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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.