I have passed by Thiruvannamalai many times in the past. By road, it is on the way from Bangalore to Puducherry. Whenever I have passed through Thiruvannamalai I had always imagined it to be a nice temple town removed from the hustle and bustle of big cities. Today I am finally here.
Actually I arrived here yesterday afternoon. I took a nice room close to the bus station. I had a quick lunch before going off to see the fort at Gingee. This morning I am going to visit the famous temple.
The thing about Thiruvannamalai is the setting. Annamalai Hill towers in the background. When the sun rises it glows in its morning brilliance. The temple is dedicated to an aspect of Shiva, known here as Arunachaleshwarar. White-washed gopurams tower on all four sides. The eastern and northern ones are huge and are ornamented in the traditional South Indian style.
At seven in the morning, I am on the narrow streets walking along the high temple wall towards the eastern gopuram. The wall itself has been encroached by vendors who have set up little stalls. The gopuram is packed with repetitive motifs on many levels. I have seen such gopurams all over Tamil Nadu but the morning hour of the day brings its own special feeling. The sky is a dull blue under the touch of sleepy light. The gopuram stands without sharp shadows. It appears to be coming out of the night into the beginning of another busy day.
Small sun-dried clay oil lamps are arranged in heaps on a pushcart. A man is arranging mosambis, oranges and apples on his fruit cart. For many common folks all over India, everyday begins early. Beggars are settling down in their usual spots near the entrance to the temple. A sweeper gets busy with her broom. Vendors have already opened their shops in front of the gopuram. They sell the usual assortment of offerings for the Lord. I find a shop to keep my boots but linger at the entrance for many minutes admiring the wonderful sculptures installed in niches.
Vishnu is standing under the hood of Sesha. The idol is beautifully decorated in colourful pastes and garlanded neatly with fresh jasmines. The fact that He stands in an aedicule framed with richly decorated columns and capitals, adds to his prominence in a temple that is otherwise dedicated to Lord Shiva. Another aedicule has a richly sculpted prabhavali over the lintel. Elsewhere, Indra rides on his elephant. Somaskandar is seen. Ardhanareshwar stands at a higher level. Bhairavar is seen with a dog at his feet. Ravana shakes Mt Kailash as Shiva and His consort sit on it.
Gaja Samharar is a superb piece of relief in which the elephant is shown with its head and trunk. The Lord’s left leg barely touches the trunk but this slight touch is enough to vanquish the demon. The right leg is firmly on the head. The body of the Lord is twisted to suggest dance and dynamism. His face looks outward to the viewer. It is a standard pose seen so often in so many places all over Tamil Nadu, perhaps with a few variations (the Gaja Samharar of Madurai from the Nayaka Period is an example). It is just one example to prove that Indian temple art evolves over long periods of time. Tradition dictates reproduction of well established motifs, themes and articulations. Experimental sculptures are rare. Variations occur only in small parts and never in the whole. Where they succeed, they remain as part of artistic repertoire for decades to come.
A sadhu totters around with a stick. He has loosely wrapped his head in a saffron cloth. It is not a proper turban in the manner of the Sikhs but simply a way to keep out the morning cold. He wears a saffron dhoti. A cloth satchel hangs by his shoulder. A stray cow happens to wander around the entrance. It gets chased out by a priest. A woman has cleverly made this cow her own. She is trying to sell devotees packets wrapped in dried leaves as offerings to the cow. A little later someone brings packets of free food. The beggars and sadhus assembled in the area rush to collect their share of someone else’s goodwill.
Darshan is slow but I’m not really pressed for time. As the queue weaves along the steel barricades towards the sanctum, I take my time to admire the fine architecture of the inner spaces. Darshan at the Amman Sannidhi, of the Lord’s consort, was slighly quicker. It is a busy day but this temple would get a lot busier in November on the day of the full moon in the Tamil month of Kartigai. More than the darshan I enjoy the sculptures and reliefs of the many mandapas in the temple. I do a quick sketch of a floral relief on one of the pillars. While I am at it, my concentration is broken by the sound of thavil and nadaswaram, traditional instruments used in temple processions all over Tamil Nadu.
It appears that a marriage is underway in the temple. The groom’s party is walking around the sanctum and pulling a little chariot on wheels. The chariot is richly gilded in gold. By now the sun is out and the chariot glows the way only gold can. The chariot is “pulled” by two horses wrapped in silver. Flowers and silk cloths decorate the chariot. Seated inside are idols of the Lord and His consort. This is a special darshan for many devotees. The Lord has come out to bless them. Even those not part of the wedding party join in. It doesn’t take long such crowds to swell in a temple town.
A man is selling grass. He has a bull, a suitable representative of the celestial Nandi. Devotees buy some grass, touch the back of the bull as blessing and then offer the grass to the animal. The bull appears a healthy animal. It is beautifully decorated. It is clearly enjoying every bit of the constant attention it is getting. For some, life is on earth is heaven even if only an animal.
Undoubtedly, the highlight for me at this temple is the Ganesha mandapa. The moment I see it I know that I am looking at something special. It is only a small entrance porch supported on pillars towards the inner sanctum, but what pillars! The front right pillar is a masterpiece of Indian art. The pillar rises as a solid stellate structure on many levels. It has its own miniature vimanas and aedicules. In some cases, miniature mandapas appear and the miniature pillars of these mandapas are sculpted in the round. As if these wonders are not enough, the pillar is joined to another smaller pillar packed with reliefs. The two are joined by creeper motifs inset with dancers and dwarfs.