Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Grandest Chola(s)

(This is not a description or a travel guide but my experiences at the temples)

I was part of the ITC Grand Chola blog meet and the venue sparked in me a desire to see the inspirations behind the jaw dropping hotel that left all of us awestruck. The inspirations of course are the magnificent architectural marvels of the Chola dynasty of which the temples are the highlights.

I had to visit Kumbakonam and Thanjavur on work and since two Chola dynasty marvels are in the vicinity I combined work with pleasure and drove down to soak again in the wonders of our heritage. I decided to drive down via Ulundurpet which was an additional 30 odd kilometers than the shorter Vadalur route though the better roads made the trip smoother. The Ulundurpet route will take you through Jayankondan and then to Gangaikondacholapuram.

The town’s name is a mouthful but commemorates the empire of Rajendra Chola that stretched up to the Ganga. The monarch built a capital in this town sadly the only sign of it is the magnificent Brihadeshwara temple which is a partial replica of the temple in Thanjavur. And this temple was our first stop.

You cannot help feeling overawed by the temple and it is disappointing that there is hardly anyone around even tourists. This is a splendid edifice and I believe that a day may not be enough to fully soak into the beauty of the temple and its sculptures. The construction itself that has survived most of a millennium is testament to the architectural skills of our forefathers and the mathematical accuracy and precision that is visible makes you hang your head in shame, for these were days without computers, calculators and even log books & tables.

The Archeological Survey of India has done a decent job of maintaining the temples and its environs and it is such a pleasure to walk around bare feet on the lush grass or sit in the shade of the trees. You can just admire the sculptures that adorn the walls of the temple, the nandi that is uncovered unlike the one in Thanjavur, you can run your hands over the stone structure and get a feel of history and you will end up feeling undeniably proud of the heritage of this land.

The main temple is surrounded as is usual by the temples to the other deities, it was sad to see that one such structure was used only as a store room for junk, not sure what the back ground of that structure was. The lion that stood over the old tank and the impressive nandi make for good photo ops.

The inside of the temple is another thing altogether, the cavernous interior further darkened by the infamous power cuts makes it very difficult to find a sure footing. The poorly illuminated sanctorum, the priest on the mobile phone and the omnipresent invertor are last memories of the temple. We then set out to the big brother of this edifice in the earlier Chola capital of Thanjavur.

The temple at Thajavur is proudly proclaimed as a living temple on all the information boards, I am not very sure of the reference to the context but it is fair to say that a millennium of history abides in the confines of this temple. This temple is also dedicated to Brihadeshwara and is a wonder of ancient architecture. Built of stone mined around 50 kms and built using interlocking techniques this temple has survived wars, nature and much more to stand proudly as a sentinel of this town.

I learnt from the displays that there are numerous additions to the temple by later dynasties including the Nayaks who built among others one beautiful temple and the shelter for the nandi.

The temple celebrated 1000 years of its existence recently and has been touched up for the same. The structure appears to be sand blasted or painted over and has a dull sandy shade to it.

Also some modern additions appear rather incongruous and mar the overall appearance of the temple. The complex is again well maintained and unlike the other temple is much frequented by tourists. Again a day may not suffice to completely capture the temple into ones senses there is so much to see, feel and savour. The displays in the hall nearby are wonderful and explain the temple, the history of Cholas, the architecture, sculpture and the paintings and can be a real eye opener.

Time was a constraint and we managed to see what we could outside the temple in the available time and finally entered the sanctum. There was so much of jostling and pushing in the line to the sanctum sanctorum and it was a very unpleasant experience. I suspect that the interiors of these temples are poorly lit to conceal the poor upkeep inside, junk strewn everywhere, poorly erected electrical fixtures are a big disappointment in this wonderful complex.

On the way out of the complex the temple elephant was obliging tourists by posing for photographs alongside for a fee. Its keeper kept telling that pay up if you want to be blessed or take photos, sad state of affairs for such a majestic animal.

If you have not visited these temples, I suggest you make plans ASAP!

P.S. One  memorable and puzzling discovery at the temple, let me know your understanding of this...