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Publication Date : 17-10-2012
Hot and humid all the year around, most tourist agencies recommend November to February as the best time to visit Chennai, when temperatures drop to a very manageable daytime maximum of 29 degrees Celsius.
We go in April, when the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu is gearing up for summer, stepping off one of Air Asia's new direct flights from Bangkok to the so-called "Gateway to South India" into a sweltering 37 degrees C.
The bustling city, formerly known as Madras, is well known for its shopping opportunities but our guide smilingly tells us that souvenir hunting will have to wait until the end of our junket as, for the next few days, we will be feasting our eyes on some of the state's most famous cultural and religious monuments.
Up early the next morning, we board the coach for Sri Ekambaranathar Temple in Kanchipuram where we meet a group of Chennaiite Buddhist novices at the gate. They are busy donning white robes and tell us they are here for a summer camp to learn dharma. We shed our shoes and join them in making our way gingerly over the cloth-covered stones and pebbles lining the long path from gate to temple, taking occasional evasive action to avoid the places where cows have left their mark.
This large Shiva temple, one of the oldest in the city and, at 57 metres high, the tallest in South India, is awe-inspiring by its very vastness. Constructed by the Pallavas and improved upon by the Chola and the Vijayanagara kings, it has five Prakarams (enclosures) and boasts 1,000 pillars along the hallway and 1,008 Siva Lingams on the walls.
Another point of interest is a 3,500-year-old mango tree under which, according to Hindu mythology, Kamakshi Amman married Lord Shiva. In Sanskrit, Ekambaram literally means "One Mango Tree" with "eka" being "one" and "amaram" the word for "mango tree".
Opposite the mango tree is a wall covered with the words of Hindu devotional songs, among them "Thirupavai" and "Dhevaram".
The drive to Sri Vaikuntha Perumal Temple allows us to see something of life in Kanchipuram, a bustling city that doesn't seem all that different from provincial Thailand with stalls piled high with vegetables and fruits jostling for position along the sides of the streets and lots of yellow auto rickshaws that resemble the Thai tuk-tuk. The Indians though, seem far fonder of the car horn than the average Thai, with a cacophony of honking warning pedestrians and cows to get out of the way.
Ninety minutes later, we arrive in Mahabalipuram where we check into a hotel for the night before touring the seventh-century port city the next day. The first attraction we visit is the World Heritage monuments of Mamallapuram featuring pancha rathas or five chariots, namely the Draupadi, Arjuna, Bhima and Dharmaraja standing in the west, and Nakula-Sahadeva ratha in the south.
Hewn from the granite rock face, Draupadi is a hut-styled vimana, Arjuna has two tiers with an octagonal shaped neck and head, Bhima is called "Sala Vimana" and has a tilted boat similar to a sala. Dharmaraja ratha is the tallest with three tiers, and Nakula-Sahadeva is called the "Gaja-prishta Vimana" and has an elephant standing beside it.
The next stop is Arjuna's Penance, known as The Descent of Ganga", a massive open-air bas-relief monolith 29 metres long and 13 metres high. It showcases more than 100 figures of gods and flying celestial creatures, birds and animals, including giant elephants, along with human beings and saints.
We walk through the forest towards Krishna's Butterball on the hillside, which reminds me of a similar stone at Wat Pluang in Khao Kitchakut National Park, Chanthaburi. Not far from here is Varaha Cave with its Indian rock-cut architecture that has four impressive carvings of Vishnu, Gakalakshmi, Trivikama and Durga.
We take a break at a stone carver's village and before moving towards the Shore Temple on the shore of Bay of Bengal, one of most photographed monuments in India but badly ravaged by the wind and sea.
Shore Temple comprises three shrines, the two most prominent ones dedicated to Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu. It was designed to grasp the first rays of the rising sun and to spotlight the waters after sunset. We arrive late morning, so miss the best but our guide consoles us by taking us off for an Indian-style Chinese lunch.
During the meal, he tells us that the food in south India is prepared with coconut cream like in south of Thailand while in the north, milk is used.
Exhausted by the heat and sated from our feast, we sleep on the journey to Pondicherry, a peaceful city with a French influence that can still be seen in the grand colonial mansions, beautiful boulevards and names of roads.
Goubert Avenue, which runs parallel with the Serenity Beach, is home to a four-metre high statue of Mahatma Gandhi surrounded by eight granite pillars. The beach itself is 1.5 kilometres long and is popular with walkers, joggers and those who just want to chill, all of them happy to take advantage of the vehicle-free zone every evening to enjoy the pleasant breeze off the Bay of Bengal.
Our Pondicherry hotel is also near some bookshops offering titles at great value and with a discount to boot.
Back to Chennai, the guide keeps his promise and drops us off at Central Market for a spot of shopping before heading back out to the airport.
The writer's trip was sponsored by AirAsia.