On January 24th 1982 I was in Tiruchirapalli (Trichy) in Tamil Nadu in Southern India.
When I had first arrived a couple of days previously, I had taken the bus to Srirangam, an island in the Cauvery River which holds one of the largest and most famous Vishnu temples in South India, the Ranganatha Temple. I went straight to the temple which is vast, a series of squares within squares, the sanctum, the outer courtyards and small temples and several layers of houses which made up the town section, with thick high walls between each enclosure. The temple itself I found a bit hustly, and a youth attached himself like a limpet to me. But there were some nice areas, statues and gopurams amongst sand-filled roads, Vishnu marks large on the walls, Vishnu marks on an elephant, some nice column halls. I climbed onto a roof for aerial views, and saw gopurams receding into the green palms, and the central shrine covered with gold. But the best bit came when I left the temple and wandered amongst the outer town sections, some pilgrim areas, then a line of byres along the biggest wall, people friendly now, children running after me "Where's your come-from?", a hand-driven ferris -wheel with children caged in groups of 2 or 3 in the cars. As I got the bus back I noticed another large temple on the other side of the main road and resolved to return.
|Tanjore: Brihadishvara Temple: My picture|
The next day I took the bus to Tanjore (Thanjavur), a pretty dull journey - the only interesting little town I passed was Vallam with an old temple and a match factory. In Tanjore I took a rickshaw to the big temple, being unsure of my direction. The temple is impressive enough, one of the main Chola relics, giant in scale and very open with a cloister and frescoes and lingams all round. The central principal shrine is perfect in form. With no signs prohibiting I walked straight in and got shooed out smartly like a pariah dog. Still there was plenty to enjoy in the precincts. Then I walked around the old town built around the later Nayak Palace. The residential Main Street forms a squarish circumference and has some nice old houses, temples and a tank to the inside. Then there is a bazaar street running straight down the middle. I found a side street with a temple and a lovely old temple cart, then a strange building to the left which I think was the observatory of the palace. I went into the art gallery in the palace, which was a real treat, with some beautiful statues, both stone and bronze, mainly classical Chola period, 10th - 14th Century, the finest were Shivas, especially the stone one from Darasuram, "Shiva Killing The Demons With His Smile." In one room was the bronze collection, some fine Natarajas and Parvatis. I was surprised to find a couple of Buddhas, unusual and not as fine as the Shivas. Upstairs there was a tower which you could climb and a rooftop where you could look out over the massive walls of the palace, the roofs of the pleasant sleepy town, and the distant towers of the big temple. I had a peep into the library with the nice palm-leaf Mahabharatas just like those I had seen being inscribed in Bali.
On the day of the 24th, I had a long walk around Trichy with a friend, five hours in the heat of the day. We went first to the Rock Fort, which towers over the town, through the gateway temple which was full of devotees; they had had a procession out on the main street with elephant and carts. We dropped in on the little Shiva temple halfway up, where a music festival was underway to mark the birthday of some great music guru from c1860 by singing his songs; while we were there, there was a great chorus of devotional song to Ram with tabla and violin and tamboura. Further up we couldn't look in at the great Shiva temple, just the 6th to 8th Century upper rock cave to Shiva which had fine sculpture. Up top there was a modern Ganesh temple and fine views all over the city and into the haze beyond to the industrial south and Srirangam to the north.
After a long gaze to the distance, this time we walked the few kilometres to Srirangam island and visited the Sri Jambukeshvara temple. It is a Shiva temple and not as old as the main Srirangam shrine. However it was less grand and more relaxed. An old baba showed us some aspects, going over the numerology of the place, five courtyards for the five elements and so on, but he did raise my consciousness to some of the architectural features, some really beautiful ornate pillars with creatures like dragons at the top, and some fine carvings in niches which are losing their crisp clarity from generations of oil and powder libations. He pointed out the system bringing water from the river that kept the holy lingam submerged in the central shrine. We sat a long time absorbing the atmosphere despite some overt begging near the "No Begging Allowed" signs. We did a quick puja to Devi to give an old baba a tip. Outside the main walls of the temple was a community living in the streets around the inner temple as at the Vishnu temple, but lower key and less fine; there were byres around the thickest wall and we sat for a while at a tea-shop to the amusement of the locals.
Michael Wood shows in his series of films for the BBC, The Story of India, how the culture of the classical Chola period has survived. He showed how modern bronze casters keep up the ancient standards for temple idols and how palm-books are still inscribed in the traditional way.
Patrimonium Mundi: Panoramas of the temple at Tanjore.
|Elephant in Procession in Trichy: My picture|
|Chola Nandi and Frescoes at Tanjore: My picture|
|The Rock Fort above Trichy: My picture|
|Old street in Tanjore: My picture|
|Temple Car in Tanjore: My picture|
|Tanjore street: My picture|