The watch tower and the fallen empire

On exiting the Darasuram temple, we walked back to the car. A note on the car. It was our own Sopanasundari. It was a Figo. Not the Luis variety but one of the Ford ilk. Back to the story. It was a sweltering day.
This is a time for a bit of a rewind. When we wanted to park the car, we went all around the temple (thank you, Google Maps) searching for parking. When no obvious spot was forthwith in its appearance,  we just figured that we’d just put it under some random tree on the side of the road. It was right in front of a small shop of some sort but they old lady sitting in the shop did not look one bit bothered so, well, we did not, either. Bother, that is.

 

As we finished this parking expedition (by this, I mean, of course, the hitching of our steed, not the expedition in the park that said friend undertook in the park-esque lawns of the temple) and started walking towards the temple, we saw something that looked like what was once something that was not ruined. We decided to visit it on the way back.

 

Back to the present. We visited it. It was a gateway of some sort. Or so it seemed.
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I’m sure that Blue Bell spoken English was not what this was a gateway to but looks like it seems to be now. The British did indeed invade India and were quite zealous in their spreading of the English and the whatnot but I doubt that even they used a crumbling gateway to lead the locals toward an English education. Replete with a blue bell, of course.

 

We entered and looked around. It seemed to be a temple of sorts. By ‘of sorts’ I mean, it was a temple. There was a large-ish patch of grass all around and the wall on the left was a new cement one. The one on the right, however, was straight out of a post-war-view-of-the-city scene of a movie. It was all over the place. Bricks strewn around. We looked at it and wondered what this could have been. We wondered for a bit and then made our way back. After all, GKC awaited.

 

When walking out, however, something was odd. I looked to the left and saw something. Something that looked like a staircase. Only, it was not a staircase in the conventional sense of the word. It was more of a few bricks jutting out of the wall, forming a staircase moving up.

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This certainly was a watch tower of some sort. Being opposite the temple, this was probably the tower that was the entrance to the city of Darasuram (?). Or perhaps it was where the guards of Darasuram were on the lookout for messengers — both friends and foes — who came carrying news, Naturally, curiosity was piqued. Climbing was done. What awaited us was nothing short of spectacular.
I will tell you, nay, show you what we saw. But first, a bit of a history lesson.
Chozhas — circa 1100 AD.
British — circa 1900 AD.
British Empire — circa 2017 AD.
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A wise man once remarked:
show a man a TASMAC and he shall find his beer bottles. Show a man a ruined spot and you shall find his empty beer bottles.
Truer words have seldom been spoken

 

It is, of course, most ironic that in these most Chozha of ruins, it is the British Empire that appears to have fallen.

 

On that ironical note, Paneer soda was put. Sopanasundari was started. Self driving — by that I mean that I was driving, not that the car was driving itself — was done. Ruins awaited.

When the seagull follows the trawler….

Ever since I saw the wiki article on the Chozha dynasty, I was mesmerised. The map on that page — which shows the extent of the conquest — is beyond belief. This, my seeing the article, and not the conquest, was about five years ago. It must, of course, be noted that this was past my stint of 4 years in Thanjavur (if you would call 17 KM away from Thanjavur, Thanjavur, that is). Nevertheless, I did rue, instantly, not visiting the temple more often (I daresay I visited it a grand total of 3 times in four years during those years of intense study (ha!) at the not-so-Thanjavur-based Thanjavur college). But, more importantly, I was determined to do the triumvirate — Thanjavur, Darasuram, Ganaga Konda Chozhapuram (henceforth referred to as GKC, because, laziness).

So, when friend finally confirmed India trip (after struggle of job hunt in the yoo yess) and plans were put and then re-put and then re-re-put, tatkal ticket was put (we are last minute, like that).

Train arrived. Early morning. Prodigal son returned (Thoo!.) Thanjavur was upon self. Outcoming from the station happened. One number of tea (standard fair tea-kadai-based tea — no sugar, double strong. Always.) was put. Google Maps (unthinkable in previous stint) pointed 300m in one direction. Pl. A hotel was reached. Said friend was woken up — at 5 AM. Pleasantries exchanged. Dress changed. Sleep was done. Then get up, get ready, and the sundry.

