Tuesday, July 30, 2013 0 reflections

Endearing people and their endangered languages

Among the many quotes about language that come to mind it is Virginia Woolf’s words that I remember the most – “Language is wine upon the lips”. Her intention to fuse the timelessness of good wine with language, easily one of the pillars of any culture or civilization, got me wondering if the two were inversely proportional to each other. While wine’s primary characteristic is getting better with age, language seems to have suffered an opposite fate. Yes – evolution is the inevitable attribute of any tongue known to humans but that always depends on the number of people speaking it. It is through usage after all that language much like wine grows in potency and takes on new meanings. And so just like wine even the best languages cease to exist if there are no word vineyards where interested feet are trampling over raw letter grapes to produce the finest in aroma and texture to communicate a thought or an emotion.

The reason I find my mind wandering into the forests of languages is because of a meeting I was recently part of. As I had mentioned in an earlier post my extended family now consists of Tanjavur Marathis (TM). So I grabbed at the opportunity to finally come face to face with a community that is currently in the process of salvaging not just their unique language but also a lot of their customs, traditions and history. Hosted by Dr. Vijendra Rao – an eminent wood scientist with scores of doctoral papers and books on the subject at his warm residence in Bangalore – the event was a resounding success. In his inaugural speech he candidly remarked “My love for wood is perhaps more than my love for food”. This seems accurate given that his current book is going to examine the types of wood used for chariots in ancient India. A work I eagerly look forward to obtaining. Accompanying him in this gala was his better half Mrs. Usha Rao (a teacher by profession) and several veterans from the TM community. These included retired directors of well-known companies and organizations, accomplished doctors, academicians and research scientists to name a few.

After an extremely warm welcome full of good cheer and well meaning humor the focus turned towards one of the main agendas of the meet – language. Such is the nature of the spoken word that it automatically has a direct effect on other key areas such as literature, music and familial customs. These areas were also discussed at length but since language is often the root in such a conversation it will be the primary focus of this piece.

Hearing them express their growing concern over the quickly disappearing count of TM speakers got me thinking about other places in the world where the exact symptom is prevalent. I was reminded of a National Geographic article I had come across a few months ago about the Enduring Voices Project which is a Nat Geo initiative aimed at creating awareness and promoting proactive measures for languages on the brink of extinction. According to their estimate more than 7000 languages spoken on Earth may disappear by 2100. The demographic shows that the epidemic of dying languages is not restricted to just one part of the world. It showcases languages like Chylum, Aka and Yami that are clinging to the last remaining survivors who, with their passing, shall take along with them an entire civilization. While the result seems quite extreme I could certainly relate with it.

Being a native Kannada speaker I have constantly complained about how, even in the most “local areas”, folks in Bangalore no longer speak proper Kannada. Either they have switched over to a badly sculpted version of English (which is specifically designed to be robotic, non-committal and woefully incorrect) or a bizarre amalgamation of Hindi, English and some other native tongue (which I am not familiar with but people tell me it is indeed Kannada). Through greedy commercialization of every street in the country it appears a carefully yet horribly orchestrated erosion of languages has started.

 But the issue with TM suffering as an endangered kind has several factors that are much more than commercialization of one prominent language. Everything from parents choosing the more dominant tongue for their children to the lack of proper resources from where new learning can begin seem to be at play. So, in a quest to familiarize myself better with the problem that seems to have counterparts all over the globe I began by asking myself three simple questions. The answers or recommendations I have come up with are nothing more than a scratch on the surface but hopefully the first grape has been plucked for the oenophiles to come out of their hiding.

Why do languages disappear? 

The primary answer for this seems to be – loss of a reason to use it. All communication in mankind has happened for some foreseeable purpose. But when that purpose is attacked and is replaced by a much higher seemingly better alternative the mode of speech is forced to go into hiding where it dies a slow death by starvation. Like TM every language that is currently under threat has undergone a similar phenomenon either due to invasions, mass migration of native speakers or a gradual shift in the socio-economic landscape of the region. In TM’s case (and this came up during the meeting) the 1857 rebellion seems to be the catalyst for the abrupt halting in its linguistic development. Following that event the gradual decrease it has experienced both in Maharashtra and certainly Tanjavur are plain facts now. With time and the influx of English as the language of both education and trade languages like TM (and I am sure there are hundreds of such native tongues just in Southern India) have had to bear the blow of cowing under the shadows of more dominant languages like Marathi or Tamil. So slowly the belt of people who spoke such tongues moved to different parts of the country/world and with changing generations records of its glorious past were slowly left behind in dusty museums for the unaware public to view dispassionately. Even I, as someone who is viewing this topic with sincere empathy, had previously been guilty of wondering – “So what? Such is human evolution isn’t it? Survival of the fittest? What really happens if a language dies out? Is it not replaced by a tongue stronger and more communicative?” My misplaced wondering was answered by some concrete perspectives.

