Sunday, July 14, 2013

Walking into a time capsule | Part 1 of 2

I was about ten or eleven when as part of a bigger South India tour dad had taken the family to all the major temple towns. I still possess color photographs of that trip where, standing next to what was possibly a 1000 year old relic, my young mind was in no position to either grasp or appreciate the historic time capsule I had been put into. Considering the passage of two decades since and a certain amount of knowledge/perspective gained this short three day trip to the southern gorges of India seemed like an ideal way to reconnect with memories of those southern footfalls I had come by so many long years ago.

The chatty autowallah
My wife, J, and I began our journey across that region from Kumbakonam (KK). Our initial assumptions that KK was a larger city than Tanjavur were laid to rest the moment we stepped out into the sleepy landscape of its warm dawn after having alighted from our sleeper bus from Bangalore. Still reeling from the delightful wafts of crisp vadais and coconut chutney in the air our first challenge was getting an auto rickshaw to our hotel. Once we’d managed to bag one I was a little stunned to realize that the auto we were in did not have a meter device! On looking around I realized that in fact all of the autos that were trotting in the neighborhood shared a similar symptom. This observation set the stage for what I hoped would be civil and hopefully less complex conversations with auto drivers for our future trips over the next couple of days.

Auto woes addressed I let my sight drift to the surroundings as the auto snaked its way across the streets of KK. The nest of southern splendor was waking up from its slumber. Women in bright colored saris and their heads spilling over with white flowers were busy designing front yards with rangoli patterns. Men walked purposefully by the road side as curious children stared at us from outside their homes. The scenery of life in all its hue, fragrance and warmth began wrapping its arms around us. Small coffee shops were getting ready for the day’s business as energetic folk either sat scraping dozens of coconuts for the chutneys or were busy preparing batter in furiously rotating machinery. The chatty auto driver, convinced we were there as part of some “holy wish”, began giving us tips on which temples would most certainly assure us a child soon. We smiled at each other at his well meaning albeit grossly inaccurate assumption.

KK Countryside
Amid such bursts of humanity at play there were the generous stretches of green laid out as if on a large platter from which every visitor could choose any delightful treat. Long stretches of coconut trees dotted the horizon as the place came alive with the din and doldrums of another day.

We checked into what is certainly one of the most well maintained hotels I have seen in all my journeys across India – Sara Regency. A well-lit and well-staffed block of goodness on the outskirts of the city. After a smooth check-in, a cup of hot coffee to kick start the senses and a surprisingly delicious complimentary breakfast, we hit the road to check out the local sights.

KK, like many of its neighbors, is a temple town. Neither J nor I are religious in the sense that we would make a journey that deep into the region purely to pay respects to the many gods pinned to the Indian pantheon. Our trip there was primarily to visit some rare and historic edifices of worship to the lesser acknowledged members of the aforementioned club of the divine. Among them were the temples that housed prime idols of Brahma (creator of all things in the universe), Indra/Airawata (the chief of the Deva clan and his vehicle), and Yama (the manager of all death in the universe). From a historic perspective these places are just as old and important as the grand old Brihadeswara Temple in Tanjavur built by the great Chola king Raja Raja. But they seem to have seeped into the daily routine of people’s lives with such regularity that their singular nature has somehow become less noticeable. This was perhaps why these temples not only were scantily crowded even in the middle of the day but also found little mention in people’s conversations during our stay there.

Kumbeswara Temple
Shiva and Vishnu (and their many incarnations) are the ones with the most shrines in not just KK but that entire belt of towns and cities. We began our visits by covering the prominent Kumbeswara temple in the heart of the town, the Sarangapani Temple, a haven of some breathtakingly beautiful sculptures on the majestic gopuram, and the bulwark of an edifice called the Airawateswara Temple. One unique facet of each of these temples was how brazenly uncompromising they all were in allocation of real estate for the celebration of the divine. The Cholas (followed by the Nayakars and other royal clans) seemed absolutely convinced that the way to the thrones of power was via that one potent pulse that vibrates throughout our subcontinent – faith. This conviction of theirs became astonishingly clear as we walked past Herculean stone pillars that, to this day, hold on top of them multi-floored
Exotic and erotic sculptures
gopurams with excruciatingly detailed imagery of everything from the exotic to the erotic. In fact the explicit nature of some of the sculptures was so realistic and stunning that we did a double take to ensure what we had just seen was in fact an artifact from the so called “conservative era” of our nation. It was refreshing to note the effervescently liberal sexuality on display while time has somehow managed to convert such open forums into unspeakable taboos today. A tragic consequence of foreign invasions perhaps, we observed.

