Many years ago, Bhaskaran – a colleague – had suggested that if I ever visited the temples of Tamil Nadu, I must visit Thanjavur or Tanjore and see the Brihadeeswara Temple there.  It was, he said, one of the finest examples of Tamil (Chola) architecture. Another friend repeated the same advice after we had visited the world-renowned historical sites of Hampi, Badami, Halebid and Belur in Karnataka a few years ago.  So, while planning to visit some of the prominent historical places in Tamil Nadu, I could not but include Thanjavur in our programme. We proceeded to Thanjavur from Pondicherry.

Although Thanjavur is a well-known tourist destination, it is not very well connected to Pondicherry either by bus or train.  After visiting the railway station and talking to the local people we decided that our best option was to rent a car to drop us at our hotel in Thanjavur.  It cost much more but saved us a lot of hassles like changing buses, or landing at our destination at an unearthly hour.

We started early in the morning so that we could make the best of the one day at our disposal.  The highway to Thanjavur was mostly good but due to expansion work going on at some spots it took four hours to cover just 180 km. It was a lovely drive through villages, paddy fields and coconut palm plantations. 

It was the first day of the three-day Pongal festival.  We saw people busy cleaning and decorating their houses.  Arches were being made using sugarcane stems, banana plants and even banana flowers.  Sugarcane seems to have a special significance for Pongal, as long stems of sugarcane were being sold in all the roadside markets along with bananas and other fruits. Later we learnt that the Pongal dish – made from newly harvested rice, milk and jaggery would be cooked in a specially decorated earthen pot under three stems of sugarcane forming a cone.  And, the dish must boil over and flow out of the pot, signifying an abundance of prosperity.

Sugarcane has a special use during Pongal

Like in Bengal, in Tamil Nadu (and in other southern states) Banana plant is considered auspicious and used to decorate houses during religious festivals.  But, for the first time, I found banana flowers were also treated in the same manner.  In Bengal, we know only one use for these conical flowers – to make some delicious vegetable dishes out of them.

Waiting for Appam to be served warm
Rangali for Pongal

At the restaurant where we stopped for breakfast, they were serving crisp dosas, idly and sweet Pongal. The courtyard of our hotel was also adorned with a very colourful Rangoli or patterns made on the floor by using different colours .

Thanjavur has a chequered history.  It saw the reigns of several dynasties like the Medieval Cholas, the Pandyas, the Vijayanagar empire, the Nayaks and lastly the Marathas. One of the two major attractions of Thanjavur is the Brihadeeswara Temple built by the Chola king Raja Raja Chola. The other attraction is the Maratha Palace, especially the Saraswathi Mahal Library, which is famous for its huge collection of rare palm-leaf and other manuscripts.

At midday, both the temple and the library were closed.  Hence, after lunch, we went over to the railway station to find out if there would be trains for Tiruchirappalli, previously known as Trichy, the next day. We were told there was a passenger train, but its timing did not suit us. We planned to go to Trichy, spend a few hours seeing the two temples there, and then proceed to Madurai, but it seemed time was at a premium.  

Coming out of the station a little disappointed, we met with Mr Srinivasan, who took us to the Big Temple in his taxi.  He suggested, however, that we visit the Nayak (or Maratha) palace first since it closed at 5 P.M., and then proceed to see the temple, which remained open till late in the evening. It was good advice. 

Only a very small part of the Saraswathi Mahal Library is open to the public to see.  But even this tiny fraction of its collection is extremely fascinating.  Among many rare manuscripts in Sanskrit, Tamil, Persian, etc., there is also a manuscript of the Ramayana in Bengali. The display is well laid out and gives one an idea of the great job the library is doing in not only collecting but preserving these national treasures. 

The library was a private collection of the Nayak kings of Thanjavur, who ruled the region between 1535 and 1676 C.E.  Their successors, the Maratha kings were connoisseurs of art and culture.  Under their patronage, the library flourished and now boasts a collection of over 50000 volumes. Photography inside the library is not permitted.