What happens if a language dies?

In an interview with Bud Lane, vice chairman of Siletz tribal council and a native speaker of Athabaskan (a language of the Siletz tribe in Pacific Northwest), the same question was asked. His response was the following:

“You would lose your people's view of the world, and not just of the world today but you would lose your view of how a world came to be for you. And there's lots of ways to describe things in many languages, of course. But like with ours, I'll just give you an example of how our people view our land here. You always - you hear different stories about how people love the land in many different cultures. But our word for the earth is (speaking foreign language), and what it literally means is made for you, and that's our view of our land. God made these lands for us. It's made for us to inhabit and to benefit from. And so when you take - when you say a world view, there's just a different way of looking at the world... than another culture might have. And I'm not saying it's superior to any other culture. I'm just saying that it's different, and that's what we talk about, about language lost and the culture and the world view that goes with those words.” 

His words addressed some key points of my query about the consequences of a language’s death, the most important being – world view. There are writings in old Kannada etched all over the walls of historic places like Belur and Hampi that I am certain only a handful can read and understand. These are more than just “interesting writings” that a casual tourist might snap as a memento for a Facebook page. These are in fact chronicles of how the people from that era, hundreds of centuries ago, saw their world. Their world – the root purpose of all languages. A way to express the feel, the sights and the sounds of a world that belongs to an age we cannot even begin to imagine. A time capsule that has sadly been masked by the stereotypes of dominant languages like English which, with tragic irony, is my current tool to pen my thoughts. I am certain those writings contain words, expressions and sayings that capture our world much better than any language we currently know. The same holds true for unique languages like TM which document an emotion of those times that is so unlike, almost so alien, to the ones we are familiar with. So I guess to surmise – the only purpose that should matter for salvaging a language should be this – a unique way to see the world so that expressing oneself becomes a globally connected theme.

How to save a language from extinction? 

The ground of the discussions that took place at the meeting was thinking of ways to create practical solutions for not just sustaining TM but also to help it grow. To repeat my analogy with Virginia’s words on language and wine, a seed has to be sown somewhere. And that seed can take up several forms, a few of which I have compiled below.

- All language starts from the mouth of a learner. It is in those first words that the majestic trees of all languages find water. So, the most obvious starting point could be the child of the native speaker. But again, the lack of a reason added to the missing support structure outside the home can be barriers. So to counter that experts recommend continuing home traditions (marriages, prayer ceremonies, etc.) always only in the native tongue. Teaching the child songs and lullabies in that language helps cement a better understanding and appreciation for it. And most importantly, giving the young one a clear perspective of just why s/he should know the tongue always helps. Hopefully it will be something more rational and less intimidating than “Because I said so!”

 - Creating a love for the words is yet another way I feel helps anyone love a language – child and adult alike. Often people learn a foreign language not for job or education purposes but just for the love of it. The fabric of spoken language is full of hidden meanings that go beyond flat dictionaries. I have even heard of languages where there is no word for “me” or “I”, “mine” or “hate”. This tells me something about that culture. To be able to embed an entire community in that sort of brotherhood instantly creates a new world view. So to find hooks in a language that will engage the learner is a key, albeit challenging, aspect.

 - Learning anything new, including language, requires an application. (With the existing haven of technology sources online this is perhaps the easiest thing to do. If people from an era where oral and written were the only modes of communication have left behind such a bounty for us to explore then we should certainly be able to do better?) This takes me back to the prime factor why languages die out – lack of reason. So being able to create feasible deliverable  - like small audio/visual tutorials, stories, talking dictionaries, sing along songs and even translations of some very popular literature out there - would be a great step forward. Creating  a knowledge bank of something so unique would certainly instill a sense of both pride and accomplishment in the learner. Free services like YouTube and SoundCloud can easily be used to design and publish such attempts.

