I had sent this titled – Chola! and thanks for all the bronze… it appeared on March 14th in HT Cafe as Temples of a dynasty… Here is the original version.
Long after I returned from Thanjavur, I kept telling friends, the cholas were dudes. Most predictably gave me strange looks but there were a few who understood; like me, they had travelled to Chola territory.
Take a look at the Big Temple in Thanjavur. Ask anyone in the city for the Brihadeeswara temple and chances are you will draw a blank look, as I do. The big temple, I clarify quickly, and the auto driver nods his head in immediate comprehension. I catch sight of the gopuram towering at a height of 216 feet (about 70 metres) and know why big is barely enough to describe this temple.
The kalasam (dome) on top of the temple sits heavy at over 80 tons and historians believe that it was hoisted to the top on a 6 km long ramp – an ancient Egyptian technique adopted for the building of their sacred pyramids. I personally like to imagine that someone had taken a swig of the magic potion, like Obelix from the Asterix comics, but that is neither here nor there.
Legend has it that Thanjavur is named after a demon – why that is so in a country with enough gods to name each town and have some left over, I cannot say – the rakshasa Thanjan who lived there. As with all self-respecting rakshasas, he terrorized the people, who implored the gods to save them. Lord Vishnu duly heeded their prayers and destroyed him on the banks of the Cauvery. Why he should, again the story does not explain but the Lord granted the dying demon a boon and the city Thanjavur – thanjai in Tamil for refuge – was born.
If it was a demon who gave life to the city, it was a great ruler Rajaraja Cholan (ruled 985 – 1014 AD) who gave it form and flesh and made it the Thanjavur we know today. Born Arulmozhivarman, he went on to conquer large parts of South India, to be called Rajaraja Cholan, the king of kings. One of Tamilnadu’s favorite works of literature, Ponniyin Selvan features the big temple as a dream in the young prince’s sleep.
When we enter the temple through the main gate in the early evening, there is nothing dreamlike about it.
The atmosphere is very earthy, with the smell of the ground washed by the mild rain mixing with the heady fragrance of burning camphor. The temple elephant is busy blessing passersby and pilgrims for a few rupees. The massive Nandi statue is being bathed with milk and honey and all things sweet, in a monthly cleansing ritual, with a hundred odd people seated in front of it, unmindful of the wet mud.
The big temple is not painted in bright garish colors in the manner of other popular temples in the region. It stands stark but welcoming, its walls washed clean by the unseasonal rains. The rain water has formed small puddles all over the sides of the temple, catching broken reflections of the tower, with all its intricate carving. With this temple, there is a grace and fluidity in every corner that is not normally associated with ‘big’. This paradox was described best by art historian Fergusson when he said of the Cholas that they ‘conceived like giants and finished like jewellers’.
We then sit in a corner, watching the local crowds in their best Friday evening temple attire, our senses in overdrive, as the sounds of the priests’ uniform chants reach us in a low buzz, while the temple bells ring out periodically to signify the beginning or end of a particular ritual. Three young locals are sitting next to us and exchanging not so subtle notes in Tamil about their teachers in college. An old woman prostrates herself in the direction of the main temple and when she gets up, her eyes are brimming over in a moving display of emotion called kanneer bhakti – worship with tears. As it gets dark, we head out in search of dinner; at the gate the temple elephant is still doing brisk business, taking and handing over the coins to his young owner, kids shrieking in terror and delight as he brings his mottled trunk down to their heads in a blessing.
The next morning we head out of town, in search of the ‘other big temple’, built by Rajendra Cholan. The junior Chola outdid his father Rajarajan in his conquests and marched victoriously all the way to the shores of the Ganges (West Bengal today), earning himself the tongue-twisting sobriquet of gangaikondacholan (or GKC as I took to calling him fondly, and conveniently) – the Chola who conquered the land of the Ganges.
Gangaikondacholapuram is a dusty non-descript village; it is impossible to imagine that this served as the Chola capital for over two centuries. It lies forgotten, even by locals many of whom stare at us in surprise before pointing in the general direction. We take a tentative turn off the main highway leading towards Chidambaram and Chennai, and follow the path that seems to lead nowhere. And suddenly, the driver veers sharp into a narrow lane to the left, and the temple appears in our view, quiet and forgotten, a lesser loved step-child.
In structure and size, this temple is similar to its more famous counterpart in Thanjavur. Almost. For, GKC apart from being a victorious ruler, was a respectful son. The main tower is made of fewer tiers – eight – as compared to thirteen, making the structure shorter at 185 feet (although the Shiva Linga inside is larger, both in height and circumference). This temple too is dedicated to Brihadeeswara, though in general considered more ‘feminine’ than the other temple, thanks to the curves on the tower in place of sheer straight lines alone.
The atmosphere too is more relaxed here; a few families are picnicking on the neat lawns inside the temple complex, their kids teasing monkeys with scraps of food. Near the entrance, a bunch of boys have found a rusting wheelbarrow to play with and pose for my camera even as the care-taker runs towards them waving a stick in a threatening manner.
And then on to Darasuram.
If the temples at Thanjavur and GKCpuram are grand and elegant, it is the one at Darasuram near Kumbakonam that can be called pretty, a term rarely used to describe places of worship. Built in the mid 12th century by Rajaraja Cholan II (not the original dude but a later-day successor), this temple was neglected for a long time. It has been renovated by the ASI recently and sits wearing a new coat of life that is charming. It is late in the evening as I walk into the temple premises, and the sun is setting low in the sky, casting eerie shadows on the row of nandis sitting on the wall all around the temple complex. There are a few worshippers here too though most visitors including locals seem to be there for what I can only describe as the experience.
The presiding deity here is Shiva as Airavateshwara, because he was worshipped at this temple by Airavata, the white elephant of the King of the Gods, Indra. The front mandapam (hall) of this temple built to look like a chariot, resembles the one at Konark several thousand miles away, in shape and type of architecture. As I walk around the main temple, the carvings on the wall call out; apart from the usual suspects of gods and goddesses, there are interesting ones of dancers with limbs twisted in impossible positions, and combinations of animals, including the yaazhi (a mythical animal combining the features of a lion and an elephant) at several places, yet another similarity with Konark. In the fading light, it is difficult to sort out which limbs begin from where and belong to what, and I soon give up.
Take a flight or train in to Trichy (Tiruchirapalli), the nearest large city – Thanjavur is 55 km away on a good highway. GKCpuram is 61 km from Thanjavur and Darasuram 34 km in the other direction, though if you hire a car, it is possible to visit all three temples in one day. In Thanjavur, Hotel Sangam is overpriced but the only large hotel for tourists and close to the Big Temple; a better option is Ideal River View Resort, just outside the city.