Thursday, August 14, 2008

Rocks of ages

After a day of looking at South India’s future, it was time to again be more reflective. Our next to the last day was to be focused on the region’s diverse cultural heritage. Our first stop for the day is Dakshina Chitra, a center at Muttukadu, 25 kilometers south of Chennai, on the East Coast Road to Mamallapuram, which is home to historic temples we’ll see later.

Dakshina Chitra literally means “a picture of the south,” which is true of this place about the people from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Karnataka and their cultural, art and architectural traditions.

Located on 10 acres overlooking the Bay of Bengal, this living history museum is popular with school groups, not just those from the Kelley School of Business. A good estimate would suggest that there are at least four different school groups here today and the fascination that the local young people have with us is nearly as strong as it is for the people with painted faces, the potter and magician doing tricks in the open-air auditorium.

Many in school uniforms take long looks at people in our group, sometimes giggling in delight. Some even approach us and ask for autographs.

Several Kelley students pursue autographs of a different kind. Clara Houin and others seek out the artisan who does the Henna tattoos. Even Aashish Batra, our student from Delhi, gets a tattoo – probably the first one the artist has ever done with an IU logo. Others found more souvenirs made by local crafts people.

After lunch, our guide Ravati took us to Mamallapuram to see its well preserved temples carved out of stone. Many of these monuments were built between the seventh and ninth centuries and are classified by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites.

First on our agenda, though, is Krishna’s Butterball, a giant natural rock perched on a hillside. Amazingly, it’s a great place to pose for pictures (see the photo above), but you can't help but worry a little bit that the big piece of granite could move at any time.

It also makes "The Rock" at IU Memorial Stadium a pebble by comparison.

Local monkeys (who are considered sacred along with the cows) compete for attention on the reliefs of elephants carved into Arjuna's Penance. We also saw the aptly described Varaha Cave Temple.

Heading about a half mile further to the south, we come to the Five Rathas, a set of monolithic granite structures which imitate temples originally built of wood. Also on the list of World Heritage Sites, they are among the oldest examples of their type.

Here, as students and others browse through the ruins, a group of people are hard at work cleaning them using architecturally accepted practices. This area has been known since the seventh century as the home to many skilled stone carvers.

Today, Mamallapuram is a place where sculptors come to have contemporary works shaped by hand. It's where I read sculptor Stephen Cox came to have his visions made into reality. One of his works, "Mantra," which rests in the garden outside the British Council's building in Delhi, took more than a year to complete, with 20 carvers working at Cox's studio in Mahabalipuram.

The community's stone carving legacy is part of its future and not just its past, as evidenced by the numerous shops and informal studios that we saw from the bus.

The highlight of this visit, for many, is the famous Shore Temple, which is carved from a single piece of stone and has stood for more than 1,400 years.

Many have a realization as we head back towards Chennai and our dinner at the Fisherman’s Cove beach resort – tomorrow will be our last full day in India.

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