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!

On the Vanthiyathevan trail – III

The best part of going on a trail of places we’ve only ever heard of is that we can never be too sure if we actually end up where we’re supposed to. Day 3 was perhaps the most interesting of our five-day trip. While we all know that Kumbakonam is a town filled with temples, how many of us actually know that Pazhaiyarai, the capital of the early Cholas is actually just outside Kumbakonam? Pazhaiyarai as a town no longer exists. It is a collection of tiny villages, including one called Keezha Pazhayarai, which means Pazhaiyarai of the East. This suggests that a west Pazhaiyarai must have existed at some point. The text of Ponniyin Selvan also mentions four temples demarcating the four directions, in addition to one Vishnu temple called Nandipura Vinnagaram. Today, Nandipura Vinnagaram is also known as Nathankoil and is quite easy to find on Google Maps. The other four were, however, a challenge. So, off we went after breakfast in search of those temples.

Day 3 – Stop 1 – Muzhaiyur – Thenthali temple – The Southern Entrance

The Thenthali temple is dedicated to Parasunathar. We got to Muzhaiyur and were not quite sure of where the actual temple was. We stopped someone on the road and asked. He clearly clarified if we were looking for the Prasaunathar Temple or the Sivan temple. That’s when we realised there were two temples within walking distance of each other. We decided on the Parasunathar temple first. The temple is built in the typical pre-Imperial Chola style. It’s quite well preserved and it looked like some painting had been done recently as part of the state government’s attempts to save ancient temples. There isn’t much to write home about here except that it’s a regular Chola temple.

Day 3 – Stop 2 – Muzhaiyur – Vadathali Temple – The Northern Entrance

This temple is exactly behind the southern entrance and forms the northern entrance to the town. It is barely 200 metres from the south shrine. Dedicated to Dharmapureeswarar, this temple has a set of 12 lingas just within the temple compound, each dedicated to one sign of the zodiac. A plaque inside confirms this as the Vadathali temple and also has verses sung by Thirunavukkarasar in praise of the Lord. This temple is also well-preserved and like in the Gangaikondacholapuram temple, has a flight of stairs leading up to the main shrine itself. The plaque mentioned earlier is a recent addition by either a donor or the government itself. In any case, it is quite gratifying the temple is clean and quaint, just how temples should be.

Day 3 – Stop 3 – Nathankoil – Nandipura Vinnagaram

From the Vadathali temple, we went on to Nandipura Vinnagaram, that seems to be quite famous in the area. The 21st of the 108 Srivaishnava shrines and dedicated to Jagannatha Swami, this temple was built by Rajaraja I’s aunt, Periya Piratti Sembiyan Madevi and later restored by his sister, Ilaya Piratti Kundavai Nachiyar. The Bhattar there told us that the Lord’s feet are only revealed on Vaikunta Ekadasi day and kept covered on all other days of the year.

Day 3 – Stop 4 – Keezha Pazhaiyarai – Keezhthali Temple – The Eastern Entrance

Now, this is where we actually stopped in awe and watched with jaws open. Dedicated to Somanatha Swami, this temple is not far from Nandipura Vinnagaram. The temple Gopuram does not have the typical arch of the Thanjavur temple. We surmised that it must have been destroyed at some point. The temple inside, however, inspires so much awe. This must have been built some time between the Melakadambur temple and the Darasuram temple that I had mentioned in my earlier posts. Built in the shape of a chariot, this temple is more ornate than the Melakadambur temple but less so than Darasuram, which was built much later (12th Century). The entire shrine is perfectly intact although we can guess that the peripheral shrines have been lost to time over the centuries.

Day 3 – Stop 5 – Metrali Temple – The Western Entrance

There is very little left of this temple, although it is quite easy to find. We could not initially believe that this was an actual Chola era temple, although an old lady tending to goats there confirmed that it was built by Rajaraja Chola’s ancestors. We can’t be quite sure of how old it is exactly but it is clear that there used to be a Gopuram there that is now overgrown with weeds. The shrine is dedicated to Kailasanathar and was closed when we arrived, forcing us to turn back without managing a darshan.

There can be nothing quite so exhilarating as going on a wild goose chase for temples we don’t even know existed, but that can get exhausting at times. So, we returned to Kumbakonam, finished lunch and set off to Thanjavur, the next stop on our trip. At Thanjavur, we hardly had any energy, but still decided to go on and visited the palace.

Day 3 – Stop 6 – Thanjavur Palace & Saraswati Mahal Library

The Thanjavur palace and the library aren’t quite a part of the Vanthiyathevan trail but it wasn’t fair to go all the way to Thanjavur and not see it. The library is a delight and the museum attached as well. The only thing I can hope for is that we learn to be a little more respectful of our heritage and don’t inscribe our own names on those monuments of historical importance, like within the walls of the Bell Tower for example. I guess we never learn.

Lastly, the bronze gallery within the Palace is a must-visit. So many of the Maratha kings’ private collection is out there for display, most of them belonging to the Chola era, and some of them later (13th and 14th Century).

With so much done during the day, we didn’t have much energy to do much apart from coming right back to the hotel and chilling for the evening. The next day would be another adventure, another day.

Fiction: The event

I step out of the car and look around tentatively. I know this is where it’s happening. I check my invitation again. Yes. This is the venue. I pause, briefly considering if I should turn back and leave. Before I can decide, one of the organisers spots the invitation in my hand and comes forward to welcome me. He seems to know who I am, or at least that I’m an important invitee. Perhaps the invitations are colour-coded or something. He smiles and invites me in, offering me a glass of champagne. I thank him and pick it up.

My eyes search for you. A few minutes later, he comes back with a note for me. “He asked me to give this to you ma’am,” he says. I nod and accept it. I open the sealed note and see your familiar writing. “I’ll be with you soon. There’s a place in the front with your name on it. Come forward please.” You’ve signed it with a name only I use for you. I smile. I turn around and look for the organiser, who nods as he escorts me to the front.

I catch your eye and you smile. That heart-stopping, gorgeous smile that I fall for every single time. I smile back and I settle down. The event starts. You’re in your element. You answer questions about your work with the practised ease of a professional. The familiarity of your voice is soothing. It’s been so long since we spoke. Your invitation to this event surprised me. “How do your sculptures evoke so much emotion? How is it so special?” The host’s question pulls me out of my reverie. You smile and say, “I don’t know. My muse does all the work.” Your eyes meet mine and hold my gaze just long enough for me to understand. I look away, unable to stop myself from blushing.

It’s an hour later that I find myself alone with you. The event is over. You’ve left the guests to enjoy themselves. You head over to me, glass in hand and ask, “Shall we step out?” I nod mutely. Outside, there’s nobody in sight. The party inside is far more interesting. You don’t take your eyes off me. “This saree looks stunning on you. You should dress like this more often.” I smile, acknowledging your compliment. You reach over and touch my earring. And then, without a word, you slip it off, come closer and gently suck on my earlobe. I draw a sharp breath, unable to hide the rising anticipation. You then cup my face and kiss my forehead, and then gently on my lips. “Will you stay tonight?” I nod. I know I cannot leave tonight.

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