Friday 27 March – Tuesday 7 April 2009 – Mahabalipuram,  Pondicherry Auroville &  Trichy

 As ever after doing a few chores - finally got our great new Raw4x4 stickers on!- we left Chennai much later than planned. We have been told that driving in the dark here is a real no no and we should never do it but we did get caught out on this occasion and can confirm it is even more scary than usual! Our rickshaw driver in Chennai, Jonny had said that "in India a good driver uses his horn" and that is certainly true! The roads really are very chaotic, people (especially those driving huge overladen trucks!) are incredibly impatient and insist on overtaking in situations where to do so is absolutely ridiculous. The cows - which have right of way here- goats chickens and kids weaving about the roads add further excitement!

Thankfully it was only a couple of hours down the road to our next destination the seaside town of Mahabalipuram. This is a bit of a traveller's enclave - with little treats like some western food and good second hand book shops to be found. Luxury!

 

We camped within the gates of a nice little guest house the Tina Blue View Lodge - and enjoyed a meal of fresh fish in their lovely roof top restaurant. Mahabalipuram (aka Mamallapuram) is a mellow relaxed spot. Andrew was very excited to see that there was actually some surf and we bumped into David (from Manly!) proprietor of a local diving and surfing school. David's school is the only one in the area and comes complete with PADI certification. We didn't really have time but David takes dives around sunken temples - have a look at his site on www.templeadventures.com

The entire area is alive with ancient temples and is actually listed as a World Heritage site. It has a lovely 7th century Shore temple and various rock carvings mainly of Hindu gods from the days when the Pallava Kings ruled Southern India (around 7th and 8th century) and this was their major seaport.

We saw the Five Rathas a wonderful series of rock cut temples just 300m from the sea and many exquisite rock carvings - very like those at Angkor Wat, which was also originally a Hindu temple.

We also saw "Krishna's butter ball" - an amazing rock formation used by the local kids as a slide!

Outside town by 3km was the Tiger Cave, a temple with tiger heads carved on it & next door was an ancient open air theatre again with carvings of gods. This latter lay hidden until it was unearthed by the 2004 tsunami and it is now a major tourist draw for Indians.

The art of stone carving is still very much alive in the town and we saw many sculptors working away and churning out quite intricate work.

We went down to the beach on Sunday evening and a real carnival atmosphere prevailed. There were hordes of school kids families and vendors selling everything and anything.

One intriguing stall was a bird fortune teller. The man shuffled the cards and his parakeet selected the relevant cards for the customer's fortune! I quite wanted to have a go but the man only spoke Tamil so I'd never have known what the bird saw in my future!

There were horse rides and the horses were in amazing condition looking as good as any at home which was nice to see. The fishing village was very attractive with lots of brightly painted walls.

Every home had chalk drawings outside their front door - these are a popular Hindu good luck charm - called Kolams here in south India, Rojalis in the north. 

 

After a few days sadly we left Mahabalipuram and headed on down the coast to Pondicherry our next destination. Pondicherry or Puducherry is universally known as Pondy. It is amazing little town. Formerly under French control (which stopped 50 odd years ago) it has retained a real Gallic feel.

 

Many of the buildings are very French and even the police men wear French looking uniforms. The street signs are also in French and Tamil - I liked the one "Rue Salai" which actually means Street Street!!

 

There are 3 other small areas which go under the Pondicherry banner in separate states - they were given by the British to ensure non interference in other areas. It is a lovely town with a beautiful seafront promenade (complete with large statue of Gandhi) and a relaxed feel - though there is a more hectic Tamil part!- It is little wonder a large population of French people choose to reside here permanently (approx 8,500)- no doubt the French pension goes further here too!

 

There are various examples of French style architecture - including many Catholic churches as the convertors have been at work - indeed one of the local real estate agencies seems to be divinely appointed!

 

 

They also have a number of Ashrams or religious retreats. We asked if we could camp at one - and were told a bit snottily no - nil points for welcoming travellers cf the Buddhist wats! - so we had a fairly uncomfortable first night in Pondy camping where instructed by the police in the town centre - which was fairly noisy.

 

 

The next day we decided to explore a bit further a field and struck lucky finding a great camp spot a few kms out of town at Serendipity beach. Here we found Muthu an India surfer and his Russian partner Maria proprietors of the Surf Point café. Their little café and business (Muthu teaches surfing and rents out surf boards) is set in a lovely little fishing village and we camped there a few nights relaxing, catching up on the website (see me hard at work in the café!) and just chilling out. Andrew even managed to get a couple of surfs in. Check out Muthu & Maria's site as we would recommend it as a great place to relax. www.surfing-point.com

 


 

It was also wonderful sleeping in a full on sea breeze as as we've mentioned before we've left it a bit late to hit India and we regularly wake up at 7am to temperatures already well into the 30's. This discourages sleeping in!!

