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(India) – Temple Hopping in South India

Walking along the beach south of Madras, I saw what looked like a rainbow rising out of the palm trees. In fact it was one of South India's famous modern temples covered with radiant stone deities. Each one was painted in flame-red and sky-blue and sea-green and hues I couldn't possibly name. The colors were so fresh I could smell them -- the sweet odor of new paint mixing with the smoky scent of incense and salt spray from the Bay of Bengal. I seemed to hear them as well, but soon identified the sounds as the pounding of drums, the clanging of a brass bell, and the singsong chanting that accompanies Hindu prayer services.

(India) - Ashta Lakshmi Temple
(India) - Ashta Lakshmi Temple

The Ashta Lakshmi Temple in the Madras suburb of Besant Nager is not one of the huge, important landmarks listed in the guidebooks, but I like its smallness and accessibility. Joining a stream of local people, I climbed narrow stairways all over the facade, pausing to meet the life-size deities face to face. Vishnu, the preserver god, was appropriately regal. His consort, Lakshmi, goddess of love, beauty and prosperity, looked very glamorous - raven-haired Indian film actresses are often compared to her -- as she smiled from the wall of a second-story terrace. Worshipers touched her green sari and pressed jasmine petals into her hands. Their approach to the deity was relaxed, informal, personal.
South India is like that, I discovered in June, as I left the city and headed down the coast of Tamil Nadu state with a car and driver toward the city of Pondicherry. This round trip of 100 miles is one of the most pleasant short excursions in India. Theoretically it can be done in a day, since the roads are good, but I took three days so I could stop and explore along the way.

The suburbs south of Madras are modern and upscale, but on the shore behind the marble-fronted apartment blocks I strolled along rural village streets lined with houses made of woven coconut-frond mats. Chickens roosted on the sloping thatched roofs. Girls in saris sat on the ground sorting trays of dried fish like silver jewelry. The handle of a pump creaked up and down as women gathered to fill shiny metal water pots. I stepped aside as a small boy led a loping, curly-horned buffalo down the lane.

Between the houses I caught glimpses of the surf where turbaned fishermen were poling a catamaran out into the water. Men sat on the beach mending nylon nets that lay on the sand like clouds of blue mist. Everyone was busy washing or cooking or selling something, but no one was rushing. A constant buzz of conversation seemed to make every task a social occasion.

I'd rented a car and driver from a Madras hotel for about $100 a day. We drove 15 miles south to Dakshina Chitra, a remarkable living museum of architecture, crafts and folk art. On an expanse of 10 acres, beautiful old brick and wood merchants' houses, rescued from the wrecker's ball, have been moved and reassembled, complete with furniture, paintings, utensils and toys -- as if the inhabitants had just stepped out. The guide described the life style of the owners in such vivid detail that I began to feel like a house guest in another century.

The Madras Craft Foundation sponsors many demonstrations for visitors: weavers making silk saris, potters working in clay, folk dancers performing dance-dramas, musicians playing traditional instruments. A sixth-grade class crowded around a Foundation volunteer, V. K. Deveka, eager to see how she fed tufts of cotton into a portable spinning wheel. It was just like the one that Mahatma Gandhi turned as he spoke to his audiences, she told the kids.

One continuous palm-fringed beach stretches from Madras to Pondicherry, and around Mahabalipuram, the approximate midway point, are a number of beautiful seaside resorts. The quiet little town itself, popular with young tie-dyed travelers, is full of modest restaurants and tiny family-run lodges. At one, the friendly Danussi Cottage, I rented a spotless room and a cot that I moved onto the roof so as to sleep under the stars and watch the sun rise over the bay.

The next morning I swam at the beach beside Mahabalipuram's Shore Temple, a delicate, seventh-century stone building so worn away by salt spray that it resembles a filigreed sand castle. Even older are the carvings on one enormous boulder that depict the hero Arjuna and a procession of animals from Indian folklore. The sound of chisels striking stone accompanied my walk around the town's sandy lanes. Sculptors in open sheds were busy carving images of deities. I bought an elephant-headed Ganesh that fitted into the palm of my hand; I could have bought a flute-playing Krishna that would have filled my living room.

Heading south again, I was enveloped by South India's greenness -- plantations of shaggy-headed coconut palms and irrigated rice paddies gleaming in the sunshine. The streets of one town ran blue as a stream of girls in blue saris poured out the door of a convent school. A man lovingly washed a motorcycle half-submerged in a stream. I left the car and walked into a field to get a close look at one of the equestrian terra cotta statues that potters make to guard their villages. This local folk-god seated on his white-painted steed wore a green sarong, a gold crown and a magnificent handlebar mustache.

