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  • Shelley Dark

12. Mammallapuram

Isn't that a great name? Once I realise it rhymes with Pamela, it's easy to say. I like saying it over and over under my breath. Or out loud.

We've joined the ADFAS tour which starts here in Mamallapuram, south of Chennai. If you're not familiar with ADFAS, it stands for the Australian Decorative and Fine Arts Society. I'm a member of the Noosa chapter. There are interesting lectures once a month during the year.

After our flight from Goa to Chennai, a driver is waiting to drive us here. It takes two hours. We meet our tour leader Sue Rollin as we get out of the car. She and her partner Stuart are friendly and helpful. Sue is an archaeologist and interpreter. She wrote the Blue Guide to Jordan. They are going to Chennai to meet the rest of the group who are arriving later.

Isn't it difficult arriving somewhere at night? It takes so much longer to get your bearings the next day. Someone said that this hotel pool is the longest in the southern hemisphere, winding through the resort like a snake. I'm just not a resort person, but having said that, it's perfectly adequate, the room is huge and spotlessly clean.

John is absolutely fine by the way, thank goodness.

The pool is being cleaned by hand, no creepy crawlies needed here.

At breakfast we meet some of the others in our group from all along the eastern seaboard. A few have worked in the Department of Foreign Affairs. There are 12 travellers including us.

I don't yet have photos of Sue and Stuart. But the Indian travel company's representative is from Delhi. His name is George. He's short, quiet, and efficient.

There is a local guide from Chennai. His name is Asoka, pronounced Ashoaker. He’s dark-skinned and quite handsome.

I really like to eat breakfast on our own. I say so when George and Asoka invite us to join them. ‘Please don’t be insulted’, I say. Asoka gives a devastating smile and says he’ll get over it. He’s the president of the tourist guide association of Chennai. Chennai is a small city with a population of 8 million or so. He’s pleased that tourists have begun visiting again after the dreadful floods recently.

Later in an introductory talk, he emphasises that people from this part of India have always been sailors and traders. They were trading with Rome way back in the first century. Some Tamils were said to use Romans as guards. He also says that we shouldn't always look for logic in the stories of India. We will find that many Indian stories just defy logic. He and Sue work in tandem, taking it in turns to add more to what the other has said. I enjoy listening to both of them.

To travel in India is to hear constantly the stories of the Hindu gods. I was fed a diet of stories of the Greek and Roman gods in Ancient History at school. The Indian gods seem to me to be very similar in their human emotions. Asoka and Sue tell us many charming tales, especially those which are illustrated in the rock carvings we see.

We visit several shrines and temples built during the Pallava dynasty in the 7th, 8th and 9th centuries. The earliest ones have been carved from rock. They started with shrines carved out of rock in situ, and moved on to stone temples where the rock was carted to the site.

All of the five rathas below were carved out of one monolith. It's hard to imagine how anyone could conceive 5 buildngs while looking at one giant rock.

This is the Shore Temple right on the beach at Mamallapuram. It is no longer a working temple because the lingam is damaged. I should explain. These Hindu temples have a central inner sanctum which contains a phallic symbol to represent the potency of Lord Shiva.

This is an example of a lingam we saw outside a temple. It will give you the idea.

Below is part of a huge bas-relief on a rock wall, illustrating the story of Shiva and the Ganges, or Ganga. She is the daughter of Himalaya. Shiva stops the force of Ganga from destroying the earth. He stands under the flow and takes the full force of the water on his matted hair, and from there it flows down to become the powerful river.

Here Asoka is telling us about one of the Shiva legends. Some kings had been assuming more power than they ought, which annoyed Shiva, so he decided to teach them a lesson. Naked, he took his drum and played such beautiful music that the women of the town left their homes and their housework, carrying whatever they had been using, and followed him through the streets. They were mesmerised by him, much as in the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. When the nobles came home they found their wives gone. They realised that Shiva was punishing them, apologised to him, and their wives were returned to them. That's Shiva standing with his knee bent, one of the women kneeling to listen to his music.

We see Krishna's butter ball, a huge granite rock which appears to be balancing but which Asoka says is actually attached to the mother rock below. When the god Krishna was a child, he loved butter and would often steal scoops when no one was looking, hence the name.

This shrine is made by the cut-in method which involves scooping the stone out of the rock.

When the Pallavas first began to build in stone, their architecture resembled their previous wooden buildings.

There are many Indian people visiting the temples and shrines we are seeing.

These are school children walking through the town.

We visit a town called Kanchipuram. This is one of the 7 holy cities in India and the only one in southern India. Let me tell you why.

