You will not believe it when I tell you how cheap accommodation is in Tanjavur. In my obsession to keep within budget and travel in the style of the common man, I find a single room with attached bath and toilet for only Rs. 80 a night. It took me some walking to find this room but it isn’t far from the bus station.
It is late in the afternoon but I am quite hungry. I wash up quickly and go out to find some lunch. Another thing about Tamil Nadu is the quality of food and the high level of service at restaurants. I order a meal for only Rs. 35. In a traditional manner, it is served on a large banana leaf with varieties of spiced vegetables, pickle, appalam (fried crackers), lots of rice with sambar, rasam and buttermilk. Having a meal in Tanjavur is part of any tourist experience. One should not miss it.
It is evening. Areas around the bus station are packed with commuters and street vendors. People are on their way home from work. The sun is low on the horizon. I walk quickly to the famous Brihadeshwara Temple. It isn’t far from where I am put up.
From a distance I can see the main vimana rising like a perfect pyramid. The capstone over it looks massive even from this distance. The vimana disappears behind tall crenellated walls as I approach the temple. There is dried up moat around the walls. The temple appears to be built like a fortress. There are two massive stone gopurams on the way to the inner courtyard. These gopurams are small in comparison to their higher cousins of Suchindram, Srirangam or Madurai. What is immediately appealing about these gopurams is the colour and texture. These are sculpted and raised in stone. Sunset brings a golden warmth to them. Intricately sculpted figures come alive in this light. This is an old temple. I am glad to see the structure so well restored, preserved and maintained by the ASI.
This famous temple, known locally as “Periya Kovil” or Big Temple, sees a lot of tourists on a daily basis. I pass through security but the guards are not really attentive. At the end of a long day, they can hardly be bothered to check my bag. The metal detector beeps. I don’t know if that’s supposed to mean anything but I am allowed to pass without fuss. It is comforting to know that the metal detector works.
A temple elephant shifts its weight from side to side. Visitors pose with the elephant for a small fee. I take note of some reliefs on the walls at the base of the gopurams. The work is excellent but I am unable to make out the stories or the symbolism therein. Is that Arjuna doing his penance? Is that the battle between Arjuna and Lord Shiva?
The vimana stands towering at the center of the inner courtyard. Pillared corridors surround the space. In the failing light of the evening, I take pictures quickly. I stop to look at subsidiary structures, some bearing superb pilasters and motifs inspired of the lotus flower. I admire the huge Nandi housed in a mandapa of its own. I am convinced that this is probably the second largest Nandi in the world, right after Lepakshi’s masterpiece. By now, the sun has set. A few incandescent lights come on. They create a special atmosphere. The temple structures stand as bold shapes from the past not willing to reveal their secrets. The sky is a deep shade of blue. The air is cool. My bare feet feel the cooling warmth of the stone floors on which I walk. Birds have roosted for the night and I hear their last calls. I’ll have to come back here early in the morning.
‘You know, the Big Temple is turning 1000 years this month,’ tells me the receptionist at the hotel. ‘The Center has given twenty-five crores for the celebration. The State Government has matched it with another twenty-five.’
‘That’s a lot of money,’ I comment. ‘What are they going to do for the celebrations?’
‘I don’t really know. Most of the money will go into private pockets.’
By eight the next morning, I am back at the 1000-year old Brihadeshwara Temple, a temple from the time of Rajaraja I. The same gopurams welcome me. The dwarapalakas strike classical dance poses. Attendants kneel as if supporting the canopies on their shoulders. Many-armed Ganesha sits under an ornate chaitya motif with his consort on his lap. Kirtimukhas look fiercely with their bulging eyes, sharp horns and teeth. Images of deities adorn little niches within chaitya motifs. The gopurams here are truly breathtaking. Neither whitewash nor an array of colours have hidden the true character of stone. They may not be as large as many others in Tamil Nadu but they are up there among the finest of gopurams.