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Breakfast was had. You might wonder why breakfast gets its own mention here. Because, we are pakki like that. Also, the breakfast was not half bad, I tell you! Not half bad.

Car started, Said friend driver. This fellow navigator + iPod operator. Go.

First stop, Darasuram. An hour and a bit’s drive. Superb roads. Reached well in time. In time for what, you might ask. Well, you should not. Well in time. It is rhetorical. Take it. Don’t question it.d1

As I had mentioned (Actually, upon further reading, I see I have not) I happened to go to Darasuram earlier in the year — in January. A friend — not the aforementioned one but one from the aforementioned stint in the not-quite-Thanjavur-but-Thanjavur University (ha!) — was getting married in Kumbakonam. Darasuram was the highlight of the trip. That and a bar called soma banam but that is not for this story.

Now the. Darasuram. Phenomenal. The scale is not massive. It does not dwarf you like the Periya Kovil does but my does it wow you. There are two shrines, essentially. The main one of Lord Shiva, in the avatar of Airavateeswarar and the adjunct one of Periya Nayaki Amman. The pictures speak for themselves but the majesty of the temple is just something else. Right from the beautifully manicured lawns to the impeccably maintained temple premises, the temple really is a gem. Add to that, the fact that there is hardly anyone there and it is just the perfect start to exploring the Chozha architecture, without getting overwhelmed by the massiveness of the Periya Kovil or getting saddened by and wondering of the what-ifs of the ruins of GKC.

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After a whole lot of mind-wow-ing and the whatnot, we were ready to leave when we met this most enterprising of tour guides. A boy all of 10. A little bit of recent history. Right when we entered, and said friend was off wandering the manicured lawns, this boy walked up to me as I was observing the caged steps and said “this musical steps. You put coin and it roll and all different music. It came in sixth book.” That last sentence did catch my attention but I though nought of it since said friend had returned from stroll and we were ready to enter the temple. Once we had done an entire round (clockwise, mind you — we are religious like that) this boy approached us again.

“Did you see the elephant and cow?”

“Elephant yes (see picture above; in the mind, careful scrutiny is happening: lion, horse-like creature with lion-like head, even crocodile-like creature, yes), cow?”

“Yes, elephant and cow. One side elephant, one side cow.”

Now is the time to look all cool.

“Of course! But which one are you talking about?”

“This one here, near this pillar?”

“There’s one here? I saw that other one”

Dodged a bullet. The boy knew I was full of it but his enthusiasm overwhelmed his cynicism and he took us to this carving and we finally saw it.
Looked at from one side, it is an elephant, and from the other, a cow.

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He was not done, of course. He took us to another. “See this, goat fight. This one has one and that one has lost. See this fellow? He has won and so he is celebrating. See the fellow? He has lost so has his head in his hands. This also is in sixth book”

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First thing’s first. Incredible craftsmanship. The boy described it succinctly. The carving was exquisite. In spite of the centuries of wear, the story was there for all to see. If, of course, you are looking for it. We looked at it because this boy asked us to.

Next, I just had to ask, “dai! what is this sixth book?”
“Sixth class book, anna!”
So, that was the sixth book. At least one mystery was resolved there. I now know what a “sixth book” is.
“So, who are you and what do you do?”
“My grandmother works in that shop at the entrance and when I am off school, I come here to mind the shoes”, he said.
“School, ille?”
“Inikku Saturday, anna!”

We stepped out to see that our footwear had been moved to the safe confines of the territory of the young man’s undertaking. We rewarded the young man with a few rupees that made him most excited. Surely, such entrepreneurship must be encouraged. Such enterprise. I would like to believe that the boy really was that enthused to share his knowledge and did not really do it for the money but when money is indeed given, he has the right to feel elated and maybe he will look for more people to tell stories to and if they do give him money, great but if they don’t, he is not really going to hold anything against them because, you know what, he is a child. He is not yet cynical.

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We saw the young lad’s elation and were happy to leave on a good note when we overheard the two idlers — who seem to be minding whatever rubbish they were peddling as wares : “see, man! the boy has gone and gotten money from them!!! Periya aal” The snark in that voice. Sigh. Not for nothing did Naipaul name the book — India: a million mutinies now.

