Chennai was a serious eye opener. It was a crazy concoction of everything beautiful and ugly in the world and a transition took place in me while we were there. The most peculiar things seemed normal after two weeks; men who slept in their rickshaws at night, cows sleeping in the street, random nighttime parades, women in burkhas, the stares, Hindu rituals, and the segregation of men and women. Chennai was alive and real and there was no denying its hypnotizing energy.
Yet the city was draining my energy and I knew it was time when our hotel’s elevator became my secret closet. It was a partially manual elevator and once inside the cage I’d close the double set of metal caged doors, press “3” and then relish in my seven seconds of bliss. Indian tunes would begin mid-song and a blast of cold air would explode from the ceiling fan, temporarily extinguishing the feeling that I was being baked alive.
When departure day finally did come I was a twist of emotions; excited yes, but hesitant too. Was I really ready for this? It had been almost two months since we had done any real overlanding and it all kind of felt foreign to me. We exited the port’s gates at three in the afternoon. It was far too late to begin our first drive in India but the fact of the matter was we weren’t going back to Chennai. Absolutely no way.
A few hours later we found ourselves at the police station in Mahabalipuram.
“Here goes nothing,” Brad said, and then disappeared into the station while I patrolled Nacho. I felt at peace. The streets were pleasantly quiet and no one had discovered us yet. I relived the day’s events as Brad worked his magic.
“Hi Sir. My wife and I are driving a campervan and are looking for a safe place to park for the night. Is there a place nearby?”
“Oh no! It is not possible. Very dangerous! You must stay in a hotel.”
Brad wasn’t having any more Indian hotels. “I’m sorry, but that’s not possible. Our car is our home. What about in the police parking lot?”
They didn’t have one. “Impossible. You can’t sleep on the street. It is too dangerous.”
“It doesn’t look dangerous.” Brad put on his worried face and began his act. ”I don’t know what we’ll do. It’s so late.” He pointed outside to the van, “I think we will have to camp right there on the street tonight. Good place?”
The police man pondered what to do and then picked up his phone and placed a call. After a few minutes he hung up the receiver and addressed Brad.
“I have called my friend. He is the manager of Talasayana Perumal Temple and he says it is okay, you can camp at his temple. When you get there ask for Santhanam.”
We only had to venture a few minutes to find the 600 year old temple, and Santhanam was waiting for us outside. I liked him instantly and after two weeks in India he felt like our first real contact. He looked at us with curious eyes but not like we were aliens.
“You need anything, you call me. We have a guard here at night so it is safe.” We both felt grateful. He was proud of his temple. “I am the manager at this temple. Before me, my father was the manager, and before my father, it was his father. Please I want to show inside. It is dedicated to the reclining Lord Vishnu.”
We followed him inside and he led us to the shrine of Lord Vishnu where we were greeted by Gopal Krishna, the temple priest. He looked like an exotic character on the History Channel. He wore a white lungi and decorated his forehead with a series of painted lines—a red one down the center and two surrounding white lines that merged at the ridge of his nose. We talked with him for some time and I liked him just as much as Santhanam.
“Welcome to India Sheena and Brad,” he said, and then dipped his finger in a red paste and marked our foreheads with tikka dots. On our way out I stopped to listen to two men play their trumpets in the temple’s inner courtyard. Their melody echoed through the building and instantly brought me back to the Indian wedding we stumbled upon in Kuala Lumpur, Malayasia. It was the same song.
We parked Nacho in the vast temple courtyard, surrounded by the ancient buildings. During the first night, I awoke and peered out of the pop top window. Surrounding the van, visible in the full moon’s light, were dozens of cows sleeping around Nacho. They were the town’s cows, which plied the city streets by day dining on anything remotely edible and wreaking havoc with traffic. At night, this was their peaceful domain. Sleeping at the epicenter of a sea of cows under a full moon was surreal, although in the morning we noticed that one of them had eaten the corner of our bamboo mat, which took away a bit of the appreciation.
