Sunday, July 17, 2011

Mahabalipuram and Pondicherry

Weekend Getaway

Long long ago, in a land not too far away, a couple vacationed, took photos and on coming home, completely forgot to blog about it. This is their story.
While freeing up the hard disk just now, I chanced upon the largely unprocessed photos of the trip and realized that I had postponed the blog writing long enough to forget!

Sometime last year, during the monsoon, K and I elected to spend a few days in 'romantic Chennai' to celebrate our anniversary. Think Chennai isn't romantic? You cannot be more wrong, read on for proof. The monsoon is an excellent time to do Chennai, so we booked ourselves a cottage at Taj Fisherman's Cove, Covelong; and being off season, we got excellent rates.

Last time we drove to Chennai we had done so in the evening, this time we left in the morning and were in our cottage by lunch time. During the monsoon, the route is particularly scenic and lush. If you're sharing the driving duties, elect to drive the first half, because the second half involves crossing Chennai traffic just before lunch.


Morning Walk
K taking a walk along the beach

The Fisherman's Cove property is wondrously beautiful, its gardens are lovely and the cottages are by the sea with a private beach. The gardens are well shaded with tall trees and there are plenty of birds. We however, had resolved to be "tourists" - no waking up at dawn and crouching in the shrubs looking for birds. We were here to unwind, sleep, eat ( the food is delightful ), take walks on the beach and most importantly take photos of each other preferably in front of famous monuments.

The little House on the Prairie
This little shed like structure is also on the beach, quite a contrast. I only wish the sky had not been grey

As Murphy would have it, in the evening, while we had tea on the porch, a woodpecker dropped by at the tree in front of our cottage (Lesser Flameback). He was soon followed by what at first seemed to be a spotted owlet, but on closer inspection revealed itself as a Shikra ( quite small, possibly juvenile ). Dinner at the sea-side restaurant is a definite must do. It is open air, right on the beach with thatched umbrellas and candle lit; manicured shrubbery prevents sand from landing in your food. As we sat at our table, we had a shy garden lizard watching us at a distance of 2 feet from his home in the bush.

Drongo on the Beach
Friendly Drongo

The next morning, we woke in time to see the sunrise ( force of habit ), we met the fauna of Covelong as we took a stroll on the beach. I spotted a lonely drongo on the sand watching the sunrise. I couldn't help myself, he was almost begging to be photographed. The little guy would fly up occasionally and catch a fly and then return to his place on the beach, he let me get pretty close.

Crab and Surf
Really Fast food :) and easily spooked

His catch after 5-6 throws was 3 very tiny fish


We decided to visit pondicherry after a late breakfast and thought of trying out some of the famous french food we had heard about. Driving distance from Covelong to Pondicherry is around 170Km. There are 2 routes, ECR or NH45. We took 'the scenic ECR'. I'm not calling it scenic, the boards say so. It is pleasant enough, but suffice it to say that no breath taking scenery will distract you from the road. Time taken 2.5 hrs. There was no planning of the route or consulting of the GPS, we just followed the road and tried to keep towards the sea.

We reached Promenade Beach and parked. It was oppressively hot as we exited the car, I was drawn by the tall carved pillars around a large Gandhi Statue. Gandhiji himself was besieged with tourists who seemed to have climbed up the podium and were hugging his legs and getting their photos taken. So I contended myself with the pillars, thankfully no one was trying to climb up them. It was just too hot to continue, so all I got were these. There was a guy selling sea shells by the sea shore :) made a nice frame in my opinion.


We couldn't find any restaurants ( other than Le Cafe ) and google places also did not seem to throw up anything of interest, we drove on, not realizing that we were leaving the french side and going into the chaotic non-french areas. The traffic was maddening, we got fed up and got back on the highway.

Lessons Learnt 1 : In Pondi, know where to go and eat. If you know the name of the place, its easy to find it on the map.
Lessons Learnt 2 : Always carry emergency rations.

Fortunately, with me around, there is always something to eat in the car! We made a meal of some fruit, Amul Lassi, biscuits and some salted cashews.


The next morning, we had an early breakfast and headed to Mahabalipuram (60Km from Covelong - 1hr). This was our second visit, so we were prepared. We decided to see the Five Rathas which we had missed last time. We found the parking place easily, near the souvenir shops, and were assisted by a guard into the vacant lot. You need to buy a ticket, so look for the booth, no one will ask you for it until you're too far ahead and its a long walk back from the monument in the heat.

