Cultural treasures for all to see

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

There are outstanding tourist attractions throughout Tamil Nadu, and visitors to the gorgeous coastline can boost the local economy and enjoy themselves while learning a lot from locals about their post-tsunami experiences.

Mahabalipuram, right on the Bay of Bengal, is one place it’s especially easy to linger while exploring the temples, carvings and caves at this alluring UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This is a friendly fishing village with incredibly well-preserved ruins from the 6th to 9th centuries that attract many domestic tourists. It is easy to walk around the town, but hiring a tuk-tuk to buzz between sights is cheap and helps beat the heat and rain. There are guides at each site who make visits more worthwhile and are great value.

In particular, Mahabalipuram’s must-sees include the early 8th-century Shore Temple out on a point at the end of the beach. This features two enchanting towers dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva — destroyer of the ego and ultimately of the universe — and a courtyard flanked by a long wall topped with reclining bulls. The carvings have been eroded by the elements over the past 1,300 years, but the softened details amid the sound of pounding surf are still mesmerizing.

Not far away is the world’s largest bas-relief (29 × 13 meters), the 7th-century Penance of Arjuna. Carved on two adjacent boulders, this portrays numerous figures and scenes from the Bhagavad Gita — and remains remarkably intact. Don’t overlook the Krishna Mandapan, one of the nearby cave temples, that has a beautiful depiction of a cow being milked.

Down the road, the 7th-century Pancha Rathas (Five Chariots) is a complex of unfinished temples, each carved in its entirety from granite outcrops set around a courtyard with a large bull, elephant and lion, where families gather and pose for portraits.

Meanwhile, visible from all directions in this flat landscape is the Lighthouse atop a hill that is a convenient natural safety zone, and the place to where many locals evacuated to escape the 2004 tsunami.

Recalling that tsunami, shopkeepers and fisherman generally said that it was not too terribly destructive — and that post-disaster aid helped many people to rebuild their houses and businesses. So, habitations that had been flimsy wooden shacks with thatched roofs have been rebuilt in concrete right along or near the beach. Nobody seems too worried about a recurrence.

Mahabalipuram is a good place to arrange tours to other parts of Tamil Nadu. Southward is the restored Danish colonial town of Tranquebar with a long enticing beach, Dansborg Fort (1620) and a splendid hotel in a charming former colonial home right on the beach. Only a day before the 2004 tsunami hit, a religious ceremony had been held to celebrate the property’s completed renovation, but extensive wave and water damage then required an additional several months of repairs.

From Tranquebar, head inland to two exquisite 11th-century temples from the height of the Chola era, which stretched from the 3rd century B.C. to the 13th century. Named Gangaikondacholapuram and Darasuram, these amazing gems oddly attract few visitors. That’s likely because most are hurrying on to dine in the remarkable Chettinad district, which is renowned for its piquant cuisine.

This small, quiet area centered on the town of Karaikudi exudes a faded charm and past glory evident in the massive, stone-built palaces that are scattered about town. Several have more than 100 rooms and some are restored for accommodations and are also used by Bollywood because these antique teak and marble marvels ooze period charm.

Chettinad comprises a number of hamlets that were settled by members of the Chettiar trading castes of South India, who today make up 14 percent of Tamil Nadu’s population. The merchants moved there from the coast after a devastating tsunami in the mid-19th century, and, though they were far from the menacing ocean, they were also removed from the nexus of commerce. Consequently, the merchants left their families behind while making their fortunes elsewhere, then eventually built plush, sprawling mansions.

In many cases, scions have had trouble maintaining these palatial residences and have had to sell off their furnishings and let rooms. Sadly the wrecking ball has claimed many of these relics from halcyon days, but India’s rise has generated increased wealth and an interest in heritage architecture that bodes well for the remainder.

Since you are in Chettinad, it would be unforgivable not to continue southward to the amazing Madurai, home of the Meenakshi Temple devoted to Shiva’s eponymous consort, the fish-eyed goddess. This is an awe-inspiring holy site that attracts throngs of pilgrims and devotees. There, chanting, music and prayers resonate through the whole day and lively processions wend through the Thousand Pillar Hall just as they have for centuries. The streets around are laid out in concentric squares with the temple at their common center, as dictated by religious tradition, and are often used for raucously devout processions in a city where the past looms pleasantly over the present.