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
Nandi
Nandi
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
IMG_6656
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

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4 Comments

  1. Some day, I hope to both read the Ponniyin Selvan in its entirety and go to see periya kovil. I just wish all of these old temples were maintained will with audio guides and such. Our architecture has to be the most under represented marvels of the world! 😦

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