During the 700 - 800AD period, southern India was a powerhouse of wealth and culture. At Mahabalipuram a training school for sculptors was built. They worked in granite, one of the hardest materials to cut. I suspect that they were inspired by the huge boulders Mother Nature dropped here and there. A huge temple was cut into the rock, featuring elaborately carved columns. Near it a huge bas relief depicted a scene from Hindu mythology, with hundreds of celestial, human and animal figures. They are portrayed in such an animated way, they look like they are about to leap off the rock. In another area various experimental buildings were carved down into the granite. It was hard to imagine how the carvers could plan ahead as they chipped forty feet into the ground. The last building on the grounds we visited had giant carved pieces piled on top of each other like a wedding cake. No one knows how they got there. After the 2004 tsunami, more temples were briefly unveiled as the waves pulled back the sand and revealed their presence. Japanese divers are working here now, trying to uncover more. Stone carvers are still hard at work in the area, producing product for new temples that are being built. The work is very dusty and few wear masks. Not a good way to have a long life.
When we drive along the highway, our guide brings us to a stop every so often when he sees something he thinks would interest us. We stopped for a group of ladies bent over transplanting rice seedlings. Their husbands sat on the banks of the paddy and watched. Then we stopped at a salt field where sea water had been evaporated. The remaining salt was in huge piles that were scooped into baskets and carried on the heads of women to fill plastic bags. Our guide said each basket weighted about 60 pounds. The men stood around and watched the women work here, too. Perhaps they were the ones to lift the plastic bags into a truck after we left, but I was reminded that you are much better off being a man in India.
We are spending the night in Pondicherry, which was a French colony even after the British left India. The French part of town was dramatically clean, well organized and well maintained. Traffic was light and hardly anyone blew their horn. A large part of the French side is owned by an ashram. We walked through it, but there was little to see but people sitting around - meditating? - and we were not allowed to speak while we were inside. The beach was a lot more interesting where vendors were selling snacks and people had gathered to watch the big waves crash ashore. Another sign of the French influence here is the wine shops, selling wine produced in this region as well as the cooler north. It's hard to believe that there are wine grapes that flourish here in this head and humidity, so we didn't think to buy any. But perhaps we can get a sip from our fellow travelers.
We knew when we were on the Indian side of town by the dirt, chaos, horn blowing and crowds. When it comes to all the garbage laying around, our guide is beside himself. Why is the French side of town tidy? Why do Indians have immaculate homes and feel free to throw whatever wherever once they get outside? We can tell that the condition of some of the toilets embarrass him, too, but he is good at taking us to rest stops that are at least mediocre in cleanliness and smell.