Mysore. I'll be sorry to leave Mamallapuram. Life here is very relaxed and pleasant. Not much to do here except to have breakfast, lunch and dinner in pleasant surroundings, swim each afternoon in the ocean, walk around the village, listen to the BBC and some music CDs (Bach violin concerti, Puccini's Mass, Russian sacred music), read a bit and do internet things, but I can certainly put up with this for quite some time.
February 20th, Mamallapuram
I have been sleeping quite well lately. In a dream I meet a humanoid entity, about 15 cm. high, very thin. He's some kind of metal craftsman; shows me samples of his inlay work. More strange dreams.
I wake at 8:30 a.m. There's quite a bit of noise outside. I find that a large group of French tourists have arrived in a big bus. Their luggage occupies the entire courtyard of the hotel. Most of them eventually get back in the bus (their luggage disappears, presumably into various hotels), which leaves, probably for some sightseeing. A few Frenchwomen remain, wandering around and complaining loudly. Perhaps these are the tour group leaders complaining about some problem with hotel accommodations.
Around 1 p.m. I go to the beach. Just a few Indians wandering around, no other Westerners. The hawkers have no-one to sell anything to. The water is warm, the surf gentle, as before. Dogs sleep in the shade under the fishing boats resting on the sand.
After twenty minutes in the sea I head back to the village. Indians are sitting, lying, sleeping in the shade. I go into a restaurant (I'm the only customer) and get a lemon soda and a fruit pancake (quite good), fifty rupees together.
I go out for dinner to the same restaurant as last night, this time for the prawns. Fifteen medium-sized prawns and chips, 200 rupees. Expensive, but I order them (just this once), and a beer for 80 rupees. The prawns are not bad, but not as tasty as the smaller, cheaper and less filling prawns of a couple of nights ago, and definitely overpriced.
Time to tune into the BBC. There's not much to do around here at night, especially since there's no charas to smoke (or at least, it's not worth the risk of smoking here).
February 21st, Mamallapuram
I wake during the night then don't get back to sleep for quite a while.
I go out for breakfast: fried eggs, toast and a pot of coffee, quite good, though too many flies at the table. A couple of Dutch women sit down at the next table. They get scrambled eggs. These look like scrambled eggs should, showing that Indian cooks are capable of doing scrambled eggs correctly.
There are lots of arts and crafts shops around, selling brocades, paintings, carvings, etc. I used to find all this quite interesting, thirty years ago. In those days, in Kathmandu, Delhi, etc., I took a lot of interest in such things. The workmanship is still admirable, especially the silk brocades, but somehow these days I can't get particularly interested. It may be depression brought on by the fact that we seem to be in the initial stages of World War III.
Around 5 p.m. I go for a walk along the beach. Take a few photos.
I go out for dinner. The restaurant where I was planning to get a steak (beef! in India!) is full — it often is, not sure why (maybe it's the steaks). I go on to the next restaurant, the last one down Ottavadai Cross Street. It has a dirt floor. I order a lime juice and a prawn biriyani. The latter is tasty, but the prawns are tiny and not easy to find amongst the rice. I eat only about half of it. I leave and go up the street to the Sea Queen restaurant, where I know I can get a good fruit salad, which I do; delicious as usual. I ask them to put on an Enigma CD. The waiter selects one that he likes. He sits down at my table and wants to talk a bit, but there's not much to talk about.
A half-hour on the net (but I forget to send an important message!), hoping to find some information about the Nath yoga tradition. I find that there's a center in Poona teaching in this tradition, and that Kriya Yoga is said to be in the Nath yoga tradition.
Nights here are getting a bit boring. Good thing I have my CD player. I listen to a Mozart Mass before going to sleep.
February 22nd, Mamallapuram
I wake early, feeling depressed. I go out for breakfast to the same restaurant as where I had breakfast yesterday. There's a man sitting at another table. I order a pot of coffee, fried eggs, toast, butter & jam and a pot of coffee. Sometime later the waiter brings the coffee, an omelette and some plain toast, which is cold. I complain about not getting the fried eggs that I ordered. I say I'll eat the omelette anyway, but I send the toast back. I eat the omelette, it's OK.
Soon after, the waiter brings an omelette for the man at the other table, plus some plain toast. It seems the waiter took the first omelette to the wrong person. But where's my toast, butter & jam? Eventually a waitress brings it, along with a plate of fried eggs. Confusion. But they say, no charge for the omelette. OK. But this place, as usual, has lots of flies. Too many. I won't be returning.
I go for a walk toward the village center to see "Krishna's butterball". This is a huge boulder delicately perched on a rock incline, in a kind of "park" behind the village, with some rock carvings and almost no greenery. It's certainly a curious sight, big, and actually looks like it has broken off from some larger structure.
There are gaggles of tourists, mostly Westerners, and a lot of Indian schoolchildren. There are guides looking for business and men selling postcards and carved trinkets, all hoping desperately to get a few rupees out of the tourists. I buy four postcards from a man for twenty rupees, not that I really want them, but at least he can now eat today.
It's quite warm. By the time I'm back at my hotel I'm thinking that a dip in the ocean is a good idea, especially since the power is off and the fan is not working. I go down to the sea and have a long soak. The water's warm, there's almost no surf and the only other bathers are some Indians a couple of hundred meters away. There are a few small boats out, with men trying to catch some fish with small nets.
On the way back from the beach I get a lemon soda; refreshing. Back at the hotel there's still no power. I'm feeling depressed and not entirely well. I lie down and sleep for a couple of hours, and wake in the same condition.
I'd like to give some laundry in, but there's no sign of the hotel maid. I go to put on a clean T-shirt and I find a white sleeveless Adidas shirt among the clothes in my rucksack. I'm sure I have never seen this shirt before! It's a mystery to me as to where this came from. Possibly it came back with some laundry that I'd sent out sometime in India. That's not a convincing explanation, since I always check my returned laundry, but I can't think of another. The shirt fits, so I wear it.
I finally find the maid and give her my laundry.
I go out for dinner to the Nautilus Restaurant. Tonight there's a free table out front, so I take that and order the beef steak (95 rupees), along with a mint tea. Both are good. The "beef" is perhaps buffalo rather than cow, but that's OK. The mint tea is not as minty as you get in Morocco, but it is rare to get mint tea at all in India. And also rare to find "beef" of any sort. (And "mutton" is never sheep, but always goat.) A satisfying meal. I'm feeling better. And I like this new shirt, regardless of where it came from.
February 23rd, Mamallapuram
I go out for lunch at the Nautilus: pineapple pancake and a cup of strong coffee.
The hotel maid brings my laundry. Five pieces, twenty rupees. I give her thirty.
It's 4 p.m. I go down to the beach for a final swim, since this is my eighth day here and I'm planning to leave tomorrow.
As always, a pleasant dip, water warm, surf gentle, skies balmy, hardly any other bathers.
I feel sorry for the hawkers along the beach, trying to sell some fabric, a postcard, a small carving, etc. There are so few tourists that they sell very little.
I go out for dinner to the Tina Blue View restaurant where I got the excellent fish and chips before. Order grilled Pomfret and chips (for a hundred rupees), both good. I stop in at the Sea Queen for one of their excellent fruit salads, for the last time.
After an hour on the net I pack in preparation for tomorrow's departure for Kanchipuram. After eight days of doing nothing much but eating well and swimming in the ocean (not that there's much else to do here) I'm well-rested and ready to move on, back to the real India.
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