The palace has some nicely carved arches around the compound and colourful stucco images adorning the entrance to its Darbar Hall. By the time we reached, it was time for the palace to close.  In any case, the palace did not fascinate me much. 

The Nayaka Palace
Stucco decoration atop the entrance

It is a short distance from the Library to the Brihadeeswara Temple.  The temple is truly Brihat, that is, very large.  Its Gopuram, the gateway, is shorter in height than that of the Meenakshi Temple at Madurai but is equally imposing.  The temple was built over a period of seven years in the early 11h century C.E. during the rule of Raja Raja Chola. 

The Main Gate of the Temple
The imposing Gopuram

The main gate opens into a very large courtyard.  The first thing that draws one’s attention upon entering the courtyard is the enormous statue of Nandi – the bull of Lord Shiva, facing the main temple wherein the Lord is ensconced.  This gigantic figure is carved out of a block of black granite.  When we visited the temple, the entire place, including the Nandi Mandapam (the shrine of Nandi) was being decorated for the next day’s Pongal festival. The scaffolding put up for that purpose spoilt the view. 

The courtyard
The huge Image of Nandi

Right in front of the Nandi is the main temple.  Although it is a world heritage site, worshipping is permitted in the main temple.  The presiding deity is Lord Shiva in the form of a huge Lingam or phallus.

The Brihadeeswara Temple

In most temples we visited in South India, the sanctum sanctorum is lit only with large oil lamps of shining brass. The lamps look very beautiful and also create a mystic atmosphere but one cannot see the deity very clearly.  Brihadeeswara was no exception.  We stood in the queue twice before we could have a clear view of the image.  Photography is not allowed inside the temples. 

Besides Lord Shiva, the temple also has shrines dedicated to Parvati, Murugan (Kartikeya), Ganesh, Chandikeswar, Varahi and others.  However, these smaller shrines were not originally there when the main temple was constructed.  They were added by kings who ruled Thanjavur later.

A look at the ceiling, walls and pillars inside the temple gives one an idea of the beautiful artwork, carvings, and frescos which once decorated the grand temple.  Years of soot produced by the oil lamps have damaged them.  The broken limbs of some of the carved images bear testimony to outside attacks and vandalism.  The huge boundary wall around the temple complex was perhaps built in the 15th century as a protective measure. 

The Entrance as seen from Inside
An exquisite carving on the Gopuram
(Bastra Haran of the Gopis)

As the sun neared the horizon, the shadows of the temples lengthened on the courtyard.  The beautifully carved images depicting various Puranic stories on the temple tops and the Gopuram acquired a warm hue of a mixture of red and yellow. It was a memorable sight. 

The number of visitors increased in the evening
Lighted up for Pongal
Discoloured, but beautiful
Lord Ganesha

I did not come here for a pilgrimage.  I wanted to see some of the historical temples of south India.  But, sitting in one of the pillared mandapams (Hall) and watching the never-ending stream of people – men and women, young and old – it seemed as if I was transported back in time to ancient India.

A memorable view

This temple has seen so many vicissitudes over the centuries.  Many kings have come and gone.  Its carvings, murals and frescoes have faded, but the devotees still come and worship the Lord, and the priests chant the same mantras and go through the same rituals. Day after day, year after year. The tradition continues unbroken. 

Never ending stream of visitors to the temple

One after the other, the different temples were lit up with special lighting for Pongal to be celebrated the next day.  It was time for us to leave. We left the temple with a feeling of satisfaction, although I discovered later that I lost my sunglass somewhere. 

The moment we returned to our hotel, the thought of how we were to reach Madurai – our next destination – returned to torment us.  We found a solution at last and proceeded to Madurai by train from Tiruchirappalli Junction Railway Station the next morning where we were dropped by Srinivasan in his Taxi, but sadly we had to forego the idea of visiting the Ranganathaswamy temple at Sri Rangam, and the Rock fort Temple at Trichy due to the paucity of time. We had two hours before we reached Madurai…….