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Ancient Heritage sites of Tamil Nadu

Author: Indiana
Date of Trip: July 2008

A whirlwind tour of 7 Tamil Nadu heritage sites

Set off by road from Chennai around 2pm, along NH45 towards Trichy. Getting out of city limits was a nightmare. After that it was a good road but a tiresome six and a half hour journey, instead of the 4 hours which it will be, on completion of the 4-lane project. TTDC's Hotel Tamil Nadu at Trichy was full, so we decided to halt at Srirangam itself, at Hotel Sri Rengaa. This is more of a 'lodge', in an ancient refurbished house within the concentric enclosures of the temple complex. The room was tiny but clean, with a TV, split AC, and a bathroom with an ancient thick wooden door. The same owners also run Hotel Sri Maruthi closer to the main temple entrance. Both are ideally located for visiting the temples of Srirangam. Srirangam is an ancient citadel island between the Coleroon and Cauvery rivers, just 7km from Trichy. The Coleroon riverbed is dry at present.

At 7.30am the next morning, we stepped back in time to visit the living art gallery:- the ancient Sri Ranganathaswamy temple. The hotel owner's 10 year old son kindly escorted us to the temple entrance, a mere five minute walk away. This foremost Vishnu temple is set in 7 rectangular walled enclosures. The 7th to the 4th outer enclosures contain streets, residential and market areas. The religious zone begins from the 4th enclosure; the innermost 1st enclosure is the sanctum sanctorum of the presiding deity, the reclining Sri Ranganathar - Maha Vishnu. Photography is not allowed in the 1st enclosure.

At the shoe deposit counter at the 4th enclosure, we engaged the services of a pleasant young man - Purushottam, to guide us around the labyrinthine complex. The magnificent sculptures, carvings and frescoes date from the early Chola period through to the Nayakars, right upto the most recent completion of the unfinished Rajagopuram in 1987 under the auspices of the Sri Ahobila Mutt. The new Rajagopuram is the largest temple tower in the world. It lacks character however, compared to the ancient, smaller gopurams around it. There are 23 Gopurams in all, including the attractive Vella [white] Gopuram.

Each sculpture, each column, each roof, each fresco in the vast temple complex, was more stunning than the other. The intricately carved Eight Horse columns are extraordinary, and one could spend hours admiring them. The 1000 pillared hall is closed off, except on certain days, but we took photos through the grilled gates. The resident elephant obligingly posed for photos near the Vellai [white] gopuram. A roof top viewing area provided a panorama of the various gopurams, and of the gold Vimanam over the main sanctum. The following websites give details of the history and architecture of this ancient site.

http://www.tamilnation.org/culture/a.../srirangam.htm http://www.ramanuja.org/sv/temples/srirangam http://www.srirangam.org/History.htm

There were fortunately no crowds as it was not a 'special' day. Our tour ended at around 11am at the new Rajagopuram. Purushottam turned out to be a worthy guide.

Srirangam ought to be a designated UNESCO heritage site. On our walk back to the hotel, we savoured the atmosphere of the bustling market. There was no time in our hectic schedule to visit the Thiruvanaikaval Jambukeshwar temple close by. Some pleasures have to be saved for the next time.

The long bridge across the Cauvery afforded a splendid view of the Trichy Rock Fort and its temples http://tiruchirappalli.nic.in http://www.trichy.com.

At Trichy, we strolled past the erstwhile mansion of Robert Clive facing the tank, then through the main shopping street to the entrance to the Rock Fort. As it was rather hot by this time, we abandoned plans to climb the 453 odd steps up. The Trichy Saratha Sale looked infinitely more appealing, and we soon ended up with three gorgeous sarees at an amazing price. A delicious lunch followed at a "Bhavan" close by.

A friendly policeman just outside Trichy, recommended a scenic, serene country road along the banks of the mighty Cauvery. It must have originally been a bridle or tow path. This went all the way up to the Grand Anaicut - an ancient dam built by the Cholas in the 2nd century, still going strong. It is locally better known as "Kal Anai" i.e. Stone dam. A road bridge was built 3 centuries ago by the British, along the ancient dam. The Tamil Nadu PWD department has added a barrage and painted the British bridge a bright turquoise blue!!! Mercifully, the 2nd century dam has been left alone.

Cormorants flew in and out of the water to catch fish stunned by the strong barrage outflow. A few vendors offered fresh fried fish bhajjies and masala vadais. One could spend a whole day's picnic in such pleasant surroundings.

Proceeding further, we stopped now and then to admire ancient looking large idols of elephants and horses, associated with the village guardian deity Aiyanar and his companion Karuppuswami. More information about village deities of TN: http://www.hindu.com/mag/2006/11/05/...0500260200.htm http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Village..._of_Tamil_Nadu

The Thanjavur Brihadeeswara or Periya Kovil [Big Temple] was next on our list. This Shiva temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built by Rajaraja the greatest of Chola kings, it is also known as Rajarajeswaram. A massive Vimanam crowns the towering big Gopuram. "The Gopuram tower of the temple is 216 feet high and is topped by a block of granite 25 feet square and 80 tons in weight. This stone was hauled four miles over an inclined plane and put on top of the tower. The dome carved from a single stone weighing 80 tons, is surrounded by 250 arcades, each containing a lingam." From: Rajarajesvaram, the Pinnacle of Chola Art by B.Venkataraman

The shadow of the stupis atop the vimanam reportedly never touch the ground. The temple also boasts unique carvings depicting 81 out of 108 Bharatanatyam dance poses; inscriptions, frescoes and other sculptural masterpieces.

More detailed information at: http://www.tamilnation.org/culture/a.../thanjavur.htm

We engaged a guide to show us around. He was not the best, but certainly knew a lot more than we did. Our guide offered us a special 'darshan' at the temple by jumping the queue! We politely declined. Would the deity ever approve of inconveniencing others who were patiently waiting their turn in the queue? Photography is not permitted within the sanctum and its immediate surroundings.

As we were leaving, the temple elephant appeared, a benign, gentle creature. He was very sweet. The cart vendors outside the temple were selling "Thalai Atti Bommai" - Shaking head Tanjore Dolls, of Bharatanatyam dancers, syrupy sweet grandmas, lecherous looking grandpas and other images. These were originally made of clay, nowadays papier mache is the preferred material. The heads are detachable and predictably, shake. Thanjavur is also justly famous for its gilded, stone studded Tanjore Paintings and its carved 5-metal Tanjore Plates, which are now available all over India. There was regrettably, no time to visit the Museum and Palace.

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