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.

Fiction: Beginnings

It’s fifteen minutes into the training and I’m already annoyed. Nobody told me this would be such a waste of time. I have a hundred other things to do. I’m about to text my supervisor my feedback when things get interesting. We get put into groups of four. Ah! Looks like there’s more to this training than someone droning on about standard deviation and statistical analysis. My group has three others, one is a friend I’ve known for years, a girl who’s barely 21 and looks like she’s just arrived in the city and a third person I’ve never seen before but is clearly good friends with my friend.

We are given a task to complete within the group and the work kicks off in full swing. I find him intelligent, good-looking and a bit cocky. His cockiness annoys me. Not enough to make me detest him. Just enough to intrigue me. The half-day training ends and the girl excuses herself, says bye and gets picked up by a gentleman who’s clearly her father. My friend asks what I’m doing for lunch and I tell him I have no plans. He invites me to join them. I say yes.

It’s half an hour later when the conversation steers towards philosophy. I say something that he insists on contradicting. I pause. I reflect. I try again. Again, he’s got a contrarian view. I wonder if he’s deliberately trying to rile me up. It’s clearly working. My friend watches on, a mute spectator. He smiles, cocksure of what he’s saying as he demolishes yet another argument of mine. I’m now extremely annoyed. I challenge him. He quotes something in Sanskrit. I’m struck dumb. I’m taken aback by the verses that I clearly understand.

He smiles. It’s a drop dead gorgeous smile. “You didn’t expect me to know this did you?” He asks. I admit that I didn’t. “You say you don’t like people being judgemental, but isn’t that exactly what you did?” I lower my eyes, unable to meet his gaze. Yes. I admit.

“Come here.” I hear authority and insistence in his voice. I look up. He’s steps closer. “You’re extremely interesting you know? And beautiful too.” I hold my breath, not sure of what he’s going to do next, but willing to wait and watch. He gently puts two fingers under my chin and lifts my head. He smiles, silently seeking permission. I shut my eyes, giving it to him. He kisses me. It’s a kiss that takes my breath away. It’s a kiss that makes me want more. And then I know. This is the beginning of something very beautiful.

A writer’s journey…

The last four weeks have been intense for more reasons than one. So much has changed. Practically overnight, I found myself without an anchor. I flailed around for support where none was forthcoming. But I guess what doesn’t kill you indeed does make you stronger. And it did. I did not rise from my ashes like a phoenix. I struggled. I cried. I’ve needed long conversations, medication, therapy and more to get me back on track. But I survived. I guess my success rate for survival is 100%. And so far so good. But the past month has also been one of introspection. Of what I want and what I don’t. It’s made me think back to the years and months during which I never wrote.

As I mentioned to my therapist a few months ago, it wasn’t a slow, gradual death. It was as if someone had reached over and turned off a tap. And then I died. With every unspoken word, I died a little bit on the inside. And then one day, my soul seemed to have left my body. I still existed. I lived my everyday life. Cooking. Cleaning. Laundry. Dishes. Movies and friends. Everything but what I really wanted to do. Everything but writing.

The block lasted three years. And then the words came back. They came for a reason best left unexplained. But come back, they did. I may not write as much now, but I know it not for lack of words. I know now that I can say what I want without fearing consequences. I have finally learnt to shed the baggage that came along with marriage and relationships. I have finally learnt that who you are on the inside never really changes. And I am ready. I am ready now to stand my ground and declare to the world that this is who I am. I am still anonymous to most people, but I am no longer averse to meeting people who know my name and also my twitter handle. I no longer want to hide behind the veil. Because I have no reason to.

So here I am, wanting to start a new chapter of my life, leaving behind all of the insecurities and worries that have characterised my life for almost 7 years. May the next decade be fulfilling and happy, not just for me as a writer, but also for me as a person.

On the Vanthiyathevan trail – II

Day 2 was far more interesting than we expected it to be. The beautiful Vadavaaru accompanied us much farther than we thought it would. The first stop on Day 2 was the Thillai Nataraja Temple.

