MAMALLAPURAM AND CHENNAI… first draft

Mamallapurum Beach

Mamallapurum Beach

 

The road from Pondicherry to Mamallapuram followed the coast, for the most part around a kilometre inland, offering views from time to time of endless golden beaches glimpsed in between luxuriant tropical vegetation.

Family out in the Butterball & temple park

Family out in the Butterball & temple park

The little hamlets of thatched huts looked idyllic but in reality hide the poverty of these subsistance farmers. The farmers, with much darker southern skin, working in the fields, slim in their white tamil lungis. There is something proud and noble about them, but the fact is that there is little left over after just about feeding their families.

The local bus bounced along the typically potholed Indian road and with the heat and humidity it was easy to slip into a dreamlike revery.

Chewing on the local dried figs, much as I ate sticky Egyptian dates from the western Oasis villages many years before.. I wondered why I had that inate desire, something hardwired into my DNA, to see and photograph what was round the next corner, over that hill, from the need to continue from Cairo to southern Sudan, to explore the villages and mega cities of China, Trabzon and the eastern Anotolian Plains, to the current anti-clockwise tour of the subcontinent. Bouncing along in that local bus with the Coromandel coast to my right, the thatched villages,palms, that unbelievable tropical vegetation and heading towards another Indian town with whatever serendipitous event lay in wait,  I knew why.

Mamallapuram

Mamallapuram

Mamallapuram is a small town packed with interesting sites and blessed with a beautiful tropical beach. It has only two main streets, one parallel to the coast and the other full of tourist shops, cafes and monkeys performing gymnastics, running down to the shore.

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There is a vast UNESCO protected monuments park in the centre of town with the famous Krishna’s Butterball and The Descent of the Ganges, depicting in bas-relief is the story of the descent of the sacred river Ganges to earth from the heavens.

The Descent of the Ganges

The Descent of the Ganges

While wandering around behind one of the temples I bumped into three lady boys, who at first were a little wary and slightly aggressive soon became friendly and were happy to show off for the camera.Tamil Nadu state has about the most progressive policies towards transgenders in the world. These consist of free housing programmes, special citizenship documents,full scholarships for higher studies, protection from sexual harassment and help with income generating programmes. In a global ground breaking move the Tamil Nadu state created a third gender for admission to government colleges.
I love the shape of the body in the photo below, reminded me of André Kertész photo  ‘Satiric dancer’ Paris, 1926

Lady boys Mamallapuram

Lady boys Mamallapuram

There are a couple of raised restuarants next to the beach that serve great fish curries and one night I was entertained with a spectacular monsoon storm out over the ocean while I ate. I ignored the calls from tourist tat shop owners , textiles from Rajasthan and badly cast buddhas but later wandering around the less tourist part of town near the stonecarvers workshops was invited to tea by middle aged temple designer. Yes they still build lots of temples here , even if you can never visit a fraction of them. His grandfather was an artisan sculptor of Gods. I bought 2 small exquisite marble statue of Ganesh and Shiva.

Stonecarvers workshop

Stonecarvers workshop

The Shore Temple

The Shore Temple

Mamallapuram, also known as Mahabalipuram, famous for it’s Shore Temple and stone carvers, has a long and important past. From a port in Roman times to Marco Polo extolling it’s 7 pagados or shore temples of which there is only one left standing today. It has not only exported it’s local produce but also ideas, form of Hinduism and temple building.

Pancha Pandava Rathas

Pancha Pandava Rathas

The southern Dravidian culture and Hinduism, different to that of the north expressed itself in one important way, in it’s construction of temples and it’s carvings. The Pallavas dynasty from the 6th to 9th centuries were inveterate temple builders and carved temples out of huge boulders as well as dressed stone, all intricately carved and for the most part dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu.

