Fiction: First date

It’s a warm and breezy summer evening. I sit at the edge of the shore taking in the salty air and revel in the silence that seems to envelope me. I’m so lost in thought that I’m jolted out of my reverie when the phone rings. I find it and fish it out of my bag. It’s him. “Where are you?” He asks.

Fifteen minutes later, he sits alongside me on the shore, arms around my hips. I’m surprised he’s here. I hadn’t told him I was going to the beach. He somehow found his way to me. “What time do you need to be back?” I’m ok. I tell him. I can take my time. He promises to drop me home. Half an hour later, he gets up, dusts the sand off himself and puts out his hand to help me up. I find myself in the car and on my way out of the city.

We arrive at a tiny beachside cafe I didn’t know existed. It’s beautiful. Picturesque. Thatched roof, candles, the deep blue sea and the sound of the waves. He orders dinner. Actually, he just tells them to bring it. They seem to know what to bring. The food is delicious. The company, intoxicating. He is attentive, intelligent and engaging. He hands me a glass of wine and asks if we can walk on the shore. I nod. We talk. Of atoms and the universe. Of philosophy and literature. Of us. Of love. It’s almost midnight when he pauses.

I look into his eyes with the anticipation of what is to come. He seems to take the hint. He reaches out and cups my face with his hands. My heart races. He comes closer. I shut my eyes. And then he kisses me. Gently. Tentatively. As if asking for permission. I kiss him back. A deep, passionate, beautiful kiss. Now I know. I know where this is going. I just don’t know how. Yet.

Summer night…

I step out and take a deep breath. The summer breeze is humid but pleasant. It smells of the sea. Of salt. Of love and happiness. My clip comes loose and my hair falls loose over my shoulders. I feel at peace. With myself and the world. I nurse my drink and stare out of the balcony grill into the city lights. I remember why I’ll always call this city home.

I’m jolted out of my reverie by a click. The sound of the door opening and the blast of the air conditioned air chilling my back. I turn and see him step out. May I join you? Of course! I tell him and step aside to make space for him. He shuts the door behind him and joins me. I continue my silent reverie. He lets me be. A few minutes later, I feel his hand on mine. I look up startled. He smiles and tightens his grip. I sigh. He raises his brow, silently asking if I’m ok. I shake my head and turn away. He picks up my hand and raises it to his lips. May I? I nod, unable to deny. He kisses my fingers. One by one. “Will you go out with me?” His question is music to my ears. Yes, I tell him. And I sense the beginning of something very beautiful. Only time will tell.

On the Vanthiyathevan trail – The deleted scenes!

What’s life without some entertainment? So, this epilogue of sorts to the travelogue consists of some deleted scenes, because putting them in the travelogue itself will break the flow. So, ready for the ride?

Scene 1 – Chidambaram – One Deekshithar’s traditional house

It was divinely ordained that Day 2 of our trip must be amavasai and that Sriram would have to do tharpanam, come what may. So, we found one Deekshithar who would help him with the proceedings. Since we stayed 15 km from Chidambaram, it did not make sense to go all the way to the town, come back and go back again, especially since the rest of the journey was taking us away from the town. So, we get ready and get to said Deekshithar’s house at 8 AM. Sriram walks a few steps ahead and disappears into the upper floor of the house.

Me (entering the house tentatively and looking around, catch sight of Deekshithar Maami): Namaskaram!
Maami: Namaskaram! Ukkarungo. Avar mele irukkar. Wait panning. Coffee?
Me: Thank you!

At this point, it takes me a second to realise that the said “Avar” is Sriram. What can I do when I hardly ever use his name and routinely address him as only “Dei”? Fair point, right?

Maami (returning with coffee): Neenga Krithika-ku enna venum?
Me (mind voice): Who’s this Krithika? (Aloud): Erm, naan Sriram oda friend. Krithika-va theriyaadhu

Maami gives me a once over, shrugs and goes off upstairs. In the meantime, I learn of the dialogue upstairs between Deekshithar Maama and Maami.