Day 2 – Stop 1 – Thillai Nataraja-Sivakama Sundari Temple – Chidambaram

Not that this temple requires much introduction. Purported to be over 1000 years old, this temple was added on over the centuries, with practically every major dynasty contributing its bit to the construction and architectural style. The grandeur of the temple is awe-inspiring, making you want to spend the entire day inside. Although not exactly a part of the Ponniyin Selval trail, this temple is a must-visit, especially since our journey on Vanthiyathevan’s footsteps actually begins only after this.

Day 2 – Stop 2 – Veeranarayana Perumal-Maragathavalli Temple, Kattumannarkoil

This temple dates back to the time before Sundara Chola. Built by Prince Rajaditya just after the construction of the lake, the temple is quaint and quiet, just how temples should be. It is a simple structure, with an even simpler Sannidhi. The Veeranarayana Perumal though, stands at a massive six feet, a sight to behold.

Day 2 – Stop 3 – Amrithaghateshwara-Vidyujothi Nayaki Temple, Melakadambur

When we first thought of the Kadambur palace, we knew there was a temple in the vicinity. However, initial Google searches only showed us a Kadambur somewhere neat Kumbakonam. While we initially put it on our route map, we quickly realised that there had to be another Kadambur somewhere near the Veeranam lake, for our hero reaches the Kadambur palace almost immediately after his meeting Azhwarkadiyan Nambi at the Veeranarayana Perumal temple at Kattumannarkoil. So, we delved a little deeper and came up with this temple. Situated just off the road in the tiny village of Melakadambur not far from Kattumannarkoil. This Shiva temple’s door was partially closed when we got there, making us wonder if there was anyone around. To our relief, we found a priest who was more than happy to see visitors in the place.

This temple is shaped in the form of a chariot and is clearly a predecessor of the 12th Century Darasuram temple that we visited later in the day. Our guess is that this temple was also built around the 10th Century, towards the end of Sundara Chola’s reign.

Day 2 – Stop 4 – Brihadeeshwara-Brihannayaki Temple, Gangaikoda Cholapuram

The journey from Melakadambur to Gangaikonda Cholapuram was the most beautiful I’ve done in recent years. The road runs right next to the Vadavaaru, that meanders through fields, sometimes widening, sometimes narrowing, teasing it by coming closer and then abruptly moving away, only to come back in some time. The almost 15-km stretch is breathtaking, with vast, green paddy fields and little rivulets dotting the landscape. When we got to the highway, we almost regretting having to leave the Vadavaaru behind.

The Brihadeeshwara temple rises out of the emptiness, welcoming you with its majestic presence. Grand, yet feminine, this temple is a smaller replica of the Thanjavur temple. Built by Rajendra Chola in the 11th Century, this temple aspires to be everything Thanjavur is, but with a feminine grace. There isn’t much left to be said about the temple because several annals have been written about it, including Rajendra’s famous letter to his father from the banks of the Ganga, “I want a Thanjavur.” What we found particularly interesting was that excavations have revealed an underground passage from the temple, probably leading up to the ancient palace, whose remains we still see 2 kilometres away.

Day 2 – Stop 5 – Rajendra’s Palace – Maligaimedu

Maligaimedu is exactly two kilometres from the temple. A protected ASI monument, we still see remains of the foundations of one part of what was supposed to have been the palace of Rajendra Chola. There isn’t much to see there, since most artefacts have been shifted to the museum near the temple. We still felt like taking a look and went there. We didn’t regret it, for what can be better than seeing an excavated site?

Day 2- Stop 6 – Airavateshwara-Periya Nayaki Temple, Darasuram

Built in the 12th Century, this temple represents what we can consider the pinnacle of Chola architecture. In the form of a chariot, the temple boasts of several intricate sculptures, and also a musical staircase that’s not protected by a metal cage to prevent damage by people dancing on it. If only we were more conscious about preserving our priceless heritage!

The day ended with us crashing out at Kumbakonam out of sheer exhaustion at having visited so many places on a single day. The next day would be even more interesting, taking us on what I can only describe as a wild goose chase of temples of which we only had a cursory idea.

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