After Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping's summit here last October, more and more tourists especially foreigners descended here, an ancient sea port town.
The transition from euphoria to gloom, in a matter of a few months is just hard to believe for a host of people here like master artisans and hoteliers. The empty beachfronts and deserted world heritage monument site sans tourists offers a peek into the harrowing times being endured by them.
After Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s summit here last October, more and more tourists especially foreigners descended here, an ancient sea port town. “Occupancy rate spiked and we saw about 25 per cent increase in business immediately after the high level summit and further growth prospects were really promising,” says Mamallapuram Hotels Association President N Janardanam.
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“The summit no doubt gave a much needed facelift with spic and span public spaces, and when lighting was put up at monument sites, it lured more evening crowds,” he says. When hoteliers like him were hoping to further build on the feel good factor and increase business, the lockdown kicked in.
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“Even if the government allows us to reopen now, it is difficult for us to do it as a chunk of employees have gone back to their native places and others want to go,” he says. Guest workers from states like Jharkhand are a key link in the chain of the workforce at Mamallapuram which is dotted with a string of hotels both star rated and others besides restaurants. H Janakiraman, an accredited tourist guide says only when public transportation including train and air services were restored could those like him and other businesses have “some hope.”
“We depend on tourist arrivals both domestic and foreigners.” There are about 100 tourist guides including dozens with accreditation here. Not only hoteliers and tourist guides, but an array of stunning statues of Gods and Godesses are waiting to be sent to customers both domestic and foreign. Seated amid a lineup of wooden crates of neatly packed statues in the premises of his workshop, M Devaraj Sirpi, a veteran sculptor effortlessly specifies the cravings inside the boxes and destination point of each of the packages.
“This (crate) one is for Reunion Islands (in the Indian Ocean, a French territory), this is a Ganesha statue, that is Amman and the other is for Malaysia,” he goes on. A key customer segment for them is temples, both existing and upcoming ones.
“In view of coronavirus, temples are closed down and all festivals including Kumbabishekam (consecration ceremonies) are put on hold in Tamil Nadu, neighbouring States and in other countries like Singapore and Malaysia too,” the sexagenarian says. Initiatives to build new temples in several places are on hold and art lovers who form another buyer segment cannot travel now.
“Only when events are rescheduled on return of normalcy, we could hope for customers to pay the remaining money and take delivery of the statues,” he says. “When normalcy will return is the big question…our assessment is that it may take several months from now.” Looking pensive, Devaraj, a recipient of national and state awards for his craftsmanship estimates that “easily over 400 hundred statues are waiting to be sent to customers.”
While the cost of each statue varies according to its shape, size and artistic value, it ranges from several thousand rupees to a lakh and even more. T Baskaran, a master sculptor who has worked in several big ticket art projects like a sculpture park in Ireland also has an assortment of statues and art works to be shipped abroad including a temple door frame to Malaysia. Asked on customers not having taken delivery despite nod for cargo movement (both import and export), he sports a wry grin.
“Do you think they have enough money now? events are also on hold and for over a month now, I have not heard from a single customer,” he says.
According to rough estimates, there are about 5,000 people including master sculptors, stone masons, helpers, crane operators and so on who are in this field here and in nearby villages. Apart from overseas buyers, there are orders from within Tamil Nadu and other neighbouring States like Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Devaraj and Baskaran say that they start working on orders based on receipt of a token advance and invest their money to procure raw materials like granite to make statues.
Now, a chunk of investment has been stuck in the form of finished products which are lying to be picked up customers. Be it Baskaran or hoteliers, they expect the government to lend them a helping hand including further extension of moratorium on loans to help them make ends meet. Though the Tamil Nadu government has allowed resumption of work from May 11, the sound of chisel could be barely heard in this town popularly known as ‘stone city as hordes of workers have gone home.