When you sit down to learn stone carving from some of the world’s most practiced craftsmen, in Mamallupuram, Tamil Nadu, India, people are going to be curious.
A few days ago, we decided it would be fun to try this art form. All across town there are men chiseling away, with gorgeous finished products displayed outside the shops. Ganesh and Buddha predominate.
I initially thought this trip, our third to India in as many years, was going to be about opening my heart by way of spending time in ashrams, doing seva (work with no expectation of compensation) and meeting with spiritual gurus. I felt I needed this, the Hugging Mother’s hugs we’d experienced the year before, to awaken to my own heart through meditation and slow, deliberate contemplation.
Maybe this is still the case, and maybe it will come. But so far we’ve become fascinated by how much of a living-art India is in almost all its aspects. The aliveness of the place, the colours.
I have a piece of cloth I’ve been embroidering for over a year that I couldn’t bring myself to work on during our trip to India last year, and I’ve been at it daily here.
And now stone carving. We sat outside the shop with the two foreigner wranglers and stone polishers, and a few masters of the trade. We chiseled, hammered, watched in awe as the masters designed our pieces and images – of a Buddha and a hand – started coming to life.
Many people passed by since we were on the main road of the tourist area, which Lonely Planet refers to as Backpackistan. Most looked at what we were doing, some with keen interest. Maybe 10 per cent came by to watch, and about half of those people smiled, exclaimed, or sat down to talk and watch.
Just sitting there, we were attracting kindness, the attention of new people, and conversation. The sun was beaming on us.
One of the people to stop and sit down was a young Japanese woman who just arrived in India the day before, for a four month trip culminating in Sri Lanka. She was quiet, curious and had a very strong presence about her. She left about an hour later, and returned in the evening. We were still chiseling away, a few chais and a lot of laughter later.
She probably had it in her mind to have dinner with us, but this was our last day with the carving masters, and we both started new, smaller pieces to practice, and couldn’t stop. Hesitating, she sat, worked on a tiny elephant one of the guys surprised her with, and took out a ukelele.
Exclaiming, I asked her to play, and started working again. It’s not often someone appears with such a beautiful and unusual instrument, nor was there anything usual about sitting on the concrete in a town we’d never heard of until about two weeks earlier, carving outstretched hands and Buddhas.
Soon I could hear the softest, most melodic voice singing Aloha; she was turning the Hawaiian tune into a magical folk song. The waves lapped audibly nearby.