Maama: Antha maamakkum coffee kudu.
Maami (deciding not to reveal scandalising truth): Ummkm.

Fifteen minutes later, both the maama and Sriram come downstairs. Maama stops in his tracks. He expected to see a maama as well. Not a 30-something maami in pants and short kurti.

Sriram (before any assumptions are made): En kooda velai senja.
Maama (Looking at me from top to toe): Oho. Ok ok!

Clearly, the couple being fairly traditional and orthodox had assumed that we were married. Maama seemed quite disappointed that I was only a friend. Or maybe he thought I was a “friend”. Anyway! On to the next!

Scene 2 – Chidambaram, Lakshmi Vilas Heritage Hotel

Now, this was a lovely place to stay and we had the best time possible. Just before we leave, the manager of the hotel decides to make small talk.

Manager: Nee en ponnu maathiri irukkey ma. Can I take one photo of you both please?
We: Of course! (Nicely posed for camera and all)
Manager: Nalla jodi! Nalla irunga!

Uh oh! One more person who assumed things!

Scene 3 – Kattumannarkoil – Veeraraghava Perumal temple

We wait for the Bhattar to finish archanai. He walks up to us, gives both of us a once over.
Bhattar: En ma, intha pakkam vandhu serndhu nillu ma!

Appo seri! Victim number 3 down!

Scene 4 – Trichy bus stand – Some veg restaurant for lunch

We walk up to the hotel in the burning heat. I’ve washed my face and worn a scarf around my head to protect from the heat. We find a table and sit down. A lady comes up, puts tumblers of water on the table, turns to me and says, “Salaam Aalaikum”.

Me: Erm…what?
Sriram: Bai-oottu amma maathiri irukkey. That’s why. Next stop is mutton biryani only ok?

Scene 5 – Srirangam – Ranganathaswamy temple

The temple was insanely crowded. Even at 3 PM, we needed to buy special ticket and all and still wait in queue for 45 minutes. An old lady (about 80 years old easily) was ahead of us. She stumbled and I caught her and said, “Paathu maami”.

Maami (turns around and looks at me): Thank you! Enna ma height?
Me: 5’9”
Maami: Avar?
Me (wondering who “avar” is and then realising it’s Sriram): 6 feet.
Maami: Nalla jodi. Intha maathiri amayaradhu romba kashtam.
Me: Umkmmm. (Whispering to Sriram for help): WTF?

Sriram turns around and starts playing with a child who’s behind him the queue as if he doesn’t even know of my existence, and leaves me to deal with said Maami. There is peace for a few minutes.

Maami (out of the blue): Iyengar a?
Me: Illai
Maami: Appo Madhwa. Kazhuthuley yen karumani illai?
Me (mind voice): My mother-in-law only didn’t ask such questions. Why should I answer you? (Aloud): Practice illai.
Maami: Oho. Fashion a? Ok ok. My daughter in law in the US also does not wear. It’s ok. Intha kaalathula yaar pottukkara?

More peace. Ten minutes until darshan.

Maami (to Sriram): Perumal oda thiruvadiya modhalley sevichukkongo. Appuram thaan face.
Me (mind voice): Enakku Perumal oda thoppai only is seen. Now what?

We manage to get out of the crowd and then maami starts her personalised tour of the temple. There is Paravasudevar, here is lizard, there is one-eyed fish, there is lame horse and whatnot. Apparently Perumal gave moksham to all these. At this point, I am hoping for moksham myself from this torture. Sriram has walked about 20 feet ahead trying to escape her, like he’s got nothing to do with me. 18 years of friendship was less priority that escaping said maami. Instincts of self-preservation I guess!

Maami (again out of the blue): How many children?
Maami: Illaiya?
Maami: How long married?
Maami: Romba naal aacha?
Maami: Kavalai padathey kozhandai. Perumal seekrama kannai thorappar.

