Continuing south of Puducherry along the Coromandel coast, you enter the flat landscape of the Kaveri (aka Cauvery) Delta, a watery world of canals, dams, dykes and rivulets that has been intensively farmed since ancient times. Only a hundred miles in diameter, it forms the verdant rice-bowl core of Tamil Nadu, crossed by more than thirty major rivers and countless streams. The largest of them, the River Kaveri, known in Tamil as Ponni, “The Lady of Gold” (a form of the Mother Goddess), is revered as a conduit of liquid shakti, the primordial female energy that nurtures the millions of farmers who live on her banks and tributaries. The landscape here is one endless swathe of green paddy fields, dotted with palm trees and little villages of thatched roofs and market stalls; it comes as a rude shock to land up in the hot and chaotic towns.
This mighty delta formed the very heartland of the Chola empire, which reached its apogee between the ninth and thirteenth centuries, an era often compared to classical Greece and Renaissance Italy both for its cultural richness and the sheer scale and profusion of its architectural creations. Much as the Cholas originally intended, every visitor is immediately in awe of their huge temples, not only at cities such as Chidambaram, Kumbakonam and Thanjavur, but also out in the countryside at places like Gangaikondacholapuram, where the magnificent temple is all that remains of a once-great city. Exploring the area for a few days will bring you into contact with the more delicate side of Chola artistic expression, such as the magnificent bronzes of Thanjavur.Read More
CHIDAMBARAM, 58km south of Puducherry, is so steeped in myth that its history is hard to unravel. As the site of the tandava, the cosmic dance of Shiva as Nataraja, King of the Dance, it’s one of the holiest sites in south India, and a visit to its Sabhanayaka Temple affords a fascinating glimpse into ancient Tamil religious practice and belief. The legendary king Hiranyavarman is said to have made a pilgrimage here from Kashmir, seeking to rid himself of leprosy by bathing in the temple’s Shivaganga tank. In thanks for a successful cure, he enlarged the temple. He also brought three thousand brahmins, of the Dikshitar caste, whose descendants, distinguishable by top-knots of hair at the front of their heads, are the ritual specialists of the temple to this day.
Few of the fifty maths (monasteries) that once stood here remain, but the temple itself is still a hive of activity and hosts numerous festivals. The two most important are ten-day affairs, building up to spectacular finales: on the ninth day of each, temple chariots process through the four Car streets in the car festival, while on the tenth there is an abhishekham, when the principal deities in the Raja Sabha (thousand-pillared hall) are anointed. For exact dates (one is in May/June, the other in Dec/Jan), contact any TTDC tourist office and plan well ahead, as they are very popular. Other local festivals include fire-walking and kavadi folk dance (dancing with decorated wooden frames on the head) at the Thillaiamman Kali (April/May) and Keelatheru Mariamman (July/Aug) temples.
The town also has a hectic market, and a large student population, based at Annamalai University to the east, a centre of Tamil studies.
Devised as the centrepiece of a city built by the Chola king Rajendra I (1014–42) to celebrate his conquests, the magnificent Brihadishwara Temple (a replica of the Tanjore temple) stands in the tiny village of GANGAIKONDACHOLAPURAM, in Ariyalur District, 35km north of Kumbakonam. The tongue-twisting name means “the town of the Chola who took the Ganges”. Under Rajendra I, the Chola empire did indeed stretch as far as the great river of the north, an unprecedented achievement for a southern dynasty. Aside from the temple and the rubble of Rajendra’s palace, 2km east at Tamalikaimedu, nothing of the city remains. Nonetheless, this is among the most extraordinary archeological sites in south India, outshone only by Thanjavur, and the fact that it’s devoid of visitors most of the time gives it a memorably forlorn feel.
Although it is marginally closer to Chidambaram, bus connections are better with Kumbakonam, running every fifteen minutes or so. The village is also served by some buses between Trichy and Chidambaram. Be sure not to get stuck here between noon and 4pm when the temple is closed. Facilities are minimal, with little more than a few cool-drinks stands. Parts of the interior are extremely dark, and a torch is useful.
Sandwiched between the Kaveri (Cauvery) and Arasalar rivers is KUMBAKONAM, 74km southwest of Chidambaram and 38km northeast of Thanjavur. Hindus believe this to be the place where a water pot (kumba) of amrita – the ambrosial beverage of immortality – was washed up by a great deluge from atop sacred Mount Meru in the Himalayas. Shiva, who just happened to be passing through in the guise of a wild forest-dwelling hunter, for some reason fired an arrow at the pot, causing it to break. From the shards, he made the lingam that is now enshrined in Kumbeswara Temple, whose gopuras today tower over the town, along with those of some seventeen other major shrines. A former capital of the Cholas, who are said to have kept a high-security treasury here, Kumbakonam is the chief commercial centre for the Thanjavur region. The main bazaar, TSR Big Street, is especially renowned for its quality costume jewellery.
The main reason to stop in Kumbakonam is to admire the exquisite sculpture of the Nageshwara Swami Shiva Temple, which contains the most refined Chola stone carving still in situ. The town also lies within easy reach of the magnificent Darasuram and Gangaikondacholapuram temples, both spectacular ancient monuments that see very few visitors. Note that all temples in the area close between noon (or thereabouts) and 4pm. For a change, the village of Swamimalai, only a bike ride away, is the state’s principal centre for traditional bronze casting.
