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Travelogue:Thanjavur and Brihadishwara temple

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[Part 1 of the Tanjore/Thanjavur-Srirangam-Trichy travelogue] Part 2 can be read here

Having overloaded myself with information on Tanjore/Thanjavur, I reached the Tanjore Palace in search of all the glory of the old Chola capital.

The 16th century palace complex was built by the Nayaks and later renovated by the Marathas. With very unimpressive looks, the ill maintained complex has parts that unfortunately look more like ruins. The grandeur that the Cholas, Pallavas  and Tanjore were synonymous with, was missing here (at least from outside).

Situated close to the Old Bus Stand, the first of the museums I visited here was the Royal Museum. Is this the might and valor of the Cholas I heard of? What am I seeing here, I wondered? A scantily lit room with drums, urns, perfume bottles, wooden boxes, manuscripts, gifts, jewelry, weapons and other belongings of the Marathas. At least once, I felt pity for the exhibits with years of accumulated dirt, that tried to utter words from a glorious past. A 17th century printed Ramayana was one of the exhibits I found worth mentioning.

Exiting and moving on, a painting of a Maratha King welcomes you to the Durbar Hall. The area in front has a canon and a bull. The smell of pigeon excreta near the portrait makes you run into the interiors of the palace, only to take you into empty dark rooms with even worse stench. On the other side of the painting, an array of of Pallava and Chola statues throws light into the craftsmanship of the Pallava and Chola era. Immense amount of solace here. :)
The Art Gallery has an impressive line up of granite (7th to 17th centuries| Pallava, Chola ,Pandya) and bronze statues(10-18th centuries, Chola, Nayaks,also 7-8th century Natarajas).With details of excavation and century of origin clearly displayed, the Gods, Goddesses and other statues take you to a different era. The magnificent monolithic statues evince energy and life; the aura in their eyes beamed a story of fine craftsmanship and effort. Vishnu, Ganesha or a Nataraja look exactly the same as they look in today’s images and statues. Gods haven’t changed much. I also did notice a Buddha statue from the Pallava era here.

Climbing up the Bell Tower was an interesting exercise, but the multitude of I Love you graffiti throughout the narrow stairs and the storeys were very depressing. A lot can be improved in this palace complex.
After existing the main entrance, further down the road towards the bus stand, stands a the pink colored building on your left. Sharajah Madi, a six storied building built in the Sarcenic style by Raja Serfoji houses the belongings of the Maratha kings. With its spacious halls and grandeur, this palace will remind you nose of the Durbar Hall. The paintings and the embellishments on the roof are sparingly visible in the dark interiors. You may wonder if you mistakenly entered the Maratha kings’ dungeon. :)

With due respect to the rulers, one could easily conclude that Marathas’ and Nayaks’ efforts here seems very anachronistic in front of the Pallava and Chola splendor.

From the Palace,I headed to Brihadiswara Temple (Built in 1010 AD, 25 years and 275 days after Rajaraja Chola’s ascension to the throne in AD985).Whenever I saw this temple on Discovery and such, I always believed it is the firang’s knee jerk WOWs that created the hype around this place. Alas, I was wrong, terribly wrong. This structure looks majestic and looks way better that how it looks on TV.

Gopura-I, Brihadishwara Temple,Thanjavur

Gopura-I, Brihadishwara Temple,Thanjavur

Inside a walled fortress, this temple will take your breath away. I stood in awe, astonishment and reverence. A standing testimony of the Chola’s opulence and vision, their architectural excellence can be seen in this structure built during the 11th century by Rajaraja Chola-I. The scale and the enormity of the deities reflect the staunch reverence of the king to lord Shiva.

