1 John 1:5
As we begin our Indian adventure each year Susan and I always wonder what new development there will be in Mahaballipuram. 2014 would be no different. The village of Mahab (as the locals call it) covers about 4 sq. kilometers and is located about an hour south of Chennai on the southeast coast of India. Driving south into town along the East Coast Road from Chennai, the landward side of the road is lined with stone carving shops turning out an endless supply of huge stone idols. Although I do not recognize all of them, many are massive figures of well-known Hindu gods. When I say massive, I am talking about granite figures 10 to 20 feet tall. Specially designed cranes must be used to lift the raw stones and the completed figures. The tapping of chisels and the whine of electric grinders is incessant. (click "read more" below-right to continue)
We are no longer shocked by the dirt and litter and the many pagan images along the road and painted on vehicles, but we hurt for the people and the hold it has on their lives. Looking for positive change, I notice that the major streets in Mahab have been resurfaced and striped. But immediately I wonder if I am the only one who did notice. There is no indication from the drivers or pedestrians that the stripes exist. And although the entire project has been done since our visit here only a year ago, the garbage is beginning to cover the lines edging the roads already. The people of Mahab don’t seem to see the trash or at least don’t care enough to do anything about it.
When we get to the business district we notice that the traffic light at the corner of East Raja St. and TKM Rd., which was installed in 2010, is still not operational. We turn West on TKM going past a city block of busy shops along both sides of the road including a plastic and stainless steel store we call “Walmart”, because it seems to have a little of everything. We have purchased many of our staples at this store over the years but shopping is a struggle, battling the oppressive heat of the interior, extremely close quarters, and the lack of “English spoken here”.
At the end of the block, for no apparent reason, TKM St. jogs a little to the north at the intersection with West Raja street. This irregularity in traffic patterns and the ever-present throng of passengers waiting for a bus in front of a crumbling old temple always seems to increase the sounds of honking horns and squealing brakes. Just past this intersection the road bends again around another small Hindu temple that seems oddly out of place. I seldom, if ever, see anyone there, but there it is, in the middle of the road, with pedestrians and motorists maneuvering around it. Not 50 yards beyond this temple we come to our destination, the gates of Achiever Academy and, across the street, the offices of Acts of Mercy. Mahab is an interesting place to locate the Christian ministry Acts of Mercy because it is a pilgrimage and tourist destination for Hindus due to the many Hindu sites of great historical significance here.
Behind the school is a entrance to a large historical park, which covers multiple acres. In this park are many temples that look more like caves which have been carved into the outcropping of granite that rises from the ground. Some of these temples date back to the 6th and 7th centuries. Beyond the park, past the bus depot, is yet another popular, well-used ancient Hindu temple that is somewhat obscured from view. Although we have never been inside, we understand that this temple houses a massive reclining stone idol, perhaps 40’ in length. Nearby, are signs advertising the Shore Temple, which is located right on the beach. Visitors pay a modest fee (which is significantly higher for foreign guests) and walk at least 100 yards from the entrance of the grounds to the temple itself, but the sights are well worth the walk and the heat. As you view this beautiful ancient monument, it is obvious that the salt air and pollution of the Indian coast have taken a toll on this granite structure. It is also obvious that the structure was/is elaborate and beautiful in construction. From my Christian perspective, I am also confused as to how the scowling figures carved into this temple can bring comfort to the Hindu faithful who come to visit and worship. A short distance away and also near the sea is another historic site of significance. “The Five Rajas” are 5 separate massive temple structures carved from the granite, faced with many figures of ancient Hindu gods. Although the 5 temples are separate and unique, they are located very close together. Your paid admission to the Shore Temple allows access to the Five Rajas as well, if your body can endure the heat and humidity long enough to visit both sites on the same day.
Large markets lay near both the Shore Temple and the Five Rajas, hoping to entice the many tourists and pilgrims which come to see these historic sites to purchase a token of their visit. The markets contain row upon row of booths filled with all sorts of souvenirs from plastic toys for the kids to clothing to the ever present stone carved idols. I wonder how many tourists have chosen a beautiful stone carving as a souvenir not knowing they were taking a Hindu god home with them.
Long before you make your way to any of the ancient temples you will become aware that the major industry of Mahab is idol-making. The many pilgrims and tourists that come to visit the ancient temples have also attracted a community of stone idol-carvers. What better place to ply your trade than in a city with so many Hindu sites and so many pilgrims coming to visit. Nearby universities even offer courses of study in the art of stone idol-carving. Throughout the city there are many shops, some elaborate and some simply lean-tos covered in woven panels of palm leaves to provide the carver some protection from the blazing sun. As we walk down the street from the business district to the beach, every third shop is a stone carver. No one can come to Mahab and not recognize the Hindu influence. The temples and idol-makers have been here for centuries and are here to stay.
