Ancient India is known for a lot of things. Women’s liberation is not one among them. On one hand the womenfolk were worshiped as goddesses and on the other, they were seen as nothing more than domestic slaves. There is however, still one glory that you can’t deny India. It is the fact that there have always been women who broke the chains of servitude to carve their name in history and the men who always encouraged and supported women to reach for the stars.
As I read this in a social media post, I couldn’t think of a better way to wish all you lovely womenfolk a very happy women’s day.
“May the fire inside of you burn stronger than the storm surrounding you.”
Here is a small collection of my favorite women in Tamil sculptural heritage for this Women’s day.
The idea of a ride across Tamil Nadu has been germinating in the remotest curvature of my brain for a long time. Riding a motorcycle alone from Chennai to Kanyakumari and back may sound crazy even to the adventurous kind. But then the executive functions of my brain wanted to push the limits on craziness factor just for the sake of doing it.
The last week of March, I cordially ended my relationship with a company where I worked for over 6 years. While cleaning up my official laptop, nested within 6 years worth of useless information was a file titled “Weeklong Kanyakumari Ride_2012.xlsx”. Well that’s my “manifest destiny” and after a major convincing exercise at home with all the Alpinestar protective gear, I finalized on a 4 day ride across Trichy, Kodumbalur, Pudukkottai, Thanjavur, Thiruvaiyaru and Pazhuvur.
Typical of my plans, started my ride from Chennai just when the Sun was flexing its muscles to put on a display of might. With an open road, an open schedule and the thump of the Royal Enfield that was music to my ears, it literally was a dream head out on the highway.
After having a hearty brunch and hydrating well enough at Haritam, my favourite pitstop on the National Highway 45, I went in search of the Temple priest at Sendamangalam near Villupuram. The dilapidated temple at Sendamangalam is an archaeological treasure house and I was glad my story on it had attracted a generous heart who had offered to donate 5 liters of oil to the temple every month. Satisfied seeing the priest happy and with a polite decline to the invitation to lunch with him, I was back on the road to continue my battle with the star that’s supposed to be 149.6 million kilometers but felt like only a few inches away from my face.
My stop for the night was at Sri Ramakrishna Kudil, a residential school for the orphaned and underprivileged kids, on the Trichy -Karur road, right after the toll gate. My experience at the Kudil is jotted here.
I started the next day from the Kudil quite early in an effort to gain an upper hand in the duel that I had been having with the Sun. I gotta say thanks to PLA Residency at Trichy for storing my baggage for free while I went temple hunting in the city of Trichy. Trichy proved interesting with meeting quite a few interesting people. Right from the autorickshaw guy who almost convinced me to part with my baggage in his auto, to the pleasant hotel people who took in my baggage with a smile, I was feeling lucky to run into some good people. But then I had no idea I was about to meet two most insteresting characters in Trichy. A photographer/historian/flower shop owner and a most dedicated and helpful ASI official.
Being the follower of the old Tamil saying “Vida Muyarchi Viswaruba Vetri” or in other words “Try until you succeed”, I to knocked on the doors of Mr.Arockianathan early in the morning to get him to open the Pallava era cave temple at the RockFort in Trichy. Waking up from his slumber, he asked me to visit the Thayumaswamy temple and Uchi Pillayar temple and in the meanwhile he will be there at the Pallava cave temple by 9.30 AM. I followed his directions to a tee and went ahead to the Pallava cave temple by 9.30 AM. Unlike any government official that I had seen, there he was, Mr. Arockianathan opening up the cave temple for me exactly at 9.30 AM.
After taking in the beauty of the Lower and Upper cave temples in the rockfort,thanks to Mr. Arockianathan who was excited to explain me things, I headed out to get on the motorcycle which is where I met Mr.Shanmugam who is a man of many talents, of which selling flowers seem to be his primary competency. He was trying to get people to buy bermuda grass to offer to Lord Ganesha at the top of the hill. When they declined and said they were going only to the Shiva temple, he was quick to think on his feet and asked them to offer the grass to Nandi in the Shiva temple. While the sale did not go through, it was interesting to see the platform independent solution that he was offering :P.
