ANAMIKA

'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Pictures from the Chola Country

Having spent a lot of energy 'researching' and documenting Darasuram (last post here), I can only manage an extended picture essay on the rest of the recent tour of Thanjavur and its environs... These pictures record but a tiny fraction of what we saw. I can only assure my Readers that there is a helluva lot more out there for you to go and discover (and as for general information, many and much better people have written libraries about this wonderful realm)!
Note: In what follows, passages from the 2005 post on the 'Cola Realm' occasionally resurface - in italics...

Thanjavur:

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 ...A vast open space surrounds the core temple and is in turn enclosed by fortress-like walls and a moat.

Here is the ultimate Showpiece of Indian temple architecture - the Thanjavur Brihadeesvara temple (note: the word showpiece is intentional. The temple was built purely as an expression of Rajaraja's regal splendor, not to mark a previously holy site):


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Rajaraja Chola who built Brihadeeswara, also called himself 'Keralantaka', the 'finisher' of Kerala. Did he conquer the whole of Kerala or only the southern tip? Was Kerala so important in those days? Did 'Kerala' in those days mean the western coastal strip at all? I am not sure. Anyways, here is the 'Keralantaka Gopuram', outer gateway to Brihadeeswara (a lot of it certainly appears to postdate the main temple, not sure by how much; and similar is the feeling given by the inner gateway, the Rajaraja Gopuram!).


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Entry is free and hassle-free, even for these canines, basking in the balmy December weather right in front of the immense central shrine...


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The lower storeys of the central shrine viewed side-on... Pilgrims bound for the Melmaruvathur temple, in their blood red saris spike up the sober elegance of granite...


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The immense walls of this temple are densely inscribed; in my estimate, if they are all copied and printed, the inscriptions here could run to over 100 pages. And since experts have published volumes upon volumes on Chola epigraphy (a particularly interesting example seems to be the work of Daud Ali whom I got to know about but yesterday), I shall just present a couple of pictures...




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Another picture of devotion from this very actively functioning temple...


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The principal object of worship in the temple is a dozen foot shivalingam. The 'paal abhishekam' is a spectacle - pots and pots of milk are poured from above and explode on the massive and starkly black granite lingam.
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An over six foot granite 'sarcophagus' lying in the outer parikrama pathway:


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A rusting cannon rests beside the central shrine - presumably it dates back to c 1700-1800 when this part of the country was intensely fought over by the Marathas, the Nawabs of Arcot, the Nizam, Hyder and Tipu, the Brits and the French. The last mentioned are said to have converted the temple into a garrison and dug the moat that still surrounds it.



Note: History lovers often tend to be totally insensitive to long periods in the trajectories of even historically significant places during which they evolved without intervention from 'glamorous' actors. For example, even for most serious-minded students, the story of Rome from about 500 AD to around 1500 would be a blank; similar would be the case of the story of Athens between the times of Alexander and Byron. In the same way, that Thanjavur actually had a history between the waning of the Chola power in the 13th century and the time of Sarfoji (19th century) is seldom acknowledged. This cannon is a poignant reminder of this very basic truth.
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Despite its overwhelming structural grandeur and elegance, decorative sculpture at Brihadeeswara seems muted and undistinguished (especially compared to other Chola temples). Nevertheless, here is a Lingodbhava and a Harihara side by side, a classic illustration of what to me is the Saiva ambivalence vis-a-vis Vishnu.


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The outer parikrama pathway is over 700 meters long and on its walls are several dozen paintings, most probably done during the Nayaka period (16th century) - or during the subsequent Maratha period. Here are some.

First up, Saraswati flanked by a bearded Narada and the horse-headed Tumburu:



An unidentifiable regal figure appears to be harpooning for fish...



A giant (again not really identifiable) appears to be drinking up an entire river...


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A remarkably color-coordinated deity-devotee pair...


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We conclude the Thanjavur leg of this post with a puzzle. Three Chola bronzes kept side by side; two of Krishna and one of Saiva saint Sambandar as an infant. How does one make out which represents who?



Note: Just a short while ago, I noted with some surprise that it is even trickier to distinguish between the Tripurantaka(cosmic archer) and Vinadhara(veena player) forms of Siva as they are they appear in Chola bronzes. And searching online, I came upon an article by eminent archeologist and Chola bronze expert R. Nagaswami on this very subject!

