Issue Number: 93
Sarah Greenberg takes the temple trail through Tamil Nadu in search of Chola treasures
The sunset from the Rock Fort in Tiruchirapalli looks like a sari blowing in the wind. Bands of bright orange, pink and violet burst through the sky, swirling around me as I reach the top after climbing 400 steps, painted red and white to symbolise the positive and negative forces of the universe. Crowds of schoolchildren have congregated here for twilight puja (worship) at the shrine of the elephant god Ganesh, who removes obstacles and blesses study. They are here to make darshan (eye contact) with the sculpture of the god: in their fervent gaze they transmit energy to him and he transfers it back to them as grace.
I am just here for the view, but no one seems to mind – India is an inclusive place – and a kindly priest even unlocks the door to the roof, from where I survey the lay of the land. The Kaveri river snakes through the town and the towers of the nearby island temple of Srirangam peep out from the trees, outshone by the bright lights of the modern buildings below. Neon spotlights illuminate Nandi – the sacred bull who carries Lord Shiva. Ancient and modern coexist as the Tamil landscape unfurls beyond the town in a colourful patchwork of cultivated fields broken by forests, rivers and temple pyramids. This vista combines the religious fervour and agricultural fertility that have sustained Tamil Nadu through the centuries, enabling it to retain its ancient rituals as almost no other civilisation has.
I have come in search of the Cholas, to see the celebrated holy places left by this medieval dynasty along the so-called ‘temple trail’ of Tamil Nadu, a region with more temples per square mile than any other in India. Perhaps because agriculture has always been the mainstay of the economy here, the presiding deity – and the one most revered by the Cholas – is Shiva, the god of ends and beginnings, whose dance enacts an infinite cycle of creation, destruction and rebirth . Almost half of all Shiva shrines in India are located in this region; the most elaborate were built by the Cholas at Srirangam, Chidambaram and Tanjore – the former Chola capital – as well as Kanchipuram, Madurai and Mylapore, the ancient temple town in what is now Chennai (formerly Madras), the modern capital of Tamil Nadu.
Shiva’s most revered temple is at Chidambaram – dedicated to his incarnation as Nataraja or Lord of the Dance. It marks the mythical spot where, according to legend, he won a dance competition against his consort Parvati by raising his leg above his head, although he had an unfair advantage because it would have been immodest for a female to perform such a move. The temple’s first gopura (the pyramidal gateway tower on each outer wall) is carved with Chola reliefs of Shiva’s 108 sacred dance poses, which form the basis of Indian dance and inform some yoga practices today.
The fertility of this land oozes into its art and architecture. Chola bronzes are nothing if not sexy. Their beauty and divinity go hand in hand: Shiva cups his consort Parvati’s voluptuous breasts, while she clasps his hand tightly, her skimpy garment clinging to the curve of her hips. Their passionate relationship – they endlessly fight and make up, compete and converse – is represented in sculpture that mixes sensuality with spirituality, the human with the Divine. We know tantalisingly little about the personalities and private lives of the Cholas, but their art reveals a civilisation enraptured by the body beautiful.
Nowhere do their bronzes seem more alive than in the Thanjavur Palace Museum in Tanjore, which has one of the best collections of Chola bronzes. In its sleepy and unfrequented vaulted halls, built by later Mughal conquerors, the bronzes seem to sway to an invisible melody behind the dusty vitrines that cage them, as though they will return to their dance the moment no one is looking.
Chola architecture too exudes sensuality and human form. Every inch of temple surfaces, from the gopura to the vimana (the tower over the inner sanctum), undulates with shape-shifting sculptures. According to legend, a trio of famous temples represents the family unit of a father, mother and baby. The Brihadiswara temple in Tanjore is the father, with the tallest vimana, rising in a triangular form that suggests a man raising his arms above his head to chant, ‘Om’. The temple at Gangaikondacholapuram was built by the Chola emperor Rajendra I, who filled its pool with water from the Ganges after his victories in Deccan to the north. Set in idyllic parkland, it has a dream-like quality and is dubbed the ‘mother temple’ because its vimana has a graceful, octagonal form that curves inward slightly.
Darasuram, the smallest and most delicate of the three, is the baby. The family metaphor extends to the architecture of the temples themselves, where the main shrine is dedicated to Shiva. However, the subsidiary shrines accommodate all the other gods like rooms in a large family house.
Every urban temple (Gangaikondacholapuram and Darasuram are in the countryside) pulsates at the heart of the city and bustles with worshippers. Families make pilgrimages with fresh flowers and fruit offerings – the most popular is coconut because breaking it symbolises the breaking of the ego – bought at the market stalls that line the outer walls of each temple. At the grandest, richest temples, like Tanjore and Chidambaram, elephants bless the worshippers for a small fee. Then worshippers proceed to perform puja, make darshan and walk clockwise around the temple.
Before independence, only upper-caste Indians could enter the temples, so the only chance most Hindus had to see the god and make darshan was during the festival processions that parade the temple bronzes around the city on elaborate palanquins. That is why these bronzes – most around four feet tall – are dressed to be seen from a distance and built to be portable, despite weighing around 100kg each.
The Tamil temples overflow with life and people, fruit and flowers, smells of jasmine, ghee and smoke from the holy fires that evoke the ancient civilisation whose rituals persist today. Little has changed in worship, bronze-making or temple life since the Cholas. If anything, more people participate in Hindu devotion now that all castes are allowed into the temples. Despite India’s status as a modern, thriving, fully wired country, Tamil Nadu – whose verdant river valleys have made it the rice bowl of India for millennia – remains a place where technology complements tradition, rather than challenging it. A priest pulls his mobile phone out of his dhoti as he sits in the lotus position at Chidambaram. A neon sign flashes ‘Welcome’ in Tamil as dusk falls on the temple at Tanjore . Bhangra music plays at an ancient shrine to Parvati. There is no contradiction, only connection.
The author travelled with Cox & Kings Travel (020 7873 5000; firstname.lastname@example.org
), which specialises in high-quality holidays to the Indian subcontinent.
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