Installment #16 - December 29, 2000

Chennai (Madras)

We arrived in Chennai (which used to be named Madras) early on Wednesday morning and settled into the Hotel Pandian. Then we set out to get the rest of our train reservations (the computer only works sixty days in advance, so we were not able to get all of our reservations in Delhi), and to visit the Madras Government Museum, where we saw stone carvings and bronze statues.

In the afternoon, we were picked up by an autorickshaw driver with whom we had pre-arranged for three hours of sight-seeing for 100 rupees. We visited Marina Beach, where a large stage was being erected for a political rally, and the nearby San Thome Cathedral, where Saint Thomas the Apostle (Doubting Thomas) is said to be buried [doubtful, as even Thomas would attest]. We drove by the Kapileeshwara Temple, stopping just long enough to take a picture, and then visited the government Development Centre for Musical Instruments. I am interested in obtaining an octave of tuned bulb horns (it’s a long story*** that has nothing to do with India), and I hoped that someone here could help me. It turned out to be simply a museum of classical Indian string instruments.

The autorickshaw driver had given us a good price, and the reason turned out to be that he intended to take us to shop after shop, where he would receive a commission for bringing in potential customers. So for the next two hours Rita visited stores while I watched people go by in the streets outside. We arrived back at the hotel after dark.

Thursday and Friday were occupied by report writing for me and shopping for Rita. We hesitated to go far from the hotel on foot, because there was a blockage in the sewer, and about 100 yards down the narrow street from the hotel was a puddle of raw sewage that was splashed across the width of the road by every vehicle that passed by.

On Saturday morning, we checked out of the hotel and boarded a tour bus for Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram), Pondicherry, and Auroville. As usual, the bus spent over an hour waiting for and picking up passengers amid lots of grumbling from the on-time passengers, and then we started south. We visited the Shore Temple, originally built in the seventh century, and the Five Rathas (temples in the form of chariots), all in Mamallapuram, and then headed for Pondicherry.

In Pondicherry, the tour allowed us fifteen minutes at the beach and twenty minutes at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Rita went into the Ashram, while I spent the time walking around town. My impression of Pondicherry was that of a cleaner-than-average town with a high concentration of foreigners and beggars.

Our last stop was at the Matrimandir, the spiritual center of Auroville, and the final resting place of the Mother. We were lined up and marched single file through a gate, and then organized into a series of lines and told that we were not allowed to carry anything, take pictures, or talk beyond that point. We then set out single-file through a well-maintained green area full of potted plants toward the Matrimandir itself, a concrete sphere with large gold-colored disks attached to the outside. It is still under construction and has scaffolding both inside and out. We left our shoes outside, entered the sphere, and climbed ramps and stairs to the central meditation chamber, where we saw a large glass sphere (Lonely Planet says that it is 70cm in diameterperhaps the largest in the worldand made by the Zeiss company in Germany). Sunlight is reflected onto the sphere by a moving mirror. It was great to spend a few minutes in a quiet, trash-free, well-maintained place, and to be in a crowd of people that moved in an orderly manner; quite a contrast to city streets.

We did not get to see the real Auroville which, according to our guidebook, consists of over eighty settlements, each specializing in a particular area, such as alternative technology, agriculture, computer research, handicrafts, or health care. To do so requires a multi-day visit, and preferably a commitment to spend some time working there.

We then started the four-hour drive back to Chennai, at least a half hour of which was spent in a colossal traffic jam as we passed by the political rally at Marina Beach. We retrieved our bags from the hotel and headed to the central train station, where we joined a solid mass of people. We found our train, and were soon on our way to Bangalore.

Click here for an online novel that takes place in Pondicherry around 30 years ago, in the time of the Mother, and will give you an excellent feel for the place (as well as being a terrific read!) by our friend Nina Galen, who had an actual audience with the Mother that is described in the book!

Click on the thumbnails below for a larger view, then use your browser's Back button

Ardhanarisvara - half god and half woman - located in the Government Museum.
This bronze statue of Buddha - south Indian style - is also in the bronze gallery of the Madras Government Museum.
Nataraja, or dancing Shiva, the lord of dance.
Looking north along Marina Beach on the Bay of Bengal in southern Chennai.
The interior of San Thome Cathedral, named for the apostle Saint Thomas, also known as "Doubting Thomas".
Rita visits St. Thomas’s tomb in San Thome Cathedral.
This sign, located near St. Thomas’s tomb, summarizes his time in India.
A view of an ancient Shiva temple, Kapileeshwara Temple.
We visited the Development Centre for Musical Instruments for help developing a musical instrument (an octave of tuned bulb horns). They were not able to help us.
The outside of our Chennai hotel, decorated for Christmas. A permit room is a place licensed to sell liquor by the glass; a bar.
The Shore Temple at Mamallapuram is located only a few yards from the ocean, but has recently been protected by the addition of a large rock seawall. We did not actually go into the compound because it was another of the "10 Rs. for Indians, 10 dollars for foreigners" tourist attractions, and could be seen reasonably well from the outside.
I got a kick out of this electric mower cutting the lawn at the Shore Temple. It was the first (and so far only) I have seen in India.
This warning sign was on the beach near the Shore Temple.
So Rita didn’t swim at Mamallapuram, but she did get her feet wet.
This sculptured elephant is located near the Nakula-Sahadeva Ratha, one of the Five Rathas of Mamallapuram. It is life-size and is considered one of the best carved elephants in India.
One of the Five Rathas.
Rita and our guide check out the ocean from the seashore in Pondicherry.
A look down a Pondicherry street.
This guy in Pondicherry is cutting up banana leaves for use in food service; restaurants use them as plates, and street vendors sell food wrapped in them.
Rita was fascinated by the giant tree in Auroville.

***Allen, who describes himself as musically challenged, has nevertheless always had a hankering to acquire and learn to play a Horny Coat.  A Horny Coat is not much more than an overcoat to which 8-12 squeeze (bulb) horns are attached around the circumference, each tuned to a different note of the scale.  He thought that India might be a good place to buy such horns or have them made economically. I'm sure you all join me in hoping that his quest fails. (Pee Wee Herman uses a completely different type of Horny Coat.)

horn.gif (10261 bytes)

Happy New Year, everybody!

Previous Installment Home Next Installment