Seeing Cambodia and Indonesia on the roads of Tamil Nadu in India

On the road from Chennai to Pondicherry in Tamil Nadu, India: September 2007

The renaming of Indian towns by the BJP in the 1990s was the populist Hindutva version of renaming French fries as “freedom fries” when France opposed the Iraq war; in other words, an easy bit of demagoguery that, in India, seemed to fall disproportionately on those places – Madras, say, or Bombay – that happened to be well-known to foreigners.  The BJP is long out of power but the new place names stuck at least at the level of high politics, supported there, ironically, by zealous foreigners (including the Rough Guide authors) who reckon it’s easier to play along than risk a nationalist backlash.  Indians themselves render a mixed verdict: Chennai is in common usage but I was firmly corrected, after using Mamallapuram as the temple town’s name, that it should be Mahabalipuram, which is the old name.

Whatever its title, the town’s monuments are both awesome and disappointing: the famous Shore Temple, in particular, has seen its sculptural friezes worn smooth by salt air and the nearby ocean.  This area was badly affected by the tsunami and the temple is now (maybe was then) in a manicured area separated from the ocean by two stone barricades and the beach.  As in Chennai, though, there is absolutely no evidence of what must rank, in loss of life, as the worst natural disaster in modern times.  At the time it happened I’d heard about the total normality that prevailed a kilometer inland almost everywhere, but even along the coast there are none of the visible scars that disfigure war-torn cities like Sarajevo.  Perhaps, if anything, the seafront buildings look too new.

Even without decoration, the Shore Temple has a striking silhouette, one that connects very directly to the tiered Hindu temples in Bali.  In Tamil Nadu, I can feel the vibrations of southeast Asia everywhere: I heard a flat, atonal Thai in the Tamil safety recording on the plane, I see something between the looping circles of written Burmese and the distinct squiggles of written Thai or Khmer in the swirls of Tamil, I saw Cambodia in the high cheekbones, flat nose, and chocolate skin of my driver, and the picture of a god statue he kept on the dashboard was so unmistakably Thai that I almost disbelieved him when he said it was from Tamil Nadu.  Of course, all this reflects the order in which I traveled; in reality, it was the Hindus who ruled southeast Asia.  I’ve known that history for ages but north India is so shaped by the Mughals, and thus connected to cultures farther west, that I never felt the vestiges of that history until traveling here.

The most awesome of Mahabalipuram’s monuments utilize the existing rock formations: carving rathas or bas-relief friezes into them, excavating artificial caves from them.  Many of these were grouped into what is now a small park, while the rathas – from which it was easy to project, with some imagination, to Ta Phrom in Cambodia – are off by themselves.  Collectively, this is the landmark of Pallava architecture and I am glad to have seen it for where it led.

The countryside could be Cambodia, too: thatched roof houses, scrubby farmland seemingly less fertile for the efforts of human cultivation, and a prevalent sense of poverty and governmental neglect.  Here, as there, there’s no shortage of gross billboard-sized posters advertising the virtues of the political leaders who have done so little: one succession of gaudy victory gates along the highway – the site of a rally, I was told – was almost laughable, a kind of Bollywood-meets-North Korea effect.  No surprise: from Jayalalitha on down, there’s a long tradition of movie stars – products of the huge local Tamil industry, not Bollywood – cashing in on their fame with public office.

There are other sights along the roadway: massive American-style megachurches, albeit with local pastors and (often) a New Age-y un-Christian bent; equally massive secular(-ish) temples called Dizzee World or Mary World, offering amusement rides and kitsch entertainment; countless dragonflies bouncing on the hot air currents above the highway; requests for blessings from Hindu, Muslim, or Christian powers but, so far as I saw, not a single line of written Hindi, the putative national language; and then there was the road itself – India just completed upgrading its national highway system à la Eisenhower – which, at least on the NHs, was a median-divided four-lane route in good condition, though other routes saw the usual perilous third passing lane squeezed between one in either direction.

There’s not much written French in the commercial signage on the outskirts of Pondicherry (or Puducherry, to give its BJP spelling and it’s only when we got to the grid of streets at the center – and, specifically, the “white” town along the water – that France became evident.  In the best tradition of sleepy colonial outposts, there’s nothing to do here except languish in the heat.  I don’t mind that at all.  I walked to the seafront where groups gathered on the breakers to pray and toss their clay Ganesh statues into the ocean, marking the third day of the holiday in his honor.  The only other areas of activity were administrative: the courts bustled with supplicants and men in black robes unmodified for the heat, while a long line snaked towards the entrance to the municipal records office and a few lucky ones stood at the exit examining dot-matrix printouts of their lives.  Inland, gardens overflow high plaster walls and the sun casts sharp shadows on the ground.  Occasionally, a rickshaw squawks as it approaches an intersection but mostly there’s silence, or birds.

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One Response to “Seeing Cambodia and Indonesia on the roads of Tamil Nadu in India”

  1. Mouli says:

    Loved how you saw Cambodia in Tamil Nadu and vice versa!

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