I brought up the last point in since as an invariable part of a schooling ordeal I was made to sit through obscure Sanskrit lessons. At the time (and thanks to an extremely unhelpful and uninterested teacher) I lost whatever little hope I might have found kindled within me for the “language of the gods”. Today at an age when I look at people proficiently speaking the tongue I am stung with the memories of the same unpleasant experience which often has been a barrier for me to ever learn this beautiful language again. A barrier I look forward to surpassing someday. So this last point of being able to create fun and practical applications for the language helps create good memory associations with it and perhaps will motivate the learner to take it forward for the next generation.

What to do after gaining some mastery on the language?

I lived in South America for several years at the beginning of my career. The only language spoken on the streets was Spanish (although it was more a corrupted version of the original). Despite my working place being English I found myself at a woeful disadvantage when I stepped out into the city. Everyone from the supermarket people to the taxi drivers to the barbers spoke only Spanish. I had a choice of whether or not to attend special classes to pick up the language but I chose an interesting alternative instead. I decided to use a medium I personally enjoyed more than sitting through a 3 hour lecture session after an 8 hour day at work. Every evening I would come home and at least for an hour I would watch Spanish soap operas. I would then switch on popular English sitcoms that I enjoy like Seinfeld, Frasier or Friends and read the Spanish subtitles underneath. Within the first year I was actually confident enough to speak some of the language openly in public. I remember stunning my local colleagues by dishing out my polished Español as they would pat my back and congratulate me. So the lesson for me here was this, and perhaps the most challenging thing about dying languages – finding a personal connection. If a connection can be made with a language, be it through any route – mythological, historical, artistic, scientific or literary – the chances of that learning staying longer with us seem stronger.

I returned from the meeting with the deliciously addictive taste of TM on my lips after almost four hours of listening to some scintillating conversations. Woolf was right. Language certainly is the wine on our lips if only we can find a way to grow that vineyard of reasons from where future generations can continue tasting our history’s finest labels.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013 1 reflections

Krishna Row Agraharam

Historic sign at the entrance
The pillars are quiet now yet leaning against them is like meeting a thousand memories. The floors are now ripe with age yet one can feel the soft rumble of a thousand feet from before. The walls have swallowed sunshine and rain yet seem to be forever smeared with voices from a century ago. A mere stroll through #1 Krishna Rao Agraharam – a palatial mansion in the heart of old Kumbakonam – has the potency of bringing back powerful images from another era. Sitting first in a row of several homes built in a similar style this mansion is the highlight of a larger collection that form the part of the legacy of Mr. Gopal Rao – the current descendant and caretaker of a story that began more than two centuries ago. Looking into this house’s generously laid out living spaces, examining the rusted bars sealed between its pleasant blue window frames, taking in the air that envelopes this fine moment in time revealed several stories that span across so many eventful decades.

Portrait of Ranganatha Rao
But the real story of this place begins elsewhere. In those days a man named Narahari Rao is said to have acquired property amounting to over 6000 acres through means that I am told qualify to fill up several interesting volumes. An employee of the then Nayak kings, Rao was said to have changed allegiance to join the East India Company at Tirucherai, a beautiful village nestled on the banks of Cauvery, once the British began establishing domain in the region. Subsequently around 150 years ago his descendants then shifted base to Kumbakonam which was the cultural and literary hub of the time. It was through this move that the person after whom this cocoon of homes is named – Krishna Rao – ended up being a descendant of this huge family.

Living spaces in the ground floor
Though part of an adopted lineage Krishna Rao managed to acquire several urban properties and one of which became the Agraharam. The word “Rao” was spelt “Row” at the time and this can be seen imprinted firmly at the entrance of the street to this day. The word “Private” in the engraving further solidifies his desire to create this spacious haven for all his kith and kin. After Krishna Rao’s time the house continued onto several hands. Amongst first of those were children of Krishna Rao’s two wives (daughters of Reddy Rao, a former Dewan of Travencore). It was his son Ranganatha Rao who built the home located at # 1 in its current state. A fire incident is said to have destroyed what was formerly a smaller establishment.