BCCI makes a Dravid-Zaheer U-Turn

Merely days after announcing that Rahul Dravid and Zaheer Khan would be batting and bowling consultants to the Indian cricket team in the new Ravi-Shastri-headed era of Indian cricket, the BCCI has made a U-turn of proportions that typically are reserved for seasoned 18 year olds (who have been driving since the age of 16) who take the driving test in Tamil Nadu.

Speaking to journalists, a senior BCCI official remarked, ‘this is an internal affair of the BCCI that has led to an internal working committee determining internally that the best external course of action at this point in time would indeed be to temporarily suspend the appointment of Rahul and Zaheer. Technically, the earlier announcement is just that — an announcement, and this is a follow up to the earlier announcement that was, essentially, just another announcement as is routine in BCCI press briefings for announcements.’

He continued, ‘Rahul and Zaheer have had stellar careers in the IPL playing for various teams. They have successfully captained and led their teams to great heights in the premier domestic competition in the international world. We always hold their achievements in high esteem and are always indebted to them.’ On prodding from behind by someone who is presumably an assistant, he added, ‘oh and of course, they played for the Indian team too.’

As expected, this decision has divided the cricketing world in India. Mr. Ramachandra Guha, eminent historian and member of the BCCI’s CoA has resigned his post. When quizzed on this, the above mentioned BCCI official remarked, ‘Mr Guha has resigned for personnel reasons. I mean, personal reasons. We wish him well.’

There has been widespread outrage over the shabby treatment that is being handed to three ex-Indian legends in the short space of time. Said an eminent ex-cricketer who asked not to be named, ‘boss, what is this nonsense, I say? First Kumble. Then Dravid and Zaheer. Boss, this is too much, I say. They have some Karnataka bias, I think. Two are from Karnataka. The third also played for RCB. It’s just too much, I say.’ When asked if this theory was a bit far fetched, his closing remarks were, ‘boss, just shadaap, okay?’

In the meanwhile, the new Indian coach, Mr. Ravi Shastri was not available for a verbal comment but responded to this publication’s detailed ten point questionnaire with the following note:

Look, it is not a decision that we take lightly. We have some eminent ex-captains on the panel who always are the best judge of ex-captains. I was a part of the meeting that the decision was taken and, honestly, one got the feeling that it was going to be real close. We flashed and flashed hard, and make no mistake about it, it was a pressure cooker situation. It was in the air and as the meeting was drawing to a close, all three results were possible. It went right down to the wire and, in the end, the line belonged to the umpire. He was a cool as a cucumber and that was just what the doctor ordered.

We did follow up on what exactly the third possible outcome was. We are still waiting for the reply.

Ravi Shastri replaces Anil Kumble

A day after Ravi Shastri was appointed the coach of the Indian Cricket Team (men), there have been reports emerging that the choice was not a universal one. One of the members — probably the most outspoken of the CAC — Sourav Ganguly, we have come to understand, was not completely on board with the decision to appoint Ravi Shastri over the other candidates that included Virender Sehwag. Speaking on the occasion of the announcement of the decision, in a remarkably candid (and possibly off-the-record conversation), Sourav said, ‘it is not that Ravi Shastri is any less qualified than Viru [sic] or any other applicant for the job. He is as poorly qualified as the rest of them.’

Speaking to journalists, Sourav remarked, ‘we believe that the appointment of Ravi Shastri is a positive signal in the ongoing forward march of the Indian men’s cricket team. For one, his rapport with the Indian captain is known to be excellent, in that, he largely stays away and hence there are not too many chances for exchanges of expletives which is always great. In addition, his rich experience will come in invaluable especially in close finishes when he could play the dual role of rabble-rouser-in-chief with cliches that would instantly uplift the sagging and tense spirits. Third, and this is an internal matter but is important all the same, a part of his not-inconsiderable salary can be apportioned to the “cricketing” budget rather than it all coming from the “marketing. In the tough market conditions and with an increased focus on inter-departmental harmony and cost structures, this is a very important aspect to the smooth functioning of Indian cricket and the BCCI.’