Shiva is sitting meditating one day, and Parvati is trying to flirt with him, wanting him to take notice of her. She wants children by him, she wants to become his wife. She comes up behind him and puts her hands around his head, closing his eyes. Shiva is furious. If a god closes his eyes, the world is plunged into darkness and ignorance. He is so angry that he banishes Parvati.

She goes to Kanchipuram and builds a shivalingam. Eventually through her piety and asceticism Shiva falls in love with her, and they marry in this temple. This is why it is so special.

We see a group of pilgrims singing in the temple. They are reading the lyrics from books. They sing for the hour we are there, and probably for hours more.

Asoka said it is written that a person who is not moved by the words to these songs is not fit to be a human being. You can tell this woman is a follower of Shiva by the horizontal lines across her forehead.

The pillared hall inside the temple is very impressive

She is happy to pose.

The worshippers come in all shapes and sizes. This man takes it very seriously. John took this photo. Isn't it powerful?

This represents the marriage of Shiva and Parvati.

There are holy men in the temple who bless us, and wish us long and healthy lives. We have silver 'hats' put on our heads. One man marks my forehead with red, another with white powder.

Parvati built the shivalingam under a mango tree. This is an illustration.

This mango tree is said to be 3500 years old. Remember Asoka's remark about not looking for logic?

This sign is under the mango tree.

This man is sure it doesn't mean him.

People make offerings to Lord Shiva. They light tiny bowls of wax. They bring flowers.

Contemplation at a nearby smaller temple.

The mortar and pestle business is slow.

We visit Chennai to see Fort St George, the stronghold of the British East India Company, and the small Anglican church within its grounds. Two famous people were married here. Yale, who established Yale University, and Robert Clive. Seeing Robert Clive's house makes me think I ought to try to trace my own ancestry and relation to him. My grandmother's maiden name was Irene Clive Willis. I've never wanted to pursue it before.

This is the San Thome Basilica. Asoka tells us about the statue of Jesus Christ at the altar which stands on a lotus flower with two peacocks beneath it. When we arrive, the statue is missing, probably for restoration.

These are lotus flowers floating in a bronze bowl at the tomb of St Thomas, who came to India in the first century to preach the gospel. He was either assassinated or martyred for his preaching. Or perhaps it was as Marco Polo reported centuries later, that he was accidentally shot by the arrow of a peacock hunter.

Arched windows and doors make picturesque frames.

We also visit St Andrew's kirk, built to resemble St Martins in the Field, like the church we saw in Calcutta. This church however has a round nave.

It has an old organ.

This combination of the English and Scottish coat of arms on the back of a chair in the church takes my eye.

One evening, Sue gives us a brilliant lecture on the East India Company. Apparently she speaks on many evenings of the tour. She tells us the English came to India for cotton and silk textiles after the company was created by Elizabeth I. Remember that the English cloths of the day were wool and linen. The textiles the company imported gave English many of its descriptive fabric words. Calico (after Calicut), muslin, dungaree (after Dungree, a district of Bombay), gingham, bandanas (from Hindi bandhnu meaning tie-dying), chintz (from Hindi chint meaning spotted or coloured), seersucker, taffeta (from Persian taftah, spun). There are many more.

We visit a silk store, and see the weaving looms.

Spice came from the Spice Islands or Moluccas. Luis Dias told me in Goa that India gave the world the mango, the peppercorn and sugar cane. Now I add light textiles.

It's quite amusing too that our word shampoo comes from Indian women teaching English men to bathe and wash their hair. In the museum at Fort St George, we saw worsted uniforms similar to what these soldiers wore. In this heat. It's hard to believe. Although they took on Indian customs such as lighter clothing, and Indian wives, quite freely until the adopted morals of the Victorian period made it uacceptable.

Wherever we go, I am constantly struck by the resilience and simple faith of the Indian people. As we drive by, I see a man at a shrine. He has his arms crossed over his chest and is holding each ear. As he stands there, he bounces up and down, quite fast, by bending his knees. I wonder what he is doing. He lets go of his ears and starts hitting his forehead with his fists. I watch until I can't see him any longer. When I ask Asoka what he was doing, he says it's a belief that if you do this, more knowledge will enter your head.

Today I saw two Indians speaking to each other. I don't know what they were saying, but they were both doing the head wobble to each other. -:) I cannot think how that problem would be resolved. It makes me feel giddy.

Gosh I haven't told you about Vishnu and his argument with the demon king when he turned himself into a dwarf. He was so clever! Or about the time that Krishna held up a mountain. Or how you can tell which god you are looking at by the things he/she is holding. Or their 'ride'. Oh there is so much to know about this wonderful place.

But it's late. I'll tell you another day.

Tomorrow we leave Mamallapuram. Our next adventure together is to Thanjavur, once Tanjore. Until then, a little more colour. Apram paarkalame buddies.


shelley dark, writer 

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