Thanjavur ~ A Temple city of South India

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Travel Features >> Thanjavur ~ A Temple city of South India

Thanjavur ~ A Temple city of South India

March 14, 2012

I found myself one night at the sleepy station of Manmad. I was to catch a train that would take me across the delta, over rocky patches and onto the great flat expanse of the southeastern edge of India. My final destination was the town of Thanjavur, best known for its great temple and a rich collection of craftsmen. After getting on the wrong train with a day-old ticket I cajoled the Ticket Checker to allow me to travel. With a stern finger-wag and tut-tut, he gave me a comfortable berth for the overnight journey.

Up at the crack of dawn, I looked out of the window to see the landscape changing from hard granite to red and yellow plains. Soon the train turned a corner, and with the rising sun I had my first glimpse of the Brihadiswara temple – literally, the Great Temple – that dominates life in Thanjavur. So this was it, one of the best known and venerated temples of the hundreds that dot the state. Built nearly a thousand years back, dedicated to the Hindu lord Shiva, the dancing God.

As you alight from the train here, you will hardly have trouble catching a transport. Rather, the transport catches you! For me it was a wide-grinning, burly private taxi operator called Babu. Soon I was efficiently bundled into a gaudily decorated, incense filled van and deposited at my desired hotel. No fuss, no haggling, no hijacking away to the competitor. The hotel was adequately comfortable. Floors were uncarpeted, but clean. A hint of an aroma of sandalwood, camphor and roasted coffee wafted through – a regular presence I found in all buildings here. My mission: to catch hold of a master brassware artisan who had been awarded India’s national award some 3 – 4 years back.

Babu and I began our search in the afternoon. Winding through narrow streets packed with clothes shops, religious paraphernalia, cable television operators and phone booths, we again crossed the Great Temple. I promised the pachyderm swaying it’s trunk invitingly at the doorway, to return early next morning. We meandered through the lanes, replete with carvers, carpenters, masons, temple priests, painters, weavers and finally reached the address I was hunting for. On enquiring though, I found that the master craftsman had been dead for over three years. Nevertheless, I was graciously taken around the workshop where artisans were carving out exquisite metal plates, trays and vessels. Out of the house, we resumed our tour of the streets of Thanjavur.

Established by the prosperous and dynamic Chola rulers in the beginning of the Christian era, Thanjavur still carries the essence of that legacy. Besides the Great Brihadiswara Temple, the town is well known for its brassware artisans, silk sari weavers and most importantly, the rich Tanjore paintings. We found weavers spinning on looms at home, with the whole family chipping in. You cannot zip in and buy these richly coloured heavy silk yards off the shelf. You sit with the weaver, pick your colours and the patterns to be woven into the borders or side drape (‘pallu’) and then he weaves. Families order these saris on special occasions, to be worn at weddings or festivals. Alas, I could only admire some of the finished works and marvel at the pieces on the loom before coming away.

Tanjore paintings, mainly of Hindu gods and goddesses, are usually done on wood or mounted cloth. Made with gold and silver gilt covering, studded with gems and given a unique 3-D effect through skilled painting, these are very expensive pieces. Painted in rich primary colours with cherubic, large-eyed faces, they are a testimonial to the high skill-level of the town. In modern times, some artists have also adapted to alternate media like glass, using varied shades and secular themes, meant for a more urbane taste.

Close to Thanjavur are the centres of the famous bronze sculpture tradition created by the Chola rulers. The small village of Swamimalai and hamlets in Kumbakonam are just over 30 kms away. Here families of artisans, the sthapathis, have been practising their skill generations down. Making icons mostly of the Hindu dancing god Shiva and his consort Parvati. Again, entire families work together at the workshops, each ordained his position in the assembly line. The master of the workshop or household directs the operations, guides new workers, and puts his finishing touch by carving out the eyes – breathing life into the idol as it were. The atmosphere is charged with sacredness. There is no rushing, no haggling over the price. It is almost a ritual, even if you go to buy a small decorative piece.

Next morning, I left early to view the Lord of Brihadiswara. As a time-honoured custom, the presiding deity or Shiva is woken up to an orchestra of drums and pipes. Then, with the incantation of holy verses, the linga, a phallic symbol of Shiva, is bathed, clothed and worshipped. I entered the temple through its east gate, the first of three gateways that lead up to the inner sanctum. My friend the elephant was swinging his welcome, trunk raised for devotees who walked past and even touched him with reverence. A characteristic of all major south Indian temples, these elephants are part of the sacred ritual and are maintained lovingly by the temple’s management.

Through the entrance gate, in the courtyard is a large canopied pedestal with a black granite statue of Nandi, the celestial bull ridden by Shiva. Going ahead, you enter the inner sanctuary housing the stark black linga. Towering over this shrine is the tall hollow-domed octagonal spire, the piece-de-resistance of the temple. Rising up to a whopping 66.5 metres divided into 13 storeys, the srivimana, as it is called, is meant to concentrate cosmic energy onto the shrine. After offering prayers I walked around the surrounding double-storied hallway. The lower one has historical paintings and inscriptions of the Cholas and later rulers. The upper storey is a gallery of classical dance postures – based on the ancient treatise, natyashastra that codified the language of performing arts. After taking in the serene atmosphere of the temple complex, I walked a distance to admire the towering srivimana. Covered with sculptures of gods, goddesses and demi-god figures, this spire is topped with a 80-tonne crest or uttamavimana and a gold shikhara (cupola). Fabled to have been pulled up a six-and-a-half kilometres ramp by elephants, the srivimana is said to be built of a single solid block of granite. I was also told that the temple was positioned in such a manner that the crest never cast its shadow on the floor. I couldn’t verify this, as I would have to wait half a day to witness it. Nor did I want to, because the whole grand structure was so well designed, perfectly balanced and well proportioned, it was indeed a marvel to have been built without any precision measurement tools.

Before I caught my train onward to Chennai, I had enough time to peep into the Thanjavur Palace. Built around the 16th century, the palace houses a priceless collection of old Tanjore paintings. It also has a Music Hall and the Saraswati Mahal library that stores over 10,000 ancient manuscripts, many inscribed on palm leaf. Curiously enough, I also found a Danish church that was added on by a later Maratha ruler in honour of a Rev. Schwartz. Sadly, the entire complex lies in a state of disrepair and few people visit it.

After this short diversion, I returned to pack, settled the hotel bills and took a final ride in Babu’s van to the station. On the way, we again passed Brihadiswara, where the lord had awoken from his afternoon nap to bless more devotees in the evening. The fragrance of sacred incense, sound of music and buzzing streets were left behind as we headed to the station. I boarded the train, this time with the right ticket, saying goodbye to a thousand years – a visit through time I would always remember.

- This article has been contributed by Tanushree Sengupta

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