Inland to the Great Living Chola Temples
Whoa, I’m really far from home. I’m just as far from home as yesterday, but this is the place where it really hit me. Thanjavur is a town in central Tamil Nadu, famed for its temple complex built during the Chola Dynasty. The Chola’s took power after defeating the Pallavas – my friends responsible for the stone carvings back in Mahabalipuram.
Thanjavur (Tanjore) was my wild card stop. There are a lot of important temples in this part of the country, and I suppose in all the country – depending on who you ask. There was also another region a bit to the south, the Chettinad region with a supposed unique and delicious cuisine and old mansions. I considered several of these different locations for my wild card stop, but in the end chose Thanjavur, mainly because it was the most logical stopover between Pondicherry and Madurai.
It took 2 local buses and about 7 hours to reach Thanjavur from Pondicherry and I arrived in time to head directly to the Brihadeeswarar Temple to catch it at dusk. This temple is quite the architectural wonder with the primary tower, well, towering over the temple grounds. The carvings are completely symmetrical and incredibly detailed. This is another UNESCO World Heritage Site.
(As a irrelevant side note, but one I found interesting, there are 32 designated UNESCO World Heritage sites in both Mexico and India)
The Brihadeeswarar Temple recently had its 1000th birthday, an event which I imagine was greatly celebrated. Each temple has a primary deity which it honors and worshipers partial to a particular deity will make pilgrimage to temples that honor them. For this temple, it is Lord Shiva – “the destroyer” – as he creates, dissolves and then recreates the universe.
I believe the real beauty for worshippers lies in the inner chambers of the temple, where only Hindus are allowed, and in the inner-inner chamber where only priests are allowed. However, there was plenty for a non-Hindu to observe and explore. The outer passageway is lined with colorful murals and smaller sub-shrines to various deities and the massive statue carved from a single rock of the sacred bull Nandi, over 16 feet long, is certainly a focal point. I spent about an hour in the evening and returned the following morning to see it again in the early morning light.
Other than the temple, I really didn’t care for Thanjavur. It was dusty, hot and full of bad hotels. I wasn’t able to sleep a wink with all the noise from the street, the mosquitoes and the heat. That said, it provided that silly deeper travel feeling that I crave and have convinced myself is important to any trip. Communication was nearly impossible and there certainly weren’t any nutella pancakes on any menu (thank Shiva!), not that there were too many menus I could read. I came across a group of about a dozen Spaniards and a young Japanese lad, but that was it for foreign tourists. For my two meals I had to just sit at the table and wait to see what appeared before me. I love the banana leaf meals, which remind me so much of my Thai and Burmese friends, but the dosa is a lovely new addition (dosa: crepe kind of food made from rice and lentil flower).
A thank you to the ancient Cholas for building such a sturdy masterpiece that can still be admired 1000 years later!