The vimana rises pyramidally tier upon tier. The capstone alone must weight many tonnes. It is a feat of medieval engineering. The whole temple stands on a plinth some four feet high. Niches on the structure contain many deities. Mahishamardini, Lingotbhavar, Kartikeya and Dakshinamurthy are just a few examples of the many masterpieces here. Even water spouts that drain the channels from the sanctum are beautifully carved. So too is the stone base into which the spout drains. It stands on legs carved as lions and contains miniature figures on its sides. There are balustrades bearing elephants. There are friezes of lions. There is a pillar containing a half-man and half-lion figure. A horse rears on its hind legs as if pulling a chariot. A combination of scale and sculptural detail makes this temple a masterpiece of Indian temple art.
The walls of the temple show the last signs of Chola wall paintings in faded colours. It is a wonder that they have survived for so long. The Ganesha shrine nearby has similar traces of paintings at the entrance porch. The shrine dedicated to Murugan contains superb work on its walls. The mandapa facing this shrine is closed for visitors. Peeping into it through iron grills, I find some beautiful paintings on the walls.
‘Get up from here. I don’t want you to sit here,’ admonishes a priest to a young Tamil couple. I had seen them just minutes earlier scribbling on a pillar. The priest keeps an eye on them to make sure they don’t sit around in the corridors.
I walk along the corridors. There are lots of lingas installed here. The walls are painted with colourful murals from a later period. These trace many of the legends associated with Hinduism – the marriage of Meenakshi and Sundareshwarar (Madurai), elephant offering flowers to a linga (Thiruvanaikkaval), killing of the demon by Mahishasuramardini. The ceiling of the Nandi mandapa contains murals in a different style. I also find inscriptions on some columns made out in ancient Tamil script.
I sit within the Nandi mandapa to make a hasty sketch of the facing gopuram. A few women are washing brass vessels used in the temple for pujas. They leave the clean vessels in the sun to dry. The temple elephant is taking its morning walk. Early tourists are arriving in groups small and large. A few shirtless devotees in colourful dhotis make their way into the sanctum. The sun falls straight on the vimana behind me. A priest slowly walks up side stone steps into the sanctum for another round of pujas.
Tanjavur is famous for many traditional stuff of Tamil Nadu. A few vendors are selling clay dancing dolls and dancing horses. These colourful idols have the fame of Tanjavur. There is one such dancer in my house in a glass cabinet. But she hasn’t danced for years. Kuthraiattam, or horse dance, is a famous folk dance of Tamil Nadu. Karakattam is another folk tradition. I pass a few advertisements of troupes in the area who can perform this dance. I wish I could see their performances live.
I walk to the palace complex. Here there is an eccentric tower whose purpose eludes me. They call it the Bell Tower. Visitors are allowed up to the third level. I climb to it by a narrow staircase. The tower is airy. The pyramidal tower next door within the palace is another old structure. The vimana of the Big Temple is visible from here. It dominates the entire landscape of Tanjavur.
I hurry to the Art Museum nearby. I have just an hour before it closes for lunch. The entrance to the galleries shows splendid stucco work of fruits, flowers, animal, damsels and warriors. They look new, or at least restored well from older remains. The museum is packed with wonderful masterpieces of Chola Bronzes. At every step I am stopped for minutes by the superb craftsmenship displayed in these exhibits. I feel like I can spend hours in this museum but there is no time. The place closes for lunch.
I spend a few minutes at the Durbar Hall. It is a space with colourful stucco work. Rafters above make an intricate pattern. Vishnu’s avatars decorate the capitals. The woman guard keeps an eye on my movements. I haven’t bought a ticket for taking pictures. She is just making sure I don’t take any.
Along the main road is the Maratha Museum housed in a pink building. The facade has a line of oriel windows rising vertically in five levels. Inside, the exhibits are poor and uninteresting. I am sure lots of money has got into making this museum but less thought and research. The money must have all gone into wrong hands.
I feel alive in Tanjavur. The streets are busy. Vendors are making brisk business. I buy some fruits at reasonable prices – Rs. 40 for a kilo of mousambi, Rs. 100 for a kilo of apple and Rs. 30 for a kilo of guava. I walk into a restaurant for dinner and wait for another excellent meal to be served.