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The site of the Pancha Pandava Rathas, the 5 temple chariots and an elephant carved from single monolithic boulders is a testament to the quality of seventh century craftmen. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CC3S2jTwqN4

The subsequent Chola Empire of southern India extended into Cambodia and Thailand and there is evidence that the style of Temple building from the Mamallapuram area was a strong influence on the construction of the later Angkor Wat.

 

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Today large sculptures carved in Mamallapurum are exported all over the world.

Mamallapuram ..Indian tourists

Mamallapuram ..Indian tourists

Mamallapuram is relaxing small Indian town, with a beautiful beach, wonderful sculptures and unlike the bustle of many Indian cities one is not hassled, in fact the opposite, more than once I was invited to drink tea or eat, just to chew the fat !

CHENNAI

CHENNAI

A couple of very local buses took me from Mamallapuram to Chennai, or Madras as it was named before 1996, and the last twenty odd miles the offices and business parks by the side of the road were a roll call multi-nationals. Microsoft, Sun, Cisco, Infosys, Accenture, Intel, Amazon, Deloitte, Accenture….I could go on & on ..and I later found out that Chennai is not only known as the Detroit of Asia with companies such as BMW, Ford, Hyundia, Nissan Renault and Mitsubishi .. but is known as the Banking Capital of India.

Chennai Old town

Chennai Old town

Once past the very modern south Chennai and into the Marina Beach and Old City of the once British Madras it was a rather different picture.

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I presume that the majority of the employees of these new industries lived far away from the old town and in the new gated communities that are springing up and dividing todays India into the new minority middle class and the ever burgeoning poor. A census in 2011 showed that only 4.6 per cent of India’s population had ownership of the following   four assets – television, computer/laptop, scooter/car and telephone/ mobile phone, and although India has a phenomenal growth rate it wiil be a very long time before India actually has the middle class that the politicians daily predict.

Chennai old town

Chennai old town

My hotel was in the Marina Beach area, where many of the hotels for Indian tourists were and the impressive MA Chidambaram Stadium, the Madras cricket ground. I checked but unfortunately there was, as everywhere I’d been no cricket while I was there.

Chennai Marina beach

Chennai Marina beach

The beach is the social life as well as the lungs of the city.

Marina Beach

Marina Beach

Marina Beach is something a little special, a sort of throw back to Victorian or Edwardian Britain. Around three every afternoon the place comes alive.

 

From nowhere a multitude of restaurants set up, some with barbeques others deep fried samosa stalls ..There are freshly squeezed fruits stands and others selling cold junk drinks and snacks from american multinationals. There are the enterprising shoot the balloons stalls and coconut shies, the kids carousels are assembled..football games are started and there are horse rides on offer. Whole families come down with their picnics, and over there an outing from an orphanage with perhaps the kids first ever view of the ocean.

The Beach photograph..

The Beach photograph..

The sea is dangerous here but young and old rush and jump in rather than swim, and even little old ladies hoist their saris and paddle.

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The children begging here, from the beach shanties, were some of the most aggressive I’d come across in India, they worked in small packs, the younger ones naked and and if rebuffed snuck behind and pinched you. They operated in the zone between the road and the tideline where all the tourists and mounted police were.

Chennai ..Beggar and Vedic numerology ?

Chennai ..Beggar and Vedic numerology ?

The decision to give or not to anyone begging is one of the hardest things I had to do on a regular basis. Even a poor westerner is infinitely better off than the majority of people in India. Political desire for an increased population, farmers having to leave the land when sub-division makes even subsistence farming impossible has led to a huge urban underclass with little possibility of work. I tried to collect coins to give, and in many situations did so, but here faced with small gangs of I have to say probably desperately poor children, if you gave to one, you would be surrounded by scores of others. I always thought that tipping to the poorer in hotels, restaurants and other service sectors was the best way of giving in India.

The Raj built many of it’s important buildings here facing the sea from the University, two large private Schools, the Police headquarters and many Public administration buildings.