When quizzed about the cloud surrounding Kumble’s departure, Sourav remarked, ‘look, this is not for me to speculate. It was a decision that was made regarding a former India test captain by a current Indian test captain in conjunction with a panel of former Indian test captains — that did not include this former Indian test captain. To clarify, the “this” here is not me but this past Indian coach. Who also happens to be the former Indian test captain. It might seem confusing but it is plain for all to see.’ Answering the question on whether there was room for a return to the position for Kumble, Ganguly said, ‘this is really not a question that I can answer; it is a question only time can. We have seen, in the past, that past Indian captains have become Indian coaches, who have then gone on to become past Indian coaches, only to re-emerge as present Indian coaches. In the same vein, the door can always be ajar for a past Indian captain to become the future Indian coach.’

Shastri, for his part, refused to be drawn into the debate about the former Indian test coach. ‘This was a decision that was taken for cricketing reasons. I can only say so much. Whether the decision is right or not, only time will tell. That might be a cliche but cliches are true. My last tenure flew past like a tracer bullet and I fully expect that at the end of this one, all three results are possible.’ Typically applying a finishing flourish, he signed off saying, ‘we need to keep in mind that whatever is being done is for the team, and always, in the end, cricket is the real winner.’

One day in Madras

“A North Indian family that I know is coming to Chennai tomorrow. Their train is coming in at ten in the morning and they have until about 8 in the night. They want to see Chennai. Suggest some places, no?”
It is always a welcome distraction — questions like this from a colleague — on a Thursday afternoon when, as most Thursdays go, the morning has been less than, er, good. More onThursdays at a later point in time perhaps. Back to the now. The Thursday afternoon, I mean.

“Dai! That’s hardly 10 hours! What do they expect to see?”
“Can you tell me or should I ask someone else?”

The old pride was wounded. A consummate Chennaivasi (for all you millenials out there; Madrasi for all of you, Anna Nagar and north), is a creature of supreme pride in the city of Chennai (formerly, and probably still should be, known as Madras). He/ she is also a creature of an thin film of sweat on the person at all times but let’s not get into the metaphysical definition here.
Being one of the aforementioned species of Madrasis, I was half tempted to say, ”Take them to Sowcarpet; it’ll be like they never left home. Ha!” However, the threat of “asking someone else” loomed large and, hey, one must be of service when one can, what? Thus began the plan of a day in Madras.

“They come in at 10 AM. Right. So, breakfast then. Ratna Cafe. Perfect. Central Station to Triplicane (Thiruvallikeni, if you are so inclined) is not that far. Plus, there is sambhar in jugs. That is what they are known for” (Notice the ‘h’)
“Wait, what?! Sambhar in jugs, ah?” (Again, notice the ‘h’; we are hip like that.)
“Yes.” (Mild pride.)
“So, will they give only the sambhar or will it come with idli or dosai as well?” (Sly.)
“Well, generally, they charge for the idlis but if your salary is delayed, you could possibly go just for the sambhar.” (Ha!)

“Anyway, Ratna Cafe. Breakfast. Set. Next, Parthasarathy temple. Right next to Ratna Cafe only. Not too far. Coming all the way here. Might as well get some prasadam, I mean, punyam. But prasadam is quite good. So, would not necessarily not go for that. If you know what I mean”
I was met with a not-too-amused look. Ha! These non-Madras types. Don’t get the humour only.
“Anyway, the temple closes by noon, I think, so, they should be just in time.”
“OK. Then?!”

“Then, Marina beach. Noon sun. Good sunbathing. No, wait.”  (snigger)
“Dai!”
“More seriously, Tere mere beach mein…” (more snigger)
“Dai nonsense!”
 “Alright alright. No beach. Too hot. No lighthouse also. That also too hot. Best. Santhome Basilica. It is old. It is historic. Most importantly, it will also be cool. “
“Right. Seems fair.”
“So, by the time they are done with this, time for lunch. Let’s see. Madras. Lunch. Definitely elai-saapaadu. Santhome, no? So, nearby… Yes. Cathedral Road. So, Saravana Bhavan or Woodlands. Although Woodlands, strictly, is Udupi but still it is a cult of Madras so, I guess that is acceptable. However, be warned. These are both light ah fraud elai-saapaadu. Because, well, technically, you do eat on an elai (banana leaf) but that is placed inside a steel plate. But then again, speaking most technically, it is indeed an elai so, we’re good there.”
“Are you done?”
“Not really; I do have strong feelings about leaves on steel plates masquerading as the real thing but I am guessing, from the look on your face, that you are not really interested in my opinion. So, final decision: Saravana Bhavan. Lunch. Full meals.” (Satisfied look on face; not unlike the look one has after demolishing a full meal)

