Monday, November 23, 2009

The Road to Mahabalipuram

“Mahabalipuram, or Mamallapuram as it is now known, is 54 kilometres away from Chennai, capital city of Tamil Nadu. It was known since antiquity as a prosperous port town. Mahabalipuram became Mamallapuram during the reign of Narasimha Varman I.”

Interesting information, perhaps, but this becomes completely irrelevant during the 50-odd kilometre trip from Chennai. Once out of the city, the seemingly never-ending stretch of open road flanking the Bay of Bengal that is the East Coast Road leaves you powerless to think of anything but the sea shimmering in the distance to your left.

The sea is, by no stretch of the imagination, an unbroken line. It plays hide and seek between sections of trees, shimmering pinks, oranges and gold bouncing off the cerulean waters, depending on the time of day. Sometimes, when making this trip by bike, I feel I could be in a two-wheeler commercial!

Then my reverie is broken, if not by one of the many little fishing hamlets that dot the ECR, then by monstrous signs for beach front property with terribly clichéd names. Sometimes it is one of the many restaurants and recreational facilities that give Chennai-ites the chance to escape the city, without really travelling too far. But most of these are usually on the wrong side of the road, the right, for me to care too much about them obstructing my view of the sea.

Still, the wind shrieking its way through my earrings and my hair that inexplicably finds its way into my mouth, are not enough to detract my thoughts of what lies ahead. I can almost see the lighthouse towering up against a cloud-mottled sky, the indigenous tribals hawking their beaded artefacts, coconut sellers, and the grass thriving beneath the numerous vestiges of the temple town Mamallapuram once was.

Along the way, I note what have become my own personal landmarks — positively ugly houses.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no critic of architecture, but some of those edifices (it may not be the right word, but it’s first that comes to mind) make me wonder what developers were thinking when they made them. And as if rocket-shaped homes (an entire gated community of them, I kid you not!) weren’t bad enough, a number are painted to reflect what I can only guess is the colourful personalities of their owners. Purple and orange, lime green and cobalt blue, lemon and hot pink: some homes even sport multiple such combinations. There are however some tastefully done structures that help server the same purpose — they remind me that I only have 45 minutes, or half an hour, or 20 minutes, to get to where I’m going.

About 15 minutes away, is the Crocodile Park, reputed to be India’s largest. For a nominal entry fee, this is your chance to get up close and personal with Gharials, American Crocodiles, African ones and even the one in Jaws III. While barricades and glass generally keep you out of the shady green swampy enclosures, and thus off the crocs’ lunch menu, there is a subterranean exhibit of a gharial in its own habitat. All that separates the two of you is a glass wall. That’s adventurous enough for me, honestly, even though he’s seemed asleep most times I’ve been there — asleep or gambolling with the few turtles and fish that share his space. Ok, I may have exaggerated a little on the gambolling bit, but he hasn’t eaten any of them, from what the Croc Park staff tells me.

For those who discover (or rekindle) a love for these deceptively agile reptiles, but prefer something softer (or less likely to chew off your hand) to take home, there’s the gift shop, with all things croc-related: mini-sculptures, t-shirts, soft toys, keychains, and even books. While Steve Irwin-wannabes are still not allowed into the enclosures, you CAN get pictures taken with a croc skull. Yea, like THAT’s adventurous.

The crocodile bank is also a good place to stop to cool off a bit and maybe get a bite to eat — especially if, like me, you prefer street food. However, in these parts, even street food is actual food: slices of raw mango or cucumber with a dash of salt, or the magical tender coconut that can slake your thirst and sate your hunger for less than 15 bucks!

Back on the road, it’s easy to get antsy. You know Mahabalipuram, or Mahabs, as some folks call it, is just around the figurative corner, but the road just seems to go on forever. The secret at this point is to forget that you’re trying to get anywhere at all. Once in that zone, it’s easy to sit back and get back to enjoying the road, count the tender coconut shacks along the way (After more than a dozen attempts, I still don’t have a definitive count), stop to admire the yellow, pink and white wildflowers that carpet the sides of the road, or simply take a walk in one of the many tree groves that beg to be picnicked in.

When I come up on the Tiger caves, I know I’m about 5 minutes away. IF, I choose not to take a detour to walk on the grass, examine the sculptures I’ve seen numerous times before, but still haven’t begun to understand, or find a gap in the barbed wire fencing to sneak into the practical wilderness of virgin beach, where the water is as blue as any tourism poster.

Most days, I come back scratched by wild thorny plants I haven’t formally been introduced to, with sand in my shoes, and dying to slurp on an ice candy, which I usually find waiting for me at the entrance, in the icebox of a vendor resting on his pedal-cart.

Ride five minutes more, and you reach a fork in the road — the choice to either get where you were planning to go, or to keep going along the breathtakingly scenic East Coast Road. So far, I’ve let familiarity overtake me as I continue on the left, heading towards Mahabalipuram.

Gradually, the road begins to feel narrower, more buildings appear, you notice a higher number of sculpture workshops than dotted the ECR before, and you realise you’re almost in the town famous for its Shore Temple. According to legends, the shore temple here is the last of seven — the others are believed to now be submerged under the Bay of Bengal. However, the ultimate indicator of having arrived in Mahabs, a little before reaching the official sign announcing the special municipality, is a garishly purple building — that could very well be a home — with bright orange trim.

Each time I visit Mahabalipuram, I wonder what the ancient denizens of Mamallapuram would have thought about today’s Mahabs, with its vivid colours, throngs of tourists, restaurants with names like the Bob Marly Café, Café Santana, Moonrakers, and Le Ritz, and an air of being something close to an open-air interactive sculpture museum. Every time, I also make a mental note to visit the purple house with the orange trim, and find out more about the colourful people who I assume live there. Every time, I head straight to the beach.

10 comments:

saransh.s said...

nice one...I especially like the aprt where you talk about the wind blowing in your hair..
and the part where you go to explore virginal beaches :)
fun!

DONAVIN LEWIN said...

I would like to place an order of crocodile feeding, lonely beach coctail and Bob Marley
pick-me-up. There's no need of entertainment cause thinking of you and your intelligence in a two wheeler commercial made me lmfao.. :)

zephkeyes said...

AWWW, Donny's jealous coz i have super cool imagination where bike ads are concerned :P

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Anonymous said...

You have to express more your opinion to attract more readers, because just a video or plain text without any personal approach is not that valuable. But it is just form my point of view

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Asavari said...

Your blog is such a great read, M! You need to get back to this asap!

Ben said...

Your newest follower here. Id love for you to check out my page sometime and follow back. Have a great day.

web design company said...

Hey our mahabalipuram had a blog here aa wow..I just startled that some one is there to discuss about it in blogs.Its great.I know the topic u have shared but am happy that u shared a well and good topic so that many visitors know the importance of that place.Keep it up !