Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram) lies about 60 km southwest of the city of Chennai (Madras) in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. I’m there to see the 7th century Shore Temple designated a UNESCO Heritage site. Once a port city where ancient Roman and third century Chinese coins have been found, its magnificent seven shore temples of Marco Polo’s era are now reduced to one.
I’m on a State of Tamil Nadu tour and have seen more temples than I could have ever imagined since setting out at 5 am before the sun rose, but the remaining Shore Temple catches my imagination, its spires spearing the sky.
Forbidden entry to the temple at Kanchipuram because I’m a foreigner, the elaborate gigantic white wedding cake structured building looms behind me as I watch from the shade of the fore-court. Although I’ve always been awed by elephants, it’s here I become obsessed.
Like many ritual elephants, this one is decorated with red, purple and aqua paint (even the toe-nails are colored) to demonstrate that sense of playfulness, of decoration of life that I so admire in the Indian’s ornate elaboration of everything he touches.
Watching one of a trio of Indian tourists being smacked on the head by the elephant’s trunk, and then falling all over themselves laughing, intrigued me to the point I had to try it too.
In this case, the animal’s endless patience in playing this silly game, for the price of a handful of sweet green shoots that couldn’t possibly have made a difference to this huge being.
The elephant outside the forbidden temple was part of a continuum which started at Mamallapurim—that indelible moment of walking single file towards the last of the sea temples—the others of the seven are in the sea now.
Early, sun just rising, ground emanating the coolness of night, pale lemon sun coming through high grass bringing a fresh sweet smell. The sound of padding footsteps. Thinking, this temple is farther than I expected, then coming across the crumbling remains.
By now I had seen so many, this temple does not impress. But what does impress are the carved elephants—and already I’m obsessed. The soft stone carvings on living rock of these powerful creatures in procession and preceded by dancers–undulating figures, elaborately dressed, with tiny bells around sensuous hips, fingers chiming cymbals so poised you can almost hear them, graceful feet raised in dance, toes curled, pointing upward. The dancers seem to spring from the rock. So many temples, then I turn, and there stands a life-size elephant statue from the living stone.
Companions come forward into cool shadows, murmur among themselves, awed—as I am.