Chennai Entry 7: Saint of Disco – He’s Got All The Moves

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Yesterday might have been the first day I haven’t written anything down, and what an odd day it was. For one thing, it started raining heavily again at midday, and by the time we left (or tried to leave) at 4.30pm the water on the main road was calf-deep and rising fast. We were gridlocked for 40 minutes in a journey that usually takes no more than ten. We probably could’ve walked back to the hotel in less time, but we had no way to leave the car without getting stuck in a foot and a half of water. Judging by what lies on a Chennai pavement in dry weather, it definitely wasn’t suitable for paddling. Complicating things slightly was the fact that I had my first (and hopefully only) mild stomach upset yesterday. I started with twinges in the morning which were cramps by lunchtime and really awful cramps by the time we left. I had to cancel on Nige and Carvery, sadly. As it happened, Carvery was prevented from attending too, because of the floods, leaving Margaret and Nige as the odd couple in ‘hipasia’. I’m told the atmosphere wasn’t eased when Margaret spent an accidental half hour calling him ‘Roger’. Meanwhile I lay curled up and groaning for the rest of the evening, downing anti-spasm tablets and watching tail-ends of random movies.

This morning it was possible to believe that yesterday never happened. I woke up minus stomach cramps, and ate waffles quite happily, and the raging torrents of yesterday were completely gone from the roads. Bizarre. And lucky too, because today we were scheduled to go sightseeing with Nisha, Chitra and Viji. First we visited the temple of some long-deceased saint called Sai Baba. Judging by the paintings on the wall, he seems to have been the patron saint of disco. Two of the frescos depicted the same ancient white-turbaned man ‘Calling Forth the Talents of Others’ (variety show organiser?) and succumbing to some energetic-looking ‘Cosmic Dancing’ in front of a rightly awestruck crowd. Brilliant. The temple itself had an inner chamber containing an unnerving marble statue of, I presume, Sai Baba. Sadly the artist did not chisel him in ‘Cosmic Dancing’ mode – he’s just sat on a throne, wearing real clothes and a turban, making his heavy marble face look creepily like a mask. I felt like his eyes might move if I looked long enough.

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After lunch, during which I discovered that even pasta in India comes with a bucket-load of chilli, we were off in the car for a two hour drive into the sticks. Once out of the city, the landscape completely changes – great green swathes of wild-looking scrubland, with copses of trees later replaced by rows of palm trees, and a glittering stripe of blue sea visible below the skyline. It’s beautiful. There are also noticeably more cows. We were going to a place called Mahabalipuram, which used to mean ‘Great Sacrificing City’ but was changed to ‘Great Wrestling City’ in the 1920s, presumably because animal sacrifice doesn’t bring in the tourists like it used to. What an incredible place this was. At first I was quite gloomy as we entered the small town, noting that wherever people were in the world, squalor quickly followed, but I changed my mind as soon as we were out of the car. Mahabalipuram is famous for a king from a dynasty ruling around 4 B.C., who decided to carve a group of five temples, plus attendant animal statues, some pretty fancy caves and several jaw-droppingly intricate frieze/sculpture types, out of a single mountain. So this mountain was carved from the top down. The results are astounding. Each temple is meticulously designed, with carvings on the roof, pillars and inside the recesses all telling different stories about the Hindu gods. Every last tiny carved figure has significance. Considering this was done not only by chipping away at the summit of a mountain, but by ramming wet wooden pegs into the stone so it would split when the pegs expanded, it was an unbelievable achievement. We ended our trip at Shore Temple, which as its name suggests is right on the seafront. The temple and the surrounding town was the dynasty’s main port, and visible over the trees was the world’s oldest lighthouse to guide the ships. Sadly this temple was quite badly eroded; believe it or not the buffer protecting it from the tides was only installed in the 1970s. But it still looked impressive and dignified against the backdrop of darkening sea and endless sky.

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On the way home I had my first introduction to Bollywood. I didn’t know whether to be laughing at the bumbling hero trying to impress the girl in between musical (and surprisingly suggestive!) daydreams, or horrified as his split personality covered wrong-doers in tikka sauce and threw them in the deep fat fryer. Noisy, colourful, chaotic and bewilderingly varied to a casual onlooker. Not a bad reflection of its country of origin.

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