Happy Pongal y’all!
Today Tamil Nadu is celebrating the harvest festival. Outside shops and homes the streets are decorated with kolams, intricate geometric designs drawn by pouring sand with the fingers, and coloured with the most vibrant glittering dyed sands, wow! Up at the temple people are buying lotus flowers to offer to the gods, and dropping rupees in the temple elephant’s trunk to receive a head-tap blessing (did we partake? Why yes we did).
Last night in our hotel I overheard the resident Australian guy (dictionary-definition of an irascible old coot) asking the manager why the Hindus revere and celebrate the cow for Pongal but not the buffalo. It turns out that while the cow is associated with the goddess Lakshmi and wealth and prosperity, the buffalo is associated with the god of Death, and as he put it, nobody wants to invite him into their homes…
In case you’re wondering why we don’t have an awesome harvest festival back in the UK to keep us in touch with the land and its wealth: my friend, it is called Lammas Day and it’s the 1st of August, look it up. Why isn’t this awesome festival being celebrated far and wide? Well why indeed, but I think I’m going to start when I get home, please join me!
Now lest you think that all our time in Mamallapuram was spent in shops, let me assure that we saw the sights. And what sights! I’ll be honest, when we first hit Mam (as it is affectionately known) I thought “okay, nice bit of seaside touristville, not much going on, but a nice place to relax for a couple of days and eat pancakes and buy souvenirs…”
Then we went to explore the local mandapams (temple porches apparently) and my godfathers, the place is stunning. The local landscape is dominated by huge boulders, the most famous of which is known as Krishna’s Butterball, a massive boulder perched on the slope of another boulder that looks like it should roll down any minute. We guestimated it to be maybe 50 to a hundred tonnes, but who knows? In fact it’s stuck there so fast that the British reportedly tried to shift it with a team of elephants back in the day and got nowhere.
As if the natural wonders of the landscape were not enough, in the 7th century the good people of Mam applied their local craft of stonemasonry to the land and carved a series of stunning temples into the scattered rocks and boulders. You can stand inside a porch carved into the rock and admire bas-relief of Shiva reclining. Now god help me this next bit is going to sound like the most irritating traveller toss, but the combination of clambering around on giant boulders and admiring the stonework of ancient civilizations totally reminded me of Great Zimbabwe. There I said it, now kick me in the teeth please.
All that said, the carvings of Mam make for one awesome day’s sightseeing, maybe two if you stretch it out. So after four nights in the town, we were ready to move on to Pondicherry.
Pondi is an ex-French colony, giving it a slightly different flavour from other Indian towns. For one thing the roads have names like “Rue Suffren” and “Rue Victor Simonel”, and they are often lined with very lovely Gallic colonial buildings. The tourist part of town centres on the beachfront, a long stretch of red sand walkway above a rocky shore and huge green-brown waves smashing against it, perfect for se promener or an evening game or petanque.
Some of you may well be thinking “a pretty Gallic town named Cherry, surely this is right up your rue, petite Cerise?” And yes, Pondi is very pretty, but as with so many of the pretty ones in this life, it’s also a little (whisper it) dull. We’ve been here two days now and are fast running out of things to do, having exhausted many of the chic coffee houses as well as the ‘sitting on the shore staring wistfully at the waves’ possibilities.
There are some very pretty Catholic cathedrals in town though, so today we popped in to visit one of those. Beautiful French confection on the outside, garish neon altar decorations and madonnas in plastic princess tiaras on the inside. We spotted one curious statue of the Madonna and as we drew nearer, the conversation took this turn:
Siri: Ben, does uh… does that Madonna have tentacles poking out from under her robes?
Ben: What the…? Yeah, it kinda looks like she does!
Siri: …Well no wonder she was a virgin.
Now on closer inspection it transpired that Our Immaculate Lady was in fact trampling a serpent underfoot (as were other icons of the Madonna around the courtyard). But for anybody who – like us – have been avid watchers of the cartoon Drawn Together in the past, the statue couldn’t help but bring to mind the unfortunate “octopussoir” of Princess Clara: