Article by Irene Butler Pictures by Rick Butler
"You’ll not find a State in India with more varied treasures in landmark churches, ancient Hindu temples, and famed ashrams than Tamil Nadu," says guide Dharma with explosive pride. My husband Rick and I are ready to be swept away on an exotic adventure of discovery.
The capitol city Chennai (formerly Madras) is sizzling, with chaotic activity as well as in temperature. We wend our way, fortunately in an air-conditioned vehicle, to Fort St. George. Built by the British East India Company in the 1640’s, its imposing buildings in dazzling white are now the seat of the State’s government and a museum. Within the old fort walls is India’s oldest surviving British church, St. Mary’s, consecrated in 1680. "With four-foot-thick outer walls and two-foot-thick roof," says Dharma, "it was considered bomb-proof against cannon balls." Behind the altar we gaze at a depiction of the last supper, which although not signed, is believed to be from the Raphaelite school, with the central figures painted by Raphael himself.
It was then on to St. Thomas (San Thome) Basilica (built in 1504, and rebuilt in 1893), renowned for its neogothic elegance, and for an underground chapel where I stand riveted at the thought of "doubting Thomas", one of the twelve Apostles of Christ being buried here. This is one of three churches in the world proclaimed to be built over the tomb of an Apostle (the others being St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela built over the tomb of St. James in Spain).
St. Thomas is said to have come to this area in 52 AD. We follow his story at two sites several kilometres from the basilica. The first, Little Mount, is the cave where St. Thomas was believed to have lived in hiding from his persecutors. Further up the hill on St. Thomas Mount is where he was speared to death in 72 AD. In the small church at the top of this mount, to the right of the altar we viewed the painting of Mother Mary and the Christ Child, brought here by St. Thomas and purported to be the work of St. Luke. Who would have thought this wealth of Christian historic sites was to be found in the midst of Hindu country?
The next day we leave Chennai for the village of Mamallapuram (also called Mahabalipuram), with its ancient rock-carvings, most of which were completed in the 7th century when this was a major port for the ruling Pallava dynasty.
Dharma leads us to the 12m high and 30m wide exquisite bas relief known as Arjuna’s Penance. He points out the key figure saying, "Arjuna is balanced on one leg with arms upraised in ‘penance’, which in the Hindu religion does not mean repentance, but rather a gaining of power over the gods." He tells us Arjuna’s motive was to garner the sword from the towering figure of Shiva beside him, with which to kill his enemies. Our imaginations soar as our eyes scan the 100 sculptured forms surrounding the central figures, depicting lesser gods, humans, flying creatures, and animals, including two life-sized elephants.
A half-hour-walk brought us to the Shore Temple. Its two pagoda-style towers are weathered by wind and sea, yet a remarkable amount of carvings remain, especially inside the shrines for gods Shiva and Vishnu. A rock wall has been built to protect it from further erosion.
Nearby is the temple complex known as the Five Rathas. Lions and a life-sized elephant are regally poised at the entrance of these monolithic temples resembling chariots. Numerous deities, as well as scenes of everyday life, such as women weaving, young girls primping and pompous dignitaries are sculpted on the stone walls. We are awed by the preservation of these spectacular monuments, which were hidden in sand until excavated by the British 200 years ago.
Over a thousand years later, the tapping of hammer and chisel continues along the dusty streets of this village renowned for its stone carving. We become absorbed watching artisans chip granite blocks into animal forms and gods destined for temples around the world.
Day-trips from Mamallapuram are as fascinating, as they are varied. Our first was to Kanchipuram, the city of 1000 Hindu temples, and once capital of the Pallava, Chola and Pandyan dynasties. The largest and highest, Sri Ekambaranathar temple covers 12 hectares and dates back to the 16th century. But to us the most beautiful is the oldest temple, Kailasanatha. Constructed in the 8th century, sculptured lions and gods fill the rock walls, and fragments of murals are visible in some of the 58 small shrines, attesting to its former grandeur.
It was next onto Puducherry (a.k.a Pondicherry or Pondy), a former French colony with a seafront promenade, wide boulevards, "rue" for "street" on signage, 18th century French architecture, and enticing French cuisine restaurants - unlike anywhere else in India.
A huge draw to this community is the famed Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Founded in 1926 by a French woman known as "the Mother" and prolific writer Sri Aurobindo, it promotes their philosophies which are a synthesis of spirituality, yoga and modern science. Both are deceased and entombed in the courtyard of the ashram, where we as visitors are among the devotees gathered to pay homage to these spiritual leaders.
Just over the border from Puducherry is Auroville, the brainchild of "the Mother", whose work has been carried on by her followers. Although there is minimal tourist access of the facility, a visitor centre provides information on the workings of this international community that is spread over 20 sq km, with about 2,000 residents from around 38 nations. It is a place to live in peace and unity - above all creeds, politics, and nationalities. The focal point of Auroville is a gigantic gold-plated globe called the Matrimandir, which contains a crystal that diffuses sunlight into 26 meditation chambers for use by its members.
Back in Chennai, Dharma leaves us on our own to take in the 13km of exceptionally wide Marina Beach. Within minutes of our feet touching the fine sand, something strikes us as peculiar - no bikinis, or horizontal bodies slathered in tanning lotion, or swimmers in the Bay of Bengal. The thousand or so locals out for the evening breeze are fully clothed, and 90% are upright, either walking about or standing and chatting, with the remainder sitting for a picnic supper. "I doubt if Dharma knows how odd this looks to us," I chuckle.
As we plod further along, Coney Island comes to mind. Snack food is sold out of tents and stalls, some with gaudy plastic stools out front for customers. Smiling tots bob up and down on carousels and youths shriek from wildly-whirling contraptions, horses gallop by with riders, and kites fill the sky. Most amazing are the girls aged between six and ten performing daring feats on tightropes affixed to crossed bamboo poles lodged in the sand. This, we agree, is our most exhilarating beach walk to date.
We leave Tamil Nadu saturated by wondrous sites of Chennai and its surrounding centres. Our blend of experiences along the paths of Christianity, Hinduism, and the ashram’s absence of any formal religion was all that Dharma said it would be, made even more incredible by the hospitality of friendly locals and our gracious guide. As this was not our first visit to this amazing country, I concur with Rick’s succinct summation, "India just keeps getting better."
Article by Irene Butler Pictures by Rick Butler
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Last Updated on August 18, 2010 by M. Maxine George editor.
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