When I was a little kid, we lived for a few years in Chennai in southern India. Every year, for our school’s annual outing, we went to Mahabalipuram, a coastal town about 60 kilometers from Chennai. My most vivid memories of those trips are just being in awe of the sculptures, the big hunk of rock called the butter ball, the artists chiseling beautiful sculptures from huge blocks of rock and of course the awesome pistachio ice cream that was a much awaited treat at the end of a long summer day.
In the past several years, I have had multiple opportunities to return to this beautiful place. And while so much of India has changed, Mahabalipuram, much like the sculptures and temples it is famous for, strangely remains untouched with the passage of time.
Mahabalipuram, a group of temples and sanctuaries created by the Pallava dynasty in the 7th and 8th centuries is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. The shore temple set against the ocean is a sight to behold and the temples in the form of rathas (chariots) and mandapas (cave sanctuaries) carved with exquisite details including tales from the Mahabharata now remind me of another set of temples so dear to my heart…Angkor.
To appreciate all the wonders of this beautiful location, I would recommend getting an early start from Chennai (hiring a car or taking a tour bus) and spending the day there. This will not only give you the time to take in the temples and watch the sculptors in action, but also the ability to savor this oceanfront locale.
To learn more about Mahabalipuram, please click here.
“The Unusual Stories of Angkor Wat”, was the headline of a lesson in middle school. I distinctly remember the words sounding exotic and how quickly the teacher’s voice receded to the background as I transported myself to the jungles of Cambodia. The temples were built by King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century and became one with the jungle terrain for many decades, making an appearance in the modern world through the discovery made by French explorer Henri Mouhot. The lesson was finished 45 minutes later, but not before creating in my mind a magical, mythical sounding place where the Hindu and Buddhist stories of my youth merged with exotic palaces and tough jungles.
Having never set foot outside my native India, I made a promise to myself. If I ever got out of India, Angkor would be the ultimate destination for me. I read up everything on Angkor. My father made multiple trips and came back with stories and my resolve grew stronger. Matt Lauer traveled to Angkor and if he could, I certainly had to!
So, finally I decided that a birthday trip to Angkor with the family would be the ultimate gift for me. As we boarded the plane from Bangkok, my kids and husband kept reminding me that my dream was coming true. If my heartbeat were any faster, my heart would have popped out. Landing in Siem Reap, I could not believe that we had to drop our luggage off at the hotel. Surely I did not come this far to see a hotel.
And then before we knew it, we were driving into the heart of this temple complex. Just looking at the moat surrounding the temple area and then looking at the complex was so incredibly moving, the thought that a dream conceived so many years ago was coming true, the happiness, the ecstasy, the joy….whatever I felt at that moment was so overpowering…it was one of the most precious moments in my life, a moment where I felt that anything you dream, no matter how big is possible.
I took small steps towards the complex, every detail had to sink in. Memories of a class long ago, articles read for many years, and TV programs covering the site all converged in my mind. I was here, I was literally walking past the snakes, the statues of the asuras and devas churning the ocean. A few minutes later, we were in front of a relief of one of the most famous epics in Hinduism, the Mahabharata. We were looking for every story hidden in the scene. Bheeshma lying on a bed of arrows, Ekalavya giving his thumb to Drona…the list could go on forever.
The next few days, were spent exploring the various aspects of the temple complex. The famous smiling face of the Bayon, the Banyon trees embracing the temples at Ta Prohm, the elephant ride up to the terrace to watch the sun set over the temples, each image as memorable as the next, building a kaleidoscope of memories that would stay with me forever.
Magical, Beautiful, Miraculous…What would be the words I would use to remember this trip? I did not have to choose an answer. It came to me at Ta Prohm. As the kids were running around, an old lady who was cleaning up approached my husband and me and gave us a smile . She then stretched out her hand. We thought she was asking us for money, but instead, she pressed something onto my husband’s palm. A bit taken aback, I stared at my husband as he opened his palm. Sitting there was an idol of Ganesha, the Indian God of good fortune and the remover of all obstacles. There were no Ganeshas that we had seen during our trip, no idols for sale, and yet in the middle of nowhere, a woman had given us an idol of my most preferred deity. Recovering from the surprise and shock, we looked up to thank the woman, but she was gone. We walked around the complex and she was nowhere in sight.
The fact that I had made it to Angkor was miracle enough, but I had experienced the ultimate miracle in that moment at Ta Prohm.