Jan 30, 2004:
We leave our home in Chennai early and hit the East Coast Highway as the sun just rises from the Bay of Bengal. At the toll booth, the international feel is unmistakable as the attendant slips in a fresh newspaper along with the bill and wishes a "happy journey!" (the toll is international as well). the sea shimmers, grey-green and then blue, a breeze wafts in and the car cruises along at a religiously maintained 60 kmph speed; As a neo-convert to driving, it feels good to grip the wheel in its leather cover and be in control and good to see that the mileage is above 20 km to a liter of petrol.
Pondicherry is reached in 3 hours and a mess of cycles and two wheelers envelopes us. the pleasure part is over; it is a normal highway hereafter. Cuddalore and Chidambaram pass us by; the road turns inland and its quality dips alarmingly. The smaller the town, the more congested it is in these parts; no bypasses, no direction boards, one-ways which lead you into dead ends.
It gets warmer and sultrier; the gold-tinged green of ripening paddy fields unfurls all around; patches of it are already under harvest. We pass Mayiladuthurai, Seerkazhi, Vaitheeswarankoil, Tribhuvanam - small, dusty tired looking towns ( but each one of them has a huge temple). Speeds of even 30 kmph are mostly unattainable as clumsy tractor trailers loaded with harvest clog the road.
Kumbakonam is finally reached (8 hours flat for 300 km); This would be our base camp for the next two days. The hotel is decent; the room has a 'manual' displayed prominently: "How to be a good Hindu?" - the instructions include a carefully balanced mixture of Saiva and Vaishnava practices.
The 6 km drive to Darasuram takes half an hour as the narrow roads are being relaid (at rush hour) for a big fest due in March. Kumbakonam is old (perhaps even ancient) and cluttered with temples of all shapes and sizes (it also used to be Math super-wiz Ramanujan's hometown). It is on the banks of the Kaveri, a not very wide sluggish stream here, since it has lost much of the water to its major distributary Kollidam a little upstream.
The 'Airavateswara' temple at Darasuram (1100 AD) has an unfortunate, construction site feel. Restoration is in progress, workers toil, cement dust in the air... The temple is rich in sculpture (mostly miniatures on pillars and running friezes on the 'base' of the edifice). A grand pyramidal vimana caps the sannidhi. An elderly priest shows us some more, larger sculpture - the statue of Kannapa Nayanar, a devout hunter who offered his eyes to the lord ("look at his smart sandals!"), a sensuous goddess image (" note her manicured nails!") and more. Another goddess image on the ruddy sandstone sannidhi wall is draped in a bright green silk sari and actively worshipped.
A more modern (17th century?) masonry gopuram stands derelict outside the temple enclosure. There is also a 'Nandi Mandapa' with an arched and domed pavilion over it - perhaps a reminder of the Maratha presence in these parts (17th - 19th century).
Note: I have come to know that Carl Sagan's celebrated science serial 'Cosmos' (a huge source of inspiration to me in much younger days), has a few seconds worth of footage shot inside the Darasuram temple. It is a bit of puzzle why Sagan chose this particular (not all that well-known) site to frame his remarks on ancient Indian cosmogony.
We paused at the Nageswara temple in the heart of Kumbakonam for a brief dekko. The granite walls of the sanctum are of 9th century make - profusely inscribed with splendidly crafted near life size human figures. Above is a garishly colored superstructure which could fit any modern roadside shrine; this overlay of unabashed kitsch on authentic antiquity makes for a strangely interesting spectacle. A sad discordant note is struck by a pvc pipe that runs right across the ancient walls.
Jan 31, 2004:
We drive to Tanjavur past more rice paddies, the road twists and winds thru small villages, several of which seem Muslim dominated; the traffic is utterly chaotic; we see a two wheeler caught under a bus and people standing around and two men lying prone and very still and still bleeding...
Tanjavur is a biggish town with more than its share of civic mess; we pick our way thru the conjested lanes and suddenly the pyramidal vimana of the 'Big Temple' (built by Rajaraja, the greatest Chola around 1000 AD) appears, thrusting over the ramshackle skyline of the town. This colossal tower, sparsely carved, severely geometric, dominates everything in the vicinity (*). The principal object of worship in the temple is a dozen foot shivalingam. The 'paal abhishekam' is a spectacle - pots and pots of milk is poured from above and explodes on the massive and starkly black granite lingam. A bronze statue of Rajaraja stands, hands folded, facing the Lord (there seems to be some controversy whether it is indeed a contemporary portrait). The best sculpture in the temple is sadly, out-of-bounds to the public. A vast open space surrounds the core temple and is in turn enclosed by fortress-like walls and a moat. The temple owns an aged female elephant and we pay the handler 10 bucks and get snapped standing next to it, the elephant 'salutes' as the camera flashes and one feels sorry for it.