An hour later we were driving into Pondicherry, where I had booked a room at a guesthouse. The city, an enclave that remained under French rule for nearly a decade after the British left India in 1947, retains some of the flavor of its colonial years in the streets east of the central canal. I rented a bicycle and pedaled past houses with graceful wrought-iron balconies, carved wooden trim below the slopes of tile roofs, and walls in pastel shades of aquamarine, amber and puce. A miniature Arc de Triomphe nestled beneath the palm trees in a park where families sat on the grass eating pakoras (spicy fried snacks) and Popsicles. Just off this square, the Pondicherry Museum was full of musty treasures: graceful Louis-something furniture, ancient Indian coins, endearingly awful paintings, fossils, a palanquin, and a picture of a tiger made entirely of painted noodles.

I inadvertently entered a main thoroughfare on my bicycle and found myself trapped in one of India's famous urban traffic crushes. A young policewoman in a white uniform and red beret casually raised her arm, and a thousand or so huge diesel trucks, packed buses, smoking cars, kamikaze motorcycles, plodding bullock carts and wobbly bicycles all screeched to a halt. A graceful wave of her hand released another thousand insane vehicles that honked, snorted, growled, rumbled, roared past the traffic island. Then it was our turn to surge forward. But I wobbled off down a side street into the city's botanical gardens, where nothing fiercer than a fallen coconut confronted me on the road.

Back in the colonial district, there were several attractive churches, including one dating from 1770. My favorite was a Sacred Heart Church built in 1902 that looked like a castellated cake covered in gleaming vanilla frosting with cheerful raspberry stripes and lime-green trim. Inside, the brightly painted images of saints bore more than a passing resemblance to the deities I had met at the Ashta Lakshmi Temple.

Along the seafront is a long, breezy promenade where Pondicherrians go to socialize in the evenings. At the south end is the Park Guest House where the large, comfortable rooms have balconies overlooking a flower garden. I went to sleep to the fluttering of fruit bats swooping past my window. On the back of the door was a notice that cautioned me not to smoke, consume alcohol, or invite a guest to my room. The edict was enforced by a big photograph over the bed: a white-bearded Indian man and an elderly European woman whose steady glare said ''Don't even think about it!''

These folks were Sri Aurobindo, a revered spiritual leader, and his partner, a French artist who became known as The Mother. In the 1920's they founded a noted ashram, which now owns the Guest House and other Pondicherry property. After Sri Aurobindo died, The Mother started Auroville, a 12-square-mile experiment in international living that I visited six miles north of the city.

European counter-culturalists moved to Auroville during the 1960's and the place prospered as an agricultural commune. But when The Mother died at the age of 97 in 1973, hostilities broke out between the Auroville residents and the ashram's hierarchy. One Aurovillian, insisting that I not reveal his name, told me that during this period the French devotees forcibly expelled Indian families, including his own, and consigned ''corrupt'' books at his school to a bonfire. Since that time the commune and the ashram have each preferred to ignore the other's existence.

Surrounding Auroville's residences is a beautiful park with tropical plants imported from many countries. The spiritual aura of the place began to waft over me -- until I saw, rising up out of the foliage, the Matrimandir. This three-story cement globe, pockmarked with hundreds of portholes, rests in an artificial crater like a giant bathysphere dropped from Mars. The whole edifice was empty, I discovered, except for one dark, chilly, empty meditation room containing an empty glass globe on a pedestal. Now I'm glad to have seen this -- possibly the most ludicrous building in the history of architecture -- but at the time it inspired me to beat a fast retreat to the world outside the commune.

On my way back to Madras, my spirits were lifted again at the Golden Sands Beach Resort, a family theme park built around a Pop version of Indian culture and religion. Everywhere I walked I saw statues of lions and elephants and superhero-like gods from Hindu folk tales that every Indian child knows by heart. Crossing a drawbridge over a moat, kids crowded through a miniature Mogul fort. Parents strolled around a big flower garden planted in the shape of India, each state outlined in hedgerows.

I passed walls where a series of painted bas-reliefs depicted the evolution of transportation (from bullock cart to Ambassador -- an Indian-manufactured car) and the evolution of man (from an ape to a yuppie with sunglasses and tennis racket). Customers at the snack bar were entertained by costumed folk dancers. Statue-Man, a mime in demon's garb, delighted giggling children when he suddenly brandished his cardboard sword at them. A Ferris wheel revolved against the pink twilight sky.