And as one leaves, memories go back once again to 2004...
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The temple maintains 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.
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Gangaikondacholapuram

We take the Chennai highway; a misty dawn. The road is decent, the terrain flat, we cross the 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)....
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There is much well-above-life-size sculpture on the temple walls - often overpoweringly 'present'.

A pair of monolithic Dwarapalas - towering, glowering celestial bouncers:



Venturing a little closer to one of them...


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Harihara, again.


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Forget all those famous bronzes, here is the very finest Nataraja, no arguments!


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Chandesa was one of the most zealous of Nayanars. He killed his own father as the latter interrupted a puja to Siva. The lord rewarded the devotee by decorating his hair with a flower garland (as shown in the sculpture below) and taking him along to Kailasa; and yes, the old man was brought back to life. Historians say Rajendra used to feel a strong identification with Chandesa for his fiery devotion... (a scandalous question) did he also commit parricide?


Note: Today morning I woke up with a strange regretful thought - that I ought to have touched the sculpture and found out how the texture of flower petals has been captured in granite; of course, such a thought hadn't crossed my mind at all when I was in its presence.
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Here is what looks like an added-on brick wall with almost totally lost murals. When were they painted?


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A detail of the superstructure and what look like stucco sculptures. These are decidedly inferior in workmanship to the lower granite masterpieces. Were they also (comparatively) recent add-ons?


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A stone bull lies, half-buried, on the lawns...


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A dark gallery surrounds the inner sanctum containing the main Linga. The walls are utterly plain and blank except for some yalis carved on the ceiling. Note: The book says the Thanjavur Brihadeeswara temple has a similar passage embellished with Chola murals and sculptures of dance 'karanas' (we couldn't get permission to get in there).


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On the plain outer walls of the antechamber leading on to the main shrine have been incised these uncannily Mayan-looking (thus said Rekesh, I can't but concur!) vyalis...


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Around Kumbakonam

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 and 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 couple more pictures of the portrait statues - these two are among the most graceful human figures known to me.




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Indians are second to none in balancing the ethereal with the ersatz. On the ceiling of the gopuram of the same Nageswara temple are these drawings which seem to be imitations of ... how about the Pompeii murals?


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And here is a fantastic serpent - it has five hoods, each looking like a dog's head, each sporting swathes of holy ash:



And an odd sculptural group that cannot be seen and admired in totality from any viewpoint - due to those silly pillars. Even videographing it in its totality in a single shot is near-impossible!


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The entrance to 'Ganitha Medhai' (Mathematical Genius) Ramanujan's home - now a museum. Photography is freely allowed; videography isn't. The house has a quaint plan: just about a dozen feet wide, it recedes about 10 times as much from the road. There is a front room, a narrow inner quadrangle, a narrower kitchen, a thin backyard and finally another gateway that opens onto another street.




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In the dark interior of the nearby Sarangapani temple are these wooden horses, all looking down at an odd angle...


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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.


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Vytheeswarankoil has yet another Siva temple. We found the place quite crowded even on a working day mid-morning. What brings in the people is not the deity himself but the reputation of the place as a hub for astrology - every other shop in this village seems the office of some astrologer or other. And the temple mirrors all that with its quaint subshrines for all those planets and dense marketplace feel with rows of shops selling all sorts of things; it also has some of the darkest and smelliest corners of any temple I can remember. Electric lights burn thru the day and the air is thick with the smell of camphor, vibhuti, bat droppings and what not...




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The small town of Vadalur is where Vallalar, a 19th century Master, established the 'Satya Jnana Sabha'. We saw a troop of Melmaruvathur pilgrims sitting around the holy site:



The not very far from here village of Maruthur was Vallalar's birthplace. Facing a humble shrine that marks the place where he was born is this more modern-looking object. The rearing lions that flank the gateway leave me bereft of words!


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And to conclude this tour, let me say a silent 'Guro, Swasti!' to the young Master who, a century and a bit ago, used to sit on this cot, look out through that narrow window onto the street outside and dream up entire worlds of patterns among numbers and symbols

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