Mahabalipuram and Pondicherry

It’s been some years since visiting India, and this vast country has always such held a fascination for me that my return feels long overdue. The scale of the place means that there’s so much to see and this is the first time I’ve been to the south of the country. The trip is through Kerala, arriving in to Chennai cutting across the tip of India and leaving from Cochin.

The problem and the excitement is that I know so little about the destination. When I’m asked my favourite place in the world, I usually answer ‘the next one’ because there’s little as enthralling as seeing somewhere you haven’t been before.  Almost everything is going to be new and exciting, and the sights surprising by definition. And it started almost immediately when calling in to Mahabalipuram. Sometimes in this game you feel vaguely ashamed when visiting somewhere that you really ought to know about but don’t, and wonder quite how it is you can be so ignorant. In some ways it’s the beauty of travel, in others a reminder that however much you see and wherever you go, it merely scratches the surface of what is out there. 

For Mahabalipuram is an astonishing place, with 7th century rock temples, an astoundingly large and beautifully preserved bas relief known as the Descent of the Ganges, and the beautiful Shore Temple, last survivor of what was known to sailors as the Seven Pagodas. Indeed according to locals, as the sea retreated just prior to the 2004 tsunami, ruins were uncovered before the water rushed in. 

Most of the rock carvings are incomplete, possibly due to outbreaks of war, although some believe given the different styles on display that the area was a sculpting school, which would offer a pleasing explanation for the missing elements. The tsunami did also uncover some previously buried artifacts, a very small compensation for the destruction and loss of life wrought. 

It’s not especially busy either, the day I was there was a public holiday, and it still wasn’t particularly crowded. It’s a place that ought to be seen in far greater numbers than it is, for it has a wow factor that is genuinely surprising. 

The next stop was Pondicherry, a town that remained under French governance throughout the period of British control, and even remained so after independence of the rest of the country in 1947 for a few years. It is divided by a canal, one side is the Indian town, the other the French. And it is very French indeed, it could hardly be more so. The architecture has that distinctive Gallic flavour, the streets are wide and with numerous trees along either side. It is quite striking to see how the French recreated their own towns in another continent, and it is pleasurable to see now how this is embraced locally and celebrated. Colonial history is a thorny topic, but these places are not French or British any longer, they belong to the country they are in. The Tower of London is a symbol of French domination over the English, but no one sees it that way any longer of course, and visitors would be unaware of that original status. 

The town is also notable for the yogic, meditative thinking of Sri Aurobindo Ashram and his long term partner and collaborator Mirra Alfassa, known as ‘the Mother’. It has drawn thousands of adherents from all over the world, particularly after the creation of the experimental commune called Auroville sited nearby. The village is divisive to say the least, its construction is impressive and many will like its focus on creating a society without borders or preconceptions, while others will be rather more cynical, noting the vast expense next to a poor village (no borders of course, but they’re kept outside) and that it doesn’t seem short of money. I know on which side of the debate I sit, and that makes trying to be even handed rather difficult. Still, it’s well worth seeing, even if I struggled to get the Woody Allen film Sleeper out of my mind seeing it. Or Sizewell B nuclear power station.

Visitors will have to make up their own minds, and after all that is the joy of individual expression. For me, it’s difficult to reconcile the contrast. So be it.

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