“OK. So, it will become 2 by the time they have eaten. Let me get this straight. They have been in Chennai for a whole 4 hours and what they have done is this — drink sambhar, eat prasadam, eat lunch, and in between these meals, visited a temple that may or may not be open, and an age old basilica to keep cool.”
“Yep.” 
“Thoo!”

Uncalled for. Pride hurt. Yet, one must soldier on. Time to step it up a gear.

“Fine. Be that way. I will continue. Afternoon. Too hot to do anything outdoor. Semmozhi poonga perhaps. If any outdoor place is mildly tolerable, it should be this but then again, no outdoor. Ah! Best. Sathyam theatre. Middle of the week. Afternoon show. Ten rupee ticket also should be available. Tamil movie.”
“Dai!”
“Alright. No movie then. Egmore Museum?”
Quizzical look.
“Birla Planetarium?”
Menacing look.
“Cafe Coffee Day?”
Murderous look.
“What? Did you know that there is a Cafe Coffee Day in Prague’s oldest station? No? Don’t care. Alright. Let me think, then. Fort St. George. History of Madras and all that. Done.”
“That is probably the first decent suggestion I have heard from you all day.”
“That’s probably because you are not listening properly. All my suggestions are excellent. Ha! Besides, what I actually wanted to suggest was that Agarwal chaat place in Parry’s but, er, thought better of it and stopped a couple of kilometres short of it.”
“Right.”

“Anyway, that should take take care of the afternoon. They should be done by 4:30 or so. Even if they are not, well, they’ll probably shut the museum and they’ll have to be done, anyway.” (Snigger)
Clearly, slapstick comedy is not appreciated. Sigh.
“OK then. They still have about two and a half hours. What next?”
“Marina beach. Bajji! Always. No, wait. On the way, evening coffee needs to be put. Since they are in the vicinity, they might as well go to Ratna Cafe. And while they’re at it, slyly put a couple of idlis as well, what? No? Idli only once a day? Have it your way. Only coffee. Then beach. Then bajji. I would still have had the idli but, well, suit yourself.”

I could see that there was much grimacing. Finally words emanated.

“Right. Marina beach. They will do the gun shooting and the sundry. And yes. Don’t remind me. THEY WILL EAT BAJJI. Then what?”
“Well, it will probably be time for them to traverse the city and go to Egmore station. They might just have time to slip in a dinner at Mathsya.”
“Right. Because they will be famished, no?”
“Well, I am not so sure of that but they need one for the road, no? Or, in this case, one for the tracks.” (Snigger)

“Of course, they will. Well, thank you so much for all that. I shall keep that in mind.”
“No, you need do no such thing. Here, this is for you.”

Unbeknownst to him, when he was grimacing and sighing and doing all of that, I had put the entire itinerary neatly on a piece of paper. I handed this to him with a flourish.
It was still Thursday afternoon but at least I had that good-samaritan-glow on me — the one that comes when one does a good turn for a fellow human.

It was Thursday evening. I was still pretty pleased as punch. After all, it is not everyday that one does not necessarily get to plan a family’s day-long itinerary, carefully craft it on a piece of paper and hand it over in the knowledge that the aforesaid artefact would be duly handed over to the tourists. I found a piece of paper that looked strikingly similar to the artefact in question. It was crumpled and on the floor. Men of weaker constitutions might well have despaired. I simply took one look at it, and headed off to Ratna Cafe. The evening sambhar actually is better than the morning sambhar is my theory, and the proof of the sambhar, as they say, is in the jugging. Or is that chugging?