Cooum River centre of Chennai

Cooum River centre of Chennai

The city is divided by the Cooum River, with the Old town and the magnificent Raj built railway station to the north. The Cooum river is surrounded by Shanty towns and is extremely polluted with shacks right down to the black coloured waters edge. It reminded me of documentaries of whole groups of people living on rubbish dumps, and I presume that here, people gained some form of living recycling Madras’s rubbish.

The Old town is full of life and like all parts of the Old Towns in
India are lively with street traders, street food and everyday life spilling out from the cramped flats onto the street.

 

Chennai

Chennai

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Chennai Postal workers out back of main post office

Chennai Postal workers out back of main post office

Old town Chennai Porters

Old town Chennai Porters

The Old town is full of life and like all parts of the Old Towns in India are lively with street traders, street food and everyday life spilling out from the cramped flats onto the street.

As always it is not just the visual that excites but the bombardment of noise and the combination of heat and the aromas of India that heighten the senses. One doesn’t just observe in the narrow streets of an old town, you are also part of the show. There is always someone who wants to talk, always someone who offers you a chai, always someone who wants to sell you something, but more delightful than anything else are the smiles and ‘Namastes’ of many people and all the, mainly young, who want you to take their photo and howl with laughter when you show them themselves.

 

Farmers protest Chennai

Farmers protest Chennai

 

OLd town Chennai

Old town Chennai

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Old town Chennai

Old town Chennai

 

As an aside …That English is spoken today in India is down to the people of Tamil Nadu and especially Chennai. Ghandhi was in favour of Hindi as the only language in India and it became Congress Policy with a 15 year period of grace for English from 1950 after Independence.

The 1965 Riots in Chennai, lasting 2 months, against the forceable imposition of Hindi as India’s only official language in a Tamil speaking State, with over seventy people killed by the police, and the subsequent adoption of both Hindi and English as official languages led to English continuing in India today.

 

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About an hours walk from my hotel is one of the oldest buildings in Chennai, the Parthasarathy temple dedicated to Krishna.

One or two temples in Tamil Nadu were not that welcoming to westerners but in this 8th century magnificent temple complex everyone was smiles and namastes. Wheras in Madurai cameras were not allowed here everything was more relaxed and the priests and worshippers were quite happy to have photographs taken. The water from the five wells that fed the tank are considered in the South to be holier than Ganges water.

Sturdy Priest at the Parthasarathy Tample

Sturdy Priest at the Parthasarathy Temple

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Handing out powder for Bindi spots on forehead

Handing out powder for Bindi spots on forehead

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Parthasarathy Temple

Parthasarathy Temple

With the desire for English as the official language and the differences not only in Hindu religion, the south with it’s ethnically different peoples and culture, there has been and still exists in a very small way a separatist movement in the south , originally named Dravida Nadu it is now the Tamil Nadu Liberation Army and is  labelled a terrorist organisation by the Indian state. While I was in Chennai the newspapers were full of 3 Liberation Army members who were in court for a bomb planted the previous year.

 

Religious festival Chennai

Religious festival Chennai

 

My last day in Chennai I decided to go back to the old town and buy some packets of southern spices and wander the streets, and I couldn’t believe my luck when I ran into a religious procession.

Religious Procession, The waman who led it

Religious Procession, The waman who led it

There were forty or fifty young men holding large mainly purple parasols with a group of mainly women leading holding a bouquet of flowers , the usual four piece band,  the priest sitting in a yellow van with the bronze statue of the god on top,.At the end of the procession I was invited into the temple to join the hundreds of marchers who were relaxing, drinking water and making financial offerings to the priest. Most had a look of exultation on their faces, or was it the exhaustion in the heart.

The band !

The band !

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Relaxing back in the temple

Relaxing back in the temple

 

It was a fitting and crowning moment to my stay in Chennai and in fact my last day in the Dravidian South.

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The Under the road bridge cricket team

The Under the road bridge cricket team

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Next Kolkota…

 

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About mickjennings

Antique mapdealer , Photographer
This entry was posted in INDIA 2014, Photography, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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