Sunday, January 11, 2009

Day 5 - From Chennai to Mamallapuram

Day 5 - From Chennai to Mamallapuram

- How many people can you invite to a wedding?
- On the best road in India
- Advanced rock carving for dummies
- The village people
- GRT Hotel
- Dancing with the stars

1. Elephant carved into famous 100 foot long carving
2. Buffalo same-same
3. Ralph blessed in so many ways (and for many of you, maybe the first photo ever seen outside of a family context)
4. Rice or chalk drawing (most houses and businesses do one every morning in front of their place)
5. Rice drying on the highway
Last night a Muslim (we believe, not really sure) wedding was held in the courtyard next to the Green Park ground floor. See pic from prior day of stage. All we saw of the wedding (around 9:15 or so) was a line of men waiting to shake the groom’s hand and hand over an envelope. Later that night, around 10pm, there was a monumental traffic jam in the parking lot. I, of course, was asleep and MHB was up trying to figure out what all the honking was about.

That morning, one of tour mates told us that there had been 2,700 people at the wedding. That’s a lot of envelopes!

This morning we head out on the East Coast Road towards Mamallapuram. It’s a toll road and supposedly the best in India. Nearing our destination, we notice one of the two lanes has been taken over by locals to dry out their rice. Hmmmm…best rice road in India?

On the way, Prof Martin gives a terrific lecture on the caste system, why you only see fried food in railroad picnics, north vs. south India, and Hinduism (first topic and last take up most of the time). Meanwhile we are seeing the countryside, not quite as developed or used for agriculture as elsewhere. And, an explanation of the local hero who came from lower caste to become the leader of the movement to break down the caste system in Tamil Nadu, the area we are in now (equivalent of a large state). Factoid: there are some 330 million (yes, mill-ionaire) gods and goddesses in Hinduism. So many that even trees become shrines!

Mamallapuram is a revelation. For those of you who rushed out and bought Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, the 7th century AD 100 foot long rock carving near the end of the book is in Mamallapuram, and is worth a detour. It is amazing, and can actually be interpreted as one of two myths of Hinduism, and Martin conjectures that the creators of the carving may even have figured out how to do both, tricking the gods in showing their devotion depending on situational ethics. The carving can be seen as emerging from the rock or melding back into the rock. The main figure of the story is actually one of the smaller carved figures. The elephants are near life size. Shockingly fascinating. Tonight we go back to see a native dance in front of the rock.

Then we pick up Curt, a 40ish American guy who is running a small NGO in the area that is helping the villages by building and staffing after school day care, donating sewing machines to women to make small items for sale, etc. Curt goes by John locally because the locals cannot pronounce his first name (amazing, because we hear that the local language has 24 vowels in it - only 2 consonants? - and the names around here run for days). He is pretty intense: while showing us one of the many statues of the local hero (usually in sunglasses), off in a field 200 yards from the road, he is in the midst of a long answer to a short question when I interrupt and ask if we can continue in the van - it’s well into the 90s and when the sun is out our white winter coats are turning red!

A kingfisher is sighted, but I don’t have binocs with me and it is too far (for me) to see otherwise. Damn, something other than a crow and I missed it.

Off we go to one of Curt’s villages, just down the highway, where we become honorary (maybe for this life?) Hindus, complete with multi-colored dots on the forehead and a small donation to the local sadhu (I give double the suggest amount so MHB and I can be together for this eternity) who is leading the prayers in the shrine. We visit the local chief’s house, where he and his many kids (and we think) one wife live, two rooms and the only real piece of furniture is a TV cabinet, complete with TV (not a flat panel). There are maybe 30 houses in the village, and we’re told every one has a TV.

The kids, ages 2 to 12 or so, crowd around us and try to practice English and have their pictures taken as many times as possible, all giddily cheerful.

The new community center is about 350 sq ft, one room, concrete; when built it cost about $2000 and now Curt says it would be about $5000 because of rise in prices of commodities (something about the global economy tells me that the cost is heading back south).

Off to our hotel: the GRT is a very nice beach resort with another excellent buffet, the best yet, though the ice cream was not as good as yesterday. Otherwise: Numero Uno. The two man band singing classic soft rock was actually harder to take than our C&W babe of two nights ago. For a minute, I thought Paul was making a guest appearance…Michelle, ma belle, these are the words that go together well, my Michelle (we are now praying and laying flowers at the shrine that says lyrics like these will be sung only in the next life).

Rest up at the hotel, we head to the fitness center for a workout. Afterwards, the attendant brings us the single best invention we’ve seen on any of our trips: a frozen hand towel for cooling off. Tomorrow I will be getting off the elliptical every 5 to 10 minutes for the post-workout towel!

We go to town for a 6pm dance recital in front of the stone carving (which is crowded atop by goats, quite picturesque at sunset). Local women and girls dressed in colorful outfits, doing (long) routines to a small orchestra: violinist, drummer, cymbals (she is also back-up singer) and one just one singer, who must be in her 80s at least. All sit cross-legged on the stage. After the first two numbers, your fearless traveler is studying his notes in his lap with his eyes closed, apparently studying very hard according to MHB.

Power outage occurs during set change, MHB thinks it was when they plugged in the i-pod player. Around 8pm, our group makes our get-away, and since we’re in the 2nd row, it’s a fairly well-seen exit. About 500 are watching, we were in the VIP section (about 400 folks) and there are people sitting on a wall on the side (free) and maybe 100 in the way back seats, and a few in the VVIP seats in front of us.

Another buffet, and this time I hold back and have a few salads, some yogurt, much naan (from tandoori in kitchen) and local tortilla equivalent fresh off the griddle, and ice cream, just water no alcohol tonight. These buffets go a long way to counteracting visits to the gym. Notes: No band (phew) and among the diners is a large (very tall and wide) guy in long full beard and some sort of pinkish robe with a large necklace of beads and a cross. He makes a lot of trips to the buffet.

Yours for this life and maybe more (OH NO!!!), Ralph and MHB


  1. hope this doesn't spoil your trip ralph, but in the photo you can definitely see the resemblance to dad. the older we get the more we look like our parents? weird, huh?

  2. Dad?'s definitely, weird, especially when looking at your spouse! R