Entering Tamil Territory
After having been in the dizzying urban areas of Agra, Varanasi, Kolkata and Chennai, it was with a sigh of relief that I landed in Mahabalipuram. Affectionately known as Mahabs, it is an old, old town known to travelers primarily for a collection monuments that are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The town can be walked from end to end in about 25 minutes and there are only a handful of streets where visitors center themselves.
After a mostly vegetarian month up north, I was so pleased to find all sorts of seafood on the menu. I didn’t waste any time in fueling up on a massive pile of “Calamari Thanggu” and was also pleasantly surprised to start getting some spicy kick in my food – which I had a hard time getting up north.
The ruins, monuments and temples found scattered around this area are from the ancient dynasty of the Pallavas. Their structures are carved out of rock, some preserved better than others. It made for an interesting 2 days of walking around, checking out the formal UNESCO sites as well as the carvings, caves and temples that can just be stumbled upon.
Mahabalipuram was a reminder (as if I needed one) that India can be many things, but it is never boring. I began to see a few aspects of Tamil culture and tradition in practice. One is the tradition of sidewalk art. Women and children can be seen outside their homes at all times of day freshening up the designs decorating the entrance to their business or home. One afternoon I went to my room to escape the heat for a few hours and when I came out every single home and business suddenly had a smashed squash in front of it, dyed red. As quickly as they appeared, they began to disappear as the town’s sacred cows began their feast. Just another little quirky thing to figure out. Later that night the host at a restaurant explained that this is done to celebrate every new moon.
Mahabs’ present day residents maintain a similar trade to their Pallava ancestors. The town is full of talented stone carvers and as you walk down the main drag you can see many people sitting out front from their shops working on another piece. Some do the carving with a chisel and hammer and others use an electric drill of some sort.
Mahabs is a place I could have stayed another day or two. It was really quiet, with only a handful of other tourists who were out wandering around. Because of this, all of the shop keepers and restaurant staff were eager to get my business, which was a little over the top and annoying. But despite that nuisance, it was a great place to explore.