Apparently Mahabalipuram is one of the biggest temple complexes in the world, and I have to say, it was all kinds of interesting.
We walked up to the Shore Temple to pay the entrance fee when an Indian man came up to us and offered to be our guide for seven different sites. His name was Ali, he was 65, his breath smelled like alcohol, he could speak nine languages, couldn't read or write, said his parents died when he was young so he never went to school, so he picked the languages up from talking to tourists, and his knowledge of the temples was profound.
Ali explained there was a giant tsunami in the 8th Century and many of the temples are still under the sea as a result. In fact, no one had seen them for centuries until the tsunami of 2004 when the tide moved out so far that, not only did they all become visible again, the incoming tide brought missing chunks of ancient, carved statues and shrines to the shore, relics which are now on display at the temple.
We then went to the Five Rathas. Each of the temples was dedicated to a Hindu god, and is now named after the Pandavas – five hero brothers from the epic Mahabharata who shared one wife, Draupadi (find the story here and here). It's way more complicated than this, but basically there was a contest for Draupadi's hand in marriage, Arjuna's mother had forbidden him to enter, but he did anyway, vowing to never disobey his mother again if he won.
There's a longer tale of strength and triumph in the full version, but the in short version (spoilers!) he won. Arjuna got home and said something like 'look what I brought', and his mother told him to share whatever he won with his brothers so, staying true to his vow, he did. The five of them all accepted her as their wife, and they lived that way forever.
Me: "Was she happy about that?"
Ali: "She was married, of course she was happy!"
Though they look like buildings, they were actually all carved from single rocks in the 7th Century, with makeshift cement so strong it survived two natural disasters, and still stands today. The detail in the carvings is really incredible – if you ever have the option of going to Mahabalipuram, it's definitely worth a visit.
We were pretty happy with Ali as a guide, until he took us to his son's shop. Turns out his son is actually a very talented sculptor, and carves elephants, lamps, oil burners and things out of marble. We were, of course, obliged to buy things, which is where things got tense. Indian shopkeepers tend to see tourists as walking dollar signs.
I completely understand why, the dollar is a great deal more valuable than the rupee, but it's the value of each currency in it's designated country that should be noted, and it's just not. After S tried to tell me all Australians are rich in our bus conversation to Mahabalipuram, I explained that one meal in Australia cost the equivalent of 1,000INR (18.40AUD), and she involuntarily whispered, 'Wow'.
Lunch in India is around 100INR (1.80AUD).
In Ali's sons shop, we were told to 'pick anything, we will give you good a price', so picked out a small, carved elephant, and a painting, and were quoted more than 3,000INR.
Saying we couldn't afford it didn't go down too well.
At the end of the day, the items were worth the asking price, and we figured if we couldn't pay the amount deserved, we just wouldn't buy anything. We explained that we didn't want to cheat them out of anything, we even offered just to buy one thing, but they wouldn't let us leave without both items. They reluctantly lowered the cost until it was at 500INR, and we finally agreed.
Ali was bitter after that. I actually think he ended the tour early. If you ever go, make sure you say 'no shopping' beforehand.
That evening there was a dance festival on near the temple, so we went along to see what it was all about. When we arrived, there was a group of about six teenage girls dressed up in traditional Indian dance attire, headpieces and all, dancing to 37-minute long Indian compositions detailing different Hindu tales about the gods Shiva and Vishnu.
If nothing else, it was fascinating because we kept comparing it to our high school dance performances where a bunch of 14-year-olds put on some hot pants, crop tops and bright blue mascara and jumped around to Britney Spears for five-minutes. These girls had clearly been training for years. It was incredible to watch.
Almost everyone I talk to here can speak at least four languages, and studied some kind of engineering. They're incredibly focused, intelligent, and goal oriented, it's been really eye opening. They usually introduce themselves with "Hello, I'm ... , my job is ..., my father's job is..., what is your job?" – it's a big thing. Most people I know can speak English and maybe a bit of something else, in India they're all over it. I feel like I should do more. It's kind of embarrassing to say we only speak English.