If there is one place in south India that has to visited above all else then it is Tanjore with its Bridaseshwara temple. This building is the supreme glory of the Chola dynasty and represents religious architecture as its celestial summit.
I’d visited this temple when young but when I approached it yesterday after so many years it seemed born anew; reaching the precincts in the late afternoon when the declining sun’s rays began to tinge the building with a glorious honey-dew colour will remain with me forever as a truly exstatic moment of my life.
In 2010 the temple celebrated its thousandth year of existence with an extensive cultural programme of dance and song.Although we missed that we arrived just at the right time for the temple doors to be opened and to admit the devotees, who had gathered from all parts of India, into the grihasta or sanctum sanctorum of this Shivaite shrine originally constructed for the performance of rituals to confirm the divine right of the chola kings. We passed down a crepuscular passageway marked by sculptures of gods and daemons before receiving ashes and a gold coloured chord from the chief brahmin priest. I felt particularly awed by the fact that the ceremonies performed at this shrine were older than those undertaken at ancient Greek temples and, unlike those, had been continuously observed into the present times. Truly a living history!
Tanjore also has a somewhat unkempt royal palace which houses, among other treasures, a precious collection of chola bronzes up to the standard of those in the Chennai museum.
Tanjore and its great temple was the unforgettable climax of our exploration of India’s Hindu heartland of Tamilnad – a visit to cherish until we too join the mysterious domain of the gods…..
Chennai, or Madras as it was called until 1996, is often avoided by those who use the capital of Tamilnadu, as just a commencement point for their exploration of India. Less full of highlights than the other three major cities of the subcontinent: Mumbai, Kalkotta and Delhi, Chennai is definately worth looking at and deserves a longer stay.
Tiruchirappali, formerly known by the British as Trichinopoly, is a city of close to a million inhabitants which lies near the geographical centre of Tamilnadu. It has a long and distinguished history dating from the third century bc when it was part of the Chola empire. Conquered in turn by the Pandyas, tbe Pallavas, the Nayaks it eventually became part of the British empire in 1801 when they drove the French out. Not as frequented as some other great temple centres of India it remains a stunning place to visit principally because of two main sights. Continue reading
Two books I’ve taken from my Longoio shelves to read in the South Indian tropics are ‘Shilappadikaram’ (the ankle bracelet) by Prince Ilango Adigal and ‘Last man in Tower’ by Aravind Adiga. Almost two thousand years separate the two works, yet they are both recognizably by Tamil writers.
Shilappadikaram is a third century verse romance which is attributed to a Jain prince. The story deals with the miraculous and the tragic, the often wrought relationship between gods and men and the cruelty arising from karma where actions committed in past lives always return to bear fruit.
Apart from the hapless love tale between Kovalan and Kannaki the romantic epic offers precious insights into Tamil culture of the third century AD and, frankly, not much has changed. The religious rituals performed in present-day hindu temples follow identical formulas and caste customs have changed not very much. Fishing and agriculture still adhere to the same patterns and village life is still recognisably the same.
The Shilappadikaram contains wonderful descriptions of music, drama and dance including detailed technical data on the art formd (eg on tuning vinas and mrindagams – south indian lutes snd drums). These are used today in the renaissance of Bharat natyam dance and carnatic music so characteristic of Tamilnadu.
The other book I have brought with me, ‘Last man in tower’ is another engrossing and encompassing novel by Man-booker prize winner Adiga who was born in Chennai, (formerly Madras). The rapid and often uproarous changes which India is now undergoing are vividly described in a story involving a group of inhabitants of an old housing estate in Mumbai who have to face speculative forces from real estate agents. As always the plot gives the author every chance to employ his prodigious descriptive powers. The colours, smells and noises of the semi-organised chaos of an Indian megalopolis are truly felt on one’s pulse.
Two books by Tamil authors which entrap and enrapture the reader with their magic prose – it’s little wonder that some of the best writing comes out of the multifarious, multicultured world inhabiting the sub-continent.