Exploring Tamil Nadu: Mahabalipuram

We’ve to explore more about getting to Mahabalipuram than the place itself. We start off post-lunch from Karaikudi, wishing we had a better meal. We skip the palace visits and more to make good time, and luckily within a few kilometres, we hit the actual highway. And by that I mean the 4-lane / 6-lane roads with proper dividers that we’re accustomed to in Tamil Nadu.

Except this is a major road that connect Trichy and Chennai, and honestly, it feels like driving in a main road of a city sometimes. Bikes, cars, bullock carts and more make home on the highway.

It is getting to be dusk by the time we go past the Tiruchirapally and my hope that traffic will drop past this is shattered. Infact, it seems to grow more, as bikers begin to head home or wherever else after work. I’m personally a little wary of the bikers on Tamil Nadu roads. They wear no helmets or other safety gear, and tend to veer suddenly onto the highway. Bikers and the green government buses. Stuff of nightmares. I’m edging into red frustration zone since I cannot go past 60 kmph and we still quite a bit of distance.

So we decide to take yet another gamble and go into the small roads that hopefully should connect to Mahabalipuram. Basically, we try to one-up Google. It doesn’t really work by much and we reach our destination at 15 minutes before Google predicted. It is dark, and we head straight to the hotel we’d booked on the highway.

It is peak tourist season and most places are either sold out or super expensive. Since we’re practically there only to sleep, we’ve chosen a hotel that seemed decent, had parking and was close to the beach.

Of course, the hotel is nothing like their photographs but we are tired and cranky and not too inclined to go and hunt another place.

Mahabalipuram has been one of my favourite beach towns for years. It was the easiest to get-to beach town.

When I first visited it (way back in 2009 I think), it was a quaint little town whose primary loves were the temple and stone carving. There was just ONE big hotel on the Main Street, which could accommodate car parking.

Somewhere down the line, it became really popular for surfing. And more tourists started pouring in. The shops boomed. Every time I visited after that, there were so many more changes, and not just in the attitude of people.

The most drastic change was on this visit. The Main Street felt like a walk down a serious tourist town. Moonrakers, which used to be a single restaurant, known for their calamari masala, now owns multiple buildings. They have a parking lot for the customers – addressing a core need in the area. There are similar restaurants who compete with Moonrakers for business, my favourite being Gecko.

Alcohol is a controversial subject in Tamil Nadu. The government controls the distribution and sales of alcohol in the region, through TASMAC shops. We saw these throughout our journey – little shops located in the middle of an empty field, and a crowd of vehicles around it. The rigid control has also given rise to spurious alcohol, and we’ve had instances of crazy highs with beer as well.

Moonrakers doesn’t have a license to serve beer, despite its legacy. But they do serve beer, like all other places in the region. The beer is served in tall steel glasses which in other parts of the country typically hold lassi. The beer is strong, and not for the weak hearted, and mostly of brands that you’d never hear of outside the state.

We pick up some food from Moonrakers and head back to the room, intending to chill out. The room isn’t really designed for chilling out, with a tall bed and broken chairs. Oh well, its just to sleep.

The resort looks more dreary in daylight, if that was possible. Breakfast is supposedly served in the ‘poolside restaurant’. The restaurant staff hammers on our door till we surrender and head for breakfast, which consists of some eggs, idlis and toast. Ugh.

What we’re really craving is lobsters. Mahabalipuram is famous for its shelled seafood! Except the prices of the lobsters go higher each year and the size gets smaller.

Santana’s has been one of the most popular places for lobsters. The place has been redecorated to keep up with the competition, but you still have to climb two floors to get to restaurant above the rooms.

You really get a sense of what the little town is now from that vantage point. Right below us is Mumu’s Surfing School – one of the earliest surfing schools in the region. I’d met the guy behind it when I was there a few years earlier, and it was nice to see the formalised school with a big office.

There were more shacks on the beach now. And more fishing boats that seemed to cater to tourists as well. I remember trying to get a fisherman to take us out on the open sea for some photos a few years ago and nobody would even bother. Now, the price might be steep but you can get out there.

Tourism has also eroded a significant part of the town’s soul. Stone Carving, which was a popular art in the city, now has fewer takers. The art itself is more expensive, and many traditions are lost.

I’m not really going to delve into the ecological impact of tourism here, which is a whole post by itself. But you see the beach much dirtier, littered with plastic bags, toothbrushes, bottles and whatnots.

Back to the vacation, we head out after a great lunch of lobsters and tiger prawns to finish up the trip with some shopping at Kanchipuram!

Explore the journey before this:

Madurai
Rameshwaram
Dhanushkodi
Karaikudi

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