Many things remain the same each year, such as the masses of people, the garbage along the streets, and the hoards of animals roaming freely. But each year we also look hard to identify changes that are an improvement for the people of this village. The first year I came to Mahab the street from the village center to the beach was a dirt road and dust covered our feet as we walked and swirled in the air as each vehicle passed. Our second year here, this street was paved, reducing a small bit of the dust and dirt in the city. My third year, we watched the installation of a traffic light at the main intersection. As of today, this light is still not functional, even though the number of vehicles and pedestrians passing through this intersection seem to grow each year. My fourth year, we watched the installation of water hydrants along the streets. These were platforms of concrete covered with marble slabs with a 3 foot tall mini-wall with a water spigot like we have on the side of our house in Texas. Although it seemed like a nice project, it was not until our last day here that we came to understand its significance. Early one morning, as we drove through back streets, we noticed people in the neighborhoods surrounding these faucets on the street, brushing teeth, washing hair and other personal hygiene. Later, we learned that many of the houses in Mahab do not have indoor plumbing and that, prior to these faucets being installed, most people had to walk several blocks to a central water tank and carry water home for all personal hygiene use. It was a significant wake-up call for us for although we, at times, consider that we are making personal sacrifices to serve in India, our accommodations are far more comfortable that the majority of homes in Mahab. Each year we truly feel that we get to know the people better but we are often amazed at what we take for granted. When we see our teachers each day impeccably clean and fresh as they greet us at school, it is hard to imagine what they must do (and do without) every day to accomplish this. The teachers are all tech-savvy and carry cell phones, but the modern features of the homes are more like what our grandparents (or even great-grandparents) might have been used to.
Last year we watched as a crew of both men and women installed what we thought was a sidewalk down TKM St. in front of the Acts of Mercy offices. Yards of concrete were mixed as women carried gravel and sand in pans on their heads to pour in a pile on the side of the road. Cement and water were added as men bent at the waist using short-handled hoes to mix the components. When properly mixed, the women carried the concrete in those same pans and dumped their contents into forms lining the open storm ditch along the side of the road. When the side walls had set, a concrete cover was poured and it seemed obvious to us that this smooth path was a perfect sidewalk which would allow the people a place to walk, away from the dangers and filth of the street.
As we arrive this year we find that although the sidewalk project has been extended to other areas of the village, the people of Mahab evidently do not feel the need for sidewalks. Cows seem to appreciate the smooth place to nap and many vendors have parked carts and motorcycles on the covered ditch, forcing people to continue to walk in the street, daring the endless stream of bikes, motorcycles, cars, trucks, and buses to hit them as they pass far too fast for this Texan’s comfort.
The more we think we understand, the more we are brought face to face with the realization that we do not really know, much less understand, the conditions these students and teachers face as they come each day to serve God at Achiever Academy.
Yet, in the middle of this confusing, harsh Hindu world, a candle burns. That candle is Achiever Academy, where every morning, children from this and surrounding villages gather under the awning in front of Achiever Academy and raise their voices singing songs of praise and offering prayers to Jesus, the son of the One True God. Achiever Academy is where teachers stay after school to spend time sharing Bible stories and singing songs of praise. They appreciate the gifts of devotions we bring and often ask questions about passages they read the previous evening. Yes in the midst of a community filled with the darkness of the Hindu faith, there are pockets of light, as Christ dwells in Mahab.
John reminds us in his Gospel “And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” John 1:5. The light may not yet be comprehended by many in Mahab, but we believe that by reaching out to the children and teaching them how to read, how to learn for themselves, and introducing them to the love of Jesus Christ, some will understand, believe and share Christ’s love, as it has been shared with them. We believe that from Achiever Academy, the Light will go forward through this village.
At the end of our first day back in Mahab, Susan and I head further west on TKM St., to the house that is our home here in Mahab. We pass another huge temple, just one more among the hundreds of other temples here and when we turn on the street to the house, we pass another row of stone-carving shops, turning out more massive pagan idols each day. As we haul our luggage into the house, from just across the road we hear the tap tap tapping of the chisels and the whine of electric grinders that will turn stone into gods late into the evening – every evening, every day, every month, every year. It is an ever-present reminder of the darkness that has filled every corner of the village for centuries.
Please pray that the light of Jesus Christ will shine through us and bring hope to the teachers, the students, and all the villagers of Mahaballipuram.
Staying in the Light,
“For you were once darkness but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light.” Ephesians 5:8