It was interesting to get to know this multifaceted personality and it was quite a surprise to know that him and Mr.Arockianathan were quite good friends and often discussed history with each other. Glad that I met them, I left on a happy note only to find that my motorcycle keys were missing. After a frantic few minutes of searching did I find my keys safely resting on the ignition with not even the side locks secured, inviting people to take a joy ride on my bike. Thanking the Gangadhara residing on the Rockfort, and more vigilant than ever, I went on my way to the most amazing and totally unexpected experience of my trip at Tiruvanaikkaval temple.
The temple at Thiruvanaikaval is one of the anient Chola temples supposed to have been in place since the 10th century AD is humongous to say the least. But what made my experience special was the time I got to spend with the temple elephant Akila and the Mahout Mr.Arjunan. Arjunan and Akila, both were from Kerala and Akila would listen and obey every single thing that Arjunan said. It was amazing to see an animal of such size respond to the sounds of Human beings and that too a specific language. Waited an hour and half at the temple, throwing off my plans to be at Kodumbalur before high noon, just to get a glimpse of the rare ceremony of the male temple priest draped in a saree, worshiping Lord Shiva. The priest was affable enough to let me know that this is an age old practice to symbolically conduct the worship on behalf of the goddess of the temple.
See the curious guy next to the priest? Thanks to him I had a much needed comic relief. We spoke for 10 minutes, with him assuming I’m from “The Hindu” newspaper and me talking on the lines of “I’m a Hindu”.
Off again I was, on the furnace, or otherwise called as open roads of Trichy. Oh and by the way, on my way to Trichy the day before, my speedometer wire decided to give up and I had no idea how fast I was going. But then I managed to get a rough idea based on the RPM. Nevertheless I decided to get it fixed before continuing further and went to the Royal Enfield Service station at Oxina Motors. The guys there took my bike in immediately and got it fixed within 1o minutes.
Thanks to Oxina Motors, I was back on the road again and this time I was off to Kodumbalur which is located on the corona of the Sun.
If there is one highway I would recommend anyone to avoid during summer noon is the Trichy-Madurai highway. With no trees for shade along the highway, I literally felt like Ghostrider with a burning head. Not the one to easily give up, I stacked up enough water to survive on the Thar desert and rode on to my next stop, Kodumbalur.
The ride was worth it to see the magnificent stone temples of Moovar Kovil at Kodumbalur. Built by the Irukku Velir, a subordinate clan of the Cholas, these temples were quite marvellous with their sculptures and architecture. I even got to see a couple romancing in the temple.
Riding further along the corona, I reached the ancient temple town of Kudumiyan Malai which houses an inscription of a musical treatise from 7th century AD presumably authored by Mahendravarma Pallava. The place also has a beautiful ancient temple.
The best part of Kudumiyan malai was again a dedicated ASI official Mr.Balu who treated me like royalty, showing me around in every nook and corner of the temple, explaining the inscriptions, paintings etc. He also called up the ASI watchman at Narthamalai, the place I was planning to visit the next day and asked him to take good care of me. We had a good chat and I dropped him off in Pudukkottai in my bike.
This ride took me to a lot of fantastic places out of which I’ve captured the beauty of only a few. There were places like Sittannavasal, Karunthittaikkudi Vasishteshwarar temple, Thiruvaiyaru and Thillaisthanam where I did not click much pictures but rather just took in the beauty and cherished the history. Like for example, the Vasishteshwarar temple was where two men had an archery contest and in the end of which both of them died due to one of the contestant rigging the contest. The amazing thing was that the contest was witnessed by the great Raja Raja Chola himself. There were a few heartbreaks as well, such as in Sittannavasal which houses the ancient paintings of the Jain monks containing two beautiful danseuses, the Pandya King Arikesari Maravarman, his queen and the Jain concept of Samvatsarana. Sittannavasal is frequented mostly by the local college kids bunking classes and spending time with their girlfriens/boyfriends. The one good thing was the ASI official Mr.Kuppusamy who knows his stuff and was an excellent guide for me.
The next big highlight of my trip was the Narthamalai ruins. Narthamalai in the olden days was called Nagarathar Malai, named after the influential merchant guild in the Tamil country. Nattukottai Chettiar clan claims its descent from the Nagarathar of the yore. An interesting piece of info on Narthamalai is that this was the granite quarry from where the Cholas got stones to build the temples in their kingdom. This includes the Tanjore Big Temple and the Gangaikonda Cholapuram temple.
The hillock contains a grand old Shiva temple called as Vijayalaya Choleeswaram, a cave temple containing 12 identical 10 feet tall reliefs of Lord Vishnu and another small cave temple for Shiva. Thanks to Mr.Balu from Kudumiyan Malai, the ASI watchman came up the hillock to open up the temples and let me have a free hand in shooting them.
By the evening, I had retired to Thanjavur and after getting my bike checked out the at Royal Enfield dealer Jaf Motors there, I spent some time at the Raja Raja Cholan Museum which houses Chola era artifacts such as swords, utensils, toys, jewellery, coins, inscriptions etc. The museum also houses a fantastic inscription broken into pieces that sings the praise of Raja Raja Chola. The sad story behind it is that the inscription stone was found by someone while digging his backyard while renovating his house. Afraid that the Archarological department will confiscate his property, he broke the inscription and threw them away. However the vigilant contractor informed the authorities and the inscription was recovered.
After spending the evening at the Tanjore Big Temple, having delicious Chandrakala sweets at Bombay Halwa and the Kalkandu Milk at the old bustand, I retired for the night in Tanjore.
It was the final day of my trip and I covered Karunthittaikkudi and Thiruvaiyaru before stopping at Thillaisthanam which is presumably the place where Karikala Chola from over 2000 years ago died.
After being disappointed at Thillaisthanam since the temple was closed, I headed onto my final temple in the itinerary, the Keezhaiyur temple built by Pazhuvettarayar clan. For those of you read the Ponniyin Selvan, you can imagine Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar consecrating this temple with all his pomp. The amazing sculptures at this temple requires a separate post in itself and hence I’m restricting myself with sharing just this piece of maginificence, the most realistic Nandi in all of Tamil Nadu.
The priest at Keezhaiyur informed me about another age old Shiva temple a few feet from this one. While I went there I could see no traces of ancientness. It was newly painted and everything was brand new. I sat on my bike deliberating if I should enter it or not. Making up my mind, I entered it only to find fellow history and temple hunters Ramesh Muthaiyan, Sasi Dharan and Manick Rajendran surveying the temple for a documentary.
I started my ride back to Chennai with mixed emotions. Happy that I saw a lot of wonders, met so many amazing people, enjoyed the road and more importantly pushed myself to break my physical barriers, I did feel a bit of heavy heart leaving behind some amazing places and people. I will especially remember the kids at Sri Ramakrishna Kudil, Mr.Arockianathan, Mr.Shanmugam from Trichy, Mr. Balu from Kudumiyan Malai, the smiley faced receptionist at PLA Residency, an ATM watchman at Pudukkottai who was originally from Royapuram in Chennai, thelodge manager and owner at Pudukkottai (btw Sri Lakshme Lodge is where you stay when you go to Pudukkottai. Fantastic value for money), the group of policemen that took extra effort to direct me to Sri Ramakrishna Kudil, the mechanics at Oxina Motors and Jaf Motors, and the Narthamalai watchman Mr.Palani.
If there was one person I felt grateful was my wife, who had the biggest of hearts to acknowledge my passion and to send me away on a ride while she herself was slogging at her work.
The biggest takeaway for me on this ride was that you don’t go in search of stories but to just travel and let the stories come to you.