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The Lost Temples of India

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April 2004
The Lost Temples of India

A stray television program stirred up a hornet's nest. Watching The Lost Temples of India on Learning Channel was enough impetus to include a tour of these temples in the India-visit itinerary. What followed was a discovery that remains unparalleled.

BY VIJAY VENKATARAMAN

I am not a particularly disgruntled non-resident Indian, but there are times when I compare myself to Trishanku. The mythological king's wish to reach heaven in his bodily form so angered the gods that they yanked the ground from beneath his feet. After some reconsideration they gave him a new abode: not on earth and not in paradise but somewhere in between. My Boston home is my personal cloud four-and-a-half. I find that watching television is a good way to pass time in the soul-sapping cold winter evenings.

The Lost Temples of India was being aired as part of the weekend Mysteries of Asia series on the Learning Channel, that freezing Sunday. A city kid from a not-very-observant Hindu family, I had to be dragged to temples on the rare occasions we went there as a family but the title of the episode disconcerted me. Can temples possibly be "lost"?

"Western tourists flock to India's symbolic monument, the unparalleled Taj Mahal. Southern India with its architectural wonders is not on any tourist map and remains lost to the world", the voiceover said.

I was relieved, but I also had the urge to visit the featured temples and personally verify that they were still standing. My parents in Madras were willing to accompany me to Thanjavur on my upcoming trip. They must have been surprised by this sudden request but decided to make the most of it and drew up their list of must-pray-at shrines. I forgot to mention the show.

So we were on this road trip at cross-purposes. Rice fields rustled in the breeze along the banks of the Cauvery, also known as the sacred Ponni. Selvaraj, our driver-cum-tour guide, talked about legends and politics all along the route. "Bad times befall gods same as mortals?that is how I see it", he declared.

The Thanjavur district is renowned for its splendid temples from the Chola period but not all of them draw worshippers now. The priests barely find resources to perform the pujas. And these neglected Gods -- what wishes could they possibly grant? That seemed to be Selvaraj's thinking and my father's too. Consequently, only the currently well-liked and "powerful" shrines were worth visiting.

My dad's idea of earning karmic credit was having elaborate pujas done at these crowded, brightly painted temples. The sun, moon, the two serpents-in-the-sky who swallow them up during the eclipses and the seven planetary deities were all clamoring for my dad's attention. My mission of checking on the old, forgotten temples seemed to be a lost cause. Perhaps they were destined to remain forgotten in the twenty-first century. Our backseat camaraderie notwithstanding my mother wasn't taking sides.

At the Chidambaram temple devotees circled the sanctum in determined loops to the festive chants. Barely catching a glimpse of the idol, I edged away from the turmeric-faced housewives into a cool, inner corridor. Overhead, yalis grinned wickedly. I could not believe I had not made the mocking acquaintance of these griffin-like creatures before.

These decorative motifs keep evil spirits away from sacred premises. As metaphysical mirror images, they remind us that we have various animal instincts rolled into this human form. Grimacing back at my boar-eared, lion-faced tormentors, I realized that it would soon be time for the deities to take a ceremonial nap?temples are closed between twelve and four. I could use the break too. And my luck might change the next day.

It did. Finally we were at the gates of the temple featured in the television show. The delicately made-up resident elephant, impatient for its jaunt among the traffic, greeted us. Two granite gatekeepers loomed with their frozen gestures: Stop, Enter and Don't-even-think-of-it. They were assisted by policemen stationed below with metal detectors. In a post 9/11 world, airports are not the only places with heightened security.

It was the week of the tenth anniversary of the demolition of the Babri mosque. The fear of retribution appeared to have traveled despite the communal harmony in the south. Oblivious to all this, a local Muslim couple waited to pose with the elephant.

The Brihadeeswarar temple, commissioned by the Chola emperor Rajaraja I (AD 985-1017), stood tall like a dull gold citadel. Its tower?a trigonometric wonder?never darkens the earth below with its shadow. The linga was being bathed to the chant of mantras. A bent, old man swept the flagstones in the courtyard as his personal prayer.

Shiva graced the niches as a mendicant with matted locks, a lover merging androgynously into his consort, a demon slayer and a family man. The Lord of the Cosmic Dance watched on amusedly as two chipmunks raced down the fluid length of his sun-drenched limbs. Bronze replicas of these deities stood in the corridor along with other procession props. In the evening they would travel in palanquins to bless the townsfolk.

Rajaraja Museum, our next stop, had an impressive collection of bronze and stone Chola sculptures unearthed from various sites in Tamil Nadu, five centuries after they were buried for safety from iconoclastic Muslim generals. In their stark splendor, these "homeless" idols are familiar figures on the international museum circuit.

From the brochure we learnt that between the 9th and 13th centuries the Cholas ruled most of India, Sri Lanka and parts of Malaysia. Their maritime presence allowed trade with Southeast Asia and left a lasting impact on the art and architecture of the region. This makes the temple we visited central to Chola power, hence its local name, the Big Temple. My father then asked the question, which changed the nature of the trip: "Are there other ?small' temples, true heirs to this grand one?" The aesthetic appreciation of the exquisite sculpture had made him forget the list of must-visit shrines.

Selvaraj drove us to GangaiKondaCholaPuram "the town of the Chola who conquered the Ganges". The capital of Rajendra Chola I (AD 1012-44) lay desolate except for the beautiful temple with the commemorative well. Coconut palms swayed gently over the cool lawns. The group of schoolboys who wandered in to play cricket were chased back by a zealous guard who thoughtfully confiscated the ball as well. Perhaps he had a none-too-studious son at home.

The serene environs gave us a chance to reflect on all that we had seen during the last couple of days. My mother mentioned in passing that, when she was growing up, a Tamil weekly had serialized a historical romance based on the life of Rajaraja Chola. The epic Ponniyin Selvan by Kalki R.Krishnamurthy captured the imagination of an entire generation of readers and it had a following every bit as keen as the audience of present day mega serials.

With a hero like this, it was bound to be a hit. I picked up the five bound volumes of the novel to take back to Boston even as my mother looked on, incredulously. I could not read Tamil too well even though I knew the alphabet. She did not discourage me.

As I started reading the first volume I simply jumped on another horse and joined the royal messenger Vandhiyathevan who unwittingly stumbles on the plans of treasonous factions within the Chola court. After many adventures and several near-escapes he meets the fascinating Arulmozhiverman ? Ponniyin Selvan himself ? in distant SriLanka.

Arulmozhiverman already rules the hearts of the people even though his elder brother Adithyakarikalan is the crown prince. The female characters are very spirited as well. My particular favorite is the boat-girl Ponkuzhali who knows quite well that she is no less than any high born princess and scorns the man who dares to point our her social status.

Awed by the elegant giant Buddhas in SriLanka Arulmozhiverman tells his sister Kundavai that the Tamil gods sadly lack the temples that match their stature. A massive Nandi would stand guard at the Dakshinmeru ? a befitting abode he planned to build for them. As thoughts precede all action, this conversation was essentially the blueprint for the Brihadeeswarar temple, we had just visited a thousand years later. I felt privileged to overhear this conversation.

This literary trip was a fascinating way to reconnect with my roots. Having done that I feel a little less like the topsy-turvy Trishanku from the puranas.


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