Sunday, July 14, 2013

Walking into a time capsule | Part 2 of 2

View from hotel window
Our hotel room’s window overlooked a group of low roofed huts, couple of concrete homes and a splash of nature’s best as far as the eye could see. The morning air was a mix of the humidity in the place along with the crackle of local songs of devotion. Somewhere in the mix was Subbalakshmi’s Venkatesha Suprabhatam laced with a Tamil melody being sung by the versatile SP Balasubramaniam. Holding what is locally called “degree coffee” (the real deal is served in a steel tumbler) I sensed that comfortable feeling of lethargic nothingness around. The kind of nothingness that tourists often find in quaint little towns before boredom starts to creep in due to lack of traffic noise and pollution. And so, on that amusing little note to self, a crispy start of the next day was done.

Another visit to the most inviting complimentary breakfast at Sara Regency was neatly executed. Mouth-watering moongdaal halwa had been dished out along with, among many things, freshly steamed idlis as light as clouds with a dash of tangy tomato chutney. The combination was heaven exemplified. After a patient indulgence we were once again on the road to a city my wife had longed to visit for as long as she can remember – the soulful place called Tanjavur.

Brihadeswara Temple main arc
At this point it is pivotal to mention that my wife is a Tanjavur Marathi (TM). She belongs to a community that had migrated to Tanjavur from Maharashtra several years before Shivaji lay siege to that region. Some of these people were men of finance, business, arts, literature and even folks who worked for the royal palace. It was after my association with J that I learned of the TMs – a proud collection of individuals many of whom are actively contributing on Facebook to create awareness about themselves as a distinctive community of thinkers. For several years now I have heard of their milestones in the creative fields but it was during this trip to Tanjavur that I had a first-hand look at just how significant some of their rulers were to both the city’s and the country’s history.

Brihadeswara Temple main shrine
Tanjavur is located about two hours away from Kumbakonam (KK). Our cab whizzed past the comfortable buzz of smaller towns like Darasuram, Papanasam and Ayyampettai, almost all of which were smeared with giant posters of Jayalalitha, Karunanidhi, golden colored statuettes of MGR and a colorful array of Tamil movie star Surya’s grinning face. It was curious to notice that an entire stretch of highway just outside the city had been declared as being Jayalalitha’s personal project. Even without that detail the general quality of the roads, even in the remotest of places, was refreshingly good. Adding to this consistent palette of fine maintenance was the unhurried pace of life that whizzed past us like parts of a wonderfully crafted painting in motion.

After we’d taken in the sights of politics and cinema it was finally time to revisit history. This came to us in the form of an astoundingly fresh looking magnificence called the Brihadeswara Temple built by Raja Raja Cholan in the year circa 1010 AD.

Brihadeswara Temple sculptures
No blog, no amount of videos, no high definition photographs can really do justice to the sheer size, beauty and magnitude of this monument. Set right in the heart of the city this breathtakingly beautiful masterpiece appears out of the blue like an exotic oasis in the middle of an arid desert. The geographic location reminded me of Athens where several placards of the Roman empire exist but without the grandeur and finesse as this classy relic. Even from the traffic heavy road we could make out the delicate lifelike sculptures that were embroidered on the main entrance gateway. Despite the 30+ degree heat we just had to stand in awe of that sight for a few seconds to let the fact sink into us – yes, we were in the presence of something supreme. The brazen confidence the building oozes just by being there is enough to humble the grandest of egos. It was something so beyond mortal imagination that the nerves of steel that had built this place seemed embedded firmly in every rock that had been cut into shape. The most intriguing aspect of it though is this – there is not a single rocky (or other kind) mountain anywhere in sight of this temple. So just how on earth were all these gigantic stones brought here from possibly hundreds of miles away? Was there some sort of special bridge that had been
Intricately designed gopuram
built for this mega project? Were there thousands of elephants deployed to carry tons of massive rocks across the jungle for this purpose? Did unimaginably complex wooden and metal contraptions aid in both the transport and production of this robust structure? Even if these tools and mechanisms were actually used then can you imagine the brute force used in getting this work done? When we think of mega projects we often cite the great Pyramids of Egypt or the Great Wall of China or, nearer to home, the Taj Mahal. One wonders why places like this one in Tanjavur aren’t more popular to highlight instances of gritty determination shown by emperors of old to document forever a stamp of their existence!