The Airavateshwara Temple, built by King Rajaraja II (c.1146–73), stands in the village of DARASURAM, an easy 5km bus or bike ride (on the Thanjavur route) southwest of Kumbakonam. This superb, if little-visited, Chola monument ranks alongside those at Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram; but while the others are grandiose, emphasizing heroism and conquest, this is far smaller, exquisite in proportion and detail and said to have been decorated with nitya-vinoda, “perpetual entertainment”, in mind. Shiva is called Airavateshwara here because he was worshipped in this temple by Airavata, the white elephant belonging to the king of the gods, Indra.
Darasuram’s finest pieces of sculpture are the Chola black-basalt images adorning wall niches in the mandapa and inner shrine. These include images of Nagaraja, the snake-king, with a hood of cobras, and Dakshinamurti, the “south-facing” Shiva as teacher, expounding under a banyan tree.
As one of the busiest commercial towns of the Kaveri Delta, THANJAVUR (aka “Tanjore”), 55km east of Tiruchirapalli and 35km southwest of Kumbakonam, is often overlooked by travellers. However, its history and treasures – among them the breathtaking Brihadishwara Temple, Tamil Nadu’s most awesome Chola monument – give it a crucial significance to south Indian culture. The home of the world’s finest Chola bronze collection, it holds enough of interest to keep you enthralled for at least a couple of days, and is the most obvious base for trips to nearby Gangaikondacholapuram, Darasuram and Swamimalai.
Thanjavur is roughly split in two by the east–west Grand Anicut Canal. The old town, north of the canal and once entirely enclosed by a fortified wall, was chosen, between the ninth and the end of the thirteenth century, as the capital of their extensive empire by all the Chola kings save one. None of their secular buildings survive, but you can still see as many as ninety temples, of which the Brihadishwara most eloquently epitomizes the power and patronage of Rajaraja I (985–1014), whose military campaigns spread Hinduism to the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Java. Under the Cholas, as well as the later Nayaks and Marathas, literature, painting, sculpture, Carnatic classical music and Bharatanatyam dance all thrived here. Quite apart from its own intrinsic interest, the Nayak royal palace compound houses an important library and museums including a famous collection of bronzes.
Of major local festivals, the most lavish celebrations at the Brihadishwara Temple are associated with the birthday of King Rajaraja, in October. An eight-day celebration of Carnatic classical music is held each January at the Panchanateshwara Temple at Thiruvaiyaru, 13km away, to honour the great Carnatic composer-saint, Thyagaraja.
Originally sacred temple objects, Chola bronzes are the only art form from Tamil Nadu to have penetrated the world art market. The most memorable bronze icons are the Natarajas, or dancing Shivas. The image of Shiva, standing on one leg, encircled by flames, with wild locks caught in mid-motion, has become almost as recognizably Indian as the Taj Mahal.
The principal icons of a temple are usually stationary and made of stone. Frequently, however, ceremonies require an image of the god to be led in procession outside the inner sanctum, and even through the streets. According to the canonical texts known as Agamas, these moving images should be made of metal. Indian bronzes are made by the cire-perdue (“lost wax”) process, known as madhuchchishtavidhana in Sanskrit. Three layers of clay mixed with burned grain husks, salt and ground cotton are applied to a figure crafted in beeswax, with a stem left protruding at each end. When that is heated, the wax melts and flows out, creating a hollow mould into which molten metal – a rich five-metal alloy (panchaloha) of copper, silver, gold, brass and lead – can be poured through the stems. After the metal has cooled, the clay shell is destroyed, and the stems filed off, leaving a unique completed figure, which the caster-artist, or sthapathi, remodels to remove blemishes and add delicate detail.
Knowledge of bronze-casting in India goes back at least as far as the Indus Valley Civilization (2500–1500 BC), and the famous “Dancing Girl” from Mohenjo Daro. The earliest produced in the south was made by the Andhras, whose techniques were continued by the Pallavas, the immediate antecedents of the Cholas. The few surviving Pallava bronzes show a sophisticated handling of the form; figures are characterized by broad shoulders, thick-set features and an overall simplicity that suggests all the detail was completed at the wax stage. The finest bronzes of all are from the Chola period, in the late ninth to the early eleventh century. As the Cholas were predominantly Shaivite, Nataraja, Shiva and his consort Parvati (frequently in a family group with son Skanda) and the 63 Nayanmar poet-saints are the most popular subjects. Chola bronzes display more detail than their predecessors. Human figures are invariably slim-waisted and elegant, with the male form robust and muscular and the female graceful and delicate.
The design, iconography and proportions of each figure are governed by the strict rules laid down in the shilpa shastras, which draw no real distinction between art, science and religion. Measurement always begins with the proportions of the artist’s own hand and the image’s resultant face-length as the basic unit. Then follows a scheme which is allied to the equally scientific rules applied to classical music, and specifically tala or rhythm. Human figures total eight face-lengths, eight being the most basic of rhythmic measures. Figures of deities are nava-tala, nine face-lengths.
Those bronzes produced by the few artists practising today invariably follow the Chola model; the chief centre is now Swamimalai. Original Chola bronzes are kept in many Tamil temples, but as the interiors are often dark it’s not always possible to see them properly. Important public collections include the Nayak Durbar Hall Art Museum at Thanjavur, the Government Museum at Chennai and the National Museum, New Delhi.