We awoke the next morning to a frenzy of activity around Nacho. The temple was bustling with worshipers and we were in the middle of it. “Can’t we just stay in Nacho all day?” I suggested. I was still having India stage fright. Unfortunately I knew we’d have to emerge because it was sweltering inside of Nacho. We opened the sliding door to a sea of colorful saris and curious eyes. Gopal Krishna was waiting to greet us into the day. “Brad and Sheena! Good morning!”
I learned quickly that Mahabalipuram is not some secret tourist destination, it‘s a World Heritage Site and with good reason. According to inscriptions, the monuments found here are the sculptural legacy left behind by Pallava kings Mahendravarman I (580 – 630 AD), his sons and their descendants. The King was a patron of fine arts and the area served as a leading port in ancient times.
Just outside the temple we stood face to face with the world’s largest bas relief etched into the side of a boulder. It depicted a scene of Hindu mythology that springs to life during the rainy season when the cleft in the rock, representing the Ganges River, flows with water and drains into a tank at the boulder’s base. All over the hillside were other boulders scraped and sculpted into shrines and caves and stone columns, and their walls too were covered in stories of Hindu mythology. It was spectacular. A man followed us through the ruins.
“To your right is the world’s largest bas relief.” Brad and I exchanged looks and then cut him off.
“Sorry but we don’t want a tour guide.” He seemed hurt.
“I am not a tour guide. I’m a student and I have a shop that sells rock sculptures.”
“Sorry we’re not interested.”
“Please just come to my shop.”
“No we aren’t shopping. We just want to walk.” The rock seller left, but was almost immediately replaced by another rock seller, and then another.
At the top of a ridge which sloped downward into a grassy field we came to another interesting site—“Krishna’s Butter Ball”—a comical name for a giant boulder, precariously balanced on the edge of the hillside. We retreated into the maze of boulders where billy goats hopped carelessly on the sides of boulders while scores of monkeys headed to their daytime hideouts. We explored more and hid under a tree as the weather changed instantly to a downpour of rain.
We walked to the beach, drank coconut water, and finally walked back to Nacho. On the other side of the van a homeless family had set up camp for the day. The children bombarded us before we had time to retreat into Nacho. They held their palms upward and pinched their fingers together.
“Money! Money! Money!”
We distracted them with games and Brad taught them how to play Stingbee, which caused them to erupt into laughing fits. Soon, however, their mother saw they had made no money and screamed at them to return. She gave us the stink eye and we returned the gesture. They left and quickly returned looking even more desperate.
We coerced them into playing more Stingbee and then retreated into Nacho.
The next morning we were invited to Santhanam’s house for coffee. His home was just outside the temple’s wall, set back a little and tucked between two buildings. He saw us from inside and excitedly waved us into the inner courtyard of his home. This courtyard was surrounded on all sides by pillars and doors. The walls were decorated in posters of Hindu gods and goddesses and the back garden was dominated by a deep well and a giant tree.
He pointed us toward his bedroom. “Please take a seat.” He turned on the ceiling fan and left to make us coffee. He came back carrying a tin tray with three cups of coffee. “The shops in town don’t make such good coffee. That is why I wanted you to come here. You are the first guests I have had in my home.”
We felt honored. A few hours later as we were set to leave, Santhanam presented us with a few unexpected gifts: a set of postcards of India, another set of Mahabalipuram, a yellow felted Hindu necklace, and a small framed photo of Ganesha. “You must put this in your van. Ganesha is the god of travel and he will protect you on your journey. Please do call me in the future. You are now my friends.”
We felt so fortunate to have met Santhanam, and while he didn’t know it, we had met him at the most perfect time. He had shown us a different side of India, one that we both needed to see. We all walked together to the temple. As we started Nacho and prepared to leave, Gopal Krishna emerged from the temple.
“Good morning Brad and Sheena! It has been a pleasure to have you at the temple the last few days. I wish you the happiest of journeys!”
And with that we were off. Maybe India wouldn’t be so bad after all.