[This is a part 4 (or is it 3? Or 3.5?) of the series. Parts 1, 2 (1.5?), and 3 (2.5?) can be read (not that you necessarily want to read it) here, here and here]
Moving on from the short pitstop that was, the own town, the brave contingent of two (and the trusted Sopana Sundaran) moved valiantly on towards the final stop in what we can now call the the Grand Chozha (not the hotel in Madras) triathlon. Not that we did any running, cycling, or indeed swimming (though there was to be a bit of floating in water later on — translate into tamil to completely capture the essence of that; but, we are getting a little ahead of ourselves) but still, this was quite the achievement. Not merely ticking things off the list but actually spending a decent amount of time at the three temples. Not three yet, however. Two were down. Number three beckoned.
The time was around 4 and we had an hour to go before reaching Thanjavur. That quintessential existential question that strikes many a traveling soul right around tea time struck us:
To tea or not to tea?
Well, to tea, of course, but to tea would involve the following sequence of actions:
- Getting out of car
- Locking said car
- Entering tea kadai
- Drinking tea
- Contemplating eating of biscuit
- Settling for (settling for, it seems!) bajji
- Stepping back into car (after unlocking, of course)
- Motoring on.
We decided against it. God was more important (read: laziness) and we motored on. Onward ho, and all that. The big temple, was, soon, upon us. The steed was holstered, so to speak, and the road was crossed. The car park was left behind and the temple was proceeded towards.
At first glance, the temple does not seem to befit its name. There is one arch / doorway in sight and, honestly, it is not all that imposing.
This person (below) and this person’s friend seemed to welcome you.
You enter the double gateway and, well, you are transported. Into another era. Immediately, the mind boggles, about how life might have been, or indeed probably was.
Red stone. Calm. Pious. Religious, even. Straight lines. Straightforward. Simple.
The area is so damn (blasphemous, I know, but still) crowded but the sheer vast expanse of the scale of it all just makes the populace melt away. Literally. It is hard not to just be intimidated by the scale of the thing.
Officially called the Brihadeeshwarar Temple, most people, simply call it the “Big Temple” or “Periya Kovil.” While I can see why, I still think there is merit in replacing ‘big’ with something along the lines of ‘ginormous.’ It really is that majestic.
Once you are mentally past the vastness and the expanse, and the straight lines, and the general sepia tint, you start looking at the intricacies. Now, building a monument on scale, with architecturally precise rendering is a feat in itself. However, adorning it with carvings and sculpting intricacies out of solid rock is just something else. The mind never ceases to be blown.
Drawing water from wells without electrical assistance in today’s world seems to be neigh on impossible (not that there are many wells or indeed much water in the few wells that exist but you get the point). Imagine then, the painstaking efforts and years of excruciating work that must have gone into every single one of these pieces of art. There simply is no other way to put it. Art. Words shall now stop. Below, are a few thousands of them — words, I mean — to behold (picture = 1000 words and all that).
Gods. Demons. Apsaras. Elephants. Rings (replete with the small gap that lets the light through). Pillars. Pillars in said pillars. War scenes. Elephants caught in the act of tossing human bodies nestled in their trunks. Genius. Just. Pure. Genius.
And then there is the Caucasian in the bowler. I can see you eh-what-ing. Understandable. Eh, what? was indeed my reaction as well, the first time I heard / read about this somewhere.
I do not know where, or indeed when, but I heard about this one carving that is most out of place in this most carefully crafted premises. Amongst the elephants and the apsaras and the gods and the demons and the pillars (including those within other pillars), and the horses, is a caucasian. Not just any caucasian but one who has, on his person, some fancy headgear. A bowler hat, to be more precise.
The caucasian’s origin is most interesting. The romantic explanation — and one that I believe should be true — is that the Chozha trade reached such outposts in the far west that they interacted with the velaikaarargal, so to speak, and this was, essentially, nothing more than a real-life depiction of one of those white men. While this is not outside the realms of possibility, it does seem as unlikely as there being a carving of Raja Raja Chozhan in a church somewhere in middle England.
What seems the more likely and (unfortunately) less interesting (read: more boring) explanation is that in the early 19th century, there was a sculpture that fell off a Gopuram when struck by a survey instrument. It was around that time that Colonel William Lambton was entrusted with mapping British India, so to speak. When mapping Thanjavur, in 1808, he had, apparently, remarked that the land being as flat as it was, he used the Gopurams of the temples that adorned most villages to complete this land survey. Apparently, on an occasion, the theodolite that he was using fell onto a lower level of the Gopuram and damaged it, necessitating a re-scuplting. Perhaps he undertook it upon himself to get the repair done out of a sense of moral responsibility. Perhaps, he was held by the locals at, er, gunpoint (metaphorically, of course for the locals in all likelihood did not wield guns) until they restored their beloved temple. One way or another, he seems to have carved out a niche for himself. Literally and figuratively.