The Gopuras,Brihadishwara Temple,Thanjavur

The two Gopuras , Brihadishwara Temple,Thanjavur

Rajaraja, his sister Kundavai and queens donated their gold and silver to this temple. The gold Rajaraja donated came from his treasury and the booty from his Chera(Kerala) and Karnataka campaigns.
The intricate carvings on the pillars and walls, and the inscriptions on the walls make the temple a delight for a historian’s senses. The script used in the inscriptions resemble Tamil, Thai or some of the South East Asian languages. The huge(8.7m height) Shiva Linga in the sanctum sanctorum and Nandi statue reflect the magnificent munificence of the Cholas. The shrines of the goddess and Subrahmanya date back to 13th (Pandyas) and 15th century respectively. A legend says that the Nandi statue was growing and the growth was curbed after a nail was drove inside its back. So now, this monolithic Nandi is 3.7m high, 6m wide and 2.5 m broad. Get an idea how big that is?

Vimana -Inside Brihadishwara Temple, Thanjavur

Vimana -Inside Brihadishwara Temple, Thanjavur

The inside walls, Brihadishwara Temple

The inside walls, Brihadishwara Temple

The pillared cloisters beside the main structure has a series of deities and Shiva Lingas which includes a few of them excavated in recent past; which makes one think when does an statue excavated end up as a god and when as a Art Gallery piece. The murals narrate the story of Shiva’s might. Among the things visible were the interlocks of the granite stones. The rocks so perfectly fitted into one another at a height of tens of metres seemed to share a harmonious bonding , unnerved by the rains, winds and heat. Very well maintained, this structure will leave you with thoughts like, was it actually built in the 11th century. :)

Interestingly, I could spot that only the doors were made of wood and not surprisingly, even they were intact. Not sure if they were replaced during the course of time, once or even more.

Elephant Hair being sold outside Brihadishwara Temple, Thanjavur

Elephant Hair being sold outside Brihadishwara Temple, Thanjavur

Unlike in most other temples, here the towering Vimana(roof of the sanctum sanctorum) (58m tall) makes the Gopura( Pyramidal tower at the entrance of the temple) look diminutive. The inscriptions of the Vimana talk about the Rajaraja Chola’s gifts to the temple. The 13 storied Vimana is ornate with several stucco figures. Water for the temple would have(still) come(s) from the Kaveri river(should be a distributory of the river Kaveri as Thanjavur falls in the river’s delta region) flowing adjacent to the fortified walls of the temple complex.

Brihadishwara Temple at night

Indide Brihadishwara Temple at twilight

It would be the greatest show of disrespect to the Cholas, if I even think of comparing them to the Marathas. Frankly, even a Taj Mahal is nothing in front of this temple. You would not argue with me, if you have been to both the places.

The magnanimous idea, the grandiose vision, the Herculean effort, the glorious past of the Chola regime, their patronage for arts and culture, this temple stands testimony for all of these.

Some questions remain unanswered to me. Where did Raja Raja Chola rule from? Where was his palace? Since the Lord was more or less like the ruler, was the temple a center of governance too? But, where did the king and his family stay? How were the rocks brought into the site? How were they erected to such heights? Elephants, humans, inclined planes? I am yet to find some answers. The copious admiration lives on.
PS: I won’t rant about the school history text books that irreverently cut short the Chola kings. Cholas were just worthy of 5 or 10 marks while history was all about the series of kings who ruled Delhi, the Mughals included.

Cholas ruled not just South India and Ceylon. They had almost the whole of SE Asia under their control.Their system of governance and administration was so advanced and systematic that it can match the best of such systems that ever existed around the world. He was indeed king of kings, Rajaraja Chola.I am not getting into that, this post will go on for pages if I do. Read this by Charukesi if you still don’t believe the Chola might.
Suggested reading:

  • [For more on the architecture] Temples of South India, Ambujam Anantharaman
  • The Illustrated History of South India,K A Nilakantha Sastri

Photo credits Bharat Narayanan

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October 25, 2009   15 Comments

Kerala Trip Roundup

My recent trip to Kerala was a site-seeing marathon.I visited forts,temples,beaches,backwaters and caves.I had read through a lot of websites and a few books to know the importance of these places before I visited.