Sarangapani Temple's Gopuram
After lunch that day we hired a cab (arranged by the hotel for a very reasonable price) and drove down to see the temple dedicated to Yama at Srivanchiyam. Situated in the bosom of the Tamil heartland this place is surrounded by several acres of fertile and bouncy fields. The roads are narrow but are well maintained. The road to Srivanchiyam cuts through some pleasantly spread out hamlets housed by folks busy with their routines. The driver, a local, had to stop at several spots to find out the route to the temple. This only confirmed our suspicions that despite being something of a rarity it wasn’t the most frequented spot in the region.

Outside Yama Temple, Srivanchiyam
Once at the temple a few details emerged. Despite the main idol being a Shiva lingam just to the left on arrival into the temple complex is an area where facing away from the crowd is a mustachioed idol of Yama. The shrine isn’t much to speak of but there is a lot of character and a sense of authority in the image of Yama’s statue there. The idol is fully black in color, the eyes sort of shut yet I could not help detect a hint of a smile on the thin yet plainly visible lips. Was it the artist’s deliberate attempt at creating a sense of the mystical? Or was it a chance event stemming from the artist’s own fears and devotion to the lord who hands out death? One will never know I’m afraid.

The formidable Airawateswara Temple
The sequence of darshan in this temple is that one visits Yama’s shrine first before heading to the Shiva shrine and not the other way around. Since we had not noticed Yama’s shrine when we entered we visited it on our way out. Just as we were about to leave a man frantically motioned to us to go back into the Shiva shrine before exiting the complex. We then took a quick glance at the Shiva lingam from a distance again and exited but this act got me thinking about the various “to-do” lists that faiths in India seem to have created over the centuries. While I agree that a lot of them could have (and do have) scientific and practical purposes the rest of them seem to have been spun out of the very animated concoction of history and mythology that our lands are famous for. Technically Shiva too is referred as the “destroyer of things” but to give him more devotion than the lord of death himself seemed a little prejudiced for my taste. Death, after all, is just another phase of existence much like life itself! But that theory notwithstanding we did head back to KK quite satisfied that we had visited a supremely unique spot.

Robust exterior of Airawateswara
The day drew to the most interesting close with a visit to Krishna Rao Agraharam near Solaippan street. This place has the ancestral home (a separate post just on this historic place coming soon!) of Mr. Gopal Rao, a retired professional and a prominent member of the Tanjore Marathi community on Facebook, who had invited J and me over for a traditional meal at his place. Seated on the pleasant red oxide floor and surrounded by the warmth of excellent company and a delightful cuisine to match it we could not have asked for a better way to end such a memorable day in one of southern India’s most historic pockets.

Click here to read Part 2!

5 reflections:

Chandrasekar said...

Very nice narration. Waiting for second part.:-).

Krishna said...

Very interesting. To find those explicit sculptures in an area which are one of the most orthodox areas today in India is quite a paradox !! Superb narrative Shashi. I could see the places myself through your writing. Looking forward to rest of your piece :)

ShaK said...

@Chandrasekar : Thank you. Part 2 has now been posted. Hope you enjoy reading that one too!

@Krishna: A paradox indeed! We have bandied about the term "conservative" a little too generously over the past century in our nation. One look at the arts that grew out of our ancient times and it becomes clear the cocoon of misconceptions and incorrectly taught ideals find roots in various dubious sources. More reason to start clearing cobwebs for our future generations.

Anonymous said...

beautiful travel note..have always wanted to go to KK & Tanjavur. Your post gives me another reason to :)

ShaK said...


Thank you for the kind words mate. I do hope you get a chance to visit it soon!