At the Maratha palace and art gallery, we see a library of centuries old manuscripts and spectacular millennium old sculpture and chola bronzes unearthed from grand sounding places - Tiruvidaimarudur, Tiruvenkadu, Kulashekharanallur,.. The 'Gajasamhara', a near lifesize black stone sculpture of shiva frozen in frenzied death-dance, tearing an elephant-demon asunder. 'Vrishabhavahana', Shiva in a languid pose, apparently leaning on to his bull (the bull is missing) with his feet intertwined; parvati stands beside him in a similar pose; the twosome reminds one of the poses struck by salman and madhuri in posters of "Hum Aapke Hai Koun?". More academically, the style in which the matted locks of Shiva are tied up - like an elaborate turban - is a surprise. Indeed there is quite a range of coiffure in shiva images of those times - the usual elaborate 'jatamakuta', the fiery crown of Bhairava, the almost 'Bob Marley dreadlocks' style in the 'Bhikshatana' version and then, this unusual 'turban'.
We drive on further to sleepy Tribhuvanam, which has yet another ancient Chola - temple dedicated to Shiva as 'Sharabheshwara' - the 'book' gives the name of this temple as 'Kampahareswara' (here one sees many human figures carved on the 'Vimana' - the Vimana of the big temple in Tanjavur has only designs and patterns and that at Gangaikondacholapuram has but very little statuary - and thus seems to foreshadow the later gopurams which are thick with sculpture). We also visit nearby Tiruvidaimarudur which has a somewhat newer (400 years types) - again Shiva - temple which is of vast size with massive walls, labyrinthine passages and enclosures; in the cavernous inner spaces, it is quite cool even in the afternoon. The Nandi bull facing the main sanctum is nearly 20 feet tall; Brahmin boys sporting the traditional shikha sit clustered near the Nandi and recite some holy formulae.
Back at Kumbakonam, we see the vast tank where in march, millions will take a holy dip (no water now, the bed being prepared with fresh sand and families are picnicking out there).
Feb 1, 2004:
We leave Kumbakonam and hit the Chennai highway; a misty dawn. The road is decent, the terrain flat, we cross the wide and water-starved (this is a drought year) Kollidam river over two very long bridges and by 8 reach Gangaikondacholapuram, named after Rajendra, Rajaraja's son, who brought water from ganga to consecrate a newly built temple here. The temple itself is huge - the central vimana tower is only slightly smaller than the tanjavur one but unlike the hard angular profile of the latter, is smoothly curvaceous and as the cliche goes, the female counterpart to it (though its unique bell-curve profile is also vaguely phallic).
There is much well-above-life-size sculpture on the temple walls - often overpoweringly 'present'. One wonders how these carvings would have looked and felt if they were fully 3-dimensional, stand-alone entities - not part of walls and pillars (and thus parts of a larger architecture). This observation perhaps applies to most ancient Indian sculpture (exceptions like 'priest king' and 'dancing girl' of Mohenjo Daro, the lion capital of Sarnath or the Didarganj 'Yakshi' are few and far between). Even the magnificent Chola bronzes are expected to be viewed primarily frontally and are thus, say, "two and a half D".
We drive down a mud road about 2-3 kilometers to where Rajendra Chola's palace stood. Only the brick foundations exist and they don't cover more than 3-4000 sq. ft - just a big bungalow. Rather odd, one feels, that a guy who built such a massive temple did not do anything much for himself. there is an open-air museum near there with stone sculpture and inscribed stone slabs laid about. Hardly anyone about; a shady mango grove stands nearby; bamboo thickets.. Bird voices punctuate the silence. Bathed in the morning sunshine, the temple Vimana appears to float over the tree-line.
The next stage of the journey is easily the most scenic. The road is straight; Tamarind trees line the road and the foliage forms a feathery green vault above; a canal full of water lilies runs alongside. Paddy fields stretch away on both sides with occasional clumps of teak trees; the landscape is picture perfect. However the ground reality is totally dominated by crater-like potholes which make driving an adventure. Occasionally, a bus comes screaming at us and we scaramble off the road in mortal fear. Paddy is laid thick and we have plow thru it sometimes for hundreds of meters at a stretch. And, this is a State Highway! The 35 km to Chidambaram takes an hour and a half. Somewhere in the middle of it, we ask a passerby whether the road is so bad all the way. He says everyday he gets to hear the question from someone or the other and that the government had better do something. And he adds the road would get much better towards the end. It does not.
It is a profound relief when temple gopurams appear in the distance. The Chidambaram temple marks the spot where Siva performed his Nataraja dance originally - an immensity of gopurams, walls, shrines, subshrines, pillared halls, corridors, holy ponds, quadrangles.... At the very core of all this buildup is the sheer void of the 'Ether Lingam' - the subtle (non-)essence of the mystery, 'rahasyam' of Chidambaram. Stern 'Dikshitar' Brahmins, sticklers for tradition, run the show here. Their womenfolk in 18 cubit Iyer sarees (many of whom are quite slender and willowy, as opposed to their generally hefty men) are part of the spectacle.
It is almost midday now. the rest of our journey (4 hours or so) is smooth and low-key. We reach the east coast highway and coast along at 20 km per liter, homeward bound.
(*) I sense a certain resemblance between the Brihadiswara Vimana and the (reputedly much more ancient) Mahabodhi temple at Bodh Gaya.