05 Mar 2017 14:47 IST

In a kingdom by the sea

Driving along the coast one morning, the mind many centuries away

When we were kids going to school in Chennai, our annual picnic was almost always to Mahabalipuram. Mamallapuram, as we prefer to call it today, after the famous seventh century Pallava king Narasimhavarman I who was known as Mamallan, the wrestler. In between, we probably went there on picnics with the family at least once, if not twice a year, usually with visitors. Each time was as memorable as the last, and we always awaited the next trip with anticipation. The best part was the journey to and back — dry on the way to, and drying off on the way back.

Then, Mahabalipuram fell off our map. A friend built a house in Injambakkam, slowly the East Coast Road grew busy with traffic, and journeys in the direction of Mahabalipuram were cut short.

In Chennai, Elliots Beach took on new life, providing an alternative recreational space to time-honoured Marina. Schmidt Memorial no longer stood “lonely as a cloud” overlooking silent yellow-white sands and the odd brick shack. The young embraced it as their own, and in a few years, it was colonised by walkers, talkers and hawkers. And of course, bikers showing off their wheels. Old residents sold off their properties overlooking the sea, and adventurers opened cafes and clothing stores in praise of commerce.

Even so, the sea remains its grand self. At high noon, for instance, when only fools like me will venture to go to the beach, it dazzles with the beauty of its blueness. Turquoise, copper sulphate, sapphire, powder… right down to shades of grey. Often, it’s hard to tell where sea ends and sky begins.

What it is about the sight of the sea that is so stirring? Its vastness? Its mystery? Its constancy? The sound of waves lapping on the shore, retreating, returning? It’s uplifting, each glimpse as if it were the first.

That’s why a drive on the ECR is such joy. The road is terrific. Of course, the shorescape has changed. Where once you saw only swathes of sand and beyond that the glistening sea, with occasional casuarina groves and coconut and palm trees along the way, now, longer and deeper stretches have grown brick and mortar that block the view. Don’t be blinded, though. Smell the air. That special fragrance carried by the wind blowing from the water over the sand and through the trees. It’s a fragrance that no one has quite been able to bottle.

I smelt it recently on a road trip to a school in Cuddalore. It was a three-hour drive. Smooth, but populated with fellow travellers. People going to work. Busloads about their business. Children finding their way to school, sleepyheads and shiny faces. Saltpans dotted with piles of little white hillocks. Clusters of huts. Eateries serving life-saving idlis and hot coffee, strong or watered down, syrupy sweet.

Idlis got me thinking about, well, idlis. It surely is the god of food in Tamil Nadu, if not in all of South India, and I blessed the soul who discovered it. Pure genius! Of course, it took some of the wind out of my sails upon discovering that the ubiquitous idli is not India’s seminal contribution to the gastronomical galaxy. It appears it came from Indonesia which, we’re told, has a long history of engagement with fermentation. (As you know, idli batter has to ferment for a while before it can steam up the fluffy delight.) There’s a bit of thrust and parry with the suggestion that it could have originated in Karnataka (Tamil Nadu is willing to concede this one for the greater common cause) because Kannada literature refers to something called iddalige. But the experts slap our hopes away: none of the ingredients matches, they hiss. Sangam literature talks about the dosa, comes a smug voice from Tamil Nadu. But a dosa is not an idli, is the retort from the other end of Brindavan Express.

Another theory propounds that it was all thanks to Arab traders who poured into India through Kerala. Hearty meat-eaters, they were fastidious about the authenticity of the meat: neither halaal nor haraam would they tolerate. So they settled for a safe out: they took to making flattened rice balls, saucing them up with a coconut concoction and hey, you could almost say you’d summitted the idli Everest. If it wasn’t the puttu battlefield. Well, we’ve certainly embraced it body, mind and soul.

With the stomach suitably assuaged, the mind goes back to childhood memories and history lessons. We know that Mahabalipuram was a very busy trading outpost, seeing as it was a key seaport on the east coast. The other two important seaports, apparently, were Mylapore and Vasavasamudram (aboaut 18 km south of Mahabalipuram). Not surprisingly, many villages sprang up around this port-city; after all, human beings have always gone after opportunity, and powers-that-be always dangle carrots even as they hang a sword. That’s why shop-keepers needed a licence to start a business, and they paid taxes. Breaking the law would likely invite unpalatable consequences, but doing the right thing meant you could flourish. The Pallavas worked on a plan to reclaim arid land, improve the soil, and cultivate. In this effort, they encouraged irrigation works on a large scale, and built many tanks to collect and store rain water.

They were adventurous too: they sent expeditions along many sea routes — to Java, Sumatra, Cambodia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, China, and Burma. They exported spices, cotton textiles, precious stones and medicinal plants. Some six hundred years of Pallava rule — between the third and the ninth centuries — saw terrific economic activity. But that’s not all. As writer William Dalrymple writes in Open magazine: “…Southern India was a massive and supremely confident exporter of its own civilisation in all its forms, and South East Asia was the willing and eager recipient of a startlingly comprehensive mass-transfer of South Indian soft power — in culture, religion, art, music, technology, astronomy, mythology, language and literature … Out of Mahabalipuram came not just artists, sculptors, traders, scientists, astronomers and the occasional fleets of warships, but also missionaries of three Indic forms of religion — Shaivite and Vaishnava Hinduism, and Buddhism.”

When we reached the bend on the ECR that leads away, on the left, to Mahabalipuram, the memory of clinking sounds came rushing back. The sound of chisel on granite is a sound that’s typically associated with this once-grand seaport, now home to some of the most brilliant monolithic stone sculptures the world has seen. Today, sculptors serve the tastes of visitors, but occasionally something will catch your eye.

That says something about us. What was Mamallapuram then? And what is it now? Where will we be a thousand years hence? Remembered for what? Will the five rathas and Krishna’s butter ball and Arujuna’s penance rub shoulders with the memorials to Annadurai, MGR and Jayalalithaa? Of course, nothing will remain of our airport since it’s already falling apart, but our sea port? What about trade relations with countries in South-East Asia?

Driving along the Marina on my way to work every day, I gaze upon the Bay of Bengal and take in the massive shadows of ships on the water. Several centuries ago, these same waters were bustling with the hither and thither of smaller but livelier crafts in a regular hustling-bustling theatre of life. Today, a motley group stands on the horizon, supposedly cleaning up an oil slick. I wonder what the Pallavas would have done.

Have you noticed how much time we spend on the road?