I leave for Tanjavur by car from Srirangam on Thursday morning. A long night on train, a freezing cold air-conditioned coach ensuring I get hardly any sleep and the fact that the train arrives in Trichy at an unearthly 4 AM result in me falling asleep barely fifteen minutes after leaving Srirangam. About 50 minutes after our I fall asleep, my mother shakes me awake, prompting me to look out of the window and says we are almost there. We only just enter the city of Tanjavur and the 13-storey high Vimana of the Big Temple looms majestically on the horizon. The minute I set my eyes on the Vimana, I instantly wake up, forgetting that I haven’t slept properly for more than 24 hours. Our driver, presumably atheist, mutters under his breath about how nobody ever decides to go on a 4-day long pilgrimage from temple to temple. I decide to ignore it and get ahead with the task at hand: that of visiting the famed Big Temple, a decade-old dream, getting more and more irresistible over the last few months.
We stop right in front of the Rajarajan Gopuram, the main entrance. We get out of the car, leaving the driver to park and wait. We offer that he comes in with us. He refuses. Mom and I decide to go ahead. My first reaction on seeing the Gopuram is one of awe. I am awed that someone could construct something so exquisitely beautiful and so immensely grand a thousand years ago. It then strikes me that the temple is celebrating the thousandth year of its consecration in 2010. In fact, that was one of the reasons that took me all the way to the place this year. It’s still early in the morning, about 9 AM. The sun is mild and the skies are blue without a trace of cloud. I decide to make the best of the weather. I enter the first Gopuram and spot the elephant, standing guard over the Lord. I continue my way, telling myself the elephant can wait. The temple beckons. I can’t seem to wait to see the temple itself.
I enter through the second Gopuram and spot the Nandi, blocking my view of the great God. Mom asks me if I want to look around first or enter the temple. She obviously wants to enter it first, but doesn’t want to spoil my enjoyment of the architecture. I decide that there is something so profoundly spiritual about the temple that the priority is darshan. When I enter the sanctum sanctorum, I feel a sense of all-pervading peace, a peace that seemed missing in my life these past months. Something assures me that everything will be ok. Now, I am not particularly religious and ritualistic, but there is something about Tanjavur that makes even the sceptic in me believe. When I left Chennai on Wednesday night, I told myself everything would be ok if I just saw Tanjavur. As I enter the temple the next day, my belief that I will see a silver lining to those dark clouds is only reinforced. I go up the inner prakara and the ardha-mandapa right up to the inner sanctum. What I see leaves me speechless. A Sivalinga, about 20 feet in height I am guessing, looms ahead. There is nothing small about this temple. From the Vimana, to the entrance, to even the Sivalinga itself, everything is massive. It is at this point that I truly realize the meaning of the Tamil saying “Iraivan miga periyavan.” God is unimaginably big. Every sculpture, every carving, ever pillar seems to scream these words out to me. God is omni-present, omnipotent and omniscient. There is a sense of majesty and royalty about Tanjavur that I haven’t encountered in any other temple as yet.
My second reaction, much better thought-out and patiently analysed is that this temple is a masterpiece. I feel a sense of pride in belonging here, to this soil where kings thought of making temples that would last a thousand years. I begin to slowly regain the power of thought and overcome the initial sense of awe. I realize that the very existence of such a structure is symbolic. Men may come and men may go. But certain things are permanent. Like the Tanjavur Big Temple, like the power of the almighty, however we may choose to represent him. I recover and continue my exploration. I wonder if Arulmozhi Varman knew his construction would last so long. I wonder if he knew that a thousand years on, a 28-year old who first discovered his existence through the fictional world of Ponniyin Selvan would wonder what his intentions were in building this. I remember my teenage crush on the fictional Arulmozhi of Kalki’s novel, and wonder how he would have conceived something so beautiful and how difficult it would have been for him to realize that dream.
As I continue to look around, clicking tens of photos from every conceivable angle, while trying desperately to remember the temple plan from my art and architecture course of 7 years ago, I notice that everything about the temple is masculine. Even the intricate carvings that figure on the Vimana have a certain masculinity about them that is impossible to deny. Every stone of the temple seems to reassure the visitor that nothing can happen without the sanction and approval of the God Almighty. “Don’t worry because there is no greater power than me,” he seems to tell me through that structure. I come back to the Nandi Mandapam after taking close to a hundred photos and sit down next to my mother. I turn around and tell her,“I don’t know why Ma, but there is a strange sense of peace that I can feel right now.” My mother smiles and says, “Perhaps it’s His way of assuring you things will be ok!” Maybe. Just maybe.