The original house - Bedsa or Tanjore?

I decided to take this post a little further compare to what i have mentioned in my previous post about the architecture of Tanjore temple. This means we take a magnifying glass and move closer to the main tower of the temple. I had made a connect between the architectural elements of Brihadeshwara temple to the buddhist caves of Bedsa.

Now to substantiate the arguement, i managed to fish out a few pictures to show you the same thing. Explaining it was half the job, viewing it is the other half. Now lets leave behind who built it and in what century etc. and look at what was the evolution of a simple architectural house from say Bedsa in 3rd century AD or earlier to Tanjore in the 7th century.

Here is a buddhist cave at Bedsa(in black and white above), the reflection of a simple cell in which a monk would have lived, a silent retreat where he would have tried to meditate his way to enlightenment the buddhist way. A silent cell with an arched window leading to one rocky room with a stone for a bed with the pillow carved into it. The only light to his little chamber would be through that narrow door and circular window.

Now lets look at a series of these cells(or houses) in a line, with a broader house to the center, keeping two of these cells on either side of it, so we have five houses. Lets put some more add ons, for example, make a guys stand within these cell doors i.e. maybe shiva, lets make the arched window above the narrow door a lot more ornate so it will have some layers of floral designs on it, and lets enhance the shallow pillars on either side of the doorway to real proper ones and have a doorkeeper or dwarapala stand there. Now that we have these five cells, keeping in mind the central one being broader, lets add a floor to them making it two storeyed, and bring them out of the cave and put them as a free standing building. So we now have five standing houses.

Now lets take the camera up to see how many more such houses are systematically lined up behind them and, Wow that is the view of the city you get! Fantastic isn't it, the imagination of generations of people who tried so desperately hard to show us how their cities looked!!!


The unknown Tanjore temple

Tanjore: When one thinks of Tanjore it would be the Brihadeshwara temple that comes to mind. Now coming to think of it, there is more to Tanjore that exists beyond the fort walls that guard the temple. For one, we have old buildings and palaces that dot the landscape which most often go unnoticed.

There is something about the Tanjore palace that is of real interest. It is the only surviving example that clearly depicts that large pyramidal towers like the one in this picture were actually used as residential complexes. This means that every floor was occupied by people of the royal family. Adding to this, the top most chamber, at the peak of the tower which houses at the most one room with a path of circum-ambulation to get access to it was probably made exclusively for the king.

Pyramidal towers were nor just constructed, they have been depicted across panels across the south and where do you find them? Well, on relief sculptures of Vaikuntaperumal temple of Kanchipuram, at the shiva temple as well as the amman shrine at Darasuram to mention a few. So how did the ancients even go about something like this and what has it got to do with tanjore temple?

Well, the palace is a residence, which means every level depicts smaller house like structures and when put on one another sequentially make up the whole pyramid so people lived on all the floors. This has a strange background. As most of south indian art owes its past to Buddhist art in the northwest, we need to travel there to see how that affected a temple palace in Tanjore. If we take the buddhist caves of Bedsa and say Karla, we can very clearly see that they tried to depict a village or a group of houses on one single vertical wall. Of course keeping the maturity fo engineering through the ages, the original idea of wanting to live one over the other in a pyramidal structure started here, the pyramid being part of their discovery of architecture. When depicting a whole village on a vertical wall, without perspective in consideration, they tended to pile up all the structures, farthest house coming to the top of the compostion. Series of these smaller houses, architecturally were called shalakutas(broader houses) and karna kutas(narrow houses).

The shalakuta in indian architecture, and more so in the brihadeshwara temple occupy the central area of the main temple tower. all those smaller sturctures you see up there dotting it are shalakutas. the corner structures which are narrower are the karnakutas. Hence Tanjore temple is a depiction, of what a pyramidal palace would have looked like, and tanjore palace of course isthe residential quarters in those days.

Looking further into the tanjore temple itself, it houses the iconography of Shiva profusely on all its walls. Things that we will never get to know or see are the deep dark passages of circum-ambulation this temple hides on its two gigantic floors, and an underground chamber this temple stands on which hosts a world of ancient murals very vulnerable to daylight. So there is really much more than what meets the eye which we just seem to miss no matter how many times we go there. The passages that led up to the higher floors from inside the temple have been blocked with cement for good. The original garbha griha was hollow right through such that if you shood at the shrine and looked up, you could see the top of the tower, way above from inside. This has been blocked by floors constructed over the linga in the Nayaka period. Surely tanjore temple has seen a lot and Tanjore pallace even more.

These are the only surviving examples that show that "rich" people lived in multi-storied buildings, not rectangular but pyramidal in nature. There probably were more of this all around in wood, just the stone structures survive today.


Kali amman - the real mother!

