By Ayush Jain (LT MHPS)
I am sure most of you would have heard of Mahabalipuram & Pondicherry, but these places would never have been taken seriously when it comes to planning a trip to Southern India, where destinations like Kerela or Kanyakumari would have taken precedence.
My view was similar. But since there was a half marathon in Pondicherry (I am a running enthusiast), I decided to go anyway. Turns out, Mahabalipuram & Pondicherry are two hidden gems which offer very unique experiences for people with a wanderlust.
Mahabalipuram is hardly an hour’s drive from Chennai along the scenic ECR route. One can experience the intricate skill involved and the magnificence of the monuments of the Pallava architecture at Mahabalipuram. It is designated as a World Heritage Site for its stunning architecture. The monuments can be broadly classified into monoliths, caves, sculptured scenes and temples.
The first on my list was Ratha temple. It consists of 5 monoliths i. e. free standing temples carved out of a single rock and styled in the shape of rathas or chariots. Named after the Pandavas, each monolith is a testimony to sheer skill in carving such monuments of grandeur.
Next on my list were the monuments on the hill area consisting of cave temples, monoliths and bas-reliefs. The standout among them is a sculptured scene known as Arjuna’s Penance. Carved on the face of 2 large boulders, the carvings comprise of a series of gods & goddesses and celestial beings rushing towards a narrow cleft between the two boulders where a sage stands in penance. The carvings on the rock are so elaborate and beautiful that one can’t help but admire the monument for several minutes.
From there on, I visited the famed shore temple of Mahabalipuram. Built on the edge of the sea shore, the temple was subject to a constant splash of waves and sea salts over the decades. However, conservation efforts along with building of a groyne wall have stalled the erosion and preserved the temple since the 1980s. The temple is surrounded by a courtyard with a stepped approach leading to the entrance of the temple. Beyond the porch is the main shrine of the temple, Siva-Linga.
The whole setting with the sea in the background, the carved panels on the temple and and architectural beauty is a sight to behold.
Apart from the architectural beauty, Mahabalipuram offers the largest seashell museum in India. With more than 40,000 unique and rare seashells on display, it is a sight in itself. A must visit place if you happen to visit Mahabalipuram.
With this it was time to move on the next hidden gem, Pondicherry!
Pondicherry is a convenient 3-4 hours drive from Chennai. The route along the ECR makes even the drive worthwhile. After relaxing for a bit, it was time to enjoy nature’s bounty. The Botanical Garden has an eclectic collection of different & exotic species of plants and trees all nestled beautifully between flower beds and fountains. With abundant shade, a peaceful ambiance and a green cover as far as the eye can see, the garden is a great place to relax and unwind.
As the evening approached, it was time to enjoy the famed French Quarter and the promenade along the beach. This part of the town is a totally different world. It seems like you have traveled to Medieval Europe in a matter of minutes. The promenade is bustling with activity every evening. It is no less than an extravaganza. From dance performances to music melodies, from art exhibits to food fests, there is no dearth of options for you to explore. One can enjoy all the different flavors of Pondicherry in what seems like an evening festival conducted daily. In case you are one of the serene and peaceful kinds, you can walk along the promenade enjoying the sea and cafes and restaurant in the French colony. All this accompanied with a pleasant cool breeze to lift your spirits. Le Cafe, Villa Shanti and Farm Fresh are some of the places you can try.
The Aurobindo Ashram, Vinayagar temple and the Pondicherry museum are some other places one can visit within Pondicherry.
Next day, it was time to visit the much heard Auroville to register for my race. A good half an hour drive from Pondicherry, Auroville is a self sustaining community where different cultures and people from different parts of the world live in peaceful harmony. Auroville belongs to “humanity as a whole”.
There a lot of activities to do within Auroville. One can explore the different communities within Auroville, enjoy the art and cultural exhibits on offer, volunteer for programs, meet people from different parts of the world and enjoy the wonderfully maintained coalescence between nature and architecture.
One must visit the Matrimandir situated in a large open green space at the very center of Auroville. Although termed as a mandir, the Matrimandir does not lay emphasis on any religion. Surrounded by twelve gardens, the Matrimandir is a large golden sphere which appears as if it is emerging from the ground. As you enter the Matrimandir, you are led by a spiral pathway towards the Inner Chamber.
The Inner Chamber in the upper hemisphere of the Matrimandir is completely white, with white marble walls and white carpeting. In the centre of the Inner Chamber, sits a pure crystal-glass globe. Electronically guided sunlight falls on this globe through an opening in the sphere radiating natural light in the Inner Chamber. There is absolute silence within the Chamber and it is great place to just sit, enjoy the peace and meditate for a while. You can experience no greater peace than within the Inner Chamber of the Matrimandir.
Right below the Matrimandir, is the beautifully shaped Lotus pond where only sound of the flowing water can be heard.
I was awed by the beauty and the community that Auroville represents. A single isn’t enough to explore all of Auroville, so I would recommend at least a week’s stay to enjoy all that Auroville has to offer.
With this, it was time to say goodbye to these two hidden gems of Southern India and I would highly recommend the readers to visit these places.