Inscriptions on the temple walls
The mammoth complex is a sequence of three unmistakably original rock gopurams with a peculiar shade of brown stone when drenched by rain. Yes, over the last thousand years the monument has certainly undergone restorations and maintenance work. But in the quadrant of its walls you do find inscriptions, faded stone chippings and evidence that seem to shout out at you and proclaim with unbridled joy – “Yes! I was here! I saw it all! I was part of this glorious story!”

Nandi statue
As we walked past the main arc and approached the prominent Nandi statue with its tongue sticking out we could not help but admire the neatly arranged row of teeth peeking from behind its majestic lips. The attention to detail on this statue is nothing less than brilliant. Right from the perfect angle that curves its tail to the curious eyes that seem to ask you “Pray, visitor, who art thou? And what land dost thou come from?” Few Nandi structures have I seen that command such majesty and class as the one housed in the heart of this temple complex.

By now our feet had started to feel the unbearable sting of the noon’s sun. So we paced up to the inner sanctum where the breathe-taking Shiva lingam greeted us with its splendor. At a commendable 3.7 meters in height and with brightly smeared white lines on it this icon for Shiva is a sight for sore eyes. All the temples we visited in that region, including this one in Tanjavur, have been designed to let the visitor be able to see the idol even from the street – which in some cases is as far as half a kilometer away! This design made me reflect on the transparent nature of the relationship between god and man ought to be. The line of sight approach seemed to indicate a straight forward mode to finding divinity. No puzzles. No riddles. No labyrinthine queues to wade through. Just clear access for reverence. A novel message sent across time itself.

A rocky splendor - Brihadeswara temple
We spent about an hour and a half walking around the temple complex admiring not just the size of the structure but also the well maintained look of it. Surrounding the three doorways is a square shaped canopy of rock-cut shelters that allow visitors to sit in its shade if the sun gets unbearable. Studded like precious stones all along the exterior of the monument are statues of dancers, consorts, musicians, gods, demons and humans. All life is scattered around the temple as if to create a painting in stone for all time to come. It was like a flowing rock mural of sorts that acts as a journal to another era.

So, speaking of time, it just seemed to fly by just as quickly as the heat began penetrating our bare feet. The intensity of the burn was as if the paths had been sprayed with boiling water! With a heavy heart and unending reluctance we began our trek back towards the exit. As I mentioned earlier no amount of turning around and looking back at this gorgeous edifice that combines power, ambition and devotion would suffice. Yet the mere knowledge of having been in the presence of something as unique as the Brihadeswara Temple of Tanjavur will forever stir some powerful memories. Of this I am certain.

From the temple our next stop was the Saraswati Mahal palace and library. It was here that I came face to face with the accomplishments of Serfoji II – a Tanjavur Marathi king who ruled the region from late 1700s until early 1800s. The library contains a beautiful collection of manuscripts, rare memorabilia, paintings and many other artifacts belonging to this versatile king who was also a physician, writer and a great enthusiast of various foreign tongues. We found Sanskrit, Danish, Italian, Spanish, German and French translations of his books (one of which was “Gaja Sastra” written in Marathi) along with royal accessories from so many centuries ago. His prolific status as a king is further highlighted by his efforts to bring together the Marathi and Tamil cultures in a distinct blend. Certainly a respectable sovereign who pioneered various projects involving educational and social reforms during his time. A noteworthy icon representing the Tanjavur Marathi community.

Once we had nestled back into the air conditioned comfort of the cab our attention turned towards food. Despite the Cholan and Tanjavur Maratha brilliance we had just experienced our stomachs, oblivious of it all, demanded respite from hunger. So we stopped by a regular family style vegetarian restaurant called Gnanam and indulged in a good old South Indian meal. Lunch wrapped up we then had yet another challenge at hand. We just had to buy one of the popular icons of the city – a Tanjavur painting.

Much to our surprise finding a place to buy these was not as easy as we’d hoped. We must have inquired at about half a dozen spots around the city’s main streets without any concrete information on just how to get one! After forty-five minutes of aimless roaming around we had almost given up on the idea when we suddenly spotted a shop that claimed to be selling some. We spent a few minutes browsing through the rather limited collection and settled for a neat looking portrait of Krishna and Radha on the swing. Sort of a cliché, I know, but everything else in that shop was so intensely religious that the portrait of timeless love seemed most apt as a keepsake from this unique city.