Kali amman shrines: South Indian temples profusely depict a simple standing amman(mother goddess) shrine inside most Shiva and Vishnu temples. It is interesting however to see the presence of the cult of Kali in the historical temples across the Tamil Nadu region. This is seconded by the strong presence of the Naga cult, but for now lets stick to Kali.

Its not just a madness in Bengal, today's Durga puja would have seen a lot more versions in the South in earlier days. Here are a few examples. Lets start with Mahabalipuram. It was an interesting discovery i made when i was reading yet another book on the Goddess. Mahishasuramardhini or Durga, is supposed to have destroyed the demons Madhu and Kaitaba who attempted killing Vishnu while he slept on Ananta. This story has confusing parts to it. References to the same are made in dance where Vishnu is supposed to have woken up and faced them. In the amman cult, durga is supposed to have destroyed them. None the less, in this particular cave, all you get to see are Vishnu and Mother goddess, the actors of this particular drama, being carved out of the rocky walls. Apart from this, the goddess is profusely carved in the Draupadi ratha, with a scene of decapitation happening right next to her. This imagery finds place even in the Varaha cave.

Moving on, it was particularly interesting to note the presence of Kaliamman at wayside village temples near Samayapuram, enroute to Trichy. Here the shrine is known to be extremely potent and can be visited only on Mondays and Fridays. Further down at trichy she resides again near the Rackfort temple. In Tanjore, amman does not occupy a seat within the walls of the Brihadeshwara temple complex but is found 3kms away. Moving on as one takes the road to Kumbhakonam, we cross two places called Nellur and Papanasam. Who would believe that a small village like
Nellur, would even host a fantastic shrine for the Goddess and how many people would be privileged enough to get off the beaten track to go and see this form of the Goddess! Here she has a shrine all to herself, on the outside of a Shiva temple, which lies among very calm and peaceful fields of south indian countryside.

Moving on, as one leaves Kumbhakonam and heads for Chidambaram, the tamil countryside lies dotten with fields interspaced with temples and minor shrines of village deities. At Chidambaram, and not within the great temple, but behind it is a shrine to be seen. This is by far one of the most amazing Kaliamman shrines i have ever set my eyes on. She is not in the main shrine but on the side. The walls around her are decorated with scenes of a king in the act of decapitation while his army watches on. He holds his hair up and attempts cutting his head with a sword, sacrificing himself to the Goddess. Such was the faith those days. Inside the shrine sits the goddess, in true beauty. The first sight of her of course is breathtaking as she is dressed in a white dress, bathed in kumkum. Oh! that vision of the Goddess is something i will never forget. Its one of the few shrines i stood in front of, it was just timeless. I could have stayed there all my life. She was carved in stone, looked fierce and coy at the same time, in the same pose as shown above. Then came the moment of true beauty. They undressed the Mother and bathed her in oil. I have never seen a more beautiful form of the Goddess. She sat there eight handed getting bathed first in oil and then in kumkum. She was red and totally amazing. She bore weapons in her various hands and sat on her seat flexing her body most gracefully. Whats also amazing is a strange sculpture i have not seen anywhere else. A sculpture of a five hooded serpent with two and a half coils. It looked deadly, as if the snakes almost came to life as i took the courage to touch the stone they were carved out of. In the darkness, it looked out of the world with the small ghee lamps burning in its lap as it shielded them from the rain. Your heart skips a beat, and you lose your breath when you see the five hooded serpent and the Goddess in complete red, against the lamplight. You just realize how hopelessly small you really are.

The next shrine of the Goddess was at Gangaikondacholapuram. Another extremely gorgeous temple built by Rajendra Chola, but not half as dynamic and that at Tanjore, this temple originally hosted just Shiva. The sub shrines around the temple hosted devi in her various forms. One such shrine within the compound hosts a fierce form of the Goddess in attack. Its so strange, the silence and peace of Gangaikoncholapuram echoes with the presence of cults that were radiant and fiercely potent and well rooted into the indian traditional mind. It just leaves you with goose pimples as you think about the proliferation of the mother goddess shrines not as a gentle form in Parvati or the well known amman shrine but as Kali amman, radiant and energetic within her very potent self.

Finally this picture, not a stone sculpture of the ancient days but a modern remake of the splendor of the Goddess. Some how, though i do not take to sculptures made these day, this particular one caught my attention, she looks simply fantastic, gorgeous as a Mother and seductive at the same time. She fits the perfect description i have read across books. Her face, has warmth and fierceness at the same time. Oh she is something that needs to be first discovered, appreciated, loved, and respected to even start scratching the surface to know her true form. For all that, this is one of her forms as the ten Mahavidhyas that rule ancient Tantrik practices.

Truely She is the mother, ever creative, ever fertile, in permanent intercourse with Lord Shiva as she gives birth to us every life.


