There I was again, walking around a landmark of global importance with my eyes firmly fixed on the ground instead of looking up at the sights around me. This guy, on the other hand, knew how to act like a proper self-respecting tourist and put me to shame.
In this case, the landmarks I should have been looking at were the elaborate rock-carved monuments of Mahabalipuram, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Still, in between all the downward gazing, I managed to have a quick look at the Five Rathas, dating to the 7th century. Each of them is a monolith shrine sculpted in a different style, carved whole from a single piece of pink granite rock in situ. Historians say the area served as a school for young sculptors who had to learn and practice different architectural styles. Today, there are still dozens of workshops around the site, which sell hand-carved granite sculptures.
Another structure of the site was the Shore Temple, a five-story structural (unlike the rock-cut rathas) Hindu temple dating to the beginning of the 8th century, which stands right on the Bay of Bengal.
One thing that took me by surprise was the unexpected sense of serenity that dawned on me when I entered the temple. Away from the scorching sun and the heat (which I was tempted to describe as oppressive before I remembered that at the same time temperatures in Sofia reached -15 °C), the loud, gawking and pushy tourists crowds, I felt the cool granite beneath my bare feet and the light breeze around me, and a certain tranquility set it.
Speaking of serenity, I owe the chance to see Mahabalipuram, as well as my whole stay in India, to my wonderful friends and the most gracious of hosts Lika and David. They handled my last-minute and highly disorganized visit with enviable composure, along the way effortlessly dealing with my culture shocks, freak-outs from insane traffic, endless questions, frustrated haggling over pashmina prices, lack of proper footwear, danger of serious sunburn and allergy-inducing mosquito bites, sore throat bouts and spicy food challenges. All with four-month-old baby Elena in tow.
Here is one place I didn’t have to look hard for beautiful grounds. Every entrance to every home – from the marbled floor at the front doors of apartments in guarded buildings to the pavements and pathways at the entryways of huts on the street, was decorated with ephemeral powder drawings, called kolams.
Popular in South India, the kolam is meant to bring prosperity and serve as an invitation into one’s home. I also read somewhere that it is a daily tribute to harmonious co-existence, as the white rice powder with which it is drawn is also an invitation for ants and birds to eat it.
Drawn on a carefully swept ground by the women of the household every single morning, during the day the intricate patterns get walked and driven on, blown around by the wind or washed away by rain, only to be drawn again at dawn the next day.
So, in addition to an invitation, the kolam seem to me to be an exercise in patience, humility and an acknowledgment of transience. Three things I must admit I don’t have much of a grip on or a very good understanding of, for that matter. How very un-Hindu of me, I know. Still, as fleeting as they are, I found kolams a much more enticing way to walk into somebody’s home than being greeted by the permanence of an obnoxious, worn-out doormat.
I’ve only been here a day and I’m already turning into a proper hippie. Mehndis – henna hand decorations, are nice, especially if you manage to not get the henna all over yourself and your clothes while it’s drying, as you’re simultaneously trying to take pictures, drink out of a freshly-hacked-opened coconut with a straw and stuff your face with naan, dosai with lentils and chutney.
Besides, unlike that tattoo, which seemed like a great idea when you were drunk and/or 16 and thought there was nothing cooler and deeper the Chinese symbols for ‘wisdom’ and ‘prosperity’, the mehndi doesn’t last nearly long enough to be regretted.