Pillars in the main area
Built in the naatukottai style the current version of the house is 90 years old. Attached to this generous edifice are several other homes of which # 4 is used by Mr. Gopal Rao whenever he visits Kumbakonam. Homes that follow the fourth house were given away as gifts to Vedic scholars and other employees of the family. A Vittala temple was also constructed as part of this Agraharam while the entire stretch of area opposite to this street was housed by orchards, stables and flowering gardens. Today unfortunately these spaces have been replaced by less attractive and more intrusive concrete blocks where other folks live.

Living area on entering the house
With passing time Krishna Rao’s legacy began taking various forms. Both of Ranganatha Rao’s sons were childless and so children of his three daughters and their families began living in the homes. At one point, and I was shown a fabulous black and white family photograph as evidence, there were more than 150 people living in this house! Just imagining such a crowd walking in and out of its spaces day in day out made me reflect in wonder at the sheer energy of this corner. Of the collection of homes the first two were a place where everyone
Well ventilated spaces on entrance
lived the most. Armed with an attached kitchen the whole place must have felt like a never ending wedding ceremony with hot meals being dished out each hour of the day! Together with the first floor sections the entire collection of four houses in the Agraharam comprise a whopping 22000 square feet in area!
Apart from being one of the largest homes of its time this Agraharam was a pioneer for various things. It was the first residential house to have electricity, running water, a custom built rice hulling mill and a battalion of support staff that included accountants, cart and car drivers, milk men, sweepers, cooks, servers and watchmen. A continuous stream of life forms would enter and exit this activity-heavy entity
Rooms on the first floor
throughout the year. It is said that whenever a celebration of any kind would take place (and you can only imagine the unending crescendo of voices and events at such a time) the entire area including the adjoining streets would be cordoned off to disallow public entry. Rows of cars would be lined up awaiting service at any moment. Adding to this colossal list of amenities was a separate bathing ghat inside the Vittala temple exclusively for the women in the household.

First floor view of the house
As I stood there watching the stories unfold and tales from a bygone era spill forth like velvety dreams my mind filled up with voices and apparitions. I could see men in traditional attire crisscrossing the floor spaces, their faces busy with intent for the day. I could see children wailing on young women’s arms as the elderly ladies sat in corners and dispensed invaluable advice on proper child care. I could smell the heavenly aroma of a dozen dishes emanating from the culinary corners as people – young, old, tall, short, fat, thin, sleepy, awake, known, unknown – sat in dedicated rows indulging in all the delicacies served up on fresh green banana leaves. I smiled at the realization that such a scene perhaps was now a lost glimpse in history’s infinitely growing painting.

The action packed kitchen area
Over the years a trust fund (currently in the name of Satyatma Teertha of Uttaradi Mutt) has been established to help maintain it as best as possible. There are over 30 claimants from the family who sort of own the entire Agraharam. Currently Mrs. Shyamala Rao (Mr. Gopal Rao’s first cousin Ranga Rao’s bereaved septuagenarian wife) lives at the palatial mansion mostly by herself. People who have known the family for literally centuries visit the place often and help out in more ways than one. During our first visit to the house the chronic power blackout that plagues the region had struck. Despite the pitch darkness a certain Geeta aunty – a family friend – prepared a wonderful dinner just for J and I at Mr. Gopal Rao’s request. Watching her serve up that excellent meal with an earnest smile was truly a humbling experience. It helped me learn some more of the cordial relationships that Mr. Gopal Rao has maintained with the families in the neighborhood to this day. Little wonder then that such sincerely helpful people are part of his very diverse network.

Terrace area on the second floor
On our second visit to the Agraharam a larger banquet had been arranged where, due to the water shortage problems at the Vijayendra Swamy mutt nearby, about 30 odd people (mostly strangers) had been invited over for a festive lunch at Mr. Gopal Rao’s residence. We found it fascinating that such a diverse and mutually unknown group was sitting down with us and enjoying the delicious Tanjavur Marathi cuisine coming out of the kitchen. It felt like the ideal way to continue such a beloved family tradition. Some heavenly “emergency halwa” and the quintessential Mandi Sambar Bhath were consumed while observing the dedication that had gone into both preparing and serving up the luncheon.

