Friday, October 10, 2014

The Great Living Chola Temples Of Tamilnadu

An edited version of this piece appeared in The Week dated 9th October, 2014.

The seed of my trip to the great living Chola temples of Tamil Nadu were sown on a pleasant morning three years ago, in the courtyard of the Sriranganathaswamy temple in Srirangam. I had travelled to the temple towns of Tiruchurapally and Srirangam on a whim and the beauty of their temples had left me spell bound. That morning, as my guide had told me about the other temple towns of Tamil Nadu, I had resolved to come back and experience them for myself, especially the ones enlisted with UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. 

The great living Chola temples—Brihadisvara at Thanjavur, Airavatesvara at Darasuram and Brihadisvara at Gangaikondacholapuram—are three such temples. Built during the eleventh and twelfth century by the rulers of the Chola dynasty, the most powerful of all dynasties that ruled southern India for over four hundred and fifty years, they still stand intact as a testimony to the affluence, brilliance and craftsmanship of the golden period. A Stamp from UNESCO only confirms their significance as world heritage.

I reach Thanjavur after a long, sleepless night – I had spent half of it in the train with a snoring co-passenger and the other half sitting straight at the Trichy railway station before taking a bus to reach Thanjavur. The gates of the Brihadisvara temple are still shut and the sun still asleep. In the faint light, I can just about make out the silhouette of the temple; the sight is enough to replace all my fatigue with excitement. By the time the gates open, the sky behind the colossal spire has lit up and a brilliant, bright blue canvas with an enormous temple tower stands in front of me.

Built in the eleventh century by Rajaraja Chola, the thousand year old sandstone and granite complex is surrounded by a moat and a boundary, and is among the most valued temple complexes in the country. Its three gopurams, added much later by subsequent dynasties, are significantly smaller than the main spire (an exception to the usual Dravidian architecture), and perfectly compliment the grandness of the 216 feet high structure. Its sculpted, pyramid shaped tower is monolithic, as is the gigantic 16 feet tall Nandi that guards the shrine. The corridors and halls of the temple are adorned with rich, exquisite paintings and murals displaying the life and times of Chola dynasty.

I spend half an hour going around the complex gazing at the humongous spire, the gigantic Nandi, and the sprawling complex. I also visit the three smaller temples of Parvati, Ganesha and Subramanya before entering the main shrine located in the centre of the courtyard. When I finally reach the sanctum sanctorum, I happen to be the only visitor inside. Two priests—the only other people inside the temple—are busy with their morning rituals and don't even notice my presence. The sanctum is illuminated only by the lights of long, multi-layered oil lamps suspended from the high ceiling. I enjoy a long audience with the lord (a 23 feet high Shivlinga), thank him for getting me here, and offer a token dakshina in the donation box.

Guide maps had told me that the second temple, located in Darasuram, was not more than four kilometers from the famous town of Kumbakonam. I had therefore expected to reach easily, but it took me a good forty minutes to find out how to get to the Airavatesvara temple, my next destination. The journey however, took only twenty.

Built by Rajaraja II, the Airavatesvara temple is much smaller than I expect it to be (the main temple is only 80 feet high). Although a Shiva temple, it is named after Indra’s royal elephant Airavata. According to the legend, cursed by the infamous Durvasa rishi, Indra’s royal elephant had come to the temple and had prayed to Shiva for atonement; he was cured after bathing in the sacred water of the temple tank and has been a deity here ever since.

Unlike the big temple at Thanjavur, the beauty of this one lies in its compactness. Built on a platform carved in the form of a chariot, complete with stone horses and wheels, the temple has ornate pillars and columns with exquisitely carved animal, human and celestial figures. Smaller shrines of Parvati, Ganesha and Subramanya are located next to the main temple that houses the Shivalinga. The entire complex surrounded by lush, beautifully manicured lawns and high palm trees, looks like a picture postcard. I spend a long time inside the sanctum talking to the young priest in broken English and absorbing the serenity and beauty of the place. When I leave the complex, the temple is gleaming like a priceless gem in the light of the setting sun.

My final destination, a temple in the town of Gangaikondacholapuram, was built by Rajendra Chola, the son of Rajaraja Chola. He had set up the town of Gangaikondacholapuram after returning victorious from his northern conquests (the name literally translates into ‘the town of the king who brought in the water of Ganga’). An ambitious man, Rajendra Chola had assisted his father in various conquests all throughout the peninsula before setting up his own capital here. He supposedly built this temple to outshine the one in Thanjavur.

But all this information fails me when I reach the Kumbakonam bus stop looking for a bus that could take me to the erstwhile capital. After running from one bus to another, struggling to explain my destination to the drivers, I almost give up on the hope of reaching Gangaikondacholapuram. Just when I am contemplating return, a kind, English-speaking gentleman directs me to the bus going towards my destination. I reach the capital town of Rajendra Chola, four hours later.

The temple at Gangaikondacholapuram, located in the middle of nowhere, is indeed grand – and very well maintained. Larger than the one at Darasuram and much more elaborate than the one at Thanjavur, it stands high at 182 feet inside a large complex, the layout of this complex is different from the other two and the smaller shrines are placed differently. It has no gopuram either.

Although all three temples are living temples – they follow the ancient vedic rituals and the deities are worshipped everyday – I get to see a live, elaborate ceremony only in this one: the priests are pouring milk, honey, water and other offerings on the Shivlinga, hymns are being chanted and a family of four is earnestly praying to Shiva when I reach inside. The sanctum is dark with only faint sunlight illuminating the Shivlinga. Once the ceremony finishes, the gentleman presiding over tells me that the only source of light inside the sanctum is the reflection of sun’s rays from the Nandi outside and that the Shivlinga is at its brightest around four in the evening when the rays fall straight on the Nandi. He also tells me that gopuram of this temple was pulled down by the British while constructing a dam near by (they had found a ready source of stones in it). The broken gopuram happens to be the only clink in Rajendra Chola’s otherwise perfect armour. But then, even the moon has scars.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014


So it happened again. I inadvertently offended someone because of my insecurities and limitations, and, once again, ruined my first impression. But I should not be affected by it in the least, given that most of my adult life I have been doing this.

Some months ago, shortly after I had started sharing my blog with people who know me, one of my cousins wrote to me saying how she was amazed to discover what an emotional person I was, because, according to her, like many others, I was an arrogant bitch who cares nothing about others. But I cannot blame her, or anyone else for that matter, for that is an image I perhaps have chosen for myself, although accidentally.

As a child I was very sentimental and naive (I still am, actually), other children would bully me, call me names, use me to get their work done and dump me. But I would be so attached to these so-called friends of mine that I would still long to be with them. I remember when one of my friends had stolen something from the class and when found out, she blamed me for it. The teachers refused to believe what I said and I was made to stand in outside the Principals office for two full days. My legs shook and my back hurt, I wept all day but did not complain, after all it was my friend I was doing it for. But when I went back to her the following day, she refused to talk to me, saying I was a thief. I will never forget that moment of humiliation. At eight I had learnt an important lesson, or not quite.

The thing with people who have very few friends is that those few become the axis of their lives, and they, like me, can go any length -- or breadth -- for them, even when not asked for. And, in doing so, sometimes also expect a little in return, which they usually do not get (ever heard of being taken for granted?). It happened with me too, all the time, and every time I was hurt deeper than before.

And so, one fine day, I wore a mask. A mask that hid my real, gullible self behind a tough, rude exterior. That I was quiet and insecure, and not naturally inclined to talk to strangers only helped.

Fortunately or unfortunately, people who meet me for the first time usually see this mask and are sometimes offended by it. But then there are also those who are able to see beyond the mask, into the eyes, and those are the only ones I really care for. The rest don't matter.

PS: The mask might have reduced the number of times I am hurt by people, but it has not been able to prevent it, even now I keep getting hurt by people I love the most. Don't they say old habits die hard?

Sunday, October 5, 2014

At Home With The Mahatma

My Piece in The Hindu, Oct 4th 2014:

A trip to Porbandar had never been on my travel list, but when I found the opportunity to visit the town, although just for a few hours, I could not let it pass.

Located in between the holy towns of Dwarka and Somnath, along the coast of Gujrat, Porbandar is a pilgrimage in its own right. Although an important port and trade centre, it is most famous for being the birthplace of Gandhi. Everyday, hundreds of people travel the length and breadth of India –and the world—to reach this obscure town and witness for themselves the house where Mohan Das Karamchand Gandhi was born on a pleasant morning of 2nd October 1869. My only stop happens to be the same – the birthplace of Gandhi.

Standing tall among crumbling buildings, on a narrow lane, in the heart of Porbandar, is Kirti Bhavan. Distinguishable from the other buildings – mostly small dilapidated shops – by its fresh yellow paint and high grille gates, the complex houses both: the ancestral home of Gandhi and the memorial built by a local industrialist in his honour. And a walkway leading to Kasturba Gandhi’s parental home.

The triple storied haveli, said to have been bought in the seventeenth century by MK Gandhi’s great grandfather from a local woman, is plain and simple, and in no way denotes that its residents were wealthy Dewans of the princely state of Porbandar. The rooms are small, the doors low and the wooden stairs narrow. The only thing that stands out is the green of the windowpanes. But for the red letters on the arch of the doorway claiming it to be ‘The birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi’, the house can pass off as any other old haveli – and the town has many of them, most more elaborate than this.

Although swarming with people of all kinds – rich and poor, young and old, Indians and NRIs, the haveli is calm and peaceful. The visitors are quiet too: climbing up the steep wooden ladder with the help of a thick greasy rope, gazing intently at the red swastik that denotes the exact spot of Gandhi’s birth, reading about his initial years spent in the house, talking in hushed tones. Some seem to be soaking in the peace, others, like me, trying to imagine how the house might have looked more than one hundred and forty years before when Gandhi was born: would anyone have thought that the baby will become one of the chief architects of modern India?

What strikes most about the house is its barrenness – unlike other museums, there is nothing on display here, apart from empty rooms and stark walls.

Within the same complex, stands the memorial or Kirti Mandir. The 79 feet tall temple (commemorating the 79 years of the Mahatma’s life) was completed and inaugurated in May of 1950, two years after Gandhi’s death, and is suppose to have architectural elements from all religions as a symbol of his religious tolerance. Even though Gandhi did not live to see the Mandir, he had known about it and had consented to integrate the memorial with his ancestral home. The papers of consent are exhibited in the library along with many other letters, pictures, and books. Apart from the library there is a small museum, a hall, and two smaller memorials dedicated to Maganlal Gandhi and Mahadev Desai – close aids of Bapu.

It is strange that this part of the complex, with the exhibits, library, museum and a shop should have far lesser visitors than the barren haveli.

The corridor that houses two life-size portraits of Kasturba and Mohandas Gandhi with ‘Truth’ and ‘Non Violence’ etched at their feet however is far from empty; many stand in front of the paintings staring at them as if trying to fathom whether Bapu and Ba actually existed. 

Standing here, in the quiet courtyard, it seems quite possible that they did, although in another world.