Mamallapuram was a dusty little seaside town with naught but ten or fifteen cross streets. One half of the town is dedicated to tourism and travelers, for both are here in equal measure. Othavadai and Othavadai Cross Streets are where you’ll find the tourist haunts, places like the Sea Breeze Café, Siva’s Guest House, and the Hotel Ramakrishna litter the place. Most are pretty clean and the food is good, especially the seafood. I had fresh Marlin the other night with a bit of curry sauce on the side that was delish!
The Shore Temple was a wonderful and elegant treat. So were the birds, especially the Hoopoe and the Bee Eater. The Indian Tree Pie that I saw near Arjuna’s Penance, a massive yet understated rock carving on the West Side of town, was impressive too, even if he was a member of the crow family.
More after the jump.
It amazes me that India, what with its billion plus people, has so much wildlife and so diverse. Perhaps it is because almost half the people in the country are vegetarians, unlike the Chinese and Cambodians who will eat anything. Or, maybe it’s because the landscape of Southern India resembles a strange cross between the Coastal Plains of South Texas, the Brush Country in the South West and the Hill Country in the center. Toss them all together in a blender, add some cotton, some corn, lots of rice paddies and elephants and you’ve got Southern India. And here my ‘eye’ for game, wildlife, birds, everything, works. I’m not fighting an intense three-dimensional kaleidoscopically green jungle. Here a simple scan for movement on the horizon bears fruit almost every time, like today’s bus ride from Mamallapuram to Trichy. Alas, I’m getting ahead of myself: back to Mamallpuram.
There are two families of gypsies in town—both harmless, if inveterate beggars and touts. One hangs out across the street from the small bookshop on Othavadai Street where I purchased my “Bird of India.” There are about a dozen of them. I reckon two husbands, two wives and the rest children ranging from the age of three to ten. The older children are given trinkets to hawk about the streets all day long. But the younger ones either run about naked, or nearly so, howling about in a giant sandpit where both families congregate at the end of the day to make there way home to their village, several kilometers from here. They are all very dark and quite handsome. They are Dravidians, speaking a tongue many believe is linked to the ancient Elamites of Biblical lore. The women have large, golden circular nose rings and stringy, sun lightened black hair. The colors they wear vary from sumptuous greens to bright oranges to almost iridescent blues, which makes a wonderful contrast to their almost night black skin.
When the Dravidians first arrived in Tamil Nadu is suggested by scholars around 1800BC, perhaps after the fall of the Harrappan Civilization of the Indus Valley. The Dravidians have, as I mentioned, almost coal black skin—although shades exist from night black to creamy chocolate. They also have very Caucasoid features. If one were to remove the pigment from their skin their small ears, small noses and bewitching eyes would look much like a Northern European. Such are the oddities of human migration. They are very different from the Northern Indians, what with their rather large noses and paler skin. They are, as I said, a handsome people—as a matter of fact, one afternoon I saw an absolutely stunning young woman of about twenty-five. Her skin was the color of Hershey’s Dark Chocolate. She had long, silky black hair, green eyes wearing a shocking blue sari that clung to her curvaceous Hindu figure. But I digress. Unlike the East Asians, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thais and Vietnamese who shun the sun—preferring skin as milky as possible—the Dravidians seem to revel in the sunlight.
If the Dravidians are the first immigrants to this land—after all, are we not all of Africa—there are more recent immigrants here too. Take Gulam, for example, the Kashmiri shopkeeper next to my hotel.
“I fled Srinigar many years ago. I am not liking the violence there, although I miss the mountain air in the Spring. I like the ocean. I am making good business here in Mamallapuram too, unlike life in Kashmir, which once was rich but is now poor and unhappy. I can send money home to my old parents and they can live in peace, without worries,” he told me the other night.
Gulam is Muslim, “but,” as he says, “that does not matter here. We are all Indians. Christians. Muslims. Hindus. No one kills for stupid reasons here. Like yesterday when they had the peaceful strike in sympathy for the Tamils. I participated in the strike too. I prefer it that way.”
“Besides,” he adds, “the only person here in Mamallapuram who bothers me is that nasty old, half-crazy one-legged Sadhu. I always smile at him and drop a few rupees in his bowl.”
It was well after dusk when I left Gulam and the mosquito brigands were out in force. Clouds of them descending on those foolish enough to stop moving for a few moments, dive bombing into fleshy white and black skin alike. And just as there are many mosquitoes in Mamallapuram, there are many gods too. One sees Mosques dedicated to the worship of Allah, the Crucifix more frequently and a pantheon of multi-colored, strange faced and many armed Hindu deities all about the town.
The other family of gypsies hang out, as far as I can tell, solely on the beach. There are about a dozen of them too, although one is clearly the grandmother and matriarch. The children are just as loud as the others, but more fluent in their English, Running about, telling beggar riddles and jokes much like the young Uzbek girl I adored in Bukhara in 2003, Saltinoi. Now she was a character.
I’m not sure what it is about India this time around, perhaps it is mostly because I am different, different attitude, different state of mind, more open, loose, travel hardened and a bit inured to the filth and squalor about me . . .
I’m not under any kind of pressure this either. No wife to return home to. No assets to manage. No quotas to meet. No time constraints. All, including illness, weighed heavy on me the first two times I visited India and it showed. I hated the place. I couldn’t deal with the filth, the beggars, the immensity and intensity of what entails India. But now? Not so.
Every day the worries of the world fade further into the background. Every day I wake up with a bigger grin than that which I fell asleep with. Saturdays have turned into Wednesdays and Tuesdays into Sundays. Time has become fluid, free and relaxed.
I keep having this thought that I should be revolted or something, that I should not be enjoying myself. But truth be told, the insanity of this place is infectious. Sure, my patience gets tried frequently. India is, quite simply, the most illogical, chaotic, intense and unique place on the planet. Step outside my room and look around. The return and do it again twenty minutes later. Everything has changed.
In India every day is literally a new lifetime. What more could a traveler ask for?