Some pics from a brief jaunt to Dakshina Chitra, a sort of open-air museum an hour from Chennai. The large compound features replicas of traditional homes from all parts of South India, and in some cases even the originals, reassembled brick by brick. Artists and craftsmen produce their wears on site,so you can observe the traditional methods of sari weaving and clay pottery-making as you wander through quiet courtyards and painted columns.
These pictures were taken one weekend, when Anna (an Aussie friend and fellow intern at the Banyan) and I decided to ditch Chennai for the peace and quiet of some scenic towns a few hours south. First stop was Mahabalipuram (say it three times fast), a bustling port in the 7th and 10th centuries of the Pallava dynasty of kings. It has since turned into a bit of a tourist trap, but except for pushy vendors the place has a nice laid-back feel, especially now in the off-season. Lovely ruins of temples and palaces abound high on the rocks, and their dark corners are inhabited by snogging couples and inquisitive goats.
Next stop was Pondicherry, which for the most part looks like Chennai Jr., but (courtesy of the French) it preserves some historic quarters that are leafy, quiet, and clean. The place still has a strong Gallic presence, with some streets named “rue” and cafes packed with older hippy-intellectuals. A notable part of the adventure which is not captured on photo was an Ayurvedic massage session in a little side street (next to the window goats, see pic). The place was suggested by the Lonely Planet guide, and while highly skilled, the guru-doctor was a bit of a weirdo to say the least. He unblocked my chakras, but…could he have been a bit less invasive about it? After more wandering, which included a visit to an ashram and some delicious prawn curry, we squeezed into a packed bus and headed home, where we were welcomed, 5 hours later, by… a torrential downpour of course!
I would like to relate an anecdote.
Me: I can’t cross the street, I just can’t walk into incoming traffic!
Avinaash: Why, what’s your problem?
Me: …I don’t have a death wish!
Avinaash: You’ve got to have a death wish if you want to survive in Chennai.
A little grim, but ultimately true. There are many things about living in this city that make one flirt with the idea of jumping off one of its many bridges, into the river of sludge and refuse below. Chennai is hot, humid, and home to some of the most voracious mosquitoes in this hemisphere. It is polluted and chaotic. The streets, swarming with traffic that follows only the rules of anarchy, are also open-air toilets to all manner of fowl and human, and the whole thing gets messier after the monsoon rains. Chennai is the 4th-largest city in India, but rather than being a cosmopolitan hub, it’s more like a gigantic village, where goats nibble at political posters and foreigners are stared at in wariness and curiosity.
Once you come to grips with one reality, however, you realize there is another – it exists side-by-side with the honking horns and piles of poop, hovering beyond reach until you take the time to look. Just after dawn, women across the city bend before their doorsteps to trace intricate, auspicious designs in chalk, and no two are alike (see image). A million teashops sell milky chai and sweet coffee, expertly tossed till they are frothy in their little cups. There is a cart with fresh green coconuts, hacked on the spot with a scythe to reveal the gummy goodness within. Nearby, an elderly woman weaves long strands of white jasmine blossoms, and sorts through tiny roses to be pinned up in dark hair. If possible, the roses must match the hue of the fluttery salwar kameez, or the gold-bordered silk sari, which women wear so gracefully here. What I find most satisfaction in are these small things, and they make up for a lot of annoyances. In addition, though I have had the misfortune of meeting a few creeps and the token number of rude people, I have mostly encountered simple kindness and generosity. Thank you to friends and friendly passer-bys for that.
I’d like to share a bit of both realities in this blog. It will mostly be through pictures, but I’ll take some time to explain what’s going on as well. Hope you enjoy it!
PS: Avinaash (a colleague of mine) did finally drag me across the road. That was more than a month ago. I’m proud to say that I have since tapped into unknown stores of bravery and foolishness, and am now able to navigate the city pretty efficiently 🙂