Sunday, September 25, 2011

On the shores of Mahabalipuram

It was the fourth time I was planning a journey to Pondicherry and Mahabalipuram. In all the previous cases I had to cancel the enterprise in the final moment. The unexpected holiday of six days - including weekends, Ramadan and Ganesh festival gave me another opportunity to explore the Coromandal Coast of India; first time to a Union Territory and second journey to Tamilnadu in the past one month.

Unfortunately there was no online booking facility for SETC buses; we had to go to Shanti Nagar TTMC to reserve the ticket. Unlike their counterparts in Karnataka, Tamilnadu buses have a route number pasted in front of it for easy identification. You can verify this route number against the one in the reservation ticket - a very helpful for people like me who can't read Tamil. Bus came late, but I got my favorite window seat (even though it is not so useful in the night)!!!

I was not in a mood to talk to anyone, so just looked outside to the innumerable lamps tearing apart the Bangalore’s night cover. But the guy who sat next to me was in a good mood to speak and so we started the conversation by asking some trivial questions. Basically from Cuddalore my newly found friend had a very good knowledge on Tamilnadu coastal area. He told me the numerous stories and history of his native district – Cuddalore - former HQ of British Territories in Coromandal Coast, Pondicherry, Neiveli etc.  Time moved too fast? Suddenly bus stopped for midnight refreshment!!!

We spent some time under the cover of night sky; cold wind was slowly patting us. After everyone’s dinner was over we again went to our respective seats; I told good night to him went for sleep. As my friend warned Krishnagiri – Pondicherry route will be the last one you can think about sleeping that too in a normal bus. There was no other option as I had to wake up early in the next day morning to saw the 
Mahabalipuram world heritage site. Finally I slept for some time; when the bus stopped at Cuddalore town in the next morning he told goodbye to me and disappeared in the night. I decided to sleep for some more time and by the time sun rises reached my face, we were moving through the busy Pondicherry roads. After taking some tired breaths for some time my six tired chariot finally got some rest at Pondicherry bus stand.
Binesh (my friend staying in Pondicherry) already informed me about the astronomical auto charges.

I was wondering how the auto charges in Pondicherry could be so high. After all it’s a union territory and because of the absence of state tax the expenditure for petrol, diesel and of course for alcohol were low. 
Unfortunately it didn’t reflect in the auto charge. Absence of a proper city bus service only aggravated the problem. As the options are limited I took an auto to reach Binesh’s room. After sleeping there for some time we went for breakfast - poori-sabji; the whitish dense coconut chatni was good. Later we went to the bus stand for our historical Mahabalipuram journey!!!

After searching for some time we got an ECR Express - connecting Pondicherry and Chennai - from the stand. As the bus slowly started moving the new city of Pondicherry unraveled in front of my eyes. East Coast Road or ECR (as it is popularly known) is a two lane road (without a divider) connecting Chennai and Toothukudi (690km). The stretch from Pondicherry to Chennai is very much close to Bay of Bengal - I can saw the bluish waters of the ocean many times during the journey. Even though Binesh was a regular in ECR road he was not ventured out to the semantics of Pallava architecture in Mahabalipuram till then. So we both were quite excited about the journey; he explained me a lot about Pondicherry, about the old town, Sea Bridge, beach, Duplex statue, about his work and recent experiences.

Because of the closeness to the sea, geography on both sides of ECR was very much different from other Tamilnadu roads. After crossing salt fields and Kalpakkam we finally reached Mamallapuram. After getting down from the bus, took a right turn to reach the heritage site. An ASI officer explained about the temple and route in his office - after saying a big thanks to him we started our expedition to the first destination - Mamallapuram (also known as Mahabalipuram) Shore Temples. Located around sixty kilometers from Chennai, Mahabalipuram was the second capital of Pallava kings of Kanchipuram.  Here we can saw various types of structures - shore temple, Rathas carved out of big boulders, manmade caves and an open air- bas relief. These temples were built during the time of Narashimhavarman and his successor Rajasimhavarman.

