Friday, February 17, 2006

Ch-ch-ch-changes at Mamallapuram


How much can a place change in eight years? Well, if it's conveniently close to an international airport (Chennai/Madras, this one) and got a beach and fishing boats and been poineered by backpacker tourists, then quite a lot. Add to that changing technology and some extra (selective) prosperity - and the tsunami - and you have a push to build, rebuild and develop.

The place still has some charm: you can't shift the huge rock outcrops, carved in situ with a range of impressive figures, nor can the sea or beach disappear in that time span (although the tsunami gouged out quite a bit and revealed more stone temples below the tide line) But where the prevailing sound used to be the musical tap of mallet on chisel on stone as the traditional stone-carvers of the village carried on their trade, now they've gone mechanised - and rising above the gentle percussion of the chisels is the multi-tonal buzz of a thousand small angry angle-grinders. Still, productivity must be up, judging by the number of statues, often quite large, standing around by the roadside!

In the beach-side restaurant where I had breakfast they've put a mark for the level of the top of the tsunami wave: two storeys up from the level of the beach, itself raised well above high tide level..Chilling to sit there and imagine how one's fate that Boxing Day morning might have been determined by which direction you had been facing or whether there were any cries of alarm to alert you in time for you to run. Still, you would probably have been caught in some of the wave but not, perhaps, overwhelmed. I don't know how many perished here (the fishing fleet was wiped out - now restored) but further down this same coast 2000 Christian pilgrims at a Marian shrine lost their lives.

Now, however, the result has been an opportunity to rebuild and renew and - apart from the memorial marks - little remains to show what happened less than 14 months ago. Mamallapuram is now a tourist resort, albeit a little scruffy (but where are we?), and its days of being a backpacker haven are gone, although a few lurk on in corners and the occasional aromatic whiff betrays their persistence.

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