Saturday, July 5, 2014

Tanjavur - the land of my ancestors

I have been to Tanjavur only once. Yet to me it is a romantic city, a city of long lost memories, a city that has transformed so many times. Today I attempt a different kind of post, let's see how it works out.

The city Thanjavur came into prominence with the rise of the medieval Cholas. It makes it not as old as Madurai and not as young as Chennai. It is a city that has faced plenty of changes. Cholas, Pandyas, Nayaks, the Delhi Sultanate, Krishna Deva Raya, Marathas and finally the British have all ruled this city. No wonder the city is so unique.

Any description of Thanjavur will begin with the Periya Kovil, the Brishadeeshwara temple. Celebrating Lord Shiva in this massive structure, the sheer mammoth size is astonishing. The striking difference is that the gopurams of the four gateways are small compared to the one above the sanctum sanctorium. With the plethora of details celebrating music, dance and the power of Gods, it's an enjoyable piece of art. As a tourist however, I was infinitely more charmed by the much smaller Airavateeshwar temple on the outskirts of Thanjavur. Every stone was intricately carved, it is said for eternal celestial pleasure. I could not help standing transfixed in the Ratha (chariot type architecture), for hours on end. The temple with its gallery surronding it seemed almost alive with how it would have been when it was built, a piece of time frozen in granite.

Apart from it's architectural wonders, it's a melting pot of cultures. Tanjor Veena, Tanjore painting, you name it, Thanjavur is the centre of evolution. It did not allow art to stagnate, and remix was considered appropriate. A gentle reminder of how arts are always evolving and there is beauty in every from of music, painting and dance. The Tanjavur Quartet were four people instrumental in the propagation of Bharatnatyam and Carnatic Music. Muthuswami Dikshitar, one of the trinities in Carnatic music was from Tanjavur. An amusing thought occured to me, how he might have considered the horizontal position of playing the veena much more comfortable than the vertical. There is a Tanjore Painting in the Saraswati Mahal library (which incidentally houses centuries old manuscripts) with Saraswati playing the Veena vertically as was the norm before him. The 108 karanas of Bharatnatyam have said to have been adapted to the four limbed Siva and carved on the Brihadeeshwara temple. Muthuswami Dikshitar also had British influences in his works. For example, a standard Geetham, Sakthi Sahita Ganapathim is based on a Celtic folk song! Painters who restricted themselves to the Cholan art adapted to the Maratha styles. Also, I had heard of Kanchipuram silk sarees alone. Another famous style, Thirubhuvanam is from Thanjavur. When I studied history, the bronze statues of Nataraja were attributed to the medieval Cholas. While there is no doubt they were popular in that period, the invention is now credited to the Pallavas. Nevertheless, the staggering number of broze statues in the Thanjavur Palace is a sight to behold.

In popular folklore of course, the magnum opus, Ponniyan Selvan brings audiences alive to what might've been the past glory of Thanjavur.

From a travel perspective, I found the city quite refreshing. I found a hotel with wi-fi! It was neatly maintained and the locals were well aware of their attractions. Souveneirs are plenty from the classic Thanjavur round bottomed doll to the poscards outside Srawathi Mahal Library. At Airavateeshwara Temple especially, I found a priest enthusiastic enough to answer all my questions and was a delightful guide. Food was great in hotel, not that great en-route. Stay was exceedingly comfortable and luxurious. You can have a world class experience with a medium budget and loads of planning.

All in all, I found Thanjavur a crucible of change. Change is something Indian Society seems to frown upon, we take pride in belittling Western influences and not knowing about our history as well. I am not a religious person per se, I believe in keeping my options open. I believe in faith and love in humanity. And I am sure, a societally different girl like me would've fitted very well in the forever changing landscapes of the land of dreams.

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