J spent the next hour and a half of our visit to the palatial house speaking to Mrs. Shyamala Rao. I walked around snapping whatever my limited understanding of such grandeur could surmise. She later told me about the eventful life Mrs. Rao had led in that house since the day she had walked into this gargantuan family as a teenaged bride. Coming from a less traditional background she had spoken of the culture shock she had to put up with in a home that was pretty high on Brahmin orthodoxy. Since it was a time when strict regulations were in place for the women of the house Mrs. Rao had faced an uphill task in getting used to her prescribed chores. Being from a liberal family she had found it challenging to adhere to special feminine restrictions levied upon her during certain times of the month. She, amusingly, shared her grief about having to use a less sophisticated toilet facility which she also admitted had become modernized with time.

View from the first floor
Being a fiercely Brahmin household the concept of soula (“madi” in Kannada and in a lighter tone: also defined as “an exaggerated, sometimes misguided, religious explanation of basic hygiene”) was in full swing. To help maintain this purity of things Mrs. Rao spoke of the different rooms in the Agraharam that had designated functions. One of the rooms in Mr. Gopal Rao’s residence (where I switched over to a traditional South Indian panche/veshtee/waist cloth for the mega festive luncheon) was assigned only for child births. A record number of sixty children are said to have been born there. It was funny, and a little scary, to imagine all the sixty kids wailing in that little room at the same time.

Divine presence on the walls
There remains a strong presence of divine adherence in the family. Hence, the Agraharam has played host to many a swamiji from various Brahmin sects when they spent several days performing prayers and blessing the household. Grainy photographs exist of their attendance to this day acting as a friendly reminder of better days. The pooja room on the ground floor and the large main living area’s walls are sprayed with dozens of photographs of various Hindu gods. I even spotted a couple of authentic Tanjavur paintings in that collection – a family heirloom of sorts – which have been preserved quite well.

Row of rooms on the first floor
Given such an unending stream of social and religious fares the kitchen was always open. In fact Mrs. Rao told us of a traditional wooden stove that was used exclusively only for the Jahangir sweet! Since that sweetmeat was considered “non-Brahmin” (it was from Persia and hence labeled a foreign entity) a special stove was dedicated only to it. The idea of designing something so exclusive to indulge in it whilst maintaining disdain for its origins made us all laugh with empathy at the familiarity of it all. The entire area around the kitchen was used to store large quantities of fresh fruit, vegetables and grains for the endless torrent of people entering and exiting the premises.

The grinding stone
Our meeting with this wonderfully chatty and refreshingly open lady came to an end where, with a sigh, she told us of the changed times. She spoke of her loneliness in that huge mansion after the passing away of her husband. She did mention that loyal helpers (some second or even third generation) of the family dropped by and gave her company but the visible grandeur and majesty of the place was no longer there. Fragmented family structures and shifting priorities had driven everyone away from that cocoon of fellowship. The entire family is now scattered in different parts of the world although some of them do make the long trip back to this house to relive old memories. Mr. Gopal Rao and his family remain one such group.

Though the house is almost a century old it’s condition is still quite robust. Mr. Rao explained to us how the wood for the roof’s insides had to be specially ordered and designed since they were no longer used. All the homes now boast of all the modern facilities but a sad side effect has been the slight compromising of the old world feel. As we discussed the issue we all agreed that too much restoration could have a detrimental effect on the authentic feel of the place and the need to preserve what is left of an era that shall never return.

We stepped back out into the afternoon sun having experienced the warmth and affection of Mr. Gopal Rao, Geetha aunty, Mrs. Shyamala Rao and many other acquaintances of the family. Our trip to this region had been to investigate, understand and appreciate the historic vein that runs through it.  “Krishna Row Agraharam” only amplified that objective by showcasing to us with its silent grace several pleasant echoes from over two centuries ago. For this J and I will be eternally thankful to Mr. Gopal Rao for giving us such a warm invitation to visit his past. Through him we got a chance to meet and be won over by so many humble, transparent and well-meaning individuals. These were people who had lived a life so full of meaning, pride and most importantly so in touch with fellow human beings – an attribute that seems to be quickly vanishing from our chaotic lives. We had gone to the Agraharam to see something from the olden days of life but instead returned with a lot of new perspectives on humanity itself.


Some more beautiful frames from this historic place:

Artifacts around the house
Special stove for making coffee

Stairs to the terrace area
View from the center of the house

Authentic Tanjore paintings
View of roof from the terrace

J with Mrs. Shyamala in living area
Doors to the past are locked


The Pooja Room
Doors leading to inner areas

Sunday, July 14, 2013 2 reflections

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.

5 reflections

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!