Picture a perfect tropical beach. The palm trees. The white sand. The sun in a cloudless sky above a calm blue sea. That’s Mamallapuram. Now look just behind the beach. Are those statues, monuments?
Yes, they are. This town was once a thriving international port. The Chinese came here. The Romans came here. Sailors and traders from around the known world came here. An 8th century text describes how ‘the ships rode at anchor bent to the point of breaking, laden as they were with wealth, big-trunked elephants and gems of nine varieties in heaps‘.
And so it was that just before this time, King Navasimharavan and his successor Rajasimharavan built a series of magnificent temples portraying the events of a great Hindu epic Mahabharata. There are pavilions. There are shrines shaped as temple chariots. There are imposing carved elephants. Here: you can wander round as I did, together with many Indian Sunday trippers. I simply enjoyed these monumental carvings, without going deeply into their history. I was quite simply too exhausted by then.
The Shore Temple.
Sunday afternoon at the Five Rathas
Later I ambled round town. I bought soap and a toothbrush – remember, I hadn’t planned to spend the night here when I left The Hotel from Hell in Chennai. I got a few more souvenirs to take home. I ate on the open terrace of a sheltered restaurant, finding easy company in fellow-travellers. It was a perfect day. My last day. I’d be getting up in the morning to go back to Chennai, pack, get to the airport and … fly home.
After I’d left my new English friends to do solo travelling, my first stop was Thanjavur. I wanted temples in Tamil Nadu, and it seemed to be a toss-up between Thanjavur and Madurai. Thanjavur won, because I suspected it was less on the tourist trail.
In case you don’t know, CouchSurfing is an online community in which travellers offer and make use of hospitality offered. It’s based on the premise that this makes travelling more affordable, but more importantly, gives travellers the opportunity to experience the community they’re visiting at first hand, rather than in the somewhat detached way hotels can offer.
So I stayed with Gwen, an American doing post-graduate research at the University there. We’d exchanged emails over a month or two, and she didn’t feel like a stranger when I met her. She gave me a wonderful welcome and few days with her. Gwen had made it her business to be part of the community she lived in. She’d learnt fluent Tamil, so had good relationships with her neighbours. So while there, I had the chance to mooch round and enjoy with her the rangoli decorations and lights put out at night for a Hindu Festival of Light (not Diwali, yet another one).
I met the neighbours and was invited into their homes. I narrowly avoided a big faux pas with one household: a young couple, both teaching at the university. Invited to sit down, I nearly plonked myself in the nearest vacant place on a sofa. I recovered myself in time and did not sit, after all, next to the husband, but squeezed onto the other sofa, with the women. Gwen said it would have seemed very odd to them if I hadn’t remembered in time. We chatted to another neighbour, a Christian, who explained that she liked to keep the Hindu festivals too, and showed us her Hindu decorations taking their place alongside her pictures of the Pope.
I ran errands for Gwen, and in that way had several language-less conversations in the food market, where everyone was keen to shake my hand, because tourists in Thanjavur don’t generally go and buy half a kilo of carrots.
We zipped round on her scooter and bought takeaways. These are known as ‘parcel meals’, and neatly packed up for you in a cotton cloth. We caught local buses together and visited temples. We had meals, served on a square of banana leaf, in local cafés. I wandered round her neighbourhood when she wasn’t there, and saw a small community going about its day-to-day business.
Street scene, Thanjavur
Another street scene, Thanjavur.
Goats eat breakfast in Thanjavur
I was woken in the morning to local sounds: the Muslim Call to Prayer transmitted by loud microphone at, erm, 5.30 a.m. : the church bells ringing a few minutes after that (20 % Muslim and Christian communities here): the street hawkers who kicked in at about 6.45: the day-today noise which seems to begin so early in Indian communities.
And of course it was interesting to talk to Gwen, who knew exactly what I would be finding difficult, and could guess what assumptions I might be making. She gave me the odd Tamil lesson, and more importantly a gesture one (‘Yes’ and ‘No’ are the opposite way round from ours, I learned rather late in the day). She was much the same age as Tom and Ellie, but that didn’t seem to matter – it didn’t to me, anyway.
I’m ashamed not to be giving you an art history lesson involving all those temples. Quite simply, I didn’t label my photos well enough. Instead, I’ll give you a picture-show: From Thanjavur itself; from the small town of Kumbeshwara which has eighteen temples; from the exquisite temple at Kambakonam; and from Dharasuram. Sadly, one of my main memories of Dharasuram was the astonishing pain of trying to walk round the site. One always leaves ones shoes at the entrance to a temple, and the paving stones were fiery hot and burning. As usual, no surface remained unadorned, but studying them in detail proved impossible.
Besides the detail of the sculptures, enjoy the temple elephant giving us a blessing, and the bronze worker busy working at the bazaar within the Nageshwara Shiva temple in Kumbeshwara. Don’t think of these places as simply being lavishly decorated places of worship. They’re living communities, with bazaars, sometimes cattle and elephants. Some, such as the Chola Temple at Thanjavur, have inviting grassy spaces. Bring the family for a picnic!
Chola Temple at Thanjavur.
A blessing from the temple elephant.
Temple detail at Kunbakonam.
Bronze worker in Kumbakonam
Chola Temple, Thanjavur.
Chola Temple, Thanjavur.
Dharasuram. The pavings were SO HOT on our bare feet!
Kumbeshwara and its water tank.
View of Nageshwara Temple, Kumbakonam
Kumbeshwara Temple, Kumbakonam, the Shiva Temple.
Temple elephant, Thanjavur
Trompe l’oeuil: Is the cow’s head resting on the elephant, or is it the other way about?