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Bas-relief carving on Ajuna’s Penance

Seaport of the ancient Pallava Kingdom, World Heritage Site, fishing village, renowned centre of stone carving, 70s hippy hangout, location of Krishna’s butterball, the Shore Temple and the beach restaurant which Rick Stein claims makes the best curry in India, Mahabilapuram or Mamallapuram is our first stop in Tamil Nadu.

We are taking the sight-seeing gently, happy to have found a refuge from the midday heat in palm thatched Le Yogi’s Restaurant, purveyor of cold ‘British Empire’ beer. We did try the Sea Shore Garden Restaurant, still basking in the fame of a stopover lunch with Rick Stein and his crew but they couldn’t find us a beer of any description, let alone a cold one. Things have slipped since Rick’s visit. He boasted in his TV programme of sitting watching the fishing boats on the beach, drinking cold Kingfisher beer and eating the best fish curry he had come across. I doubt it was any better than the snapper fish curry we had at Yogi’s. Perhaps we’ll give it a go before moving on, although there are plenty of other places selling good seafood.


Fine sculpture on the Manapans

 A guide book will tell you all you need to know about Mamallapuram’s sights so I’ll say little about them here save that although not as dramatic and impressive as, say Hampi’s, there’s some delightful stone carving. Naturally it attracts the tourists and our first impressions were not good. Coaches were disgorging crowds of tourists; there was a queue of people waiting to be photographed ‘holding up’ Krishna’s Butterball – see photo; the route to the Shore Temple was lined with garish stalls and choked with tourist groups and their guides. Returning in the early evening, however, and again in the early morning as the fruit sellers were setting up, it was a different story and we really warmed to the place. The carving on the Ajuna’s Penance frieze merits all the praise it has received. We loved those elephants.


Ajuna’s Penance

 The discovery of the ‘fishing colony’ area around Othavadai Street helped too. It was a joy to wander around the streets of this section of the town with their brightly coloured houses and doorstep kolam, the designs drawn in rice flour and chalk in front of the houses, or, at sunset, to sit in the Sea Rock restaurant (beer served in a teapot) watching the activity on the beach.


Kolams on the doorstep of houses in the fishing colony


Drying fish


Fishing nets on Mamamallapuram Beach


Beer in a teapot

  On the second day I did give way to the temptation to have that photo taken ‘supporting’ the butterball. The problem is that once you declare yourself as the sort of tourist who poses for this sort of picture you are fair game for every postcard, picture, fruit & trinket seller in the area. 




 We had a stroll along to the site of the Five Rathas, past the row of stone carvers. The guidebook talks about the clink of chisel on stone from sunup to sundown being one of the distinctive sounds of Mamallapuram but these days it’s more likely to be drowned out by the shriek of an angle grinder and an electric drill. I can’t say I blame the sculptors.

We spent an hour or so searching out the highly recommended ‘Indian Seashell Museum’. Following the directions on the many posters advertising it we wandered about crossing our tracks time after time until we came to the conclusion that the posters had been printed off as a job lot with the arrow on the bottom pointing left and then put up around the town indiscriminately. We never did find the place.

Tamil Nadu beach clean: On a long late afternoon walk on the beach we spotted, floating just beneath the surface of the waves, what we first took for a ray, then a jelly fish. It turned out to be the plastic lid of a toilet seat. Walking back an hour later we saw one one the locals heading off homewards with it under his arm. That’s recycling.


Fishing boats, fishermen & cows

 Walking on that beach and looking at the single storey restaurants, bars, houses and chalets, the thought struck: how vulnerable they all were when that Tsunami wave hit on Boxing Day in 2004. Looking out to sea today it’s not difficult to imagine what it must have been like to see that wave racing in. You can’t help but feel a cold thrill. There were only three fatalities though apparently and miraculously, the retreating sea revealed archeological ruins that some have speculated about but never discovered. It made world headlines. 

Not our hotel


Overheard in the crowded reception area of our hotel: 

Solicitous hotel manager to one of his guests: ‘Good morning sir. How is the diarrhoea this morning?’

Pondicherry, two hours by bus, tomorrow. 

Obligatory photo with Krishna’s Butterball – not pretending to support it though


Street market Mamallapuram


Street Market


Street shrine




The photos here were taken with a mobile phone. Check out Rob ‘ s travel and landscape photography website for the ones taken with a camera: