Where history meets fiction- The Prague Cemetery

As readers of this blog might know, I am a crazy fan of Umberto Eco books. However, I do agree that he gets carried away by all that knowledge of history of medieval Europe he has gathered, that his books are littered with so many names, places and historical incidences that it is easy to get lost in the history and lose the plot. The trick to getting over these aspects of his books are to read it in broad strokes and not pay attention to the minute details*. You don’t need the minute details to appreciate the story, but if you don’t get the broad picture, you loose the beauty of the plot.

I got this book almost 3 years ago very soon after it was released, as a gift from my sister to her friend. I was the postman in this long distance love affair :/ I couldn’t meet the friend for the longest time and during that time there were days when the only way to pass the heat-soaked afternoons was to curl up with a good book. Having an Eco book within arm’s reach was too much of a temptation for me and I succumbed. Of course Fate intervened and the very next day the friend showed up to claim her gift and off it went leaving me hanging. Fate was not entirely cruel, however, as it packed the remaining days of my trip with too much activity for me to miss the book and 3 years later, I finally managed to get my hands on it again and this time read it through!

I am sure all of us are aware of the Protocols of the Elders of the Zion and the role it played in the greatest unconscionable act of ethnic cleansing that modern Europe witnessed i.e. the Holocaust. The Prague Cemetery is the author’s imagination of how that book came into existence**. Fictitious characters are cleverly intertwined with actual historical ones that it is impossible to know where reality ends and imagination begins. Eco does with characters what fantasy writers do with places. The grandfather of the protagonist and the protagonist himself are to The Prague Cemetery what Charring Cross road and Diagon Alley are to the Harry Potter series. The weave is so intricate and seamless that I had to go to Wiki to figure out who is real and who isn’t.

Eco grips you right off the bat when he starts the book with the protagonist describing his opinion of every single ethnic/cultural group native to Europe mainly culled from his grandfather. And what an opinion it is for sure! Every single group, be they Italian, German, French, Hebrew,etc., is described in the most ribald terms possible, stripped apart and set up on the pillory to be laughed at or despised according to the reader’s temperament. And what he has the protagonist say about the different religious sects of both Christianity and Judaism is a brilliant essay on the psyche of a bigot! Only of course he is not so much a bigot as an equal opportunity hater. Nevertheless, it sets the tone of the book and so sets the precedent for what comes in the end, i.e. the Protocols of the Elders of the Zion.

Like all Eco books, the middle gets a little too involved and heavy, but in this case it still is interesting because of the end.  Eco weaves his magic in his inimitable style and you get the feeling of being propelled through history as irresistibly as the “author” of the conspiracy. There is no end to intrigue and plots within plots and as usual I am in awe of how he manages to hold all the strings, allowing them to get entangled in some places but always unravelling them so effortlessly as to make it seem almost magical.

There are of course shades of The Focoult’s Pendulum in this, but the end is not as ironic. At the end of this book, I am more inclined to believe Eco’s version as real than perhaps what “truth” might actually turn out to be. I know that doesn’t make sense, but it is impossible to review this book without giving away the crux of the matter! So on that note, I will conclude by merely requesting all of you to go read the book :)





* unless of course the minute historical details are the reason you read the book in which case, screw the plot!

** this is all I am going to say about the details in the story. If you want more, go read it :/


Thud! The sound carried over the distance through the dewy early morning air that was otherwise silent and drowsy in that pre-dawn stupor. It had hit the damn tree again. The only reason Priya didn’t burst into tears was because she was hopping mad.
“That was good, no, Chellam?” said her mother, the eternal cheerleader. Priya could have rolled around in mud, ignored personal hygiene and acted like a demented banshee having a bad day and her mother would still have said, “my Chellam, so good!”. On a normal day she would have just ignored it, but today was not a normal day. Today, she gritted her teeth and yelled back,” No, Ma. That was NOT good. It is supposed to clear the tree and come back!” as she walked towards the tree to retrieve her boomerang. To which of course her mother said, “Oh! That’s OK, Chellam. You will get it!”

By the time she got back, her mother had gone back inside with the milk can, leaving Lakshmi and Rani to stare accusingly at her while chewing their cud.

“Oh don’t even think of giving me that look. You know you bumped her into the dung last week, because she kept saying, “Just one more drop, Lukkuma. You can do it!” with every squeeze.”

Lakshmi kept chewing cud and glared imperturbably at her.

“Besides, she doesn’t understand. The records people are coming TODAY. I HAVE to clear the damn tree. That is the 1,500 ft mark. It will be the world record!” Priya said, her voice raising to a squeak at the end.

Lakshmi burped and Rani wagged her ears disturbing the flies camped there, still looking unperturbed.

“You are right”, she said. “I need to be calm. I will be calm. I can do it, ” she straightened her shoulders and nodded and caught sight of her mother at the kitchen window, grinning at her. The calming breath she held came out in a huff. She shook her head to clear it and took her stance. Her left leg firm in front of her, right on the line. She lifted her left arm to point out at the tree and the horizon further out. She raised her right arm, lifted her right leg and….flick. The wedge of wood, she had whittled and polished and slaved over, flew, almost gracefully. It cleared the tree soaring high above the tallest branch and came right back at her making a ‘whup, whup, whup’ noise. She took a half step to the right and made a clean catch, hearing nothing but the whiz of the air, and feeling nothing but the comforting weight and smoothness of the wood. Then the sound rushed in and she heard her mother squealing and clapping and running to her and she grinned and ran and hugged her, hopping together in glee while the cows started at them with the same bovine disdain they always had.

“You did it! Hooray!!” said her mother, sounding like Dora, the explorer with an Indian accent.

Royal Palace and Library: Thanjavur part II

My trusty little guidebook, wiki and the rental car driver all told us the same thing. The palace grounds holds the library and the museum and is adjacent to the Periya Kovil. So after visiting and being suitably awed by the Periya Kovil’s “periyaness”, we took a power nap in our pleasant room. Refreshed (aka cups of filter coffee later) we headed out to the Palace grounds. We managed to get the car parked in the palace compound and got our tickets. The good thing about this is, it is one common ticket to enter all the buildings in the compound, which is the palace, the bell tower, the library and the library museum. The bad thing is there is only one ticket, so you should keep the stub they hand you very safely to be produced to the guard at the entry of each building. You could of course, keep it safely in your wallet and search for it fruitlessly in your hand bag, head back to the ticket counter, stand in the long line to buy another ticket and when your turn comes, open the wallet and find the original stub. But that is usually not recommended.
Anyways, that digression aside, we managed to enter the palace grounds to be completely underwhelmed. It is not so much dilapidated as just run to ruin. There are supposed to be lawns, which are more overgrown weeds with some patches of grass interspersed between them. And all that dust and peeling paint everywhere, made it feel more like an old building waiting for its demolition order than ruined splendor of bygone days.

sad lawns of the bell tower grounds

sad lawns of the bell tower grounds

peeling paints in Darbar hall

peeling paints in Darbar hall

Nevertheless, to misquote Austen, as a fact universally acknowledged that a tall building with rickety stairs is in need of a climber, we climbed up the bell tower. Considering it was only 10 min left to closing time, it was more of a race up the top. Closing time or not one always stops for photos, so here are some

the complex from the tower

the complex from the tower


One of the ubiquitous gopurams that dot the Thanjavur skyline

One of the ubiquitous gopurams that dot the Thanjavur skyline


That might actually be periya Kovil in the distance

Periya Kovil in the distance


And then there was this, within the bell tower on the 3rd or 4th floor. What it is doing there all by its lonesome in the middle of all the Chola, Nayakar and Maratha splendor, I have no idea.



Anyway, after all that intense cardio, we decided to walk around the pavilion to the Chola bronze statue exhibits. Needless to say, the statues themselves were exquisite, but I couldnt help but compare it to the museum displays of statues in Rome. A statue of Bernini would have been placed in such a way as to make it almost life like. Not to mention the detailed description of each piece explaining not just its pedigree or sculptor, but what it is supposed to denote and a whole lot of history. Here, we found this:





As you can see, pathetic lighting and as you cannot see, but will have to take my word for it, no information other than “sculpture no.xyz:title” . The title part had the name of the sculpture but other than it being Manickavachakar, there was nothing else. One has to be extremely dedicated to take the time to look carefully past the poor lighting and display to see the incredible details on a deceptively simple statue like this. I truly wish, the government* spends the time and money to get a good curator to curate these pieces and upgrade the museum.

Nevertheless, I did manage, in the small time that was left before the closing of the museum, to catch the following brilliant pieces:

Shiva leaning on Nandi (now lost)

Shiva leaning on Nandi (now lost)


Parvati tired of sitting

Parvati tired of sitting


Shiva leaning heavily

Shiva leaning heavily


I thought these had an incredible sense of humor apart from the obviously stupendous technique and on coming back checked on wiki to learn that that trait was indeed a trademark of artists of that era!** How wonderful it would have been if these little tidbits of very interesting information were incorporated in the display to hook the visitor further into exploring this lost art form.

We then made our way to the Saraswati Mahal Library where we were requested to not take pictures. The Library is massive in its collection of diverse sets of manuscripts, books and maps. There was even entire books on palm leaves preserved there and some of them could be viewed under a magnifying glass of greater clarity. They did ask for donations for ongoing renovations, so I am hoping that the poor display and general mustiness of the place will soon be reinvented, if not to the National Library of Congress in Washington standards, at least to the Chicago Public Library*** standards.

In summary, I would definitely recommend a good half a day each to the Chola Sculptures and the Library to give you time to study these in depth. I definitely recommend either a good guide book or other information sites to take along with you to help you better appreciate these treasures and enhance your trip. The Royal Palace you can definitely skip.


* I could be wrong and this could be a private owned museum, but the point still remains.

** Wiki link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chola_art

*** Don’t be mislead by the name, here is what it looks like:http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lobby_Harold_Washington_Library.jpg


On the footsteps of the Thevan

Not Shivaji’s Periya Thevar nor Satyaraj’s Balu Thevan but the one and only Kalki’s Vanthiya Thevan. To me, he is the quintessential Tamil hero, flawed but endearing. Ever since having the 5 volumes read out to me as a kid, I have dreamed of making a trip to all the places Vanthiathevan visited in this historical fiction. Finally, two winters ago, I decided to fulfill that dream. Naturally, such a decision called for a careful re-reading of the text while mapping all the places and of course such a course is doomed to fail. First, there was the time crunch, which resulted in delegation of the project to my mom. Second, the difficulty in accurately identifying said places, what with many of the old towns acquiring new names and not unique ones either. And finally, although modern modes of transportation ensures that the year long journey that Vandiyathevan took in the book, can be considerably shortened, only the possession of Hermione’s Time Turner would have enabled me to finish the trip in the three days I had at my disposal. So bowing down to the pressure of realism, we decided to just do Thanjavur.

Apart from the Ponniyin Selvan reference, the other images that Thanjavur conjures up are those of jeweled paintings and rich Tamil literary heritage. However, I was completely unaware of its Maratha heritage.  It turns out that a descendant of Shivaji* put down his roots way down south in Thanjavur, ousting the Nayaks, who were the remnants of the once powerful Vijayanagara Empire. These latter day dynasts, integrated Telugu and Sanskrit into the cultural outpouring from the area.

We reached this culturally rich town, late at night to the accompaniment of loud horns and dense exhausts from all kinds of vehicles stuck in a bumper-to-bumper traffic congestion that can only be rivaled by Chennai at non-peak hours. We stayed at the Oriental Towers which is not precisely the center of the town, but close enough to most of the places we wanted to be. The hotel lobby is huge, very well maintained, but incredibly ill lit. I think they took the idea of recessed lighting to new depths**. However, the staff was really very efficient and courteous, setting us up in our room quickly and efficiently despite the late hour. The room was spacious, neat and the bathroom was clean. They set up a truckle bed for us, which was a bit rickety, but acceptable. The only problem was the bed linens, which were well worn and one of them tore as I put my foot through it. But the housekeeping was accommodating and gave us new (er) sheets.

We woke up early next day to a foggy morning and had breakfast at the adjoining restaurant.

foggy morning out the hotel window. Periya Kovil in the distance

foggy morning out the hotel window. Periya Kovil in the distance

I am sure the food was tasty, it was Chettinad cuisine, but was too spicy for my Chennai mouth. So with burning mouths and hungry stomachs we made our way to the Brihadeeswara Temple or Periya Kovil.

Periya Kovil, which is perhaps the centermost site of attraction in Thanjavur, is a UNESCO world heritage centre and thanks to this distinction, is incredibly well maintained. I have not seen a better kept temple in all of TN***, with hardly any trash littering the site and more importantly no paan stains. Even more significant was the fact that they have wheelchairs available for rent at the temple for the mobility challenged. But like all good things, this comes with a caveat too. The wheelchair is something from perhaps the first generation of wheelchairs. This one had two large wheels at the back legs and two pointy stubs at the front, such that the only way to wheel the wheelchair, was to tilt the chair and its occupant on to its back wheels while pushing the whole contraption forward. Given that the chair was made of wrought iron or something equally heavy, it required a body builder to wield it! But thankfully this was India, so there was no dearth of said body builders, or at least men strong enough to push a 100 ton wheelchair with a 10 ton occupant for a reasonable price.

Having safely navigated the wheelchair situation we entered the main entrance with its impressive Gopuram whose walls were engraved with essays about the building of the Temple, none of which we could decipher even though it was written in Tamil.

Gopuram Vaasal inscriptions. See if you can make out what it says

Gopuram Vaasal inscriptions. See if you can make out what it says

The Gopuram itself is incredibly huge and wonderfully sculpted. It was the Grand Canyon of south Indian temple Gopurams, so high that looking up at it gave me a crick in the neck, so could only get pictures of it in parts.

Rajarajan Gopuram

Rajarajan Gopuram

This main Gopuram leads to an inner entrance which is in direct line with the Nandi Mandabam and the Brihadeeswarar sannidhi. Keeping in line with the colossal scale of the temple, the Nandi is equally huge and imposing, apparently carved of one single rock.

Inner Gopuram

Inner Gopuram



view of Rajarajan Gopuram from Nandi Mandabam

view of Rajarajan Gopuram from Nandi Mandabam

The Brihadeeswarar Sannidhi, true to its name is the tallest one in the complex. The outside walls are filled with carvings of various Gods and Goddesses not to mention dancers in various Bharatnatayam poses.

Brihadeeswarar Sannidhi

Brihadeeswarar Sannidhi


Side view of the Brihadeeswarar sannidhi

IMG_6607 IMG_6608 IMG_6609

The Lingam inside is also big enough that you can see it all the way from the entrance. The inside however is quite dark, which I am guessing is that way so as to preserve the old murals and carvings that adorn the walls and ceiling of the  premises.

Glimpse of Ayyan from the entrance.

Glimpse of Ayyan from the entrance.

Faded Chola fresco at the side of the main entrance to Brihadeeswarar sannidhi

Faded Chola fresco at the side of the main entrance to Brihadeeswarar sannidhi

Chola sculpture at the side of the main entrance to Brihadeeswarar sannidhi

Chola sculpture at the side of the main entrance to Brihadeeswarar sannidhi

Not to be outdone, Thayaar sannidhi is equally grandiose and what was most impressive for me was Amman’s fashion statement. The saree was draped around her most artistically.

Amman in all her glory

Amman in all her glory

But what was the most impressive for me was the Aaradhanai Mandabam. All along the outer walls of the temple complex is this many pillared corridor, filled with murals depicting various stories from the Siva puranam (Thiruvilayaadal) originally of Chola origin, painted sometime in the 1000-1100 A.D. By the time the Nayakars came along in the 1500-1600s, these murals had faded and corroded away due to the soot from the oil lamps lit along the corridor. The Nayakars hence, painted over these murals thus adding their touch to this piece of heritage. Not to be outdone, the Marathas in the late 1600 to mid 1700, erected Lingams all along the corridors thus sealing the confluence of the three dynasties for eternity. The Archaeological survey of India, sometime in the 1930s discovered these frescoes/murals and found the two layers of chola/nayaka paintings. They apparently used a unique technique**** to remove the Nayaka layer and mounted it on to fiberglass stands and it now stands in the museum that is within the temple complex. Thus we can see the Chola murals and the Maratha lingams in the Aradhanai Mandabam.

Confluence of the three dynasties of Thanjavur

Confluence of the three dynasties of Thanjavur

Thus ended our trip of the Periya Kovil. Our visit to the Palace, Saraswathi Mahal library and Water Tower, to come soon. Here is the link to my pictures of all the murals. Please add comments if you know what is being depicted or correct my comments. http://www.flickr.com/photos/95381240@N08/8689535683/in/set-72157633373847110/

* his half-brother in fact, at least according to Wiki

** pun intended ;)

*** OK so all of TN, that I have seen.

**** here is the Hindu article that says more about this http://hindu.com/thehindu/fr/2003/02/28/stories/2003022801300600.htm

The Indian tree- Conclusion

(contd. from  here and here)

But some changes were not so subtle. People started to change. They were no more the mannerly people of Shigaguao, but they started to ask questions. Why should we do this and not that? what is the meaning of this practice? Why should my sister stay home, while I have to go into the wild? Why does my brother get all the good food that I make ? Why don’t I get to keep the game I hunt for my family but share it with others? Why? Why? Why? But there was no one to answer them. Or rather, the answer they got was not satisfying enough. The old ones simply said, because this is how it has always been which was not very satisfying and there was no other answer to be got.

The questions finally reached the ears of the King. He was kneeling in front of the altar as he always did these days when a whisper on a wind brought him the words of some young acolytes talking in an adjacent passage.

“…How can there be no more? How can we offend the Spirt Gods at this juncture?”

“I don’t know. The merchant only told me there is no fresh meat as the people of the city have decided to keep their game for themselves this year.”

“We must tell the King. This is atrocious!”

“But how will the King help when all he does is try to get answers from silence?”

The King didn’t wait to hear anymore. He had heard quite enough, really and realized that somethings can’t be achieved by just waiting. He knew the Manitou would grant wishes, but not answer questions. But he knew where to get the answers now. And so he went.

He went all the way to the marshy lands in the outskirts of his kingdom, on the banks of the lake. He went to Shawnee’s wigwam. He went to the Stranger. But of course he didn’t go alone, he was the King after all and so his cortege, his court, his ministers, and a lot of his people who were curious to know what was going on, also went with him. Thus it was that a year later, almost to the hour when she had first seen the Stranger, did Shawnee once again see a stranger walking toward her on the ice. And before she could think, “Oh not another one!” she realized it was not one at all but many. A very many, indeed!

Now Shawnee, like most of the King’s subjects had never actually seen the King. Once long ago, when she was only a young bride, a fair had come to the marshy lands. Well the fair had come to the fair cities of the kingdom and was on its way out when its path lead it to the marshy lands. Seeing the eagerness of the people here, some of the artists, pitched their tents and showed off their talents. One of them was a man who could create magic with chalk. He could draw anything and make it almost come to life. When he started taking requests from his awestruck audience, the first request he took was Shawnee’s. “The King”, she blurted out enthusiastically, “show us the King as he is in his palace”. And the man had. He drew the King, in his kingly robes, surrounded by his courtiers, and holding his staff with the large ruby glinting at one end. And that is what Shawnee saw that day as the King walked towards her wigwam. The ruby, catching the first rays of the Sun as it peeked out of the overcast sky, glinted at her just like it had glinted all those years ago in the man’s drawing. Fascinated, she watched as the King drew closer to her and asked her if she had seen the Stranger. Not knowing what to say (and afraid she would say the wrong thing), she simply pointed to her door and stood aside. “Yato Keca!” (that means change, you know, in Cahokian) thought Shawnee, “when a King comes to a Stranger, there is definitely Yato Keca in the wind!”

“So you have come to see me, O King”, said the Stranger. “And I thought you of all people would never do so”.

There was a gasp that ran through the crowd at these words. Some of gasp expressed anger and some awe, even though they all said “Look how a stranger addresses a King!”

“And yet, somehow I think you were expecting me, Stranger”, said the King, drowning out the gasp.

The Stranger simled a strange smile and moved and somehow the way seemed to clear out and he and the King were once more on the lake path with the crowds falling back. “And may a stranger enquire as to the reason for a King’s visit?”

” You know, Stranger! You have raised a lot of questions, I think perhaps, it is time for you to raise some answers too”

The laugh that came next, the people remember to this day. When the wind blows and the bare, stiff trees bend at their waist, the creek of their knees and the scratch of their many stiff fingers on the icy ground, is the sound of that laugh. It starts as a rustle and ends in a howl and by the time this ended, the people were left chilled.

“You still have to ask, O King?” the Stranger’s voice boomed. He tapped the King gently on the shoulder and said, ” If you have to ask, you will never know. It is not an answer given, but found.” And he laughed again. Or maybe, it was just the wind that picked up. No one could ever tell with any certainty. All they remembered later was that the fog had moved out of the lake and on to the shore and the Sun had long gone back to hide behind the clouds. By the time the wind dropped and the fog cleared, all they could see was the King standing next to a big gnarly tree. A tree no one seemed to have noticed before, and yet must have been there a long time going by the way its roots had dug deep into the earth and the branches were bent over the waters of the lake.

“Yato Keca!” Shawnee said out loud this time. And she had a great big smile on her face, like she had solved the biggest puzzle she had ever been set. And the King looked at her with dawning comprehension and smiled back . “Yato Keca”, he nodded and walked back. And from that day forth, the King learned to listen to the questions and find the answers within him and to be brave enough to change things as they needed.

And that tree is right there still, you see? It stands to this day on the banks of the lake, going from bare to fragrant with flowers to leafy to bare again. As constant as change itself. And that is what the Cahokians of those days knew for a fact, that nothing lasts and nothing can resist Yato Keca, that Indian tree.

Of Full Meals and Feather Beds-Chidambaram Part III

As we did not want another “continental” meal, we decided to try out some other restaurants in the vicinity. My trusty little guide book* from Fodor’s suggested we try the Hotel Annapurna “multi cuisine”. Apparently the meals were to die for.

This is a part of the Hotel Sharadaram that is near the bus station in the city about 15 min walk from the temple. We of course took the car and pulled up at quite a distinguished entrance, although at this point anything without peeling paint would have looked distinguished to our eyes. We entered a typical South Indian restaurant scene : steel topped tables, plastic chairs, waiters bustling about, the paan chewing manager/cashier ensconced in his elevated pedestal behind a wooden podium overseeing the whole chaos with an almost bored expression**. As I approached this demi-god to ask for a table, one of the ubiquitous waiters popped up in front of me like a jack-in-the-box and said ” A/c a madam?” and before I could reply, said, ” ippadi vaanga madam”. Since I figured anything was better than standing in everybody’s way, we rushed to follow our little guide. He opened the glass double doors on the other side of the entrance and I was met with a blast of cold air. After refusing what apparently was prime spots right under the blasting A/C we chose one as far as we possibly could, right next to one of the large windows looking out at a pretty little garden at the back of the hotel. It was a relatively quiet time and the waiter, doorman, manager*** were all clustered around us waiting with bated breath for our orders. Unable to take the pressure, my dad decided to escape to the restroom, followed quickly by my mom. Finally, my parents decided to have full meals****, but as I wanted to test the authenticity of the “multi cuisine” label, I ordered the vegetarian chow mien. The meals arrived in time, steaming hot, with fragrances that made your mouth water. It was not until they were half way through the thair sadam, did the chow mein make its appearance. Word to the wise, if your meal takes way too long to get to the table, you can guarentee you will be dissappointed. Infact the longer it takes the greater the dissappointment. My chow mein was noodles with boiled vegetables, with maggie masala drizzled on top. I managed to salvage my dining experience, however, by appropriating my parents’s icecream sundae by claiming the age-old adage that old people should not eat ice-cream.

After such a sumptuous meal, of course they wanted to take a siesta, but the thought of sharing your bed with the mosquitos somehow didnt appeal to them. So I thought why not try for a room where we were, in Hotel Sharadaram? I had already called earlier in the week to see if they had any rooms available and they had said no, but I thought maybe seeing us in person might make all the difference. So I put on my most pathetic orphan-cast-upon-the-world look and approached the front desk. They still had no rooms. Seeing the disappointment on my dad’s face, however, the kind lady asked doubtfully if we would perhaps care for a suite? Until then I was unaware of the existence of suites and further enquiry led to the information that a suite gets you the added luxury of a center table with TV, but a standard double room with AC gets only two double beds and a night stand. How could we refuse? So suite it was.

Compared to Hotel Akshaya, Sharadaram was bright and sunshiny with wide stairs , decent size elevator, wide windows and if not exactly clean smelling at least not musty smelling rooms. In fact our suite had a balcony, which thrilled my mom because she could now wash some clothes and hang them out to dry, but disappointed me as it looked on to the bus stand. Notwithstanding these minor deficiencies the room was quite roomy (heh heh), the bathroom clean and the bed linen well washed and free of cigarette smoke. Moreover, the staff were super helpful and efficient. Our hot water geyser did not work and they immediately called in an electrician and fixed it for us and even got us hot water from the next room, in case we needed it in the meantime. So while my dad had a nice long siesta nap, my mom and I went back to the Periya Kovil, to be tourists this time.

We also made the trip to Thillai Kalli Amman temple that day, through the worst roads I have yet had the misfortune to travel. As if driving over potholes was not enough, we had to squeeze our little Indica over the bushes and boulders over the side of the road to make way for the huge busses carrying truck loads of red clad Amman devotees. It turned out that we were visiting an Amman temple in the middle of some major season, so not only the way but the entire temple was filled to the brim with devotees clad in red, dipped in red and spewing red all over the place. I have no recollection of actually seeing the idol or any other aspect of the temple other than leaping over paan stains, escaping being scorched by the fiercely burning oil lamps on the floor while all the while avoiding bumping into people clutching Neem leaves. After all these misadventures I was so happy to get back to the lovely hotel room in Sharadaram which for all it overlooked the bus stand, had a cosy, clean bed and nary a mosquito in sight.

* Yes, I am a tamizhacchi from Tamil Nadu and I needed a guide book, so sue me :P

** You might see his clone at any Saravana Bhavan (including the ones abroad) and they all have the same identical expression. Like they are having an out of body experience and I for one think that look ought to be patented.

*** This was a different one. He wore a suit and had the most gracious expression.

**** Ahhh…what can I say about that full meals: it had 2 kuzhambus, 1 rasam, 2 curries, 1 kootu, unlimited applam and vadam and rice, thair, thogaiyal, pickle, chappathi and sabzi, 1 banana, coffee or tea and ice cream sundae.

Vinn Uyer Gopurum: Chidambaram-Part II

Most Christians, it is said,  prefer to go to the same church all their lives and if they move, then pick one in the new city and stick to that. Not so with most Hindus I know. The more temples we visit on a regular basis, the better we feel about it. But although I have visited many temples, when I think of praying or am in want of serenity and peace I always look to the one temple that we used to visit as a family when we were kids. No other temple gives me that uplifting feeling of being in the presence of something greater than humankind, the feeling of being protected, an almost proprietary feeling*. So when I undertook this journey, it was more for the historical and architectural significance of the temple than to fulfill any spiritual need.

Despite the filth surrounding the temple and the extremely aggressive beggars near the gates, a sight of the Gopuram

was enough to assure me that there was plenty of material here to quench my architectural fervor and fill up my camera’s memory card. There was some renovation going on, and so they had dug up the path from the entrance to the first gopuram, but as it was Kovil premises, footwear was not permitted. So we had to trudge on sharp stones and powdered gravel while dodging paan spit stains and dog/cat/cow urine and fecal matter on our soft, recently pedicured feet. All this looking down, I missed the first entrance and its Gopuram before I looked up.

But once I was in, the view was stunning. Everywhere one turns there were

walls covered in statues, or murals, floors with painted, intricate kolams and row upon row of pillars. It is impossible to describe the inside of the temple as it is almost too overwhelming to take in any details, you only have the impression of vastness. The first Praharam, or circle you enter is called the Raja Sabai and houses the Ayiram Kaal Mandabam. It is purported that the Chola Kings had their anointing and crowning ceremony here. It is also the last place the Utsava Murthy (procession deity) and the “divine slipper”** is taken around before the God retires to bed for the night. It holds the Siva Ganga tank and the point from which you can see all the four Gopurams in one go.

The next concentric circle is the Deva Sabai as it includes the abodes of the other deities including the Lord’s children and more significantly for me, Patanjali and Vyaghrapada (the snake and tiger rishis for the irreverent). It is significant for me, because it was at this Sannidhi that the attendant Dikshitar shattered my most cherished historical anecdote***.

In NandanAr Charitram of my memory, moved by Nandan’s pathos filled song of being unable to obtain the Lord’s darshan because of the Nandi blocking his sight, the Lord in turn moves the Nandi a few feet to the side in Chidambaram thus enabling Darshan and hence mukthi for Nandan. Thus in Chidambaram Kovil, so my memory told me, I will see the Nandi not directly in front of the God, but to the side. Only problem was that in Chidambaram, each Gopura vAsal lead to a praharam which ended in a huge Nandi in a cage in front of the Ayyan Sannidhi. I asked my mom which one was The Nandi and after thinking for a few minutes she confidently points to the one at the east Gopura vAsal and says this has to be it and goes into complicated explanations in which astronomy, shastras and folklore butted heads indiscriminately. Getting thoroughly confused, I finally screwed up courage and asked the Dikshitar at the above mentioned shrine **** the Nandi question. He listened to me blankly and said without batting an eyelid that Thirupunkoor was the place Nandanar  got his first darshan, thanks to the displaced Nandi and Chidambaram was where he attained mukhti. As I was just about to refute this blasphemy, my mother, the traitor, chips in and says “Oh yes! that is why they say “Thirupunkoor ill saayntha nandi”” like she had known it all along!

But I am getting ahead of myself. In the morning while trying to take in the enormity of the architectural marvel that was the temple, I was told we were getting late to witness what we came for i.e., to me boring, puja. But boy was I wrong!

The minute one enters the Kanaka Sabai, there is a perceptible change in the mood. While in the outer praharams, it is all about loitering people with cameras or just loiters (including a few bored dogs and cows) the inner praharam is all business. The first thing you see is the crowd concentrated towards the entrance of the Chit Sabhai. But they don’t overwhelm you like in other temples, possibly because, instead of the raucous noise of a crowd or shlokas blaring from a megaphone, you hear a group of Dikshitars reciting the Vedas in perfect cadence. Because the group is large and the rendering is in perfect unison, there is no need for sound amplification and the effect is entirely spiritual. Moreover at specific times during the day’s puja, the Oduvaars circle around and blow the Conch and Pambai at each entrance to the Chit Sabhai while singing the Thevaram and ending with a “Sivane, Sivane” in unison. The combined effect of the chanted Vedas and the musical Thevaram is nothing if not surreal. It gives a new meaning and vigor to the age-old puja vidanam practices, that are a little too stale for my jaded senses. I spent a blissful 3 hours attending the religious events of the day that included the Spatika and Maragatha Lingam Abhishekam. I must say I was a little disappointed by the Chitambaram Rahasiyam, but that could be because I had hyped it up a lot in my mind that nothing short of scintillating lights and fireworks would have satisfied me.

After witnessing the Archanai, Aaradhanai and Neivadyam, we made our way to the Govindaraja Perumal sannidhi to be underwhelmed and shortchanged on the Kalkandu and Prasadam. But I can’t really blame them as Koothanar is a tough act to follow. We then ascended the Natana Sabai and saw the UgraThandavar. Legend has it that in a dance face-off with UmaiyaL, Nataraja won the contest by lifting his leg and touching his head with his big toe. Upset at losing the competition, the goddess packed up and left to her own abode, which is now the Tillai KaLi Amman temple. Legend goes on to say that to appease the goddess, Nataraja has decreed that the spiritual brownie points that one receives from visiting the Periya Kovil in Chidambaram can only be actualized after the person has also visited Tillai KaLi temple before leaving the town. But since it was close to lunch time and we were more interested in calories in the present life than brownie points for future ones, we headed out in search of food.

* I realize this partiality is tainted by nostalgia but whatever the cause, the feeling is honest enough.

** I am sure there is an authentic sanskrit term for this, I am just too bored to Wiki it.

*** Oh don’t nitpick. What is mythology for one is history to another!

**** Mainly he was the only one who seemed approachable and free at that time. Besides he didn’t seem like he would solicit us for money like all the other Dikshitars were only too keen on doing.


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