The 5 Rathas are packed in pretty tight, and the area is quite sandy with several large boulders dotting the area. It is surrounded by a well maintained garden with tall trees that provide much needed relief from the hot southern sun. The official guide book costs 99Rs and is pretty handy and a must for the serious art appreciating tourist. In the morning, the famous elephant statue is backlit, it may be better to take shots of it in evening.

LionPillors of DharmarayaRatha
(L to R)Ardhanarishwara & Harihara

The layout makes it particularly hard to photograph and I was glad to see that the photos in the guide book weren't spectacular either. Also, like in all ASI sites, tripods are not permitted. The confined space also means a lot of tourists in a confined area, taking photos not including people is hard, so I switched to the 300mm. The areas out of human reach are surprising well maintained, so the roof carvings are still sharp and very fine, while the rest sadly, bear the brunt of the adoring tourists who cant keep their hands to themselves.

The 5 Rathas include one for Draupadi, Nakul and Sahadev share a twin ratha, making the total number five. Draupadi's ratha is the smallest and most elegant, it has a Lion standing in front of it, the mount of Durga. The Lion is there, because a statue of the goddess is present inside Draupadi's Ratha.

Draupadi Ratha
Arjuna Ratha
Draupadi and Arjuna Ratha are next to each other, notice how closely placed they are.

As in all places, the guides, hawkers and beggars will pounce on you at every opportunity and it is exceedingly annoying. Especially since one is already dealing with the oppressive heat and the rather tight space. If you are white, god help you. For some reason small children want to sell you ugly and cheap glass beads, i dont know why. It would make sense if they sold small stone work or guide books.


Our first trip yielded no results in the form of souvenirs, so this time we were determined. Fortunately, the Taj had a small selection of artists who displayed their wares inside the hotel. These were beautiful stone pieces, I purchased a small anatomically perfect rhino which i instantly loved.
The souvenir shops at the Five Rathas sell silly cheap crudely made handicrafts and several plastic flowers in colors not known to nature. As you walk by, the shopkeepers harass you to enter their shops.

Only one large shop had a shopkeeper who sat silently reading the paper while we looked around. He had lovely stuff, and he knew it. We finally decided on one wooden carving of the DashaAvatar, it proved just a tad big to fit in the car ( it was 5.5 feet). He asked us to wait ( he spoke very little english ). 15 min later he returned with his wife and an unfinished smaller replica (just under 5 ft). He said we had to wait. We waited over an hour while they finished it. We paid him 9K ( no bargaining ), and both seller and buyer were delighted. It is one of our most priced possessions now.

He gave us his card: Sri Sakthi Handicrafts (No. 47 Five Rathas, Shopping Complex ) - A Manoharan - 9840361249. He has wooden carvings and metal statuettes ( I loved the hand bells and the areca nut cutters in wonderful shapes )

The side roof of the Bhima Ratha, notice the tiny faces carved on it - For larger size, see flickr

Dharmaraya Ratha Roof
Roof of Dharmayara Ratha
Im not going into any details of the Five Rathas, the guide books do a good job of that, also since we were not there on a serious photo-taking mission, I will not be able to do justice. Another trip will probably see us do it again and we will go with the intention of being more thorough.

In general like most places of archaeological interest, this place is best done at leisure, and with some research done ahead of time. This helps you to know what to photograph and what to look for. Also the whole Mahabalipuram complex is pretty large, walking from one region to the other is close to impossible, we suggest you have a mode of transport. Cars are allowed, and there is a separate if inadequate parking at each site.

While purchasing tickets, note carefully the text on it which tells you which sites it gives you admission for. Some tickets grant entry to multiple sites, don't lose them. The ticket booth is usually hidden away somewhere, and it wont be apparent that you need a ticket until its too late.

It is my belief that souvenirs should be representative of the place visited. It should be the best art one can afford. It may be small, but it should be of excellent quality and hand made. Crudely made cheap works that will be forgotten or thrown away once home, only encourage mediocrity.

Yesterday, we visited Hogenakkal Falls, photos and blog soon. What did you do this weekend?


Bhagyashree said...

Beautiful pictures Rohini.. I am so glad you posted this.. I only wish you posted the picture of the Dashavatar statue you bought :)

Bhagyashree said...

I am so glad you posted this :) only wish you wish you had posted the dashavatar statue's picture too..

How was the french food btw?

Unknown said...

Thanks Bhagyashree! We couldnt find any french food :( but we're not giving up. Another trip is planned in the near future with only food on the agenda :)

Shobha Kamath said...

Lovely pictures ! Enjoyed the narration too !

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