I was in Chennai last week to attend an Iyer wedding and meet a friend. Just after the wedding, we drove me out of Chennai along the coast towards Pondicherry. She wanted to take me to her favourite little place in Mahabalipuram also known as Mamallapuram- a historic port town built in the 7th century by the Pallava dynasty. Her favourite thing is to drive faraway from Chennai and explore the coast and the little by-lanes, the little artist communities & little resorts etc. The drive was beautiful. The Bay of Bengal on our left. Beautiful blue waters. The recent tsunami in Japan brought back memories of the Tsunami in 2004 along the Tamil Nadu coast. The beaches, though clear were speckled with thickets of casuarina trees that act as a bio shield from the impact of water in case of tsunamis and cyclones.
We reached her favorite restaurant in an hours time. Moonrakers- an extremely popular joint that still manages to be a well kept secret. Featured as a place 'to must-eat at' in the Lonely Planet, this is a traveler's haven. We were lucky to be there on a weekday afternoon as gets super crowded on the weekends. The place reminded me of Goan shacks. The friendly waiter in striking pink clothing got us the catch of the day. We selected a red snapper to be cooked with Chettinad masala. This particular red snapper was a deep sea catch and hence very fleshy. It was brought in early that very morning. The eyes were clear and there was no smell. My expert fish sensibilities were satisfied and I was ready to be wooed by Moonrakers. We also ordered a side of garlic, butter prawns. Oh yes. And masala calamari. As I think of this meal right now, my mouth waters and I would give anything to go back there again.
The food came quickly. It more than lived up to my expectations. The fish was a delight. Slathered with fiery and tangy Chettinad masala with bits of fried curry leaves and mustard. A dash of lemon made the perfect finish to this brilliant preparation. I was seduced by this massively beautiful fish. We worked our way systematically on one side and then flipped it over to the other side. It was a hot day.
The butter prawns and calamari were lovely as well. You really can't go wrong with these two seafood creatures. Yes. Two best friends, great fish, perfect location and super conversation. No reservations.
The drive from Chennai to Mamallapuram
Reminiscent of Goa
The famous Moonrakers
Red Snapper from the deep sea
Masala on the scales.
My plate wiped clean
This is the life!
Post this fantastic meal, we went further down the coast to see the beautiful Mahabalipuram temple. This little temple on the edge of the water took my breath away. Carved out of a single piece of stone, it stood like a chariot for the gods along the water. It has two pagodas, one large and one small. The periphery wall is made of stone sculptures of Nandi cow replicated over and over. Trace carving of decorative elements still exist. The walk is circum-ambulatory, enter the temple in one corner and walk within layers of the temple walls. The walls are stunning with years of pock marks of erosion from the waves. The sculptures have smoothed over the years losing their detail and becoming more like organic shapes made of stone. Two little rooms within the walls, one with a reclining Shiva and the larger room with a beautiful Shiv Ling. The inner temple walls are two long 100ft walls that have beautiful relief work showcasing the skill of the years gone by. the sunlight hardly penetrating, illuminating beautifully carved statues along the wall. Standing in this narrow corridor staring down the length, the cavernous space instills a sense of wonder and mystique. This was a stunning piece of architecture and granted there are probably more beautiful temples in the south, this space had magic of surviving years of the waves, storms, cyclones, tsunamis. I read that there were once 7 temples of which all have sunk except this. But for how long?
On our drive back to Chennai, we took a break to see the beautiful property of the Vivanta by Taj, Fishermen's Cove. This gorgeous Taj property had several little cottages with shell like copper roofs with hammocks surrounded with meandering gardens with paths leading to the spectacular beach. We sat here and rested and took it all in. The serene day- perfection. I am definitely coming back for more. A trip to Pondicherry is a must.
A quick sketch, capturing the essence of Mahabalipuram.
Dear Tamil Nadu,
I am so not done with you. Your food, architecture, temples, and landscape have really enticed me. I'll definitely be back.
Lots of Love