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Temples of South India

Updated: Mar 3, 2020

Published in the Articulations, Deccan Herald on June 03, 2012

Visiting the temples and palaces of Tanjore and Madurai, Sudha Madhavan explores Tamil Nadu’s vibrant past and brings alive age-old stories etched in stone.

In the small towns of the south, you can be pretty sure of two things — one, you will never go hungry and two, if you look a bit vague, you will instantly invite concerned little directions and tips that will widen your travel horizons immeasurably.

Food is all around you, dizzying all five senses in the most astoundingly seductive manner. The sight and smell of food along one’s determined journey to the temples of Tanjore and Madurai is often so distracting that one is all but driven to relegate the holy intent to the background and give in sneakily to the call of the stomach. Your head swims at the plethora of tantalising picks; boiled peanuts (just off the steam, mind you), chickpeas and mango slices with onion slivers, generously sprinkled with the magic of masalas and the ubiquitous lime to make a mouth-watering mix; the ever-present tender coconut that comes with a generous scoop of coconut kernel, and not to mention, the smell of freshly brewed coffee. Well, by the time you emerge from the lane, you would have met with the divine! Many a devout would have fallen by the wayside on his or her sanctified trail, I’m sure.

Tanjore legacy

In Tanjore, we do the city rounds at a leisurely pace. The most notable and central to one’s visit is the Brihadeeswara Temple, built by Raja Raja Chola I of the Chola dynasty. The Chola dynasty had its beginning around the second or third century BC and gained eminence between the ninth and 13th century, after which it fell to the Pandyas.

The illustrious rulers of the Chola dynasty were Raja Raja Chola and his son Rajendra Chola. Greatly interested in the arts and architecture, the Cholas built several temples, the foremost of which were the Brihadeeswara Temple of Tanjore, the then capital of the Cholas, and the one at Gangaikondacholapuram.

The remarkable feature of the temple is the 20-foot lingam carved out of a monolith. The temple is set in a vast, panoramic expanse where each structure stands magnificent and alluring.

A unique fact about the main gopuram of the temple of Brihadeeshwara is that at no time of the day does its shadow fall outside its base. The goddess is called Brihadnayaki, literally the ‘ruler of the universe’.

The Durbar Palace and the attached museum are well worth a visit. The Durbar Palace, which is in a shockingly unkempt state now, would have been stunning in its glory days. The Durbar Hall with the paintings of Raja Serfoji II and the intricately carved and colourful ceilings hold you in their grip. The pagoda where the king’s royal throne stood shows signs of inlaid work of glass and gem work, though both are missing now. The museum is better kept, the main attraction being the central marble statue of Raja Serfoji himself.

Meenakshi’s kingdom

The last few days are spent in Madurai, where the blazing example of Pandyan pride and architectural splendour has a whiff of its past glory still.

According to legend, King Malaydhwaja Pandian and his queen, Kanchanamalai, hoped for an heir to the throne and were blessed by Goddess Parvati that she herself would be born to them as their daughter. To the consternation of the royal couple, the child (whom they named Meenakshi, ‘the fish eyed one’) had three breasts, one of which, according to divine prediction, would vanish upon her meeting with her consort. The princess was an adept warrior, an expert in all 64 shastras, who fearlessly took on the three lokas and conquered them. Upon reaching Kailasa and seeing Lord Siva, however, the third breast disappeared and celestial love blossomed!

The couple was married in regal pomp and glory in the city of Madurai, over which Meenakshi rules. The temple of Meenakshi is erected in her memory. Hence, unlike other temples, Meenakshi, and not Siva, is the presiding deity here.

The four entrances are decorated by the four gopurams. We walk along the corridors, agape at the richness of the architecture, the ornate pillars, the play of light and shadow weaving a magic among the beams of light filtering in through the strategically provided inlets in the ceiling. The statues of Bhadrakali, Bhairawar and the dwarapalakas are poetry in stone.

The Aayiram kaal Mandapam or the ‘canopy of the thousand pillars’ has been refurbished. The musical pillars — where knocking on one would produce seven notes or swaras — have been fenced off.

The Meenakshi Temple is central to Madurai and the pulsating heart of the 2,500-year-old city. The streets, named after the Tamil months of the calendar, radiate from this magnificent edifice and from no point of the old city is the temple distant. Vandalised under the Muslim sultanate, headed by the invader Malik Kafur, it was reconstructed by the Nayak rulers who, keeping true to the principles of town planning and architecture, laid it out in the form of a square.

The Thirumalai Nayakkar Mahal was built in 1636 AD by King Thirumalai Nayak, one of the foremost rulers of the Nayakkar dynasty. What stands now is about a fourth of its original expanse called the Swarga Vilasam. Simple on the facade, yet stunning in its sheer dimension and magnificence, the palace is rich and elaborate in its craft; the arches and florals are breathtaking, and the huge pillars and domes, spell-binding. It is believed that the king intended it to be the best in the whole of South India and in its prime was verily one of the wonders of the South. There is a mix of Islamic and Hindu architecture here; the king is said to have availed the services of an Italian architect.

I feel that our historic buildings can be better appreciated if we keep ourselves from blemishing these amazingly beautiful structures that cast a spell on the visitor. One can almost hear them imploring one to listen to the silent tales they have to tell…there is a sanctity about them which one has to learn to respect.

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