January 26, 2015
If I thought Sunday afternoon at the Ellora Caves was bad, I was in for a shocker the following Monday – a holiday. On these days the streets are jammed, the monuments and public spaces more so, and all the Indians dress in their finest and gather for family outings. People look happy and relaxed and don’t seem to mind the traffic and crowds.
On Republic Day, January 26, our flight arrives in Chennai on schedule at 11:30AM. The baggage comes out relatively quickly, we meet our driver, Mr. Panali, and we’re out the airport gates at 11:45AM. It’s a long crawl out of Chennai, past the zoo – seemingly a very popular holiday outing – to the seaside town of Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram), known for its “relaxed” backpacker vibe and 7th and 8th century stone carvings.
Once there the sunny, brightly painted center of town is relatively quiet. Tourists stroll the shop lined streets, more beachy and western looking than Indian. Mr. Palani asks if we like seafood. At the response of a quick “yes” he suggests Moonrakers. The place is jammed with mostly Indians interspersed with a few tourists.
We are quickly seated at an empty table next to the kitchen. On a table in front of the kitchen pass-through window sits a tray of fresh fish and another of large prawns. The number of patrons on this busy holiday overwhelms the small kitchen. We sit waiting and watching the scurry of restaurant staff transporting large platters of freshly cooked seafood to various tables.
A group of 8, comprised of 7 Indians and one westerner, sits at the table next to us. They each eat with only their right hand, the left hand left purposely inactive in their lap or at the side of their plate. Skillfully they can take apart a large crab with just the one hand. After the fried calamari, fish, prawns and crab are finished a platter of rice is served.
I’m mesmerized by the round old woman facing me, dressed in a beautiful gold saree and adorned with gold jewelry. She grabs a fist full of rice and places in on her plate and begins to massage a green sauce into the rice. When it reaches the right consistency she places walnut size portions into her mouth. When it is nearly finished, her hand covered in the greenish rice paste, she takes a big swipe with her tongue from the palm up to her fingertips. I’m fascinated by her process and wonder if she finds my timid fork and knife routine equally curious.
After a long wait the owner gets around to us, presenting Don with the tray of fresh fish. Don chooses one and tells him we like spicy. We skip the offer of prawns and the owner takes the fish into the kitchen. More waiting and we are finally served a fresh plate of vegetable fried rice and the fish nicely cooked in a spicy chili paste, apparently the default preparation.
Lunch finished, Mr. Palani suggests a quick tour of the sights. On a day like this sightseeing is much more about watching the crowds than the sights themselves. Finding parking impossible for the Shore Temple, I’m tired and ready to give up fighting the masses and head straight to Puducherry (Pondicherry), our destination for the evening. Mr. Palani, however, is not happy that we would come all the way here and not see anything.
We concede and go the Five Rathas – five 7th century monolithic model temples grouped together in a small park. Unearthed only 200 years ago they are in remarkably good condition.
On a beautiful warm day the site is swamped with Indian tourists posing in front of stone structures. Children climb the stone figures – a virtual historical playground.
Leaving the parking lot of the five Rathus we pass Arjuna’s Penance. Sadly, it is impossible to park due to the mass of cars and tourists that line the facing street. The impressive relief carving is visible from the road but difficult to fully appreciate with the density of the crowd. As we leave town the traffic begins to thin to a light Indian hectic.
It’s a pretty drive down the coast. I think this is the first time in India I have used that adjective. The landscape is reminiscent of France’s Camargue region – flat wetlands of rice fields and abundant sunshine. Cows instead of white horses, goats instead of bulls. The road is lined with green fields and palm trees, and with much less garbage than in other places. Even on this holiday women and men are working the fields, some with animals but a tractor or two as well. Traffic is slowed at every small town, brimming with pedestrians strolling the streets or waiting for the large green busses that run this length of highway.
Mr Palani, driving cautiously by Indian standards reaches our hotel in Puducherry just before 6PM.