Let me tell you that initially when I started my travels a year ago, I was not forthcoming in giving tips to waiters or hotel staff. For one thing, waiters rarely ask for it and hotel staff rarely deserve it. In most of these places, service is terrible. These days I feel that parting with a few rupees is not going to make a difference to me but they are going to make someone else happy. So letting go of my principles and political correctness, I give a tip to the hotel boy at Kumbakonam as I check out. In return I get some useful information – the best way to get to Gangaikondacholapuram is to take a bus to Anaikarai, cross the river by a bridge and take a direct bus.
By half seven in the morning I am at Anaikarai. There is dam here across River Cauvery. A single lane road runs parallel to it. Separated by a divider, a clean pedestrian path hugs the road on the other side. I don’t really need to walk across because the bus drives me to the other side.
The river is wide but dried up in places. Narrow spits of sandy riverbeds stick out from deeper waters. On the banks, men and women are either bathing or washing clothes. A few boats are attempting to navigate the shallow waters. Suddenly, right there in the middle of the river, I spot a crocodile half hidden in the waters. Its head, unmistakable snout and an array of sharp teeth are sticking out. Fortunately people who are busy with their morning routines are far away along the banks.
Where the bus drops me, the morning scene is busy. A fresh catch of fish has been brought out and spread about near the bus stand. I ask someone about getting a bus to Gangaikondacholapuram. Apparently I have to cross another bridge. I learn that Anaikarai is something of an island right in the middle of the Cauvery. I cross the northern bridge which is much like the southern one. I get a bus and within fifteen minutes I am at my destination.
The village where I get off is named Veerachozhapuram: veera meaning brave and chozhapuram meaning town of the Cholas. What is commonly called Chola is actually Chozha in pure Tamil; but the right pronunciation of “zha” is a little difficult, even for many Tamilians these days. This village is nothing but an assortment of huts with thatched walls and tiled roofs. I cannot imagine its heyday from the time of the Chola reign. Neither can I spot anything that remotely suggests bravery.
Gangaikondacholapuram is perhaps the old name of this village or perhaps another settlement right next to it. All I can see today of this once great place is the temple complex. The landscaping of this temple is beautiful. It is a World Heritage Site and care has been taken to maintain it. Village settlements have been cleared all around the temple. Green lawns, neatly clipped hedges and flowering plants please the eye. Walls have been restored or rebuilt. Scaffolding on the high vimana indicates ongoing restoration work, which never seems to end and goes on for years at many historic sites all across India.
Gangaikondacholapuram is quite a name. It gives tribute to the Chola king Rajendra I who conquered the Ganges delta and also the Eastern Gangas of Orissa. The Eastern Gangas later regained their power and went on to built great temples including the Sun Temple of Konark, another World Heritage Site. Gangaikondacholapuram was once a capital of the Chola Dynasty but all that remains today is this great temple. It is in the same style as the Brihadeshwara Temple of Tanjavur. Incidentally, there share the same name.
I have to say that the restoration done here is sensible. I can feel the medieval grandeur in its present ruins. Although many parts have been reconstructed and the stones have been chemically cleaned, the greatness of Chola temple building is not lost. The old mood may be gone but there is enough to give me a taste for it.
The missing gopuram at the eastern entrance stands with massive walls and piers that frame the vimana in the distance. For scale, this is the perfect composition that can be had in this temple. A huge modern Nandi built in cement faces the vimana. It may not impress by age but its face exudes beauty. The walls of the temple contain fascinating images enshrined in almost lifesize forms – Natajara in his pose of Ananda Tandava, Dakshinamoorthy seated under a tree on the southern wall, Lingotbhavar standing inside a linga on the western wall, four-headed Brahma on the northern wall and beautiful images of Ardhanareeshwar in more than one place. Interestingly, the man-portion of this deity is sculpted along with the Nandi. Kala Samharar strikes a dynamic pose in the act of stamping down the demon under his feet. Harihara stands beautifully within the shelter of an aedicule. In another aedicule, a fine Ganesha dances. Celestial couples strike classical poses.
In a smaller temple south of the main vimana, stands the bare posts and beams of a mandapa long gone. These frame the main vimana that towers to the sky. Although the vimana of the smaller temple has been reconstructed without much appeal, the last standing walls of the antarala and the mandapa more than make up for it. Coconut palms stand in a line and complete the picturesque setting of these medieval ruins.
I notice obliterated paintings on the walls of the main temple. Nothing more remain than traces of warm colours. In addition to the stone sculptures, what more wonderful stories and legendary tales they could have told us!
Massive dwarapalakas guard the entrance to the temple. A policewoman takes to the mundane job of issuing archana tickets to devotees. The interiors are dim. There are superb reliefs on the walls and pillars but in the dim light it becomes difficult to study them well. On one mandapa pillar, I can see a woman in relief in a lithe dancing pose. Her long plaited hair swings freely and suggests the graceful movements of her body. In the antarala, above the capitals and lining the cornices, are arrays of gunas or dwarfs. They are blackened from years of offerings and pujas in the sanctum. The wall of the antarala facing the sanctum is packed with reliefs. This is one temple where a guide could be useful to understand the stories carved on these stones. Some of them suggest scenes from the Ramayana or the marriage of Shiva and Parvati.
The greatest sculpture of this temple is by the western entrance into the temple. The group is opposite a fine sculpture of Gajalakshmi. It shows Shiva and Parvati seated together. At Shiva’s feet is a half-bodied figure paying homage to the Lord with folded palms. The Lord is seen crowning the man with a garland of flowers. This is the coronation of the great Chola king who built this temple. It is one way of making oneself great and proclaim divine sanction. This sculpture is a masterpiece.
I wait by the road for a bus to Chidambaram. Do I have to return to Kumbakonam for it? I hope not.
‘You can take a bus to Kattu Mannarkudi. There you can change for a bus to Chidambaram,’ advises a local man. ‘It would take you an hour and half. There are direct buses to Chidambaram but they are not that frequent.’
I continue to wait. I am in no hurry. I have all the time in the world. My lunch is going to be delayed, that’s all.