புத்தகங்களைப் பற்றிதான் இந்தத் தளத்தில் என்றாலும் இன்று ஒரு விதிவிலக்கு – அருணா தஞ்சாவூர் பக்கம் சுற்றிவிட்டு வந்த அனுபவங்களைப் பற்றி எழுதி இருக்கிறார்.
Aruna’s Thanjavur Trip
Traveling within India was one of the high priorities of my current stay in India. From the moment I landed here I have been looking for people to travel with for the wrong company can make the whole experience sour. So when I met Senthil in Chennai at the book fair and floated the idea of a trip within Tamil Nadu and he seemed to have a fairly good idea of its history and geography and was also willing to do the trip, I was pretty thrilled. We talked for a bit and decided on a Thanjavur trip. Both of us being Tamil literature junkies interested in the state’s history and architecture lead directly to a trip that one of our favorite author Jeyamohan had done earlier called “Thanjai Dharisanam” and had written about it. Since his trip involved exploring the various Chola temple architecture and also explore the historically important Chola sites we decided to sort of stay faithful to that journey and added a few other stops that piqued our interest. We figured out the chronological order to see the various archeological sites and temples so as not to be underwhelmed by some early sites if seen after a much developed later temple. Fond memories of the characters from childhood adventure novel Ponniyin Selvan which was also a somewhat fictionalized account of the Chola history was a further bonus.
I and Senthil agreed on a date and on my return from Chennai and booked the train tickets. Even though it was booked almost a month in advance both legs of my journey were waitlisted and I was hoping to get lucky. As most people know me know, luck is my eternal enemy and true to form it didn’t favor me this time either. I was still hoping that something would shake up. Thanks to timely and wise counsel from my sister and a friend, I booked literally the last ticket on a bus the day before the departure. My memory of bus travels in India date back about 2 decades and I was pleasantly surprised to find a long sleeper seat in an air conditioned bus. The ride was pretty comfortable except for about 2 hours near Trichy. The impact of a huge bus trying to negotiate those non roads while you are lying down is not for the faint hearted or bone structured.
Senthil came to the bus stop with the driver and the car and we checked in at TTDC, Thanjavur but had to wait for a couple of hours outside since the check in was only at 7’0 clock. Instead of waiting we decided to take a walk. When I visited Chennai last December for the music season used to think that it would be anyone’s idea of heaven with all the great music and dance flowing non-stop and great food to be had at all the venues. That is till you step out and experience the garbage and filth on the street. Mountains of garbage at every turn would make you believe that this would be anyone’s idea of a perfect hell too. If that’s the status of the civic status on Chennai, then less said the better it is about Thanjavur.
Once we got into the room we quickly showered and got out as soon as we can and started driving to Kudumiyan Malai our 1st stop for the day. Kudumiyan Malai is about 60 Kms from Thanjavur in Pudukottai district and it took us about 2 hours to make the trip. Senthil and I had finalized the trip after our 1st meeting. We figured we would discuss the plan a bit closer to our trip and then every time he called or texted to discuss the trip, I was buried in an avalanche of work and we hardly connected with each other. I am sure both of us were a little bit apprehensive about an intense 4 day trip with a stranger. That all changed the moment we entered the Kudumiyan Malai and started gawking eagerly at the 10th century Chola sculptures.
The temple was built by the Cholas in the 10th Century and later renovated by Pandyas in 13th Century and Vijayanagara Kings in the 15th Century. The temple begins with the entrance to the presiding deity Shikhagirishwarar (Kudumiyan). The outer Praharam has 2 beautiful but somewhat smiling and harmless looking Dwarapalakas (gatekeepers) and that may be reason why a tribe of monkeys were having a grand time playing on one’s lap. Also seen here is a very detailed sculpture of Rathi riding an Annapakshi and Manmathan with a bow on either sides.
This is followed by a Vasantha Mandapam which has a row of beautiful sculptures on either side. Noteworthy are the Vishnu and Lakshmi riding on the shoulder of Garuda, two sculptures of horse riding warriors trampling their enemies, 10 headed Ravana, a few small sculptures of Bhooda Ganas and two rishis paying obeisance to a beautiful women.The master pieces are however a sculpture of a Hiranyavadha and Shiva in Urdhva Thandava. The sculptures depicting a ferocious Narasimha (half man-half lion) tearing up Hiranya in his vice grip and Shiva with his right leg up in Thandava motion get all the details and the expressions right.
