Even my Dad, who has used us as guinea pigs for his newest Indian recipes every other Sunday night, was uttering the words “anything but Indian” (shortened to ABI) when we reached Mahalibalipuram. Luckily we were in the right place at the right time, a bona fide Western (and Indian) tourist hangout. How could it not be, with its rich history and beach proximity. First things first: Nicoise salad prepared by a French woman. Ah, to eat fresh vegetables again. We were lucky to be in area during a month-long arts festival, and after a lazy day joined the audience of a local dance exhibition. Indian dance is thoroughly entertaining, and it was easy to see the influences of this ancient dance to Bollywood-style dancing today (which dominates 99% of the TV channels here). Only in India – the Tourism Minister’s face taking up 1/3 of the stage backdrop front and center.
Despite our ABI attitude, we had dinner plans at a local restaurant which we kept. As you’ve read so many times on the blog, it truly is a small world after all. The name, L’Attitude 49, lit up the driveway, which we were sure couldn’t be referencing the 49th parallel which separates (somewhat) Canada and the US, marked in Vancouver by the Peace Arch. However, greeting us was the former owner of Chutney Villa, a Vancouver Indian-food restaurant institution where we have been many times. Her new place has some distinct Vancouver touches like beams that look of natural wood and clean, white lines. We enjoyed one of our favourite meals of modern Indian food.
The Eastern coast of India was also affected by the 2004 tsunami that ravaged Khao Lak, Thailand (where we were two weeks ago). When the water receded 2 kilometers offshore, it uncovered a chain six ancient temples linked to the one left above ground, known as the Shore Temple. The attempt to re-build these on land by having scuba divers move the materials was scrapped, and the temples remain underwater for curious fishes. The Shore Temple is one large piece of rock carved into 5 separate buildings and including an elephant and a bull, built by Pallava kings in the 7th century. We jumped on the back of a bull for a family photo, and were later joined by 15 new friends eager to be immortalized with some silly Westerners.
Also in Mahalibalipuram is the world’s second largest bas-relief, depicting god Shiva and scenes of Hindu myths and a cat performing penance. Claudia and I have now seen the largest two bas-reliefs in the world after seeing the largest at Angkor Wat in Cambodia earlier in our trip. We should get a star in our passport or something.
The town is also host to the Butterball: a massive, round rock balancing precariously on a rock slope. It has not budged since it was first discovered the 7th century, despite the effort of earthquakes and the strength of 6 British-employed elephants. Coming up with no rational explanation, you just have to chalk it up to Vishnu as the locals do.
After a morning of ancient Indian art and architecture by bike, we were tempted to take the afternoon off to relax out of the hot Indian sun. But we happened to be in Tamil Nadu for the Pongal festival, and a local village (and Tourism India) was inviting foreign tourists to join in on the fun. Pongal celebrates the harvest over three days, and it is marked by locals by painting bulls’ horns and decorating the sidewalk in front of their respective homes with colorfully-died rice flour (I think someone could make a lot of money by introducing coloured chalk). As a part of the festival agenda, the village included Musical Chairs, I think to get some entertainment from the visiting foreigners (we understand this isn’t traditionally part of Pongal celebrations). Claudia convinced me this was a good idea, so I joined 12 others at the front of the assembly. Soon enough, the 12 dwindled to 1, and my opponent could not match my lightning fast reflexes (or my extreme competitiveness), and I was crowned Musical Chairs Champion. They did not mention winning included addressing the entire festival, but giving a speech is not as difficult when your audience enthusiastically cheers everything you say. Next up was clay pot throwing, an Indian version of the Mexican piñata. Claudia was not left out of the limelight – everyone wanted to know how we liked the festival, including a local TV station. After ceremoniously stirring the festival dish, a rice pudding cooked in clay pots on cow pies, I returned to find her swarmed by reporters and cameras. At the conclusion of the festival, I was happy to accept a carved elephant which I have named Pongal and pose for photographs with about 40 local politicians (after all, this is India).