At this point, I am just requesting all 33 crore gods to open eyes and rescue me from this lady. Thankfully, she met a long lost friend and got distracted long enough for us to escape her scrutiny. Sriram wouldn’t let me stay more than 10 minutes in the Thaayar Sannidhi just in case we ran into her again!

All this was over and above the random mokkai and singing I had to ensure by Sriram through the 6-day trip, including of Anjali Devi kaalathu mokkai paattus. But as I said, what’s life without a bit of drama and entertainment! 😀

On the Vanthiyathevan trail – The final part

So, on Day 5, we had two major places of interest, both of which are central to both history and the plot of Ponniyin Selvan. In the novel, Senthan Amuthan is introduced as a young man who tends to the flower garden attached to the Thirumazappadi temple. I was determined to see this one and once we got there, we realised that this was one of the most beautiful of Chola temples we’d ever seen.

Day 5 – Stop 1 – Thirumazhappadi – Vaidyanatha Swamy temple

This temple is a good 2 hours from Trichy, considering that you go through Thiruvaiyaru and across the Grand Anaicut. I’ll get to the Grand Anaicut in a while, because on our way out, our focus was entirely on the temple. We arrived at the Thirumazhappadi temple thanks to Google Maps. We realised as we drove that the temple was literally on the banks of the river Kollidam, the larger branch of the Kaveri. The temple is about 3 feet below current road level and one flight of stairs leads us to the entrance. As we stepped inside, we realised that this temple was very special for one reason: that the entire temple structure is perfectly intact from the 9th Century AD. Two things in this temple are quite unlike any other. The entire prakara is two-storeyed, which makes us wonder if the Imperial Cholas also built two-storeyed prakaras that were destroyed by the ravages of time. Also, we are used to seeing the Somaskanda as a relief sculpture only, or as a bronze in later temples. In Thirumazhappadi, the Somaskanda is a standalone stone sculpture, unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure if such a sculpture exists elsewhere in Tamil Nadu. This temple is a must-visit if you go to Trichy or thereabouts and is not at all difficult to find on Google Maps.

Day 5 – Stop 2 – The Kallanai or the Grand Anaicut

If anything stands testimony to the greatness of the Chola dynasty, it is the Grand Anaicut. Built entirely with granite, this dam stands strong even after almost 1200 years of existence. Built by Karikalan I, the model was emulated later in the 18th Century by the British to build the Lower Anaicut further downstream the Kaveri. There is a memorial to Karikalan I near the Anaicut that is now maintained by the state government.

As we left the Anaicut, Google Maps asked us if we want to cut 40 minutes of travel time and we of course, said yes. So, that took us on yet another tiny trail that we’ll never forget. As soon as you get off the dam, there’s a road that veers off to the right and takes you past the town of Thiruvaiyaru and back on the road to Trichy. This road is not more than 25 feet wide, narrowing to about 20 feet at times and needs careful navigation. Thankfully, it seemed to be a one-way because no four-wheelers were coming from the opposite side. The road runs alongside the Kaveri. The river teases us moving away and coming close every now and then. At its closest, the river was about 5 feet away from the wheels of the car. Perhaps we didn’t end up saving 40 minutes, but that’s a route I would take any day rather than the boring, characterless highways.

Day 5 – Stop 3 – Kodumbalur

Kodumbalur is important not to the Ponniyin Selvan plot, but to the history of the Cholas. Rajendra I’s mother and Rajaraja I’s wife, known as Vanathi in the novel and as Thirubhuvanamadevi in history was the princess of Kodumbalur. We realised that Kodumbalur was less than 50 km from Trichy. So, off we went after lunch. The monuments, called Moovar Koil and Aivar Koil, are protected by the ASI and maintained as heritage monuments. We could not get into Aivar Koil as the gates were locked. Moovar Koil, however, is testament to the architecture of that era. We stopped in our tracks because, right in the middle of Chola country, we found a monument that resembled the temples of Mahabalipuram and the Pallava dynasty. Perhaps there was a connection? Our suspicions were confirmed when we found inscriptions on the monuments that Sriram recognised as Pallava Grantha and not the Tamil used by the Chola kings. Also, the Sivalinga that still survives resembles the one in the recently excavated part of Tiger Caves near Mahabalipuram. What a fascinating find!