It was really hot, without cold water in hand it was difficult to walk. After crossing Mamallapuram bus stand we took a left turn to reach the temple. It was good scenery - a stone pyramid like structure across a bluish ocean and clear sky. We can approach the temple from the left; a group of Nandi statues looking towards us welcomed us to the shore temple. After standing in the salty wind for a long time most of the carvings on the sides of temples were either gone or in the last stage of the decay. The interesting fact was – the main shrine faces the sea on the east while other structures – gate, assembly hall etc, lies behind the sanctum. The temple has a shrine to both Shiva and Vishnu. The main sanctum and one of the two lesser one on the left are dedicated to Shiva.

We slowly entered the temple from the back and moved through various stone works in the walls then took a round around the temple. After spending some more time there we slowly moved to beach. As the time passed we found ourselves in a furnace like situation – hot sun in the top and hot sand under the feet. After spending some time on the beach we came back, in fact the combined heat of sun and the sands forced us to run for cover. Even the cold ice creams and juices didn’t offer much comfort from the heat outside. We slowly moved to see the pancha rathas by following the sign boards, but end up in Mahishasuramardini temple. This temple is on the top of a small hill; from here the Bay of Bengal looks very nice. 

After leaving the temple we started searching for Arjuna Penance and gravity stone but reached some other monuments. Finally after moving here and there for a long time under the September sun we finally saw the gravity stone [also known Krishna butterball] – a big oval shaped stone sitting in the slope of a hill. You will wonder why it is not coming down – but it’s still obeying the rules of Physics!!! By this time atmosphere was so hot that it was so difficult to sit/stand in open areas.

After seeing almost all the monuments near to it, we finally dropped the search for Arjuna penance and started moving towards Panch Rathas. On the way, we saw Ganesha mandapa and then so many carvings on a huge rock face on the right side of the road. Near to the carvings, we saw a pillared hall carved in to the rock, these columns shows the hard work of Pallava stone masons.

September sun left us very much tired, but we decided to go and saw rathas. The2RS water packet available all over the place are somewhat helpful to escape from the hot climate. Finally we reached Pancharathas a structure close to Bay of Bengal; the entire complex contains five rathas, big sculpture of Nandi, Lion and elephant. I had to wait for a long time to get this elephant alone for a photo as all most all the people come there want the same.

After seeing pancharathas we decided to say good bye to Mahabalipuram and took an auto to reach ECR road. It was easy to get a bus from Mahabalipuram to Chennai but to Pondicherry it was difficult. Even with the small number of buses coming from Chennai there were problems, either it wouldn’t stop or there may not be any space left for us. Many buses came and went, but we remained there. Finally sun started setting in the west. As any improvement in our condition was not visible in the pipeline we decided to try the next one, but Binesh got a gut feeling that the next bus might have some free seats. Unfortunately it was not necessary that the gut feelings would always gave you positive results. Anyway after viewing some more express buses, travelling in ‘normal speeds’, we finally got an ECR express (as they call it) and we were on our journey back to Pondicherry (of course not place to sit).

As we didn’t have much to speak, I put forward the issue of Anna Hazare's fast. From Mahabalipuram to Pondicherry we argued, counter argued so much so that even the snacks (I prefer to call it as mini meal) were not enough for us. Arguments didn’t change his or my opinion, at the end we were standing more or less at the same point where we begin but better equipped for a counter attack. 

When we reached Pondicherry we were still hanging on the same topic. By late evening we reached Pondicherry bus stand; from there we took an auto to room. Auto driver charged us 60, after bargaining it became 50. The interesting thing was in the morning when we travelled the same distance they charged me 60 and when we came back to the bus stand the rate was 40. In the next day evening when I tried an auto they asked me 70 (later it reduced to 60). Binesh was right, they are charging according to their moods. Unfortunately most of the time, their mood was not in favour of me.


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