23 February 2007
Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu, South India
Kumar takes a small plaster elephant from the rows displayed on the
glass cabinet of his shop. He starts drawing lines on the floor with
its foot. 'The government wants to turn this place into a second Taj
Mahal.Straight roads everywhere so you can see the monuments.' We've
been talking about the recent wholesale destruction of most of the
We're in Mamallapuram, a small former fishing village in Tamil Nadu,
South India. In recent years it has become increasingly reliant on
tourism. Visitors are attracted by the fantastic rock carvings
illustrating Hindu mythology, seashore temples and temples carved from
rock. It's the middle of the four-month long tourist season now. Groups
of foreigners styled by local tailors in lightweight silks and designer
hippy chic mingle on the streets with sari-clad women and men in
A couple of weeks ago the bulldozers moved in to the half kilometre
stretch of road leading to one of the main monument sites: the five
Rathas. Before the bulldozers embarked on their wholesale destruction,
the street was shady and lined with statues. Stone carvers worked slabs
of granite into Hindu deities, elephants, Buddha heads and dancing
girls. Small shops sold the carvings to tourists on their way to visit
the monument. Coconut sellers, chai shops and fruit-sellers plied their
business under the shade of spreading neem trees.
Then the bulldozers came.
According to Kumar, the bulldozers are implementing a tourism
development plan conceived over twenty years ago. Integral to this plan
is the removal of most of the street trees, along with the small shops
which had encroached on government land earmarked for the road
Cycling to see a friend, I came across a scene of apocalyptic
destruction - the sharp end of 'tourism development'. The length of
Five Rathas Road was lined with uprooted trees, roots pointing like
accusing fingers towards the sky. Small groups of people clambered over
them, sawing branches into manageable sizes for firewood. The statues
had been hoisted onto flatbed lorries and taken away.
The air was full of the acrid fragrance of neem.
A crowd had gathered around the last tree still standing. A majestic
neem, the size of a mid-sized oak, with wide spreading foliage. Beside
it, an earthmover was delivering a series of body blows to the trunk.
Each impact sent shudders through the tree, shaking branches and
scattering leaves down to join the green carpet on the tarmac.
The spectators were quiet, their faces intense. There was a sense of
unease in the air, a feeling of subdued tension. One woman shook her
fist and shouted. A couple of foreign tourists pleaded with the driver
of the earthmover. One started to climb into the cabin and had to be
pulled back by men from the crowd. Tears crept down more than one face.
It was a long time before the tree finally toppled. It was like watching murder.
Kumar saw it too. ‘These trees may be sixty years old. We can rebuild our business but who can replace the trees?'
According to Kumar, the Plan - only selected parts of which have
been revealed to locals¬ - was conceived by the Indira Gandhi
government as part of a grand vision to open up the sites of the
ancient monuments to a lucrative paying public.
‘Before ASI (Archeological Survey of India) everything was open,
free,' says Kumar. In the last three years, under the guise of
'protecting' the ancient monuments and temples, massive tracts of
formerly common ground have been fenced off. Now only fee-paying
visitors can see monuments which used to be open to everyone...and
‘They just want to make money, that's all,' asserts Kumar, rubbing his forefinger and thumb together.
This scene of environment, social and developmental carnage in
Mamallapuram is in no way special or unusual. It is being re-enacted
globally on a massive scale and is typical of the way in which
so-called 'tourism development' is carried out. Local communities are
rarely consulted and even more rarely have a say in whether or not
development takes place. The results?
In Mamallapuram, formerly shady tree-lined streets are on the way to
becoming a three lane highway. Small shops and vendors have gone and
the trees and the habitat they provided for birds and palm nut
squirrels have been destroyed. And this is in the name of tourism
development; more coaches, more sightseers and more income.
Protaganists of the plan assert that this is a means of managing
increasing amounts of vehicle traffic, including coaches, which jam the
narrow streets most weekends of the season. However, the lessons
learned in traffic management in Europe - that the more space given to
road traffic, the more traffic is generated, have apparently not been
researched by the powerful vested interests of the local road-building
lobby. Rather than developing genuinely innovative schemes for
transporting people the three kilometres between monuments, untested
assumptions have been put into practice. ‘They don't want people - just
visitors,' says Kumar.
The new tourists who draw up along the new boulevards in
air-conditioned coaches and 4x4s will be blissfully unaware of the
destruction carried out in their name. For the locals, however, it's a
different story. ‘How will the people with no shoes walk?' asks Kumar.
‘All the natural beauty has been destroyed.'
Unlike the tourists, the locals will have to live with the consequences of this development for generations.