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Emerald rice fields rustled in the dawn breeze along the red banks of the Cauvery. The Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu is renowned for its many splendidly sculpted temples, many from the medieval Chola period. Not all of them draw worshippers now. The gods in residence have fallen from favor. The priests here barely find resources to perform the daily liturgical activities let alone the elaborate ceremonies on the Hindu calendar. And such neglected gods—what wishes could they grant, pray?
We entered an agraharam, previously an elitist ghetto, where the priestly caste of Brahmins lived apart to maintain ritual purity. “Everything has changed,” Selvaraj said, explaining the boards advertising big names in the local tobacco trade. Both priestly class and wealthy temple patrons have moved to cities for employment—“Bombay, Delhi, and Calcutta,” and, as a fourth and final destination, he offered “America.”
My parents worked in these metros before moving back home to Chennai, the Tamil capital. My great-grandfather had been a poor Thanjavur priest. I left for the U.S. as a graduate student and stayed on in the soul-sappingly cold Northeast. In three generations, my family had contributed to the dwindling Brahmin demographic by the economic migration Selvaraj spoke of.
I am a non-resident Indian. Stuck between two worlds like a modern-day Trishanku whose wish to reach heaven in his bodily form so angered the gods that they yanked the ground from beneath his feet. Later mollified, they gave him a new abode. Not on terra firma and definitely not in paradise. Maybe some cloud four-and-a-half, like my Boston home where I sat watching the Learning Channel one Sunday.
The Lost Temples of India was being aired as part of the weekend Mysteries of Asia series. A city kid from a not-very-observant Hindu family, I had to be dragged to temples on the rare occasions we went there, but the title of today’s episode disconcerted me. I took for granted that the shrines were there and would always be there when I chose to visit. Western tourists flock to India’s symbolic monument, the unparalleled Taj Mahal, which immortalizes the love of Emperor Shahjahan for his wife Mumtaz. Southern India with its architectural wonders is not on any tourist map and remains lost to the world, the introductory voice-over said soothingly.
That explanation should have sufficed, but I was filled with an urgent need to visit the temples and personally verify that they were still standing. My parents were able and willing to interpret my heritage for me. So, here we were on this road trip doing a tour of their must-pray-at shrines and I was getting hotter and hungrier by the minute. My father clutched a folder of tourism pamphlets replete with legends and little practical information.
Eatery suggestions from the left-behind Lonely Planet’s Guide to South India were pooh-poohed by Selvaraj who took us to value-for-money places instead. If the conscientious Selvaraj carried the attitude to our itinerary, we could take in all 75 temples within a week, and that would be money’s worth for the chauffeured rental. Mentally, dad predicted a great future for our driver.
Once a hobbyist astrologer, my father was sought out for consultations. His banking job gave him little time for this weekend practice. The planetary deities were beckoning again. We visited every one of the nine shrines dedicated to the celestial bodies, including the two serpents-in-the-sky that swallow up both the sun and the moon during eclipses. I wanted to stop for palm-leaf predictions from the area’s famous fortunetellers. Just for kicks. Suddenly, dad had no time for soothsayers. I certainly did not want to visit every shrine along this terracotta route. Mom refused to pick sides.
At the old and popular Chidambaram temple, where legend says Shiva danced the earth into creation, devotees circled the sanctum in determined loops to the festive chants at noon. Barely catching a glimpse of the idol, I edged away from the turmeric-faced housewives into an inner corridor. Overhead, yalis grinned and asked: “Is she going to give up so easily?” I cannot believe I had not made the mocking acquaintance of these griffin-like creatures before.
All pervasive as decorative motifs in Hindu architecture, these wicked monsters keep evil spirits away from sacred premises. As metaphysical mirror images, they remind us that we have various animal instincts rolled into this human form. Grimacing back at my boar-eared, lion-faced tormentors, I was glad the deities insisted on their ceremonial afternoon nap. I could use the break too.
At the gates of the temple featured in The Learning Channel’s television show, a delicately made-up resident elephant impatient for its jaunt amidst the city traffic greeted us. Two granite gatekeepers loomed over with their frozen gestures: Stop, Enter, and Don’t-even-think-of-it. They were assisted ably and unexpectedly by cops stationed below with metal detectors. In a post-9/11 world, airports are not the only places with heightened security.
It was the week of Dec. 6, the 10th anniversary of the demolition of the Babri mosque built on a site that marks the birth of the Hindu epic-prince Rama, in faraway Ayodhya, 1,500 miles north. Babar, a Turkish man of noble descent, was the founder of the Mughal Empire in India. The disputed structure bears his name only symbolically. Any later iconoclastic Muslim warrior could have razed the Rama temple to the ground. There is little archaeological evidence to link the site to the emperor of India or the prince of Ayodhya. The fear of retribution appears to have traveled despite the communal harmony in the south. A Muslim woman waited with her child to pose with the elephant, oblivious of her prime suspect status. My mother nudged me. “Turka.” Five centuries later that is how Muslims are referred to in the south. Turkas—the foreigners from Turkey. The local converts become eternal outsiders. The child smiled shyly as the elephant accepted the bananas from her hand.
