The pilgrimage of an atheist

December 31, 2010


– Let us go on a short tour to Thanjavur.

On hearing this, my wife must have thought that I was playing out a cruel joke. The Thanjavur that we knew of had nothing but temples. Temples? and me, a staunch atheist? Two months ago, when I had to visit Guruvayoor with the family, I happily stayed outside listening to a Carnatic music concert. My facebook update, immediately afterwards: ‘After many years, the mortal Kannan agreed to descend on a temple premises and to Guruvayur, no less. His immortal namesake has turned semi-modern, allowing entry for salwar-clad women. But men – they still have to appear shirtless in all their flabby splendour and sweaty odour. At the end, both had it our way, with the blasphemous me, barred entry and banished outside with a bag of cellphones.’

But Thanjavur is a different story. The historic, cultural and aesthetic aspects hold enough appeal for me to overrule the atheistic objections.   Apart from a sudden history-itch created by renewed interest in Tamil literature and inspiration from the travelogues of the renowned Tamil writer, Jeyamohan, another reason why we chose Thanjavur, was because we thought that not many others would make that choice during the December holidays. Surprisingly, most hotels in Thanjavur, seemed to be full. I managed to book us on a low-end hotel which, however, had good reviews on Tripadvisor. We started from home (Bangalore) at 3pm. And, spent another hour hunting for pant-type Pampers for Mahirl Malar (மகிழ்மலர்), my 2-year-old daughter, rushing from Reliance to Spencers to Foodworld and finally finding the right-sized diapers at an unlikely little place in Koramangala. So, it was almost 4pm, when I, irritatedly, stepped up on the accelerator of our Honda City, in anticipation of atleast an 8-hour drive. I have a history of doing a bit of sleep-driving after 10.

The drive till Namakkal was smooth. After Namakkal, the roads were getting increasingly rugged. The big temple at Thanjavur has survived the fury of a thousand years. The roads to Thanjavur have succumbed to the smile of a single monsoon. I fought off the worn-off roads and the sleep-induced driving errors to reach Trichy. Thankfully, the roads after Trichy, were good enough to carry us safely to the desolate streets of Thanjavur. We woke the guards up, in the haunted-looking hotel, and checked into a stuffy room. The AC was working and the bathroom was decent. There were only a few mosquitoes. What more can we ask for? The next day, we found accommodation at a better hotel and shifted there.

The Thanjavur Palace, built by Nayak rulers in 1550 AD and expanded by the Marathas, has been converted into multiple pockets of interest. There are multiple versions of Natarajas and Ammans in the bronze statues…I wasnt expert enough to spend time and spot the subtle differences that must have been present, and more so, when there is a 2-year-old demanding attention. We also spent a lot of time, experimenting with the new Nikkor lens (55-300mm) and capturing Mahirl in a myriad poses, than in seeing the statues. The palace tower, almost resembled a temple gopuram, and interestingly, the stairs to the higher levels were open for the tourists. The narrow stairs made me wonder how the fat rajahs would have made their way up.

There were paintings, there were kitchen utensils and various other everyday articles, which assume importance only because of their age and their royal owners. The 6-foot mirror of the kings, still reflected the same-old me.

The must-see place within the palace is the Saraswati Mahal library, conceived by the Nayak kings in the 16th century and nourished by the Marathas, particularly, Maharaja Serfoji during early 18th century. The collection of over 54000 books is awesome – ranging from ancient Tamil manuscripts to the then modern European books. Samuel Johnson’s dictionary caught my eyes. I was blown away when I saw a Tamil-English dictionary printed in the 1810s (I think this was the first Tamil-English dictionary, published in 1779 by Fabricius and Breithaupt, missionaries at Madras). I was earlier thinking that the Mirlon-Winslow dictionary, published in 1862, was a phenomenal work.

Saraswati Mahal library has also published a few books from its collections. I bought 2 volumes of தனிப்பாடல் திரட்டு,  containing rare singles from an ancient past, and 3 huge, yet incomplete, volumes of Tholkappiya uraikothu (தொல்காப்பிய உரைக்கொத்து) ,  compilation of the interpretations of different authors (இளம்பூரணர், நச்சினார்க்கினியர், சேனாவரையர், etc) for the verses of Tholkappiyam, a grammar book possibly 1500-2000 years old. We also picked up a cookery book with recipes from the Maratha royal kitchen.

The one lingering memory is that of a lady in a nightie, at the entrance of a rather ruined house at an isolated corner of the palace compound, running after a child. When I enquired the guard, he told me that the descendants of the Maratha royal family still live there. Oh, so, this lady could have been a queen but for our independence and democracy!

The Big Temple (Brahadeeswara Temple) was a bit of a disappointment when I saw it first. It is a monstrous structure but still a poor imitation of the mythical tower in my mind, grown impossibly tall.​ Once I came to terms with reality, I could realize what a magnificent achievement it was, for Rajaraja Chola, in 1010 AD. I dont have anything new to say about the temple that is not already available on the internet. The temple is located in the middle of a spacious compound and the lawns were inviting and well-maintained. It was pleasing to see and hear a few kids taking lessons from an ‘othuvar’ (ஓதுவார்) on the ancient Tamil songs from Thevaram (தேவாரம்).

Between these two visits, we went to Thiruvaiyaru (திருவையாறு) and Darasuram (தாராசுரம்).

We rushed through the Panchanadeeswarar/ Aiyarrapar temple at Thiruvaiyaru. This is another large Chola temple, much older than the Thanjavur Big Temple. Mahirl was excited to see the elephant there given a bath. The huge beast was lying sideways on the floor and was being scrubbed with different equipments, including a knife, by 6-7 people. It, however, seemed to be serenely enjoying the bath.

