After exhausting the sights of Chennai, Howard and I finally boarded the bus south to the temple beach town of Mamallapuram (previously known as Mahabalipuram, another name change in a land that is confusing enough without dithering about what to call things). Mamallapuram is best known for its rock temples and pretty little beach, but these days it's as popular for its travellers' scene as anything else.
The bus was incredibly packed. I had a little kid sitting on my feet (and eventually falling asleep there) while I hung onto a handrail for dear life. Luckily it was a short one-and-a-half hour journey, and the clean sea breeze of Mamallapuram was heaven as we stumbled out of the bus. We found ourselves a nice cheap hotel, and sauntered off to see the World Heritage Shore Temple on the beach.
The Shore Temple is another quite beautiful example of intricate rock carving, and even though most of the detail has been sandblasted away by the coastal weather, it manages to retain an air of mystery, even when coach loads of Indian tourists are scrambling over the walls and picnicking under the signs declaring, 'It is forbidden to bring eatables into this site.' Dating from the Pallava period of the late seventh century, it's a highly photogenic place, as long as you don't take any shots looking south down the beach, where a huge nuclear power station churns out goodness knows what into the Bay of Bengal. Unsurprisingly I chose not to go swimming in Mamallapuram, lest I be bitten by a gently glowing three-headed tuna with a PhD in Astrophysics.
Tucked away behind the town, away from the beach, is the most wonderful collection of rock-hewn caves and stand-alone temples. Palm trees soar from cracks in the huge boulders that are strewn around the area, and wandering round in the blistering heat, you come across inviting shrines with their cool interiors, huge spires denoting ancient places of worship, and mounds of steps cut into the rock. The temples are quite beautiful and are wonderful examples of Hindu rock art, and they're uniquely different to the temples I've already seen in Konark and Hyderabad.
But sights aside, Mamallapuram feels like it's been positively designed for relaxation. Beer is relatively expensive, but it's still affordable; we couldn't resist trying the Marco Polo Beer, which at 8.75 per cent is one of the strongest available in India, and which comes complete with the warning 'Liquor ruins country, family, life' emblazoned on the label (surprisingly, it didn't say, 'Liquor ruins country, family, life and the whole of the next day,' though it probably should have done). The seafood is glorious and some of the safest in India, having been irradiated even before it's caught. And on returning to our hotel at some god-awful hour, we came across a huge family gathering – argument or party, we couldn't tell which – and ended up in conversation with this astoundingly stoned old Indian, whose eyes bled red and whose sentences weren't remotely in the right order. It would have freaked me out if I hadn't myself been struggling through a haze of country, family and life, and that night, drifting off to the sounds of Indian insanity down the corridor, I thought to myself once again, 'This is India!'
And with the Rose Garden Restaurant offering a Breake Fast of Scrumbled Egg on bread, of which you could have one slice, two silces or three sileces, I felt right at home in sunny Mamallapuram.