Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Notes from Thanjavur

The family insists on calling it Tanjore. Don’t ask me why. This is also why they refer to dance in the American accent and Hydra-bad as in the bad-assness of the mythical figure. So the family and I went to Tanjore. Or Thanjavur. The ancient seat of the medieval kingdoms of the Pandyas, the Vijayanagar Sangama Dynasty, the Madurai Nayaks, the Thanjavur Nayaks, and the Thanjavur Marathas.  Except for the last, the first set were treated rather shabbily in my history textbooks prescribed by the Maharashtra state education board. Maharashtra is in western India. The Northerners think Southerners reside there. The Maharashtrian state government disagrees. And so they take their ire out on the ancient Southern empires. Or some such. I digress.

So Thanjavur yes, and Kumbakonam, yes. The family was coerced into vacationing. My good and dutiful family members, possessiong abundant Protestant ethics that they know not of, do not approve of pointless vacationing. They visit relatives. Whereas I do the opposite. Now that we live in the same country, I fight for my will to prevail. So I coaxed them into hauling selves from Bombay to Madras to come travel with me. They got here, booked tickets, and boarded the train. As for me? Well, I almost missed the train.

The rickshaw driver who I muttered sleepily to and asked if he would care to take me to Egmore railway station assumed I said I wanted to go to the airport. So I dozed in the back and he chugged his merry way in the opposite direction of Egmore. I woke up even as I spied signs that said “Airport” pointing us ominously in the direction of said chugging. I freaked. We both then had the brilliant idea of dropping me off at the airport railway station so I could beat traffic and move in the opposite direction. He snidely remarked as I disembarked that my jacket seemed to suggest that I was headed to the airport.

So I made it. The parents giggled. Alright, guffawed.  

Half a day of eating, sleeping, and climbing up and down from the three storey train berths later, we arrived at Kumbakonam. Have I mentioned how much I love train travel? Some other time then.

At Kumbakonam we made our way to the strangely named Raya’s (half of Royal? Krishnadeva’s better half? Okay sorry), a hotel bang in the middle of the town of Kumbakonam with snazzy, shiny, interiors, lots of God pictures and a neon inundated façade.

The rooms were clean, the coffee fantastic, and the tourism services fascinatingly efficient. This is the pamphlet they supplied us with as soon as we checked in….

Lord Almighty, we were in God country.

Now for those of you who may be acquainted with my complicated relationship with God with a capital G, and Hinduism with a capital H, I need say nothing. But for the rest of you, I will. I consider myself mostly agnostic, but I have a nostalgic, affective, and intensely calming relationship with ritual. It keeps me safe. The memory of a little-r me traipsing temples holding the grandfather’s hand as he spun stories about trees, and Krishna, and Nachiket, and asuras, and Shiva keeps me warm on many a godless night. But the attendant memories of gendering, of paunchy priests pushing my mother aside, and my father sneering at the godlessness of a god-filled country make this a schizophrenic warmth. So here we were, in the middle of a place guaranteed to send me spinning into existential crisis. So I did the next best thing. I became strategically essentialist. I bought into it. All of it.

We visited sixteen temples in two and  a half days. I would have seen more. The family got tired.

We saw or rather, if one must recognize properly the hierarchy of gaze, we showed ourselves to Anchaniyars, and Shivas, and Perumals, and Karthikeyas, and Kalis, and a lone Moon God. The Nayanars saw us and so did the Alwars. Durgas and Vishnus deigned to throw us sideway glances. We were blessed by elephants. We clicked our fingers to indicate attendance to Chandikeswara. It is believed that Chandikeswara is the official record keeper. But being in a state of deep meditation, he apparently does not register selfsame attendance. Hence the finger clicking. Bureaucracy clearly has divine roots.

We bowed and prayed and anointed ourselves with vibhuti, and kumkum, and manjal. White, red, yellow all over, we reminded ourselves of death, and life, and desire, and craving, and yearning, and sorrow, and calm, and cruelty, and doubt, and dread. We went through the motions. Even as things went through us.

There was no catharsis. There was merely the fact of distraction, also the fact of a different everyday life. But it was all rather nice.  And also a reminder of the muscle memory of ritual. I bobbed up and down as if I had been doing it all my life (I had, for some of it at least). For half a moment, I had an outside glimpse of a different self. And was reassured of the persistence of difference. Even within self.

We stood in line to gaze at idols that had been there since the 10th and 11th centuries, some of them erected to commemorate war, bloodshed, and victory. The architecture as expected was glorious.

The Chola kings were aesthetes and competitive ones at that. Look up the story of the Brihadeeswara temple at Thanjavur in relation to that of the one at Gangaikondacholapuram. Masculinity and the Oedipus complex are apparently never out of fashion. We were also shoved out of line by very devoted devotees, who did not really contemplate the consequences of behaving badly to your fellow beings even as they pushed their way to the sanctum sanctorum to ask for grace. 

Thanjavur used to, even until recent times, be an abundantly prosperous region on the banks of the Cauvery and is known to date as the rice bowl of the region. People who visited thirty years ago, remember the Cauvery steaming and flooding over. Now it’s a sandy bed that is regularly excavated by trucks a thousand strong corralled in the service of future monuments.Ugly ones at that.

For two days, I sort of believed. For two days, I was given an inner window into a life of focused and determined hope and desire. It was interesting, in a good way. A friend of mine once lamented the loss of certain worlds the moment one becomes secular or God-denying. How one can no longer hear the language of the world sans cynicism or critique. It was not the loss of faith that bothered him, but the loss of a world. And for a few days, I inhabited that world. And was rather taken in by its completeness. Much like I am taken in by the completeness of other worlds. Like family, and gated complexes, and offices, and colonies.  But then, this is the problem with a world that promises to be complete. It isn’t. And one has to leave.

On the last day, we visited our only secular monument, the house of Srinivasa Ramanujan. The one who claimed that he solved mathematical equations by the grace of the Goddess who appeared to him in his sleep.  

And this is all I can tell you today about truth, beauty, and faith.