A beach is a beach is a beach...or so I thought, until
in Chennai. No bikinis, horizontal bodies tanning, or swimmers in the
Bay of Bengal.
The thousand or so locals out for the evening breezes are fully clothed, either walking about or standing and chatting. As my husband Rick and I plod through the soft sand, Coney Island comes to mind. Smiling tots bob up and down on carousels and youths shriek from wildly-whirling contraptions, horses gallop by with riders, and kites fill the sky. Most amazing are the girls aged between six and ten performing daring feats on tightropes affixed to crossed bamboo poles lodged in the sand. Tents and stalls with snacks for sale are everywhere.
This was the first of many distinct and exhilarating experiences in Chennai (formerly Madras) and in the villages and towns along the coast of Tamil Nadu state. Chennai boasts landmark churches. St. Mary's, built in 1680, is the oldest surviving British church in India. St. Thomas (San Thome) Basilica is famed for its neo-gothic elegance, and for an underground chapel where I stand riveted at the thought of
one of the twelve Apostles of Christ being buried here. This is one of three churches in the world proclaimed to be built over the tomb of an Apostle (the others being St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, and Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela built over the tomb of St. James in Spain).
We leave Chennai with Dharma, our guide, for the village of Mamallapuram (also called Mahabalipuram), renowned for its ancient rock-carvings, most of which were completed in the 7th century when this was a major port for the ruling Pallava dynasty.
The 12m high and 30m wide bas relief known as Arjuna's Penance is exquisite. Our imaginations soar as Dharma points out the sculpted figure of
balanced on one leg with arms upraised in penance, beside the god Shiva, and 100 surrounding forms depicting lesser gods, humans, flying creatures, and animals, including two life-sized elephants.
The Shore Temple
with its two pagoda-style towers are weathered by wind and sea, yet a remarkable amount of carvings remain, especially inside the shrines for Shiva and Vishnu. A rock wall has been built to protect it from further erosion.
Nearby are the exceptionally preserved
which were hidden in sand until excavated by the British 200 years ago. Lions and a life-sized elephant are regally poised at the entrance of these monolithic temples resembling chariots. Numerous deities, as well as scenes of everyday life, such as women weaving, young girls primping and pompous dignitaries are sculpted on the stone walls.
Over a thousand years later, the tapping of hammer and chisel continues along the dusty streets of this village acclaimed for its stone carving. We are awed by artisans chipping granite blocks into animal forms and gods destined for temples around the world.
A day trip south of Mamallapuram brought us to Puducherry (a.k.a Pondicherry or Pondy). This former French colony has a seafront promenade, wide boulevards and "rue" for "street" on signage, 18th century French architecture, and restaurants serving up delightful French cuisine - unlike anywhere else in India.
A huge draw to this community is the famed Sri Aurobindo Ashram, founded in 1926 by a French woman known as "the Mother" and prolific writer Sri Aurobindo to promote their philosophies which are a synthesis of spirituality, yoga and modern science.
Just over the border from Puducherry is
the brainchild of "the Mother," whose work has been carried on by her followers since her demise in 1973. This international community, spread over 20 sq km, with 2,000 residents from 38 nations, is a place to live in peace and unity - above all creeds, politics, and nationalities. The focal point of Auroville is a gigantic gold-plated globe called the Matrimandir, which contains a crystal that diffuses sunlight into 26 meditation chambers for use by its members.
We leave with our senses saturated with the diversity of treasures, our fascinating encounters made even more memorable by the hospitality of friendly locals and our gracious guide Dharma. Although not our first visit to this amazing country, I concur with Rick's succinct summation, "India just keeps getting better."
Irene Butler is the Author of Trekking the Globe with Mostly Gentle Footsteps: Twelve Countries in Twelve Months. As a freelance travel journalist her cultural, historical and adventure stories have appeared in Air Canada Vacations, Outpost Magazine, and other National newspapers and magazines. She is a member of TMAC, BC Association of Travel Writers, and Federation of BC Writers.
Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/
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