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.
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.
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.
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.
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”
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.
“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.
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.