Fazed by the heat and air pollution of Chennai, most visitors escape as fast as they can, heading down the Coromandel coast to India’s stone-carving capital, Mamallapuram. En route, it’s worth stopping at Dakshina Chitra, a folk museum 30km south of Chennai, where traditional buildings from across south India have been beautifully reconstructed. Further inland, Kanchipuram is an important pilgrimage and silk-sari-weaving town from where you can loop southwest to the atmospheric temple town of Tiruvannamalai, situated at the base of the sacred mountain, Arunachala. Along the coast, you can breakfast on croissants and espresso coffee in the former French colony of Puducherry. A short way north, Auroville, the Utopian settlement founded by followers of the Sri Aurobindo Ghose’s spiritual successor, The Mother, provides a New Age haven for soul-searching Westerners and an economy for the local population.
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Mamallapuram and around
Mamallapuram and around
Scattered around the base of a colossal mound of boulders 58km south of Chennai is the small seaside town and UNESCO World Heritage Site of MAMALLAPURAM (formerly Mahabalipuram). From dawn till dusk, the rhythms of chisels chipping granite resound down its sandy lanes – evidence of a stone-carving tradition that has endured since this was a major port of the Pallava dynasty, between the fifth and ninth centuries. It is only possible to speculate about the purpose of much of the boulder sculpture, but it appears that the friezes and shrines were not made for worship at all, but rather as showcases for the talents of local artists. Due in no small part to the maritime activities of the Pallavas, their style of art and architecture had wide-ranging influence, spreading from south India as far north as Ellora, as well as to Southeast Asia.
Mamallapuram’s monuments divide into four categories: open-air bas-reliefs, structured temples, man-made caves and rathas (“chariots” carved in situ from single boulders to resemble temples or the chariots used in temple processions). The famous bas-reliefs, Arjuna’s Penance and the Krishna Mandapa, adorn massive rocks near the centre of the village, while the beautiful Shore Temple, one of India’s most photographed monuments, presides over the beach. Sixteen man-made caves and monolithic structures, in different stages of completion, are scattered through the area, but the most complete of the nine rathas are in a group, named after the five Pandava brothers of the Mahabharata.
Given the co-existence of so many stunning archeological remains with a long sandy beach, it was inevitable this would become a major destination for Western travellers, with the inevitable presence of Kashmiri emporia, beach hawkers, budget hotels and fish restaurants – and more recently hordes of Chennai-escapees descending at the weekends as well. The sandy hinterland and flat estuarine paddy fields around Mamallapuram also harbour a handful of sights well worth making forays from the coast to see. You can take any coastal bus between Mamallapuram and Chennai, or rent a moped for the day.
KANCHIPURAM is situated on the Vegavathi River 70km southwest of Chennai. Ask any Tamil what Kanchipuram (aka “Kanchi”) is famous for, and they’ll probably say silk saris, shrines and saints – in that order. A dynastic capital throughout the medieval era, it remains one of the country’s seven holiest cities, sacred to both Shaivites and Vaishnavites, and among the few surviving centres of goddess worship in the south. Year round, pilgrims pour through for a quick puja stop on the Tirupati tour circuit and, if they can afford it, a spot of shopping in the sari emporia. For non-Hindu visitors, however, Kanchipuram holds less appeal. Although the temples are undeniably impressive, the town itself is unremittingly hot, with only basic accommodation and amenities. Some people prefer to visit Kanchipuram as a day-trip from Chennai or Mamallapuram, both of which are a two-hour bus ride away.
Established by the Pallava kings in the fourth century AD, Kanchipuram served as their capital for five hundred years, and continued to flourish throughout the Chola, Pandya and Vijayanagar eras. Under the Pallavas, it was an important scholastic forum, and a meeting point for Jain, Buddhist and Hindu cultures. Its temples dramatically reflect this enduring political prominence, spanning the years from the peak of Pallava construction to the seventeenth century, when the ornamentation of the gopuras and pillared halls was at its most elaborate. You might need to be a little firm to resist the attentions of pushy puja-wallahs, who try to con foreigners into overpriced ceremonies. If you’ve come for silk, head for the shops that line Gandhi and Thirukatchininambi roads.
First impressions of PUDUCHERRY (Pondicherry, also often referred to simply as Pondy), the former capital of French India, can be unpromising. Instead of the leafy boulevards and pétanque pitches you might expect, its messy outer suburbs and bus stand are as cluttered and chaotic as any typical Tamil town. Closer to the seafront, however, the atmosphere grows tangibly more Gallic, as the bazaars give way to rows of houses whose shuttered windows and colourwashed facades wouldn’t look out of place in Montpellier. For anyone familiar with the British colonial imprint, the town can induce culture shock with it’s richly ornamented Catholic churches, French road names and policemen in De Gaulle-style képis, and boules played in the dusty squares. Many of the seafront buildings were damaged by the 2004 tsunami, but Puducherry’s tourist infrastructure remained intact.
Known to Greek and Roman geographers as “Poduke”, Puducherry was an important staging post on the second-century maritime trade route between Rome and the Far East. When the Roman Empire declined, the Pallavas and Cholas took control and were followed by a succession of colonial powers, from the Portuguese in the sixteenth century to the French, Danes and British, who exchanged the enclave several times after the various battles and treaties of the Carnatic Wars in the early eighteenth century. Puducherry’s heyday, however, dates from the arrival of the French governor Joseph Dupleix, who accepted the governorship in 1742 and immediately set about rebuilding a town decimated by its former British occupants. It was he who instituted the street plan of a central grid encircled by a broad oblong boulevard, bisected north to south by a canal dividing the “Ville Blanche”, to the east, from the “Ville Noire”, to the west.
Although relinquished by the French in 1954 – when the town became the headquarters of the Union Territory of Pondicherry, administering the three other former colonial enclaves scattered across south India – Puducherry’s split personality still prevails. The seaside promenade, Goubert Salai (formerly Beach Road), has the forlorn look of an out-of-season French resort, complete with its own white Hôtel de Ville. Many visitors are grave Europeans in white Indian costume, busy about their spiritual quest. It was here that Sri Aurobindo Ghose (1872–1950), a leading figure in the freedom struggle in Bengal, was given shelter after it became unwise for him to live close to the British in Calcutta. His ashram attracts thousands of devotees from all around the world, most particularly from Bengal.
The most New Age place anywhere in India must surely be AUROVILLE, the planned “City of Dawn”, 10km north of Pudicherry, straddling the border of the Union Territory and Tamil Nadu. Founded in 1968, Auroville was inspired by “The Mother”, the spiritual successor of Sri Aurobindo. Around 1700 people live in communes (two thirds of them non-Indians), with such names as Fertile, Certitude, Sincerity, Revelation and Transformation, in what it is hoped will eventually be an ideal city for a population of fifty thousand. Architecturally experimental buildings, combining modern Western and traditional Indian elements, are set in a rural landscape of narrow lanes, deep red earth and lush greenery. Income is derived from agriculture, handicrafts, alternative technology, educational and development projects and Aurolec, a computer software company.
Considering how little there is to see here, Auroville attracts a disproportionately large number of day-trippers – much to the chagrin of its inhabitants, who rightly point out that you can only get a sense of what the settlement is all about if you stay a while. Interested visitors are welcomed as paying guests in most of the communes, where you can work alongside permanent residents.