Vasantha Mandapam is followed by the inner sanctum. This is still a fully functional temple and the annual festival had just ended the previous day. The inner sanctum looked like a storm had just hit with all the remnants of the previous day’s festivities strewn about and I had to control my OCD which was nagging me to pick up a broom and give it a thorough cleaning.
The Kudumiyan temple was a later addition and the original cave temple is called Melakkoil and is of 7th century origin. This temple is at the back of the Kudumiyan temple and a man sitting and chatting with his friends in the Vasantha Mandapam, escorted us there. Before we get to the cave temple we passed the 1000 pillared Mandapam at the entrance which however houses only 645 pillars. This Mandapam also houses the temple for Parvathi and has a functioning hall which is still used by the villagers for functions.
Past this is the original cave temple. To the left of the cave temple sits Idampuri Vinayaka and to his right, musical notes are inscribed in stone. The inscriptions are arranged in seven sections. As per the staff, these are the first record to mention the solfa notes. The cave temple is virtually dark and one can see the huge Shivalinga flanked by 2 beautiful, Dwarapalakas. The staff told us that these Dwarapalakas are actually referred as Chinna and Periya Marudhu. One can only assume that the later day Pandiya’s association with the temple may have resulted in the Dwarapalakas being named as Marudus. These are very stylish Dwarapalakas unlike any we had seen before with one hand on hip.
Above the cave temple is a depiction of Shiva and Parvati on a Rishaba Vaghana flanked by 63 Nayanmars carved on the side of the hill. We thanked our guide and set out for our next stop Muvar Kovil and Muchukuntram.
We found the Muvar Kovil pretty easily. It is in the village of Kodumbalur which is about 35 Kms from Pudukkottai. This site was buried and was excavated by ASI in 1976. This is an ASI site (Archealogical Survey of India) and there was an onsite staff who explained the history of the place briefly and we bought the tickets from him which at Rs. 10 was so cheap that it may not even cover the cost of the beautiful paper it was printed on. Throughout the trip we found that all sites maintained by ASI had very courteous and well informed staff. There was no one at the site except us and even in the sweltering heat, the lonely site and the surrounding fields transported us back in time.
Muvar temple was built by Bhuti Vikrama Kesari who was the Irukuvel Chief of the Kodumbalur clan. He is believed to be the contemporary and an ally of Sundara Chola in the period of 9-10th century AD. Bhuti Vikrama Kesari’s mother Anupama was a Chola Princess and his daughter Vanathi was the wife of Rajaraja Chola. Muvar Kovil is called as such for 3 identical shrines built in a row in the temple complex. The shrine in the middle is dedicated to the king and 2 on either side for his wives Katralipirattiyar and Varaguna. Today, only 2 of the original shrines have survived along with the base remnants of the 3rd shrine. In front of these shrines we can see evidence of 16 base structures which were built for the Parivara Devatas (subsidiary deities). The shrines are bare now and do not house any of the original sculptures. There is a row of small carvings of multiple Bhoota Ganas on the 3rd shrine which form a Bhoota Regai. These Bhoota Ganas are simply adorable. The center shrine Gopuram has a Shiva and Parvati sculpture and Shiva is looking down at Parvati adoringly. We found a life sized and much more beautiful version of this same posture at Gangaikonda Cholapuram later in our trip. The sculptures here are pretty stark and simple without much detail but with clean lines.
The ASI staff informed us that the sculptures at this site used to be displayed here but for reasons of safety have been removed from this site and are at display at the museum at Tiruchinear the Main Guard Gate. Research indicates that some of these sculptures include that of Jyestha, Sukanya with her bovine headed-son, Kali with loose locks and Subramanya on a peacock.
We relaxed a little under the shade and watched some merry birds before we set out to Muchukundram also called as MudhalKundram which was little further down the road. This is again an ASI site built by Parandhaka Chola in 9th Century and now being used by goat grazers. This site has a single temple with a Nandi in front and a shrine for Shiva. The back of the temple has another smaller shrine with a 6 faced Muruga sculpture. The shrine and the sculptures are very similar to the Muvar temple in its classic lines and represent the simplicity of the early Chola sculptures.