With that, we ended the Vanthiyathevan trail, resolving that we would plan more trips to complete the circuit of Chola temples and monuments, not just in India but across South East Asia. Perhaps the next time, the travelogue will get written a bit quicker than this one did!

On the Vanthiyathevan trail – IV

Day 4 was fairly laid-back. There wasn’t much on our agenda except the Thanjavur Brihadeeshwara temple and then off to Trichy. However, a minor development made our day a bit more exciting than we anticipated. My mother called in the morning to let us know that Tamil news channels were talking of the floodwaters rising in the Kaveri and the bridge across the river sinking. We realised that if we wanted to see Srirangam and Thiruvanaikaval, it would have to be that day and not the next, given that Mettur had opened the previous day and water takes time to travel. 

Day 4 – Stop 1 – Thanjavur Brihadeeshwara Temple

There’s very little that needs to be said about this temple, given that it’s so famous. Along with Gangaikondacholapuram and Darasuram, it is part of the triad of monuments known as the Great Living Chola Temples and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s one of my favourite temples, because there’s so much peace despite it being so popular. We realised that the day we arrived there was Aadi Pooram and there was a special Abhishekam scheduled for the Lord. What a sight that was! In all these years of going to Thanjavur, this was easily the best darshan we got. If you’ve never been there, please ignore all the stories about the shadow of the vimana falling within the base and take the time to look at the mandapams in the periphery of the temple. They house some of the most exquisite examples of Chola vegetable oil painting. These have been painted over by subsequent rulers, but the originals can still be seen in parts. There’s a lot more to see within the temple but that would merit a blogpost of its own.

After this, we went off to Trichy. That’s where we realised that the rumours of the Kaveri rising were precisely that. Rumours. After an afternoon’s longish siesta, we set off to Srirangam with a two-point agenda: find one kacha uruli for Amma and see the two temples.

Day 4 – Stop 2 – Srirangam – Ranganathaswamy Temple

This temple, along with Thiruvanaikaval were not part of the agenda, but again like in Thanjavur, it made sense to visit because we were there. Also, we seemed to be going on a temple run of only Shiva temples and one Perumal temple seemed to be a fair deal. The Srirangam temple is centuries old, having been built over and extended through several dynasties, much like the Chidambaram temples. And of course, it is one of the most sacred of the Srivaishnava shrines. The most entertaining part of the visit to this extremely-crowded, full-of-red-tape temple was one old lady who assumed that Sriram and I were married, and never bothered to listen to anything we were trying to tell her. It took us a full 45 minutes to get rid of her and go our way! Anyway, some fun for the day!

Day 4 – Stop 3 – Thiruvanaikaval – Jambukeshwara Temple

This temple is a shrine dedicated to one of the five elements, water in this case. The deity, Jambukeshwarar is tiny and can only be seen by bending down to knee level. What’s interesting in this temple is that the sanctum sanctorum is said to be filled with water all the time, justifying the name of this place. The Goddess Akhilandeshwari was beautiful and since it was Aadi Pooram, the darshan was all the more special. We must have spent close to an hour just taking in the beauty of the temple.

PS: We found that kacha uruli and also one tiny brass azhakku (measuring vessel) for Sriram’s mother, thereby escaping all the lectures from both of them. Now, we had just two things to do. Those would be for the final day of the trip.

PPS: The bridge was nowhere close to flooding. It could have taken several million litres of excess water and the river was a good seventy feet below the bridge!

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