Widening Horizons: Chennai, India Programme
Wednesday 19th August 2015
An early start marked the first full day of cultural excursions and a welcome respite from a diet of lectures. We spent the day touring the spiritual and cultural marvels of Tamil Nadu from the Shore temple complex (or Seeshoree temple according to the local guide) to the Cave Temples of Mahabalipuram. We also had a brief intermission at Dakshinachitra, which entailed a little coffee break, some shopping and a quick nose around.
Dakshinachitra is a vibrant cultural heritage museum located just a few miles outside Chennai. The museum was filled with all manner of picturesque recreations representing traditional Indian households. Matt remarked on the architectural style saying how it reminded him of Greco-Roman architecture because the prevalence of structural columns. I thought the doors would not look out of place in the forbidden city of Ancient China. Upon entering, we encountered a wide variety of stalls sporting beautifully handcrafted jewellery, art pieces, sculptures and paintings. I spent a very entertaining ten minutes haggling with a local merchant over the price of a pearl bracelet and a pair of earrings. Needless to say, I left the museum feeling very satisfied after obtaining a markedly discounted price.
We finally arrived at Mahabalipuram, a small village town overlooking the Bay of Bengal, home to the famous shore and cave temples. We were led on a tour by a local guide, a remarkably amiable, highly informative (albeit rarely intelligible) and uncommonly chivalrous man who would not hesitate to lend a helping hand (or two) to aid a student in need. He was also filled with very wise aphorisms such as ‘Time is Gold’.
We explored the area for the remainder of the day before heading back to Chennai. Ancient Indian civilisations appeared to have an unprecedented (at least by me) degree of technical sophistication, particularly in the construction of temple structures or the sculpting of statues. I was very impressed; as I’m sure others were, by the level of detail inherent in the temple designs. Despite begin informed that the temples were constructed around the 6, 7 or 8 century, I did not get an impression of age but rather a sense of timelessness as if the temples were impervious to its normal ebb and flow. This might be a result of my inability to wrap my head around such a great expanse of time or perhaps I was fooled by how well preserved they were in spite of aeons spent battling the elements.
Although the temple visits were a good experience overall, I felt it was slightly marred by the number of times we were accosted by beggars or sellers seeking to extort money from tourists. However, I was mostly amused by their efforts and even found their entrepreneurial nature oddly admirable in a sense. I love how connected and informed Indian’s are with their rich cultural history and how seamlessly it is interwoven into the fabric of everyday life. This is especially evident at temples, which function primarily as sacred places of worship as well as places of business, leisure or family outings. It is reminiscent of the way in which Edinburgh city developed around Edinburgh castle and how seamlessly integrated they are modern day.
Elson Musenga, first year medic on his first trip to India.