DTPC Kannur and Kasargode sites gave some basic information to decide the places to visit.More in depth information was sourced from various publications by Kerala Tourism.So, over to the trip.

Rajarajeswara Temple,Taliparamba

This temple is situated at about 25km North of Kannur on the National Highway 17.Like many ancient temples,this temple also has a set of customs and rituals that make it unique(Including the absence of kodimaram/flagstaff and entry for women only after 8pm).Though I was told that the temple was built thousands of years(kodanukodi) back,I decided to tie some loose ends of history.

During the times of Raja Raja Chola-I (reign 985 – 1014 CE.)and his son Rajendra Chola-I(reign 1012 C.E. – 1044 C.E.), the Chola empire consisted of the whole of South India, Ceylon, Malaysia and beyond. The Chola-Chera war went on for a hundred years and the Cheras accepted the hegemony of the Cholas after their defeat. Later, the Chera kingdom split up into pieces and marked the end of rule of Kulasekhara(Chera)(Kerala) as a single entity.(A Survey of Kerala History,A Sreedhara Menon,page 117)

At a time(10th and 11th centuries) when Jainism’s strength was on the decline, a massive Shiva temple built by a powerful Chola ruler would have added to the fall of Jainism. Like they say, the religion of the king is the religion of his subjects. The Chola period saw the revival of Shaivite and Vaishnavite traditions in areas under them.Temples of Kannur(S Jayashankar) says that the temple was renovated by Rajendra Chola-I. It is quite possible that an existing Jain temple was converted and rebuilt as a Shiva temple by the Cholas during their conquest of Chera kingdom.It was very common during those times to convert Jain and Buddhist temples into Hindu temples.

Just as kings and emperors are seen only by offering a kazhcha(gift),the Lord here can be “seen” only after placing neyamrith(ghee) on the sopanam(steps leading to the sanctum). It is said that the Lord of Taliparamba is the King of Kings. This status may be connected to the power associated with Rajaraja Chola-I and the influence he had as a ruler. Incidentally, the name of the temple is closely related the king’s name.

The Namaskara Mandapa is out of bounds even for Brahmins. The story connected to this says that, Rama on his way back from Lanka prayed here and his chest touched the floor. A Kshatriya’s chest touching the floor made the Namaskara mandapa impure for Brahmins.The real reason, I believe, may be different. The area where this temple stays could have been a Jain temple and Rajendra Chola-I could have either demolished and rebuilt or converted it into a Shiva temple. In many instances where a Jain temple is converted to a Hindu temple, Brahmins stay away from the temple for centuries.( A Survey of Kerala History,Sreedhara Menon,page 84, similar to Matilakam)The Namaskara Mandapa may have been an important part of the earlier Jain temple and so it still remains out of bounds for Brahmins.

Madayi Kavu Temple

Maravel or Madayi (off the NH17 near Payangadi in Kannur district, 25 km from Kannur)as it is known today was once a prosperous center of trade and fishing. Sreedhara Menon makes a cursory mention of the Jew Tank in Madayi.(A Survey of Kerala History,page 95). This mention reinforces the trade relations that Madayi had with the west. Duarte Barbosa’s works have also mentioned the Jewish trade connection of Madayi.I somehow missed to add the Jew Tank to my itinerary.

The Madayi Kaavu temple (Sree Thiruvarkadu Shiva Bhadrakali Temple) is the abode of the deity of the Kolathiri rulers. I have not been able to find any reference to the find the exact age of this temple. S Jayasankar in Temples of Kannur writes that the idol is made of Kadusarkkarayogam and no abhishekam is done on it. For archanas, a panchaloha idol is used. The deity was originally installed by Parasurama at Rajarajeswara temple of Taliparamba and later moved to this temple. Toddy and meat are offered at athazhapuja. The temple has strong connections with the Travancore Royal family and traces the link to AD 1305 when two daughters (later Attingal Ranis) from the Kolathunad(Kolathiri dynasty) were adopted to create Attingal Swaroopam.

