KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
The people of Tamil Nadu are quite conservative in their dress and lifestyle. You are hard-pressed to see anyone wearing blue jeans here! Many men still wear the traditional lungi (mundu), two meters of cloth wrapped around the waist. In the cooler morning hours, the lungi is long to the ankles, but as the temperature warms up or the men need to be more active, they fold the bottom half up to the waist and tuck it in with a fold. If the men do choose to wear western style trousers, the shirt is usually not tucked in at the waist.
The women of Tamil Nadu wear saris or the kurta/pajama with a chunni (scarf) like the women elsewhere in India, but it seems few women go without fresh flowers in their hair. I commented on this to Anil, and he pointed out that this is a great substitute for make-up and perfume. Many women choose to wear jasmine flowers in their hair and the fragrance is wonderful when they pass by.
The drive from Pondicherry to Thanjavur (pronounced Tan-ja-vur) took almost five hours. Most of the way we were on small roads that passed through the towns and villages. There is no highway on this route so we really got to see life in the countryside. This is a major rice harvest season and everywhere we looked we saw men carrying loads of cut and dried rice plants on their heads. In many cases they were walking single file along the embankments between the rice paddies, and their heads were obscured by the rice stalks. They appeared to be almost running; I'm sure the loads were very heavy. The bundles of rice were dumped beside the road, but before long the rice was encroaching on the road and we found we were often weaving between the piles of plants on either side. At some spots, they had even begun to thresh the rice so it was like an obstacle course driving between the rice, the men, the oxen and the assorted dogs and children. We always seemed to be moving just too fast for me to get a good photo. I should have asked the driver to stop, but then all the harvesting would come to a complete halt as they stopped to look at me! After all, I'm the stranger here.
Thanjavur has just over two hundred thousand people (two lakhs) which is a relatively small city in a country of over a billion souls. We immediately sensed the small-town atmosphere and liked the place even before we found our hotel. The hotel we had been directed to, by Narayan in Pondi, was fully booked but the receptionist sent us to the Hotel Gnanam, and we were delighted with our room and its proximity to the historic sites. We walked towards the World Heritage temple but decided to wait until the next morning to go in for the first time. The Lonely Planet suggests that dawn is the best time to see the temple, when the sandstone is bathed in the warm glow from the rising sun.
Anil had a hard time getting up our first morning in Thanjavur. I think that he slept better because it was so very quiet without the crashing of the waves outside our room. I encouraged him to get a move on because the sun was just about to rise and I wanted to see the temple in the early morning. I promised him an afternoon nap if he would co-operate. In the end, he was glad that he did because the temple was beautiful and there were almost no other people there when we arrived.
The Brihadishwara Temple was built by Raja Raja in 1010 and demonstrates the glory of Chola temple architecture. It is one of the few World Heritage sites in India - amazing when you think of all the incredible forts and temples in this ancient country. There are three large structures that can be seen from outside the walls. Inside, there is a gallery that surrounds these structures. The exterior wall is topped with small carvings of Nandi - The Bull but the most impressive Nandi is the one in the central courtyard, carved from a single rock and estimated to weigh at least 25 tonnes.
The tallest structure is thirteen stories and is topped with a carved dome constructed from a single piece of granite weighing 80 tonnes. I have taken a photo of a diagram showing how the dome was hauled along a 4 km earthen ramp much like the Egyptians used to build the pyramids.
The gallery contains 250 Shiva lingams and there are beautiful paintings on the walls of the galleries as well. The names of the artists, musicians and painters are carved into the walls of the gallery reflecting the importance of the arts in this area. I took several photographs of the paintings as they are particularly well-preserved. However, I really enjoyed just watching the other people arrive to say their prayers and give offerings in the inner sanctum. There were groups of pilgrims travelling together - many wearing the yellow and red saris with the leaf deign on the border that we had seen in Mamallapuram. Others were women in beautiful silk saris; they were a colorful addition to the simplicity of the sandstone monuments.
As we were leaving, the loudspeakers began to broadcast sacred music and this added another dimension for our enjoyment of the temple. We made our way out of the main gate just as a father and his young son came for morning prayers. As we walked along the exterior wall on our way back to the hotel, we saw a young boy perched on the wall pouring over his schoolbooks and practicing his writing with chalk on a black slate. Anil, always the teacher, stopped to have a look. The script here is completely different from Hindi and it was impossible to decipher what the boy was writing. However, I motioned to my camera and indicated I would like to take his picture. He smiled and nodded his head in agreement. I took a second photo with Anil beside him. It was a wonderful way to end our first trip to this wonderful temple.
We returned again in the evening to see the setting sun light up the temple walls. It was beautiful in its own way, but I was so glad that we had made the effort to see it first in the morning light and quiet hour. In the evening there are so many more worshippers and there is also the litter that they leave behind. It appears that there was a massive feast offered at the rear of the temple because the huge cooking pots were being washed amid the discarded plastic water sacks. Not an endearing sight at all. As we walked through the outer gallery (the stones are smoother there and easier on our bare feet), we came upon a group of boys working away to refill the small earthen lamps that worshippers light to offer to the deities. They were very eager to leave their work and clamored to have their photo taken. It took some time to convince them to sit still and not make faces or stick their fingers up behind each other's heads, but in the end, I got a good photo of them in front of a tray of the lamps they had already refilled and added a small wick to.
The following day visited the Royal Palace and Museums, just a short walk from our hotel in the opposite direction of the temple. The Palace was started by the Nayaks of Madurai around 1550 and completed at a later date by the conquering Marathas. There are huge corridors, courtyards and a maze of buildings all within the high palace walls. We climbed to the top of the Bell Tower up an incredibly narrow flight of winding stairs. The view from the top let us see past the edge of the city out to the surrounding countryside and made the claustrophobic climb up the staircase worthwhile.
We poked around in the various museums within the Palace and I took a few photos of the beautiful decorations in the audience hall and of a series of grinding stones in the Royal Museum. The other artifacts on display were fairly typical of Indian palaces and did not capture my fancy as much as the stones did. There were some wonderful manuscripts painted on long narrow palm leaves in the Saraswati Mahal Library, but we were not allowed to photograph them.
We decided to spend another day in this simple city, to relax and prepare ourselves for the upcoming temples in Trichy and Madurai. I have included a photograph of the South Indian thali meal that is served in the Gnanam Hotel. The meal includes ten different small dishes of vegetarian delicacies along with unlimited rice but that is not all. If you wish, you can also add lime pickle, dal powder with ghee (clarified butter) and papad chips. At the end of the meal, the waiter delivers a plate containing a small sweet banana and a sweet pan. Pan is an after-dinner delight - an assortment of unusual chewy items wrapped up in a small green leaf. It is thought to aid digestion and there are many people who must have a pan after a full meal. All this for an amazing $1 USD. And we thought the thali in Pondicherry was a steal at $1 CDN! I love to end all my meals with a hot cup of South Indian coffee. The milk they use is so rich, not cow's milk, but buffalo milk, that it tastes like drinking a hot, mocha cheesecake. Hmmm...