 

 

We also fitted in a few trips backwards and forwards to Pondy - and enjoyed a couple of nice meals - best crepes we've had and a cheese platter (a real luxury once you've been in Asia a while!) at the lovely 200 year old Hotel del'Orient. So much for my previous comments on losing weight in India if we continue in this vane we'll be waddling across the border in 6 months!

 

 

We also had a look round the shops - both the upmarket touristy ones and the local ones selling hemp rope, cane chairs, flowers chapattis - all mixed in!

 

 

We also got our bike wheels straightened out as they'd had a bit of a tangle with a passing bus - which was done in a shop specializing in just this for the princely sum of about $2 Aus!

 

 

One day we were just filling up the water tank and we were intrigued (and a bit panicked) to hear gun fire outside. It turned out to be a funeral. There was a dressed up man dancing ahead to scare off the man's spirit so it didn't hang around and literally hundreds of people some running ahead of the casket which was draped all over in flowers , some following behind it. They laid down the fire crackers and once these had exploded (ear drum shattering when next to you!) -flowers were scattered and then the body was carried over. It was chaos particularly as it was taking place in the middle of the rush hour and causing a huge back up of horn blaring traffic - with a herd of cows passing through it & various suicidal bus and truck drivers weaving in and out trying to get past. Crazy!

 

We also saw a police initiative parade for road safety to promote the wearing of helmets which was a great thing - though we thought it a bit funny that it was sponsored by Smirnoff vodka - at least it wasn't about drunk driving!

 

 

We also went to visit the nearby settlement of Auroville which was truly an incredible experience. Set up in 1968 by "The Mother" a French born sort of spiritual leader this town is "an experiment in international living where people could live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, politics and nationalities." Set up with input from Unesco 2 children from 134 different countries were present to lay soil from their respective home lands at the opening ceremony which was also attended by the Indian President.

 

 

 

 

Around 2000 people from over 35 countries still live here. Everyone contributes with their own work and as their number include many leading scientists they do a lot of r & d type of work for solar energy and efficient farming methods etc They have the largest solar energy cooker in the world in their communal kitchen. They have successfully converted what was an arid barren piece of land to one which is extremely fruitful.

 

The centre piece of Auroville - next to a huge Banyan tree which is at the literal centre of the town - is the Matrimandir. This was a truly amazing structure over 30 years in the building. Looking a bit like a giant golf ball it is a real out there architectural statement -as are most of the houses in Auroville. Auroville doesn't really want to promote itself as a tourist centre and so it can be a bit confusing to find your way around.

To visit inside the Matrimandir is a bit of rigmarole - you have to book a couple of days in advance at a certain time etc- but we somehow were in the right place at the right time so we got a pass to visit. We got to go into the meditation chamber and I have to say it was incredibly impressive. Sorry no cameras allowed in so you'll have to take our word for it!

The entire structure is covered in gold leaf coated tiles - inside the building silence is maintained and you put on socks and walk up a silk white carpet to the darkened centre chamber - the centre piece of which is a giant (70cm diameter) crystal. Rays of the sun are beamed in from a tracking mirror in the roof. I'm not a big meditator but I have to say the place had an incredible energy about it. As a building - with an incredible water feature below- it was spectacular. We were lucky enough to meet a German guy who has lived here almost 30 years and was instrumental in building it and Andrew picked his brains about it all. Perhaps he'll build us one up the Hawkesbury!! Have a look at their web www.auroville.org if you're interested - you can come for retreats there and if you're in the area it's definitely worth a look.

 

 

On a less spiritual level they had some great shops in the town and a fabulous bakery!! They make a lot of goods - soaps, hammocks, paper, clothes….cheese!!!! - in the town and the quality was fabulous like a top end boutique. It also creates employment for the local villagers which is all to the good. An interesting place.

Finally on Monday 6 April we drove on down to our next destination the Southern town of Tiruchirappalli aka Trichy. It was a long somewhat dry and dusty road and we somehow managed to miss the town of Thanjavur - well we by passed it. Apparently in doing so we missed a major World Heritage listed 10th century temple! The man at Trichy tourist information who pointed this out made us feel like we had committed a crime "all tourists from all around the world they go here - but you just drive past - this is velly sad!" so we may well redeem ourselves by swinging by on the way out.

In the meantime as at Tuesday 6 April - we'll have a couple of days sightseeing in Trichy - mainly temples it's a big temple state Tamil Nadu!