Inside the Rockfort - Trichy

Trichy, Tamil Nadu: one of the most amazing pieces of architecture can be found at the rockfort in Trichy. Now what makes it so amazing? Its not just a temple, its not just a fort, but a set of monolithic rocks that make room for both.

Yes. Getting into the rockfort can be through a very unassuming entrance with all the known Gods smiling down at you till you reach the shrine of Ganesha. This is probably the only shrine which is laiden with turmeric giving it the yellow look and making Ganesha almost come to life from his otherwise rocky exterior! Here Ganesha looks at you and smiles. After darshan and having bought the ticket one begins to ascend one of the most amazing peices of architecture in the south. Staircases lined up, one after the other, are punctuated with smaller shrines of Shiva and Ganesha along the way up. Its just fantastic.

The walk is for a short while and a little tiring. Along the way are dark mandapas with ghostly characters from past mythology peeping out at you through the darkness in lavish colors. Though the way up looks narrow, steep and reasonably secretive, such that you cant see who is really far above or far below, there is enough and more ventilation to bring in the air you might think you never got. Deep grilled
windows carved into the rocky wall provide all the cool breeze you want interspaced with small images of Ganesha and other lesser deities along the way. The steps are all painted red and white adding to the ambience of a rock temple fort. There comes a point when you need to turn right for the Ganesha temple way above and left to the Shiva temple way inside.

Lets take right! Here is a surprize, just as you enter the exterior of the fort, not having known till now how much you have actually climbed, you are welcomed by a Pallava cave which jumps at you from the left. It hosts the sculptures of Shiva Gangadhara and appears to be an incomplete cave. It looks like the artists of that period chose to write on the walls instead of carve down the pillars. There are elaborate scripts on the wall but the pillars stay unfinished. Walking further up, you are welcomed by the beautiful view of the city scape with the Caveri flowing along one side. Its just breath taking as the strong breeze just sweeps through your hair making you want to camp there for a while.

The walk up to the Ganesha temple atop the rocky hill is tough but beautifully managed by carving steps into the very rock itself. Its very clear, originally this was a plain mandapa which hosts ganesha within its four walls, and had a pillared corridor around it without any parapet wall, and what you have now is a granite floored, walled interior which completele destroys what the original mandapa would have looked like. Anyway indians are known to destroy what ever little they have from past glory. The view is amazing and gives a complete picture of not just Trichy in all its expance but the beautiful gopuram of the island temple of srirangam and tiruvanaikkaval in the middle of the dry Caveri.

Lets come back and walk to the left. This is something that really took my imagination by storm. it leads through a series of winding staircases so much so that keeping an eye on the direction of north gets to be quite difficult. It takes you from one mandapa to another, with the feel of having walked into a temple, looks like a palace but has the relevant shrines for the navagraha, smaller shiva lingas and ganesha with towering dwarapalas as you go into the heart of the very fort.

This is best described as follows. It feels like its a palace fort with the commanders and the king coming to perform a great puja and probably getting their armies ready for attack. The halls are richly decorated and the sounds of the drums and trumpets announce the arrival of the king. Richly decorated mandapas host a colourful spectacle of an even more richly dressed king and his battalion with dancers and queens adding to the glow of the show.

Fire torches light up the interiors and the whole place wakes up with the rhythmic banging of drums. Through out the path up the steps are small triangular holes in the walls for oil lamps to light up the passageway. Wow what a sight! Anyway walking further up and having crossed the Amman shrine one takes a sharp turn again and rises into a colorfully decorated hall of pillars which has a hole in its floor to accomodate for the roof of the amman shrine a floor below. Freaking awesome.

Finally the most breath taking of them all, is what lies at the top end on the other side. The grand finale is the Great Shiva shrine that rises out of a Swayambhuva linga. It is hosted within a garbha griha with no circum-ambulation within itself, though the outside has coloruful walls with all the bronzes that speak every story from Shiva iconography known to us. I stood there gaping at the Shiva idol, massive, black, silent and only viewed in oil lamp lights, my heart just swelled up with reverence. Lots of oil lamps decorate the room, and people outside light innumerable ghee lamps adding to the sanctity of the place. I sat and stared as the priests went about their business, and people sang songs and lamps got lit and fire was the path to the deity.

Then suddenly in walks this man with a mountain of rudraksha on his neck and an even larger moutain of ego on his head. He comes in taking the scene by storm, and as the last and final arti for the Lord rises into the air declaring the temple closed, the man goes into a trance and sits on the floor with another authoritaive man guarding him and the temple and the deity from the rest of us lesser mortals. Finally the drums begin to thunder through the roof, resonating through the walls clearing every passer by out of the rockfort temple.

Suddenly the kings are gone, the color, the dancers, the decorated halls, the music, the fire torches, the lit interiors, the war cries... everything vanishes into thin air and the curtain drops. Rockfort trichy closes for the night.