We retraced our steps and turned around to go to Sittannavasal. We had a enquire a little bit for directions and after being in the West for over a decade, the fact that we can randomly stop the car and people will earnestly help you with the directions is something I immensely enjoy. It’s like suddenly strangers are part of your journey and they have an active interest in getting you to your destination. Never mind that sometimes they give you totally wrong directions and we had to chase our own tails. But they totally mean to give you the right direction and I appreciate that I guess.
We stopped in a small village for lunch, Senthil and our driver ate lunch in a shack. Despite being teased mercilessly as being an NRI wuss by Senthil, I was not going to risk eating or drinking in a random place. This was my 1st big trip and I didn’t want to end up sick and ruining it. We had anyways had an excellent breakfast at SriKrishna at Thanjavur which writer Gopalakrishnan had recommended highly. It was so great that we made it our regular breakfast joint for the next few days.
The sun was beating up by the time we reached Sittannavasal. I have always dreamt of visiting Sittannavasal and was quite kicked to be there. Senthil had some childhood memories of visiting it with his school. We climbed up towards the Arivar Koil which is said to be built in 7-9th Century AD. The façade of the temple is recent. I was stuck by how small and simple it was. The temple has an Ardha Mandapam (hall) and a Garbagraham just behind it (sanctum sanctorum). The Garbagraham is a small inner chamber which houses sculpted images of 3 Thirthankaras. The ceiling has a carved Dharma Chakra.
Southern wall of the Ardhamandapa has a sculpture of Parasvathanatha. Ardhamandapa has the central fresco painting on the ceiling which depicts the important Jain religious scene called Samava-Sarana. The paintings are all highly damaged and we could see glimpses of bulls, elephants, anna pakshi and gods. The columns to the left has Apsaras (dancing women) with lotus and another column has a mural of a couple with a beautiful umbrella. The colors on the paintings are pretty much gone and most of them have a greying yellow tinge. The blues and greens were peeping out from some paintings. Photography is now prohibited in the Arivar Koil.
We started walking towards the Eladipattam which has been a Jain shelter since 1st century BC. It is called so because of the seven holes that serves as steps to ascend the shelter. Reasonably strenuous climb up the rock hillock lead us to the shelter were 17 polished beds are carved on the floor under a low hanging roof. One side of the bed is raised a little bit and was purportedly used as stone beds by the Jain monks. The Brahmi inscriptions on these rock beds date back to 3rd Century BCE. I have read a lot about these Jain stone beds and had visualized rock beds carved out of large stones and was a little disappointed at first to see these shallow beds. The stone beds have also been subjected to liberal doses of vandalism with some geniuses wanting to encrypt their life’s achievements on it. We rested on the shades of the shelter to look out at the surrounding fields. Even today the loneliness of the place so far removed from the rest of the world is stark. To realize that more than 2000 years back people seeking wisdom and knowledge decided to literally carve a niche for themselves here and to traverse the same path today conjures up indescribable feelings. It almost felt like a violation to try and peer through that isolation.
We started climbing down in the most unbearable heat and saw a couple who had climbed the hill to sit under a slightly hidden lone tree, cuddling and chatting. Couldn’t help but wonder what kind of society drives it’s young to literally climb mountains so that they can eek out a private space for themselves under the smoldering heat.
Our next stop was Nartha Malai. Our driver informed us that it was the annual car festival day and going there might not be very fruitful. So we decided to make a trip to Thirumayam Fort which is about 20Kms from Pudukottai. This fort is also called Oomaiyan Fort (he was the brother of Kattabomman) and was built in 1678 by Ragunatha Sethupathy. Top of the fort has a gun barrel and the fort itself is surrounded by moats. It was Mid April and a few kids were visiting the fort in the middle of the day without a care for the impending exams which was quite refreshing a scene. We decided to get back to the room and figured that if we rested a bit then we can go to the Brahadeeshwarar Temple and see it in the night and then again go again the next day in the morning.