Commissioned by the Chola emperor Rajaraja I (985-1017 C.E.) this magnificent Shiva temple stands tall and proud like a dull gold citadel. Its tower, a trigonometric wonder, never darkens the earth below with its shadow. The central object of worship, the lingam, is bathed periodically with auspicious liquids to the chant of mantras and the play of brass lamps and bells. This is followed by ritual change of floral garlands and silk costumes. Even as the daily drama of devotion plays itself, worship remains idiosyncratic. An old gentleman swept the flagstones in the courtyard at dawn as his prayer.
So personalized is worship that you can pick a desired god—in your favorite form—from the pantheon. Shiva graces the niches as mendicant with matted locks, lover merging androgynously into his consort, demon slayer, and family man. My beloved Lord of the Cosmic Dance watched on amusedly as two chipmunks raced down the fluid length of his sun-drenched limbs. In the evenings exquisite bronze replicas of the deities—the utsavamurthis—travel bedecked in palanquins to bestow blessings on the townsfolk. They adorned the corridors along with the brightly painted procession paraphernalia. Training my binoculars on the 215-foot tower soaring heavenwards, I saw intricate bas-relief classical dancers come alive as did yogis in a fierce warrior stance.
Rajaraja Museum, our next stop, had an impressive collection of bronze and stone Chola sculpture unearthed from various sites in Tamil Nadu, five centuries after they were buried for safety from iconoclastic Muslim generals. In their stark splendor, these “homeless” idols are familiar figures on the international museum circuit. Piecing together the information available, we learned that between the 9th and 13th centuries C.E. the Cholas ruled most of India, Sri Lanka, and parts of the Malay Archipelago. Their maritime presence allowed trade with Southeast Asia and left a lasting impact on the art and architecture of the region. The best-known example is Angkor Wat of Cambodia.
This makes the temple we visited central to Chola power, hence its local name—Periya Koil, Tamil for big temple. My father then asked the question, which changed the nature of the trip: “Are there other ‘small’ temples, true heirs to this grand one?” In one afternoon of aesthetic appreciation, the temple tally was forgotten.
A beaten Selvaraj took us to Gangai-Konda-Chola-Puram, the “town of the Chola who conquered the Ganga.” The capital of Rajendra I (1012-44 C.E.) lay desolate except for the beautiful temple. Water from the holy river was carried back in golden pots and poured into a commemorative reservoir. Coconut palms swayed gently in the cool lawns. A group of schoolboys who wandered in to play cricket were chased back by a zealous guard. Schools would close for Christmas soon, but right now, it was time to study for exams. Perhaps he had a none-too-studious son at home so he thoughtfully confiscated the ball as well.
When we reached Dharasuram built by Rajaraja II (1146-1163 C.E.,) I thought we had strayed into the original set for Indiana Jones’ Temples of Doom. Expecting thugs to materialize on the scene, I would have preferred to keep my shoes on. But the only people around were the pleasant shoe-minder, her glum betel-chewing companion, and the young priest Raja who hastened through the rituals to get down to the business of showing us around.
Sculpted horses like one magnificent chariot draw the pillared porch. Truly, god here is in the details. The ceiling, the columns, every square inch of space is covered with portrayals of petite divinities. The sculptors’ brilliant sense of proportion is seen in carvings on the walls and in the reduced reproductions of the same scene on the floor below—all minutiae intact. Raja explained the lesser-known vignettes from legends.
At the entrance of the temple, by the musical stone stairs that produce metallic notes when struck, he told us a leave-taking story. Our tip would go towards his guru who lay fractured in a hospital—his bones insidiously thinned out in old age. Over the years, his dying guru taught him all he knew. “They mention him in every foreign guidebook,” said the proud disciple. Meanwhile, the sullen old betel-chewing woman—the guru’s wife—joined us.
Her caste forbade her from begging. It was all very well we were contributing to her husband’s Horlicks fund but “what about my nourishment?” she demanded. We had to hear her out. No, she did not visit the hospital. “It is far away and inconvenient.” It is not often that you hear of an abandoned husband in this part of the world. My father promptly went into shock. Knowing I cannot end India’s poverty with a few guilty dollars, I do nothing in such situations and end up feeling guiltier. This once I managed to slip her a few notes. Then, Selvaraj helped us find several more gems strewn in our path before we bade goodbye.
Back in Chennai, I found an excellent coffee-table book, Tamil Nadu, a bargain without haggling. Ace photographer Raghubir Singh had traversed much the same route we had. Browsing through, I remarked I could draw up a great itinerary simply based on the places we missed this time, thanks to my father. “That,” he replied wryly, “is the richness of Tamil Nadu.” I then came upon a picture of a bent old man by a now-familiar stone chariot. A carefree Raja leaned back clasping the carved column for support, just another yali in the background. The caption read: “Retired civil servant, now a guide, Dharasuram temple.”
That had to be the ailing mentor. Every satisfying tour of sacred shrines deserves an epiphany and here was ours. Our destinies depend on the kindness of strangers. There is no other way to earn punyam (karmic credit) except by being compassionate in every chance meeting in life’s journey.
That was a portable truth I could carry back home with me.
Vijay Sree Venkatraman is a writer based in Cambridge, MA.