I have heard a story of travelers who came via the sea who installed the deity here; they installed the idol looking westwards to protect them (their route). I wonder if this has to do with the spread of mother goddess cult. One of the office bearers of the temple told me that it would take a lot of time to explain; may be next time.

The tourist brochures spoke about the ruins of a fort built by Tippu Sultan in Madayi. This was a total disappointment with nothing but the ruins of the boundary wall and a few stones remaining. In case you would want to have a look at the remains of this fort, it is situated near the college and next to a KSEB property. There is a deep dried up well and a couple of tombs(?) inside the fort. The only solace was the view of the town and the river from the fort, fascinating it was.

From Madayi, we set ahead Southwards to Tellicherry(Thalaserry).

Tellicherry Fort:
This fort is an imposing structure built by the British in 1708.The square structure built of laterite has massive walls and strong flanking bastions that overlook the sea.The fort is well maintained by the ASI.An old British Cannon is on display close to the entrance.
This fort was used by Lord Wellesley against the Pazhassi Raja’s rebellion.Behind this fort,next to the sea, lies the St John’s church,built in 1869 with funds from Edward Brennen, the master attendant who established the Brennen College at Tellicherry.Brennen’s tomb is located in the church premises.

Telicherry Fort Entrance

Tellicherry Fort's Entrance

After our visit to the fort,we headed in search of the Gudert Bunglow in Illikkunnu close by; the bunglow where the German missionary and lexicographer Herman Gundert lived for 20 years from 1839.You can give this place a miss as it is now a private property owned by NTTF.I was shocked that the bunglow that witnessed the birth of one of the first Malayalam dictionaries and one of the first Malayalam newspapers Paschimodayam, is now in private hands.We were told that entry is restricted but that did not deter us from entering the compound and clicking some pictures.The only saving grace was that while searching of Gundert Bunglow,we passed some beautiful scenic spots near Gundert colony.

Our next stop was Muzhuppilangad Beach.

Muzhuppilangad Beach(8 km North of Tellicherry,15 km South of Kannur)
On our way back from Teliicherry to Kannur, we hit Muzhuppilangad Beach.This was in my list for quite some years.
This is a 4 km long drive in beach with shallow waters.Must visit place if you like driving on the beach and in sea waters with no clue of what is happening in front of you.Make sure you have the windows rolled up.Water splashes from all the sides and all you can see is frothy water in front of you.Tiny little birds,starfishes and live shells(or were they predator Hermit crabs)could be spotted on the beach.

We were really hungry but the enthu to visit more places helped us stay on track.Next stop was Arakkal Museum,near Kannur.Arakkal Dynasty was the only Muslim dynasty that ruled any part of Kerala.There are various stories on the origin of this dynasty;Logan of Malabar Manual traces the origin of the dynasty to a minister in the Kolathiri’s court in 11/12th century who was converted to Islam.Dutch historians say that the origin goes back to a relationship between a Kolathiri princess and a lower caste man.The girl was married off to a rich Arab trader and thus was born the dynasty.Keralolpathy says that a Muslim couple was invited from Aryapuram by the last Cheraman Perumal and that was the birth of the dynasty.The family records reveal yet another story.The last Cheraman Perumal’s sister Sreedevi was a resident of Dharmapatanam(Dharmadam).Her son Mahabali,later became Mohammed Ali(as asked by the Cheraman Perumal who left for Mecca) and started the dynasty.Whatever their origin be,they had an eventful history through the ages(from 11th century). (Info from The Alirajas of Kannur,Dr. KKN Kurup)

Arakkal Insignia

Arakkal Insignia

There is a lot of scope for improvement in this museum. I was told that they are still collecting exhibits from the royals and others related to them.I hope the entry fee collected at the museum is utilized in developing the place to the fullest.I would still say,visit this place to have a look at the opulent lifestyle of the Arakkal Rajas.

