South India Road Trip: Ancient Wonders by the Sea



Continuting our road trip through southern India, we head to ancient Mamallapuram.

Through traffic mayhem, we’re on route to historic Mamallapuram, (aka Mahalbalipuram) 60 kilometres south of Chennai.

Our driver, Murugan, while no George Clooney in the charm department, thankfully knows just how to duck and weave through the highway chaos.



The road south was full of colour and plenty of livestock



With a population of 15,000, Mamallapuram is named after the seventh century king, Mamalla, of the ancient Pallava dynasty.



Once a major seaport, and a trading centre as far back as the first century AD, the town is famous for its World Heritage-listed stone temples and rock carvings.

Murugan drops us off at the Radisson Blu, a comfortable beachside hotel where we are, happily, greeted with floral garlands and welcome fruit drinks.

To our surprise, Sanjay, our driver’s boss, is there to greet us. Mamma is his hometown and he invites us to take tea at his home that afternoon.


Murugan, Ja and Sanjay


Hotel staff take us by buggy across the property’s spacious gardens to our room. Sanjay, a man of many connections, has managed to score us an upgrade to a seaside villa.

It’s a treat to be gazing out on the Bay of Bengal from our surfside verandah. But India being a place of stark social privilege divides , we note the resort perimeter fence separating us from the beach is topped by jagged broken glass and barbed wire. Perhaps a tad too Stalag-17 for an otherwise cheery resort.

We wander through the hotel’s lush gardens, which include a tree planted by HRH King Charles  – then along the beach to town, ten minutes walk away.



We pass fishermen emptying and mending their nets. The beach is teeming in ravens, kites, gulls, and dogs. Several cows -with  carte blanche to roam where they like – lie snoozing beside the boats.



Returning to the hotel, we cool off in an enormous swimming pool, a veritable inland sea, said to be one the largest in India. We also play a game on the giant chess board in the grounds and, while I fight like Kasparov, Jacqui swiftly has me hopelessly trapped in checkmate.



That afternoon, we go to Sanjay’s home nearby, to meet his family. He and his charming wife Kristie prepare us tea. They explain theirs was an arranged marriage and neither was that happy about it at first (few are), but they quickly grew to love each other (some do).

Sanjay’s teenage daughter Jennifer, like millions of young Indians, is studying IT. Also a talented artist, she shows us her portfolio. With the subcontinent having become one of the world’s great hubs for IT worker talent, she is in the right field.



We enjoy the chance to be guests at his home, and as we are two lone travellers, it’s reassuring for Sanjay to remind us that if we have any problems during our travels, to just phone and he’ll “take care of things.”

Next morning, after tucking into our hotel’s large and delicious southern Indian breakfast buffet, we head out to explore the celebrated temples.



Our first stop is a giant masterpiece of stonework, carved in the seventh century by skilled local stonemasons, called Arjuna’s Penance.

It is renowned as one of India’s greatest ancient art works – two huge boulders, carved with elephants and scenes from Hindu legend and figures from South Indian life.


The co-publisher sheltering ‘neath Krishna’s Butterball

There are other intricately carved monuments and temples dotted through the park and a giant, precariously balanced boulder called Krishna’s Butterball – a favourite for visitor selfies and group photos.



We then head back down to the coast to visit the Shore Temple, an equally impressive complex, hewn from blocks of granite in the eighth century.



Among the oldest structures in southern India, it is said to be one of seven original pagodas at the location mentioned in ancient European texts. The other six are now believed to be lost beneath the waves due to the changing coastline.

Murugan, ever at the ready, then takes us to The Five Rathas, a series of seventh century temples and shrines, each dedicated to a different Hindu deity, rich with carvings depicting elephants, peacocks, lions, gods, and ancient text.



The entire complex had been buried in sand and long forgotten until rediscovered and unearthed by the British two centuries ago. Most of them are carved out of enormous granite monoliths, and the workmanship and attention to detail is astonishing.

Today these World Heritage architectural marvels are a major tourist attraction, but we were virtually the only non-Indians there during out visit. This part of India was very much on the 60s and 70s western hippie trail, but today a more affluent and mobile Indian crowd dominate. (In fact, we found this to be the case across southern India.)



We are startled to see youngsters scrambling all over the buildings, kicking, sliding, and wrestling, ice creams and toys in hand. Parents seem oblivious to any damage being done, but it’s no secret that many Indian tackers rule the family roost (unruly precociousness being a virtue), especially irritating small boys, the prospective rajas.



Luckily the ancients’ stone of choice was granite, and this extremely durable material has stood the test of time. Anything softer would have been reduced to dust and pebbles by apathetic families.



At dinner time, we head back to town. The village reminds of us of a casual Balinese coastal hamlet circa 30 years ago, a la Candi Dasa, with a few touristy shops, eateries, street vendors and massage centres.

There are some excellent clothing and textile shops in the mix.

(We note a preponderance of eateries in the main drag with the word ‘Moon’ in the name; the reason for this lunar quirk remains a mystery.)


A whole lot of mooning going on in downtown Mamma


We find a suitable hippy vego cafe, The Yogi, and settle in for a quiet meal, delicious daal with lemon rice, and a fine Tamil seafood curry.

Then suddenly ‘pop, pop, bag, pop, bang, boom…!’

Sounds like gunmen are marauding in the street; we feel ourselves tense up. Turns out, it is just the Diwali nocturnal celebrations, suddenly in full swing.

Local urchins run amok waving sparklers, tossing firecrackers, and screaming with glee. The night sky thunders with colourful starbursts, dogs howl, cows moo, cats bolt, and squawking chickens flutter for safety.

Horribly loud, it goes on for hours. Clearly more gunpowder is ignited across India during the annual Diwali weekend than your average medium-sized war. But there is nothing we can do, apart from bellow through the explosive cacophony.

There are reportedly hundreds of accidents every year across India involving kids and fireworks, but Diwali’s way too popular an event for anyone to consider banning them.



The next morning, all being mercifully quiet on the waterfront, we take another beach stroll to watch the fishermen bring in their catch.



We spot two men struggling out in the surf, flapping about, and calling for help. They seem in real trouble and can’t even dog paddle – in other words, they appear to be drowning.

Concerned locals are forming a human chain to help the fellows – and finally the fellows are washed in by the shore break, exhausted and in mild shock. Their wives scold them for their stupidity as they lie like limp mudskippers in the sand.



The thrall of Diwali had perhaps possessed these non-buoyant merrymakers; they’d hired surfboards from a beachside vendor, clearly believing the art of wave riding was a cinch – and who needs to know how to swim? They immediately turned turtle and sank like boondies.




The day’s excitement over, it is time to leave Mamma. Murugan swings by to pick us up for the run down to Pondicherry, the former French colony town to the south.

The hotel staff help us with our luggage and we slip them the obligatory note or two.

Which sparks a lecture from our forthright helmsman, on how much we should tip the hotel staff. “You should be giving them more.”

“Thanks for that; can we head off?”

A tense silence fills the jalopy. We try to ignore the frowning wrinkles in the rear vision mirror, as our skipper points the grill southward and plants it..





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