Sitting on the Sri Rangam railway station’s bench, at the end of my journey, I started to write the travel log on Thanjavur, Kumbakonam and SriRangam. I was am happy and surprised that I was able to execute my travel plan so perfectly. The train would be arriving in another 1 hour and I started to write very fast as thoughts welled up in me even faster.
This post is a little edited version of that log.
I wanted to go beyond Pondicherry this time and visit some places. I have been visiting Pondy at least once in a year for the past 6 – 7 years. All these years this annual trip has been exclusively reserved to Pondy. I never attempted to visit even the famous Mamallapuram/Mahabalipuram which comes right on the way to Pondy. So in order to break this tradition and indulge myself in some traveling I started reading about the places I can visit around Pondicherry on the net. I filtered down to a handful of temple towns but Thanjavur’s Brihadeeswara temple has caught my great fancy. Even before reading anything about Brihadeeswara somewhere from the backwaters of my memory a picture resurfaced. I can still picture the image in my mind as seen on my Social studies text though I don’t remember anything what I read about it or which standard I read. Though that black and white picture from my memory was not at all a faithful representation of this grand temple, it stayed with me. May be it was because of the nice or not so familiar name or the association I made with it as a grand and magnificent temple.
Ultimately, the articles I read on the net about the temple’s architecture made my decision to visit Brihadeeswara at Thanjavur and Airavateeshwara at Darasuram,Kumbakonam. These two temples along with Gangaikonda Cholapuram fall under the UNESCO World Heritage site called “The Great Living Chola Temples”. My Travel plan was to Visit Pondy and stay there for 6 days and head to Thanjavur visit Kumbakonam and then lastly to SriRangam and back to Hyderabad. I did not have any hotel booking. I could not secure any. The hotels I found on net were either too expensive or would only accept guests who stay for at least a week. There is no proper public transport from Pondicherry to Thanjavur. After a good search on the net I found a single saviour bus which would take me from Pondy to Thanjavur. With this background I started my journey.
After my 5 day stay in Pondy, with heavy bags stuffed with ceramic vases, bed sheets, incense and other stuff I bought in Pondy along with my own stuff I got into the bus at 1′o clock in the night which I believe was on its way to Erode (I don’t remember it correctly) from Chennai. I could not sleep in the bus, I was anxious about the next day, my lodging. I was still surprised that I am actually making this fancy trip which at once I wanted to call it off when I was in Pondy. The bus dropped me at Thanjavur’s old bus stand. The journey was about 6 hours. Thanjavur looks like any other medium-sized town with lot of commercial activity all around. Later in the evening when I went around looking for some Tanjavur paintings, I saw several smaller temples interspersed all around the town. Thanjavur was once the capital of the Chola Empire. Today, Brihadeeswara temple and Aranmanai (King’s Palace) stand testimony to that mighty Empire which sprawled across south India to Maldives including Sri Lanka.
I started to look for some decent looking hotel. I tried a few of them but to my surprise they were already filled. But as I progressed from one hotel to another I collected details about the average cost of the hotel/lodges. I am happy that the prices are well within what I’ve expected and planned to spend. With a little more roaming with my heavy bags I finally ended up at hotel Anbu. According to the hotel manager there, I am lucky as he has got just one room left to give away. The hotel room was neat though it looked very old and run down. An old kitchen which cooked food on firewood was just below my room’s window. I could smell smoke. I did not care for that, for me it’s just a place to house my luggage and sleep for one night. My hotel had a view of a temple gopura which I though could be the Brihadeeswara. But later I later I learnt that its part of Aranmanai.
I quickly got ready and headed for Brihadeeswara temple. With just a quick 15 min walk I was at there. I could see the temple gopuras standing tall, with earthly touch from outside. At the very sight of the temple from outside and the gopuras I felt they look very ancient and still very pristine. Part of me became very excited that I am about to see an ancient marvel. One has to cross a small bridge like structure across a huge ditch has been dug around the temple which could be a security measure from invading armies. The temple has a three level fortification. The first fortification entrance is more or less like a decorated wall. The second and third entrances have beautiful gopuras. These are not huge and are not like the normal south Indian temple gopuras, which narrow down as they go up. They seem to have 3 levels with a somewhat elongated octagonal structure ending at the top making them very impressive. Two imposing four hands statues (dwarapalakas), as guards, on either side of the entrance is a very common feature throughout the temple at every entrance.
With my heart becoming even more excited I entered the inner temple complex. Just at the look of the temple left me awestruck and gaping (I mean it literally). The whole environment of the temple took hold of me. The grandeur and splendor of the temple was completely above what I expected or perceived from the net. The weather at 7 was cool and pleasant. I walked around the temple complex. The temple’s inner complex is spread across a huge area with pillared cloister running along the length of the outer wall. These rooms house several lingas, smaller deities, Thanjavur painting style frescos, utsava vahana etc. Inscriptions in devanagari and Tamil like script appear on the pillars and walls.
The main temple stands at the middle of the complex tall and gigantic making everything look small and insignificant. I know it would be huge, but only after getting near to it, I was able to perceive the sheer size of the gigantic gopuram on the tall temple walls. I learnt that the bulbous structure at the apex of the gopura alone weighs 80 tons. Beautifully carved statues of Shiva and Parvati in various forms are placed in the external temple walls at strategic points. All around, the temple walls covered with beautifully sculpted mystic motifs and deities, inscriptions in Tamil like language. Right between the gopuram entrance and the main temple on an elevated platform a huge monolith Nandi carved out of black granite sits in a small stone mandapam. A staircase from the same plinth leads to the main temple. Walking through the temple inside is a great experience. It is a huge stone structure with beautifully carved pillars. The walls were built using huge chunks of granite. The sanctum Santorum houses a huge Shiva lingam. The priest performed a small puja and gave aarathi and vibuthi to us who gathered there and said about the temple in Tamil. From the little I understood he referred to Raja raja chola, 1000 years and the gopura being the tallest in the world. Exit entrances which lead to a staircase are to the east and west of the temple.
There are several shrines around the main temple, inside the complex, which I learnt that were added later by different kings who ruled after Cholas. Significant among them are the Murugan, Ganapathy temples and a mandapa. The Murugan temple built by the Madhurai Nayak Kings is an embodiment of beauty. The attention given to the details in carving in this temple is astounding. The columns studded on the temple walls, main pillars, drwarapalakas, deity statues, elephant motifs on the staircase…. every thing in this temple is carved to perfection and utmost beauty.
This temple in its size is no where close to the main temple but the sculpture here is far more evolved. I spent a lot of time at this temple. I remember Sri Aurobindo’s remark from ‘Evening Talks’ compiled by AB Purani – “The further you go back in time greater the grandeur you meet in the conception. The nearer you come to our time the more the art becomes great in detail.”
After spending around three hours I left the temple carrying the magic of Brihadeeswara in me. After having breakfast and I took a little rest and headed to Kumabakonam.
Even with all this glory, I felt Brihadeeswara not an active temple where processions, pujas take place in full religious fervour. Like in any big temple where cooking, oil lamps, coconuts and flower decorations are a common scene, these seem missing here. We don’t find even any flower, incense and puja related shops in front of the temple. Though this may look neat and tidy, I found the spirit missing.
Everything associated with Brihadeeswara is huge and grand. The Nandi, lingam, gopuram everything. And may be for this reason the locals call it Periya kovil -Big temple. Raja Raja Chola who conceived and built this magnificent and grand temple has done it in such a way that no one in this world would ever attempt to take up similar work at this scale. Even today after 1000 years this great structure stands tall ever inspiring.
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