Mamallapuram Shore temple on the beach, South India

Destination - Tamil Nadu, South India

Mahabalipuram and Pondicherry

Most of us will fly in to Tamil Nadu's capital, Chennai. Formerly known as Madras, this city is the fourth largest in India and the home to the massive Tamil film industry that churns out movies with machine gun speed. The city is vibrant and congested hence encouraging us to begin our adventure 55kms south along the coast in a quiet fishing town called Mahabalipuram.

Arjunas penance in Mahabalipuram South India

Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram)

Our first stop is the small seaside town of Mahabalipuram, the port for the Pallava kings in the 5th to 8th centuries. Along the shore lies a stunning series of temples and sculptures, carved from the living rock 1,200 years ago. Unlike many Hindu temples, the rocks show scenes of everyday life. The stunning Shore Temple, set at the edge of the waves features an altar to the god Siva that is lit by the rising and setting sun. Mahabalipuram has become a center for stone carvers, and hundreds ply their trade in the streets and alleys of the old town. Our luxury hotel sits on the shore of the Bay of Bengal, a short walk from the temples.

Images of Mahabalipuram in South India, Tamil nadu
Girl riding a bicycle in Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu

Pondicherry (Puducherry)

Settled by the French in the 18th century, Pondicherry retains a quiet colonial atmosphere with wide shady streets lined with colorful stucco houses. The long promenade along the shore is a popular place for afternoon and evening strolling. An ongoing French presence in the town means that many local dishes are subtly fused with French ingredients and techniques. Baguettes and croissants are served for breakfast! We'll visit a renowned purveyor of Indian sweets and learn the highly-evolved art of indian sweet making. Pondicherry also offers uncommonly good shopping with a branch of the popular Indian chain Fabindia selling inexpensive, beautifully designed clothes made using traditional techniques. A district of antique and junk stores on the outskirts of town offers a dizzying array of objects.

MArk working on ola leaf project

Manuscript Project

Over the past few years, one of your guides, Markley Boyer, along with Kauai's Hindu Monastery has helped to set up an ambitious project to digitize palm leaf manuscripts in the collection of the French Institute in Pondicherry. The Institute owns a priceless collection of around 8000 palm leaf bundles that was assembled in the mid-20th century but that was beginning to deteriorate beyond saving. Palm leaf bundles have been used for thousands of years to record sacred texts. Traditionally, the manuscripts needed to be recopied roughly every 100 years, since the natural palm leaves begin to dry out and are attacked by insects.

ola leaf project in pondicherry mark with ola leaf project pondicherry

The bundles at the French Institute were beginning to decay to the point of being unreadable. A few years ago Kauai's Hindu Monastery began to collaborate with the Institute to preserve them. Markley Boyer helped to build software and hardware systems to digitize the palm leafs with a simple digital camera and copy stand built from PVC plumbing supplies and plastic street lamps! The system has been used to take about 775,000 photos over the last 2 1/2 years and archive them as PDFs that will soon be available online for scholars, preserving this priceless knowledge.

Back to the top Arjuna's Penance rock carving in Mamallapuram Tamil Nadu (Mahabalipuram)