An eventful few months had me keenly seeking the comfort of the sands and waves.The search for a quiet beach property near an airport brought up Taj Vivanta at Fisherman’s Cove, Covelong Beach. It reminded me of the glowing description I had heard from a friend many years ago. Though I was skeptical as to how pristine the location would still be, it was time to fulfil the promise to myself from twenty years back. A recent death in the immediate family had once again driven home the need to live life in the present, and not postpone one’s dreams to that elusive, imagined, convenient ‘tomorrow’.
Only 32 km away from Chennai airport, the resort service and the Bay View restaurant are as one would expect of a Vivanta property. But the winner is the beach. The 1.5 km stretch maintained by Taj is secluded and clean. The cove is practically private, except for the occasional fishermen wandering by as they go about casting their nets, and a handful of surfers from the surfing school next door.
It is astonishing how different water bodies demonstrate completely different characteristics. I spent the first few days connecting with the energies of the Bay of Bengal. The sudden depths, speedy, powerful waves and the smooth, gentle sands here were interesting to befriend.
After a couple of days of rest, we felt ready to explore Mamallapuram(also known as Mahabalipuram), about 25 km away. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Group of Monuments here make for a half day sightseeing visit. Tourists to Chennai often include it as a stop on their way to Pondicherry, Auroville or Thiruvanamallai. Call Fast Track cabs (6000 6000) and ask for their 6 hour or longer packages if you wish to explore around. (A bird sanctuary, a crocodile farm and Dakshinachitra are all in the vicinity, but we did not visit these.)
Mahabalipuram is growing in popularity with the backpackers. There is an Intercontinental, a Radisson, as well as plenty of budget resorts all the way along this ECR stretch, and cheaper lodging in the town. Tibetan shops with their predictable trinkets, sea-food restaurants, economical clothing, etc. are plentiful. Mahabalipuram itself is a small town and the historical monuments are all quite close to each other. There is a small fee for entry and the properties are fenced and clean. Anyone interested in art, architecture, or history would enjoy the visit.
We began with the ‘Butterball’. Phenomenal place offered some interesting speculation around the mysterious, massive spherical stone balanced precariously on a small hill. Moving on to the adjoining ‘Arjuna’s Penance/Descent of the Ganges’ bas relief, it is the elephants here that really captured our attention. The rock has been made to look smooth and soft, giving them a gentle, realistic feel. It is no wonder that this image adorns the cover of one of the book editions of: “The Treasures of Art: The World Heritage Sites of UNESCO”. A few minutes drive away, are the ‘Five Rathas’. Here, we hired a guide for a small fee, and he provided an interesting commentary on these monolithic, carved structures. To have cut these out from solid rock in the 7th century, would have been no easy feat. That accomplishment in itself leaves you in awe of the monuments. According to the guide, these monuments seem to draw in far more foreign visitors than Indians. Perhaps Indians are so routinely exposed to intricate stone carvings, temples and other art and architecture, that we now tend to take the dedication, skill and patience required for such extraordinary craftsmanship for granted.
Our last stop was at the most famous of the Mahabalipuram monuments, the Stone Shore Temple. The guide here insisted that we would require a minimum of 45 minutes to explore the location. This is supposed to be one of a legendary seven temples, the others having been long submerged by the Bay of Bengal. Rumour has it that the 2004 tsunami exposed the tops of two of these for a brief twenty minutes before the waters covered them again. Some relics and archaeological remains were discovered after the tsunami, and the legend of the ‘Seven Pagodas’ may bear some truth in it. The place has an interesting vibe and God only knows how many secrets the sea still holds.
For me, this trip provided a perfect balance between rest, exploration, rumination and assimilation. There is plenty on offer in terms of natural, historical and spiritual interest to draw in more visitors and yet these sites seem to receive far less attention than other parts of the country. So if you too are looking for a short, interesting and yet rejuvenating break, chalk down Covelong beach and Mahabalipuram as probables.