Ceiling paintings in Tanjavur
All this took us to about two o’ clock in the noon. Our next stop for the day was the heavily Vaishnav city of Srirangam where the popular Sri Ranganatha temple is situated. Srirangam is one among the 108 divyadesams. A divyadesam is a popular Vaishnav pilgrimage center dedicated to Vishnu and his many forms. The popular belief is that if one visits all the 108 divyadesams one is certainly going to enter Vaikunta (heaven in Hindu mythology) after death. An invitation to the heavenly abode notwithstanding our decision to visit this temple had a historic rationale though. For the uninitiated the statue of Ranganatha that is kept at this temple has quite an action based back story of kidnap, battle and the curious case of a Muslim girl becoming a hardened devotee of the Hindu god. You can read all about this fascinating saga behind the statue here.

While the darshan part of the visit was not such a big deal the appalling bit was the way random old men in priestly garbs lazed about the temple complex and tried to misguide us deliberately. One elderly gentleman tried to give us the whole song and dance about “special archanas/sevas” and “things that have to be done without fail” given our out-of-towners look. His query to us remained “English? Hindi?” His refusal to help us out with simple directions bothered me so much that I had to scream at him in front of several people for the right information before getting him to spill out the facts. I wasn’t proud of the way I behaved with that veteran but his petty behavior had left me no choice.

This incident further solidified my belief that most large temples in India are quickly becoming a haven for all sorts of con. People’s trust is violated as the man in a priest’s attire belts off a long list of absolute rubbish all the while smirking at having relieved you off your money. He has become that brazen thief who executes his plan in broad daylight right in front of you and, what’s worse, with your approval! Walking away from the old man was a moral victory for me although I am sure he still managed to get his share of the daily loot from somewhere else. It was most likely from that unsuspecting North Indian couple whom the same priest was later seen convincing to donate a golden crown, golden sacred thread and a gold necklace to the Ranganatha idol for best results. An absolutely pitiful display by someone who claims to be a wise one. My thoughts on the matter notwithstanding I did hope the couple would find whatever it was they were looking for.

Ramasamy Temple in KK
And while on the subject I need to share my two cents. The amount of money being flushed into divinity in our country dumbfounds me. The fact that people still invest millions of their hard earned bucks in decking up an idol in hopes to earn its blessing says more about us humans than it does about god. These events reminded me of something a friend had once told me about seers like Kabir or Sai Baba or Madhvacharya or Tukaram. He’d said “They were enlightened not because they finally were able to see god but because they finally understood god.” Looking at the rabidly mechanical way in which things get dealt in holy places in our lands it might suffice to say we have a long way to go before understanding the divine component. I remain optimistic on that front.

As I settled down that evening for another cup of hot filter coffee my mind was filled with visions of life-like statues, green fields flying past, curious eyes, greedy priests and camphor. As I closed my eyes and tried to capture all the sights, sounds and smells of the places I had visited an epiphany of sorts began to emerge. The belt of towns and cities that surround Kumbakonam are full of temples for every deity imaginable from the Hindu pantheon. I’d wager you cannot walk through any street without running into some sort of shrine honoring some divinity. From a hole in the wall that sits long ignored and locked up…to the breathing and majestic Brihadeswara temple – there are infinite ways to acknowledge the presence of a higher power everywhere you turn. The delicate manner in which gods and humans are interlaced in the culture’s fabric makes for a fascinating experience. And here is why.

Unique Ramayana narration
It isn't about whether or not you are religious enough to walk into all these temples to see the same Shiva lingam or similar idols of Venkateshwara replicated over and over. It is in fact more about being a spectator to everything else that the temple has to offer.