The memorial for Thyagaraja was located by the Cauvery river. The small place on the banks outside the memorial is where the Thyagaraja Aaradhana happens every year – that day it was hosting a ‘gilli’ match spiced up by some heated arguments; the teams had a good mixture of adults and boys. Young and old ladies, were taking bath in Cauvery, in true Tamil Cinema style, oblivious of the roving eyes of the visitors and the players. We were treated to some lovely music by two old men, singing  ‘Endaro mahanubhavulu’, the famous Thyagaraja krithi. Our visit was fulfilled, when Mahirl started clapping her hands rhythmically, in vintage style, like a veteran vidhwan.

Cauvery tailed us as we drove towards Kumbakonam. On the other side, a lush green carpet was rolling along. December is a great month to visit the rice-belt of Tamilnadu, with the paddy fields offering an experience that is no less to that of the elegant Chola architecture. At a joint, where the river met the road, Mahirl gleefully got into the river, with the water only upto her knee-high, and refused to be drawn out for the next couple of hours.

Darasuram is on the outskirts of Kumbakonam. After seeing the Thanjavur Temple, this gopuram looked miniscule from outside. But when we went in, it was splendid. The intricate carvings allover the temple, on the pillars, on the walls, on the ceiling, were fascinating. ,The Airavatesvara Temple, built by Rajaraja Chola II in the 12th century, is, with its splendid sculptures, far more beautiful than even the Big Temple.

Darasuram has a small Saurashtrian population, adjoining the temple, who moved there 2 centuries back and have formed an industrious silk-weaving community. We were lured to visit one of their houses, and were shown how the silk sarees are weaved. It involves quite a painstaking effort, lasting for over 7 days, to make one saree. Sitting in front of a giant silk-loom, the ladies have to pedal, bend forward and pull a guiding lever from one extreme to the other, and then again pedal. This goes on and on. Impressed by the effort involved, I decided to lighten my wallet, with the full knowledge that I was being subjected to an extremely effective sales pitch.

After heading back to Thanjavur, we shifted base to Pudukkottai. Our first visit was to Sittannavasal, the Pandya-Jain cave temple from 7th century AD. The mural/fresco paintings on the ceilings are stunning. The government employee, incharge of the cave, is an enthusiastic fellow who has made unusual efforts to understand the paintings and explains them to the visitors. He also demonstrated a curious, magical, case of acoustic resonance, when we could hear a musical echo only when he breathed at a particular frequency.

The next day, we went to Thirumayam. Thirumayam is unique for housing twin temples – one for Vishnu and the other for Shiva. There is also a fort built by Sethupathi Vijaya Ragunatha Thevar in 1687. It is one of the few forts that has remained fairly intact. The fort is majestic but I was baffled as to what it was protecting except some empty space. They must have kept weapons and other precious treasure inside. Oomai thurai or Chinna Marudhu (there are different narrations) is believed to have hidden here, before being taken captive by the British.

Going through Google Maps, w e then decided to take a route from Pudukkottai via Manappaarai, so that we could avoid the Trichy-Musiri stretch. While risky, it turned to be a great decision. Terrific roads through deserted fields till Manappaarai. More fortuitously, two places, which we had reluctantly decided to skip due to lack of time, were right on the way: Kudimiyanmalai (குடுமியான்மலை) and Kodumbalur (கொடும்பாளூர்).

Kudumiyanmalai turned out to be the highlight of the trip. The temple was closed by the time we reached there. The guard, volunteered to take us around the temple and even brought the key for a cave temple. The two halls at the front of the temple are adorned with numerous sculptures and carvings. Life-sized and alive with expressions, beautiful and nuanced . The first hall, supposedly had 1000 pillars, and all of them with carvings. The Hanuman and other vanara sculptures in the hall seemed to be attracting quite a lot of monkeys!


All along the walls of the temples, there are inscriptions in old Tamil. There are also some acclaimed musical inscriptions, which apparently provide some of the missing links to ancient Tamil music. There were two huge beehives above the musical inscriptions…the bees humming the inscribed notes and guarding them from the wicked gaze of humans. The guard, acted as our guide, and showed us a few more carvings (bas-reliefs, I learn now) in the folds of the adjoining hill. Unless he showed them, there is no way, we could have spotted those at that height. Then, he opened the cave temple, for us to enter and marvel at it in pitch dark. With the help of the camera flash, we could see some lovely sculptures there too.

The cave temple and the musical inscriptions are timed to be from the 7th century, with possible contributions at different periods from the Pandyas, Pallavas and Cholas. The following links give more details and photos:

Our final stop was Kodumbalur, where Muvar Kovil (மூவர் கோயில்) is present. There are now, only two temples, that have survived the ravage of time. But the remains of the other temple can be seen. As per the ASI website, “A Sanskrit inscription on the central vimana clearly asserts that Bhuti Vikramakesari, an Irukkuvel chief built the three shrines. He named the central shrine after himself and the two flanking ones after his queens viz. Karrali and Varaguna. Regarding the dating of Bhuti Vikramakesari’s rule there are two opinions among scholars. One opinion is that he was contemporary to Chola king Aditya I (AD 871-907) and the other opined that he was a contemporary of Sundara Chola (AD957-973) and his son Aditya II (AD 960-965).”


In 4 days, we had a peek into a glorious past . I now feel small ahead of the thousands of years that we have traversed. I doubt, if any foreign tour, which we keep planning and deferring, could have given this satisfaction. Hopefully, some memories will remain with Mahirl and keep her interest in our culture and literature alive, as she grows. Being an atheist, in no way, impacted my appreciation for the lasting architectural achievements of our ancestors, which are impossible to replicate in this modern era when we have automated tools and machinery at our disposal. The next time we get 4 days, we know how best to plan a quick historical tour.