(Completely off-topic but incredibly succinct: Colonel Lambton. Wrongs the sensibilities of the village. Villagers rebel. Hold him until completion. Only thing missing seems to be Muniskanth. Thanjavur might well have been Mudasupatti.)
This has been one of the most fascinating mysteries of the temple that I had always heard of but never seen. This had to be seen this time. And it duly was. Behold. Below.
After all of this, and the whole lot of admiring the architecture and the whatnot, our man — my dearest co-conspirator and generally nonsense fellow — thus far surprisingly well-behaved on the trip saw something. Rather, someone. Just one look at that face, and I knew. That scene in Sivaji where Thalaivar sees Shreya for the first time in that temple and that “thaaye mani vannam….” background music. (When a draft of this post was shared with above-mentioned co-conspirator, all he had to say was this: ” ‘Thaave mani vannam? I fully expected the ‘Sivaji, close the mouth waterfall.’ ” Good man.) That. I could hear that. Our man was smitten. And, of course, architecture, what? Raja Raja Chozhan, who?
She walked across (well, glided, he would say) and we walked across. She rounded a pillar; we rounded a pillar. She went into the sanctum sanctorum; we went into the sanctum sanctorum. She quickly did a U-turn and went out without seeing the some 30-foot long Shiva Lingam; we… no. no. Pillars are one thing, blasphemy, entirely, another. I would not have that. I put my foot down (best foot forward and all that) and we went into see the 30 (or is it 40?) foot high manifestation of the, er, human body part. (Code of the Woosters and all that.) The black guard reluctantly came along (but only after issuing death threats in case she was gone by the time we had come out.) The line was not all that long and we were out in almost no time, and sure enough. She was still there. Our man went and settled at a vantage point not afar her (and her entire clan, it seemed like) and we simply sat there for a bit. I, drinking in the onset of the dusk and the wonderful play of colours that it brought, he, er, sight seeing.
It was time to leave. It might have been slightly difficult to tear our man away but the departure of she helped raise his planted bottom from the spot. Onward ho. And thus, the triathlon was done. The tape was, in a manner of speaking, chested.
As if on cue, serial lamps. Sound checks. Thavil. Mridangam. Saxaphone. Maha Ganapatim. Good exit music, one would think.
Back in the hotel, it was time for the, ahem, uncorking of the proverbial champagne, so to speak. Only, in this case, we were being a whole lot more modest and were looking at simply un-lidding a few beers brfore comprehensively downing them. I have always remembered Pl.A as being one of the few places that had a decent bar. With that in mind (outdated, yes but one does not expect things like this to change in a town like Thanjavur), we walked up to the reception and asked the chap there. Duly, we were notified that the bar was closed. What?! No. Way.
“Why, sir? How?”
My incredulity was betrayed by my tone.
“Sir, neenah foreign ah?”
His nakkal was betrayed by his tone.
“Dai,” was what I wanted to say. “Sir, please tell me” was what I said.
“Sir, you are from foreign?”
Again. This time, my fact contorted. Not the restricted upper lip twitch as exhibited by Jeeves but the entire facial contortion as expressed by Bertram Wilberforce Wooster.
“Ille sir”, he continued, “only people in foreign don’t know this rule. There is no liquor allowed 500 meters from a National Highway.”
The pride was well and truly wounded. After the travails of the closed bars on Madras’ Mount Road (Anna Salai, if you will) there was a thing or two that I knew about the Highway Rule.
“Sir!” The tone was curt.
“Of course I know that. But where is there a national highway here?”
“Sir, this is a state national highway.”
Wait, what? A state national highway? What the hell was that? A state highway that was a wannabe national highway? I did not know. Honestly, I did not care. The mind was exhausted and the walls seemed to be closing.
He then proceeded on giving me a 101 of how they had tried putting the entrance at the back so that the 500 meter rule could, by the letter of the law, be followed. By the spirit of the law, you ask? Ha! I see what you did there. Pun indeed intended.
While this primer on highways and entrances to bars was being dished out, the mind was already racking the old memory cells trying to ascertain the presence of a TASMAC in the vicinity. This train of thought, however, was suddenly interrupted.
“But sir, you want what?”
“Beer.” Still preoccupied with mental maps.
“Beer only, no? We have stock sir!”
Dai! Rascal. If only that had been said at first, much Va Quarter Cutting / Idharku dhAnE aasapattai Balakumara level emotional turmoil might have been avoided. However, now was not the time for outrage Now was the time for the stiff upper lip.
“Two Carlsberg, Sir. Super cooling.”
The command was issued and the march towards the room was put.Calm was kept, and Carrying On was done.