Walk into these buildings and notice the beautifully carved pillars that hold together gigantic roofs on their heads. See the creative ways in which stories are told on the walls – like the unique way in which the Ramayana is narrated via pictures in the Ramasamy Temple at KK. Look up at the ceilings, some several hundred years old, and notice the faded and decaying shades that whisper tales of a bygone era to you. Let your eyes roam around the altar of the main idol and notice those small almost insignificant seeming artifacts that are nothing less than a heritage item. It was in such pockets of history that I found most satisfaction in. Be it in the sly smirk of the Yama idol, or the somber image of Brahma or the overwhelming presence of Brihadeswara’s Shiva lingam…if you looked carefully you will notice history’s magic unhook so many new chapters from the golden ages of the region. You will find evidences of an age when faith wasn’t treated as a lottery system where temple visit and worship was a mechanical cycle of darshan, bells, mangalaarati, teerth and kumkum on the forehead. Instead you see how every person from every possible occupation of those times offered worship in a million different ways.

The sculptor worshipped his idol when his tools banged open a piece of lifeless rock to create a masterpiece for the rest. The builder worshipped his god when he stood atop temple gopurams and installed awe inspiring damsels there. The painter revered his deity when he used his brush to create colorful strokes of hope. There was worship happening everywhere. Everyone, I felt, was contributing in their own ways to ensure a strong sense of community and brotherhood was maintained. Little else can explain how despite the passage of time and the ravages of invasions these masterpieces still stand today with the same confident smile on their faces. It is perhaps the earnest glow within their hard insides that overflow outside to this day as beauty for our eyes to behold? Maybe, maybe not. But having had my share of run-ins with both the divine and the mortal I let such thoughts buzz about to bring me peace.

Our final day in the region ended with the most memorable visit to Krishna Rao Agraharam in the heart of Kumbakonam. But for those couple of days we had come to the land where the historic and the mystic had crossed paths leaving clear footfalls for over a thousand years. A path both J and I can hopefully revisit someday again to appreciate and admire so that new memories can be built.

Couple of stay, travel and food recommendations:

- If you wish to stay in Kumbakonam then Sara Regency is the best choice out there. Their facilities, location and level of professionalism is most competent and you shall certainly not regret it. They also arrange car and autorickshaw services for an extremely nominal price. If you do not speak the local language then they also help you out in negotiating the price. As already mentioned their complimentary breakfast is the ideal way to start the day.

- If you are tired of cliché restaurants and want something more simmered down and home like then do
Mami's Mess
try “Mami’s Mess” on Bhakti Pura Street in the city. An extremely down to earth place where you can savor some refreshingly simple and healthy food served on the traditional banana leaves. Do not judge the place by how it looks. It’s the food that makes it so good.

- If you are making KK your base and traveling around the region like we did then hiring a cab for out of city journeys is the best option. For as little as 1500 – 2000 rupees for an entire day (12 hours) you can cover up to 200 kilometers. Anything extra, and this rarely happens since major cities are so nearby, is to be paid additionally. But hoping to rely on bus services there is going to be a challenge since we never even saw any local buses plying about.
Degree Coffee!

- If you are a coffee enthusiast then do try out the “degree coffee” in the region. The aroma of freshly brewed filter coffee is so intoxicating I almost wished I could capture it somehow and take it away with me. Alas, such a technology isn’t out yet!

- None of the autorickshaws in the region have a meter attached. So if you do choose to stray out on your own and get into one then ensure that you bargain a price before getting in. Not that we had any unpleasant experiences with this but coming from a notorious place for autos like Bangalore this is still good advice.

- And finally, the whole region is about temples and more temples. If you get tired of them then do visit the Saraswati Mahal palace and library in Tanjavur. It houses some very unique memorabilia on the Tanjavur Marathi kings including the prolific Serfoji II. It also has a pretty good handicraft emporium where you can buy some very good local artwork as souvenirs. Apart from this there is the Danish colony of Tranquebar (about 70-80 kms from KK) which is also quite picturesque. Despite our best efforts we could not manage it this time but we hope to the next time we are in the region. And of course, do drop by any of the temples to admire the architectural brilliance of it all.

2 reflections:

Chandrasekar said...

Fantastic. I still wonder your comment about local buses. Because there used to be very good bus service. With the towns becoming bigger everyday due to increase in population, every town has shifted its moffusil bus stands outside its town limits. One has to get down at mofussil bus stand and shift to town buses to get into cities.

Jey said...

Brilliantly written. Our temples have become licensed mints, capitalizing on the vulnerability of faith. I had written a post on this in a magazine. You might find it interesting.

Keep the reminiscences coming.