Another India Season: Thanjavur

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.

Thanjavur and its Chola Temple at sunset.

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).

Rangoli decorations lit up in the street at night.

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.

My friends in the market.

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.

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.

View from Gwen’s window. She looks healthy, despite her diet.

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!

 

The Great Indian Train Journey: Mysore to Thanjavur.

Mysore to Thanjavur: 415 km by road, more than 600 km. by rail, and a 12 hour overnight journey: £6.00.

Bike park outside Mysore Station.

I’d booked my ticket the day before, and arrived at the station as directed, about an hour ahead of its scheduled departure.  It was just as well.  A station official took pity (for a small fee…) on the clueless European , who had no idea that she had to check in, in the manner of an airline passenger, or that she would find her seat by looking for her name on the passenger lists posted at each carriage door.

On the station platform, everyone was getting on with life.  A large family spread themselves on the ground, got out metal plates and canisters of food and got stuck in.  Rather than sit in a hot train, I headed for the calm of the Ladies’ Waiting Room until it was nearly time to go.

The train itself, once it got started got into the habit of making long stops nowhere in particular.  Chai and coffee boys went up and down the train.

As darkness fell, I was struck by the low level of lighting in the towns we passed through, and more particularly the stations.  Even at Bangalore, where we stopped for ages.  More chai, coffee and water sellers got on, then  vendors selling hot meals: I chose a vegetarian meal with rice and several different vegetable dishes – hot and very good value.  A young woman got on, having had her hands and wrists recently henna-ed on both sides.  Managing her life, which seemed to consist of calling people on her mobile, without using her not-yet-dry hands was quite a challenge. One family produced a three course supper with several dishes, on metal plates, then mum disappeared to wash up at the sink in the corridor.  I had different conversations with various passengers, limited by our inabilities in each other’s languages.

At about 9.00, we all got ready for bed. Our compartment got separated out into two sets of beds at three levels and smartly uniformed staff handed out crisply laundered sheets, pillows and a double blanket each for us to make up our beds in our own way.  For once, I slept … until 4.00, when so many passengers got out at Trichy.  I had only an hour to go before arriving at Thanjavur.

I was dreading having to wait on a dark deserted station for two hours (Waiting for whom? Another tale for another time). But it wasn’t deserted.  Not at all.  The booking hall was thronged with men – young men, old men, all sitting in convivial groups on the ground sorting and collating that day’s newspapers.  It took them almost the whole two hours that I had to wait until the next chapter of my story began….

Click on any image to view full size and to read the captions.

This was part of my Indian Adventure, November 2007.  I have used the place names that were then widely used, rather than the official names, which now seem more widely adopted.

Snapshot Sunday: Adverts repurposed as breakfast

This week’s WordPress photo challenge is ‘Repurpose’.  We’re to submit an image of something of our own that we’ve put to a new use. I couldn’t come up with anything worth a snapshot, even though I’m rather keen on ‘repurposing’.

Instead, I want you to come with me to Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu.  I was there almost ten years ago as part of my Indian Adventure.  I loved this town.  It’s not quite on the tourist trail, as its glorious and extravagantly carved temples remain unpainted.  They are not vibrantly painted like those in nearby Madurai, so Madurai gets the foreign visitors.

I stayed* with a young American academic, Gwen, who for seven years had made Thanjavur her home.  She whisked me about on her motor bike, introduced me to her Indian friends and neighbours, asked me to run errands for her in the market where nobody spoke English or saw tourists much, and took me to tiny back street shops to buy freshly prepared and sizzling-hot evening meals.

I was by myself though, when early one morning I came upon these goats. They’d found a new use for the adverts pasted on the walls of a house. Look.

goats-in-thanjavur

And here’s the cow that was tethered outside Gwen’s window.  It’s found an unfortunate use for the pile of rubbish tumbled into a pile on the corner.

View from Gwen's window
View from Gwen’s window

Finally, here’s a different use for a pavement.  It’s become a canvas for traditional drawings in fine sand.  These designs frame the lights which lit our path homewards every evening during Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Light.

diwali

And here are three picture postcards – temple views.

* via ‘Couchsurfing’, a scheme which matches travellers with locals, who offer beds, local knowledge and friendship.