And here’s five more from the gardens that surround the fort in Vellore
Yelagiri, about 90 kms south of Vellore, is an unassuming cluster of villages at an altitude of over a 1,100 meters providing welcome respite from the heat to people living in the scorching plains around. It’s the closest thing to a hill station around Chennai and the hotels and restaurants, I heard, are packed to droves with people on holidays and weekends.
I took a train from Chennai to Jolarpettai, a town about 13 kms from Yelagiri. Here, at a junction on the highway, I had to wait for hours for a Yelagiri bus to come by, hours that felt like an eternity in the bright summer heat. Rickshaw drivers saw my unhappy face staring cluelessly in the distance and asked if I wanted to go with them for 500 Rs. But I was playing in extreme budget travel mode and absurdly controlled my urge to take the easy way out. Matters were made considerably worse by the fact that, when one of the buses did arrive, I had been taking a respite from the heat in the shade of a tea stall and before I could leap over to where the bus was, it had bolted away. After this fiasco, the rickshaw guys appeared even more willing to give me a ride but my resolve had only toughened. After pointlessly wasting another hour by the roadside, this time not moving an inch, eventually I found myself in a tottering bus on the winding road to Yelagiri.
Since I went on a Tuesday and left before the alleged crowds hit on Friday, I wasn’t witness to the spectacle of mass tourism I had heard about. In fact, in my case, the opposite was true. Many of the restaurants were shut, the tourist sites felt forlorn and unloved and the hotels were vacant and lonely. It was difficult for me to imagine the place overrun with tourists because there was so little infrastructure to support such an influx. Nevertheless, I was assured by the amiable and moustachioed manager of my hotel that come the weekend, I would find it difficult to find a room no matter how much I was willing to pay.
My hotel was called Aruvi and appeared to be custom-built for cheerful families, complete with a garden, a play area with slides and swings and a big, gaudy sculpture of snow-white swans with yellow beaks perched on a bright-blue platform adorning the entrance. At 500 Rs. a night (thanks to fabulous discounts on goibibo), my room was a steal. It was impeccably clean, there was a western commode and a geyser for hot water. The manager apologetically informed me that they had shut down the in-house restaurant on weekdays because of a lack of clientele. If only I had arrived on a weekend…
Food, was a problem. The closest place open was 200 meters down the road and was filled with what appeared to be locals and people working in the area. Generally everyone eating here knew everyone else and as the protocol went, they had to stare suspiciously at the one person who didn’t belong. On the first night, the man I was sharing a table with proudly announced to everyone assembled that he had had a fight with his wife and was thrown out to fend for himself. The food was terrible and the only edible options were (extremely greasy) dosas and parotas accompanied by (extremely oily) omelettes. After two days of eating here, I wondered how I hadn’t collapsed with a heart attack.
When I told the manager how terrible my meals were, he suggested I walk down to Hotel Hills, a somewhat fancier dining place. The restaurant here was so desolate, two of the waiters had slumped over the table catching a siesta. Neither of them looked happy when they saw my hungry face staring expectantly around the room waiting for someone to get a menu. I waited patiently at my corner table until a more senior staff walked in and nudged one of the dozing waiters in my direction. They didn’t have any of the thalis or the South Indian dishes and only served the more expensive Punjabi food. Thankfully, it wasn’t entirely the catastrophe I thought it would be as (and I’m sure it had something to do with the terrible food I’d been eating) the vegetable korma was, if not delicious, certainly satisfying and the rotis to go with were soft enough without being chewy.
I spent my first day walking around Kottaiyur and Athanavoor, two of the main settlements in the area. There was an informal market at the junction of the two near the main entrance to the lake. Here street vendors selling colourful trinkets and fluffy, obscenely gaudy dolls sat glumly waiting for customers to show up, women laughed and gossiped by the fruit stalls selling locally grown guavas, pineapples and watermelons in front of the bright red and yellow striped temple walls, tourists tested their plastic gun skills by taking shots at balloons hung on a white cardboard wall and the pungent odor from a cluster of street food stalls that lay cluttered on the pavements selling fried fish fresh off the lake filled the air.
Here are some of the shots I took of the people I observed in the markets of Yelagiri –
The Mamallapuram beach stretches long and wide on either side of the rocky spurs that house the Shore temple. While it isn’t the cleanest beach around, it bustles with life and color. Fishing boats lie languidly while fishermen kill their time playing cards waiting for the right time to hit the sea. Fisherkids divide their time between catching fish caught in rain-induced puddles on the beach by kicking them out of the water and watching videos and playing videogames in the open air on the idle boats. Long-staying backpackers take evening walks on the shores, lovers and honeymooners court each other in the waters/ the beach and seafood lovers head to the Rick Stein-endorsed snapperfish curry at the Seashore Restaurant.
Here are some of pictures I took of the life around the seashore –
The cluster of monuments on the rocky outcrop of Mamallapuram hill provides the most comprehensive overview of the artistic achievements of the architects and sculptors who worked in the town in the Pallava era. Some sculptures are half-finished, some stones bear the marks of ancient quarrying and there are intricately carved pillars and gateways strewn about the landscape.
It’s instructive to hire a guide or take a guidebook along if you aren’t familiar with Indian mythology and want to do more than click pictures of yourself in front of these sites because the wealth of artistic excellence on display here is truly breathtaking. There are lion thrones, cave temples, massive balancing boulders, finely carved panels where powerful deities overcome heinous demons, hidden porticoes and arcades down unmarked trails and myriad other beguiling spots for the more curious traveler.
The rush of day-tripping crowds could get a bit overwhelming in the central sites but the landscape is so spread-out that you are never too far from a spot of peace and solitude. Peace and solitude though don’t agree with the principal attraction of the Hill, which is the Lighthouse. Here, you queue up in dank, dingy, sweaty interiors, precipitously trying to balance yourself on its narrow, spiraling steps as tourists who’ve just had a peek from its viewing platform rush past you. From the platform, you get a panoramic view of the Mamallapuram landscape with its water bodies, rocky temples, the coast, the hazy hills, the highway, the rapid urbanization, the people swarming like ants around the Shore Temple, the palm trees swaying in the breeze, the forgotten temples lying ruinously in jungly foliage, the young boys cautiously working their way up vertically exposed rocks taking selfies of their bravado.
If you haven’t been exhausted by all the sight-seeing on the hill, you can continue on to one of Mamallapuram’s most treasured sites, the Five Rathas (Chariots). These large monolithic artworks are remarkable for the fact that they have all been carved out of single rocks. Each chariot is dedicated to one of the Pandava brothers (the heroes of the Mahabharatha) and their consort Draupadi. In addition to these chariots, there are perfectly proportioned lions and elephants and bulls on display. These poor creatures are now predictably used by tourists either as a crutch for their selfies or as a platform to get their pictures taken.
Here are the shots I took during my days here. The attempt was to capture the life around these sites more than the sites themselves. Hope you enjoy it.