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By Irene Butler
For Travel Writers' Tales

A small herd of goats has the best view. Each evening they assemble at the top of the 12-metre high bas relief that forms the backdrop to this outdoor stage. The sculptured form of Shiva, a powerful Hindu deity, peers down from near the middle of the relief's 30-metre width, seemingly amused at the humans twirling to the rhythm of drums and melody of ancient wooden horns.

From our stage-level seating we too are captivated. Vibrant orange and gold silk flutters with the exotic movements of winsome young women. Others dip and dive as they balance large clay pots on their heads. Most novel is a machismo display of agile men with bull-horn headdresses who leap into mid-air and butt heads with resounding cracks.

My husband Rick and I are among the spectators for the first three days of the annual National Dance Festival in Mamallapuram (aka Mahabalipuram), a village in India's southern state of Tamil Nadu. Beginning Christmas Day, and over the next four weeks 1000 classical and folk artistes entertain international visitors, as well as vacationing Indian families taking advantage of the school break.

With performances engaging our attention in the evenings, our days are spent exploring the village. Although a predominantly Hindu country, it's apparent that Yuletide is joyfully celebrated here. The hotels and markets are elaborately decked out with garlands, wreaths, lights strung on imitation pine trees, nativity scenes, and the occasional Santa.

Seeing the exquisite bas relief in the light of day is a must. It is known as Arjuna's Penance or Descent of the Ganges (depending on who you talk to). Our guide, Dharma, points out the key figure saying, "Arjuna is balanced on one leg with arms upraised in 'penance', which in the Hindu religion does not mean repentance, but rather a gaining of power over the gods." Arjuna's motive was to garner the sword from the towering figure of Shiva beside him, in order to kill his enemies. The second name of this relief, Descent of the Ganges stems from the huge furrow in the middle of rock that is believed to be where the god Shiva brought the holy river down to earth. Our imaginations soar as Dharma spins tales of the 100 sculptured forms surrounding the central figures, depicting lesser gods, humans, flying creatures, and animals-including two life-sized elephants.

It is then on to the temple ruins, which are within walking distance. En route I stop abruptly and gasp at the sight of a giant hilltop boulder that looks as if it might tumble any minute. Children are sitting tucked under the base for the shade it provides, while others gleefully slide down the hillside in line with the boulder.

"This is called Krishna's Butterball, and don't worry, several elephants were once used in an attempt to dislodge it, to no avail, it is immovable," Dharma says reassuringly. He then leads us to a spot where we can see the boulder's slight backward tilt; but regardless of physics' laws I would not entertain being beneath its gigantic looming bulk.

The Shore Temple is weathered by wind and sea, yet a remarkable amount of carvings remain, especially inside the shrines for Shiva and Vishnu. Its two pagoda-style towers are now protected from further erosion by a rock wall.

"Most of the rock-carved temples in Mamallapuram were completed in the 7th century, when this was a major port for the ruling Pallava dynasty," Dharma says, upon entering the next site-the Five Rathas. Lions and a life-sized elephant are regally poised to guard the entrance of these monolithic temples resembling chariots. Numerous deities, as well as scenes of everyday life, such as women weaving, young girls primping and pompous dignitaries are sculpted on the stone walls. We are awed by the preservation of these spectacular monuments, which were hidden in sand until excavated by the British 200 years ago.

Over a thousand years later, the tapping of hammer and chisel still goes on along the dusty streets of this village that is renowned for its stone carving. We stand riveted watching artisans chip granite blocks into animal forms and gods destined for temples around the world.

On our last evening Dharma, our hotel manager, along with their families surprise us with a farewell supper in the restaurant. The extraordinary sights, sounds and activities of this Holiday Season swirl through my mind, along with the good will and friendship of the people we have encountered during this memorable Mamallapuram Christmas.

If You Go:

Mamallapuram (pop. 12,000) is 58 km south of Chennai (formerly Madras). Numerous bus runs back and forth daily. The village was granted World Heritage Site status in 1985.

Photo credits: Rick Butler
1. Arjuna's Penance
2. Festival Dancers
3. Five Rathas
4. Krishna's Butterball
5. Stone Carvers

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