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…..
Tiruvannamalai is in many ways the ideal place to start one’s temple tour of south India. Our little foursome hired a taxi for the day as we wanted to get back to our seaside haven for evening and buses and trains can be slow and often unreliable. We drove through some magnificently fertile country filled with rice fields and some forest plantations. Suddenly through the hazy morning a steep hill emerged as if it had been a stone cast by some primaeval giant. Unsurprisingly the hill was crowned by a fort. Gingee fort was part of the defences of the carnatic nawabs in these parts before the British annexed their domains in 1761. Known by the Brits as the Troy of the East the fort stands on top of a virtually sheer vertical slopes and must surely be one of the most impregnable places in the world.
After a couple of hours we entered the busy temple town of Tiruvannamalai and headed for Ramana Maharshi’s ashram. Ramana Maharshi is one of the pantheon of Indian sages who have influenced so many aspects of western philosophy and even theology. He changed the lives of several westerners visitors including Paul Brunton (‘Search in Secret India’), Major Alan Chadwick (”A Sadhu’s Reminscences of Ramana Maharshi’) and David Godman (‘No Mind – I am the Self’).
The ashram was a truly peaceful place filled with devotees and other visitors. Here was the great man’s samadhi or cremation slab and here, too, were relics from his life on earth.
Ramana’s path to enlightenment began with his youthful near-death experience whose account was inscribed on a marble slab in the ashram’s entrance hall. How many of us have had this unnerving experience I wonder? Ramaran felt he was observing his own body while floating in spirit above it. This led him to develop his philosophy, particularly
From the ashram a path leads up to the top of mount Arunachal, Shiva’s fire mountain where every year on Shivraatri, Shiva’s night a giant bonfire is lit on top representing the element of fire which is associated with the main Thiruvannamalay Annamalayar Shiva temple of Tiruvannamalai. There are five elements in Hindu cosmology: earth, water, fire, air and space. Each one is represented by a particular temple in South India, an association known as the pancha bhoota stalam. It is the hope of devotees of Shiva to pay a pilgrimage to each one in their lifetime. At least we made a start.
The path weaving its way up the sun-baked slopes of Arunachal’s extinct volcano to reach the simple room where the guru meditated and received his acolytes. A few of them were there when we arrived and we soaked in the placid atmosphere far away from the city’s bustle below us. From a projecting rock a splendid view spread out below us.
The principal feature was the strict geometry of the Annamalayar temple with its four shining white gopurams.
We’d made an early start in our trek but the heat built up on our descent. We were glad to drink some much needed water.
After a welcome biryani rice meal we headed for the main temple but unfortunately were unable to enter it since the access routes were closed and there was a substantial police presence as a political figure had been hacked to death by two attackers. That day the assassins had been found and it transpired that the motive for the murder was the non-repayment of a debt. This is the story from the newspaper and a security video showed the gory details.
Since Shiva is the destroyer in the Hindu trinity of gods we felt that his hand had too been involved here. Anyway, we will certainly return to Tiruvannamalai and hopefully be able to visit this majestic temple st a more peaceful time.