Finally I joined the families relaxing on the beach. Fully dressed, they sat on the sand and stared out at the Bay of Bengal. ''So peaceful here!'' one father murmured to me, smiling. Indian cities are among the most congested on earth; I could understand why the people viewed all this vast open space with a kind of reverence. Evening crowds were beginning to fill the park behind me, but I was content where I was, listening to the quiet voices and the waves splashing against the sand.

Falling into the rhythm of life along the Bay of Bengal

Getting There

Many airlines fly from New York to Madras, including T.W.A., Delta, Lufthansa, British Airways and Air-India. The round-trip fare is about $1,600, depending on season and length of stay, but discount fares can go as low as $1,000.

Car Rentals

Most Madras hotels can arrange a government-approved car and driver. A three-day trip from the Connemara Hotel and back will cost $337, including the driver's allowance and gasoline. There are also independent rental agencies, like Gangai Cabs, (44) 641-2324, and Globe Tours (44) 641-4224. (The country code for India is 91.) Self-drive cars are available for a very large deposit, but I don't recommend visitors' driving, because traffic can be scary in and near cities, especially at night, when it's wise to stay off the road even with a driver.

Be prepared to pay for all the driver's meals and tea. Guidebooks may say tipping is unnecessary, but drivers' wages are low and tips are much appreciated. Most drivers prefer to sleep overnight in the car to guard against theft. I prefer the big, bulky Indian-made Ambassador sedans, which are undaunted by potholes and can be repaired anywhere.

Where to Stay

MADRAS : The city's oldest hotel (1875) is the Connemara, on Binny Road, (44) 852-0123, fax (44) 852-3361. A Taj Group hotel, it is very comfortable without being ostentatious and has a pool, restaurants, shops and a bar. It is also home to the Giggles Bookshop, containing every new book in print about India, run for 22 years by Ms. Nalini Chettur, beloved by all Madras writers and intellectuals. A double is $165 a night plus 30 percent tax in the off season (May through August) with fridge, TV and a basket of mangoes included.

By the way, Madras is also -- and increasingly -- known as Chennai, its ancient Tamil name.

MAHABALIPURAM : I enjoyed staying at Danussi Cottage, 47 Thirukulam Street, (4113) 42738, which has a guest book crammed with seven years' worth of wildly enthusiastic travelers' testimonials. A single costs only $2.50 a night, a double $3.

Two fancier places I looked at were the Hotel Tamil Nadu Beach Resort, (4113) 2235, where doubles are $12.50, and the luxurious Temple Bay Ashok Beach Resort, (4113) 65160, where air-conditioned doubles are $47.

PONDICHERRY : I stayed on Goubert Avenue at the Park Guest House, right on the Bay of Bengal, (413) 34412. Simple and spotless, it is run by the Aurobindo Society, and is a very good value at $9 a night, despite its ban on smoke, booze and room guests. Excellent breakfast and lunch cost 95 cents each. Free bicycles are available.

The Hotel Pondicherry Ashok, (413) 24-0468, a Portuguese villa-style hotel, is seven miles north of the city on the coast road and has a lovely beach. Rooms are $28 to $34.

Right in Pondicherry is the Hotel Mass, at Maraimamalai Adiagal Salai, (413) 37221, where deluxe rooms cost $13 to $15.

Where to Eat

Meals at fancy hotels in the Mahabalipuram area, like the Temple Bay Ashok Beach Resort mentioned above, are overpriced but tasty and served in attractive settings.

In Pondicherry I liked Seagulls Restaurant, 19 Dumas Street, which has a bar and a second-story open-air dining area overlooking the ocean. A big Indian dinner -- appetizers, rice, curry, dahl, vegetables -- cost me $5.

Although primarily a crafts and cultural center, between Madras and Mahabalipuram, Dakshina Chitra does make traditional meals available with advance reservations. Travelers should call its Madras office, (44) 491-8943, to find out what programs are being offered. Admission prices vary, depending on whether you are going for a meal, a performance, or just a tour of the buildings.

Theme Park

Golden Sands Beach Resort, a theme park in Mahabalipuram, (4113) 42245, charges 78 cents admission, which includes a complimentary snack. The resort has a swimming pool, and beach cottages rent for $31 a night.


The Tamil Nadu Government Tourist Office in Madras is at 143 Anna Salai, (44) 84-0752. Visitors can book bus tours there and arrange to stay at the reasonably priced state-run hotels.

The Government of India Tourist Office nearby, at 154 Anna Salai, (44) 852-4295, has a reputation for being helpful. The American Express office is at Spencer's Plaza on Anna Salai at Binny Road, (44) 852-3628.

(New York  Times – November 30, 1997)

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