***

Valiyaparamba Backwaters

Situated in Kasargode district at about 5 km from Thrikkaripur,this place is a recent addition to the tourist map of Kerala.The view from here is breathtaking. The place is not much explored for tourism(the DTPC office seemed to be waiting for inauguration?)If marketed properly, this place could be the next Kumarakom.Kerala State Water Transport Dept.operates boats from here to the nearest towns.Since the boat service timings were odd, we decided to take a ferry .

Valiyaparamba Backwaters

Valiyaparamba Backwaters

The ferry took us to the other side,which had an islet(or was that a strip of land).We walked through the paddy fields and coconut groves to a a secluded beach.Very typical of such areas,the place was heavily populated and had sandy soil.After spending sometime in the beach,we headed back to Valiyaparamba.The ferry rides can give the water ways of Aleppey a run for their money.

A sacred grove(kaavu) at Edayilakkad was our next stop.Situated close to Valiyaparamba,the groves could be counted as a sign of early human habitation in this area.At a particular spot,monkeys come out of the grove to be fed by visitors.The way they accepted food clearly indicated how simians mannerism were close to that of humans.

On one of the evenings,we drove to Umichupoyil,a place 20km NE of Nileswar(Kasargode District).
Some years ago, ASI had done excavations in the Megalithic rock cut caves here and found pottery and urns.The caves,said to be 2000 years old, are in a private property owned by a local feudal.There were six strikingly similar caves in the vicinity.This place was a different experience in itself.We had to explore the place on our own.In such a place,it is easy to lose one’s sense of direction as all the sides look the same with no particular landmark except a few tribal hamlets here and there.The caves had rectangular entrances and a semi circular base.Their roofs had a circular vent for light to come in.One had to stoop to get into the caves.Apart from these caves,there were two natural caves.One of them had a natural spring inside where the locals collect water from.This cave was wide enough for many to walk around.Since I am no expert on Megalithic caves,I can’t comment if these caves were burial grounds or not.

A cave in Umichupoyil

A cave in Umichupoyil

We reached Umichupoyil via Choyamkod and Koyithatta.Almost no one we asked about Umichupoyil had any clue on this place;not even DTPC.My 2 paisa: It is better to set for such explorations in early mornings/afternoons.Post sunset,suddenly time became a precious commodity.We walked for 20 odd minutes with a group of tribal women who had come down to buy households from the PDS shop down hill.They were very helpful in directing us to the caves.They themselves had not visited these caves more than once or twice.

***

We drove to Bekal Fort on the day of Christmas.Bekal Fort,a grandiose laterite structure situated 16km SE of Kasargode town, is the largest fort in Kerala.It is maintained by the ASI and a lot of effort has gone into building brand Bekal;which in fact could be seen by the number of tourists.The place has been done up a lot in the past 15 years or so.(My last visit was around that time).I doubt if the renovation work maintains the same aesthetics the fort had originally.I could spot tiles which officially mentioned the year of renovation,but again not much happy about that.

Inside Bekal Fort

Inside Bekal Fort

The fort overlooks the Arabian sea and there were ways to escape into the sea in case of an attack, including tunnels that take you straight to the beach.The entry to the beach is restricted and the cops send people in groups to the beach.The view of the coastline is awesome.Surprisingly,the origin of the fort is still not clear.The observation towers and the places to aim canons at the enemy(who would come by the sea) are eternal symbols of a tumultuous past the fort has had.

Suggested reading:

1)A Sreedhara Menon: A Survey of Kerala History,Cultural Heritage of Kerala

2)William Logan: Malabar Manual

3)Dr.KKN Kurup:The Arakkal Rajas

4)S Jayasankar:Temples of Kannur

5)http://www.hindubooks.org/temples/kerala/rajarajeswara/index.htm

and if possible get a Handbook of Kerala-Part I and II (Even I need to get these two books)

(This is a humble attempt at writing history and travel.Never knew writing history needed this much research.I have verified all the facts.Do let me know if you feel I have missed something)

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January 25, 2009   39 Comments