Wednesday 17 January 2007


Not a bad night, apart from the mosquitoes (thanks for the net, Ed and Jude). AFter breakfast I was off to see the grandest of the Cholan temples.

The Bridharishwara Temple is immense, far bigger than either of the two previous ones, and very obviously more on the main tourist route; it was already crowded when we arrived at 10am. You go through two huge gopuras to the inner courtyard which is vast, which a cloister-like walkway the whole way round the courtyard, covered with fading friezes.

The first thing you see on entering the courtyard is, guess what, a huge black Nandi (Shiva’s bull), the third largest in India. Like so many statues here, Nandi was clothed in a white cloth, as well as the usual garlands and flowers. I do find it quite unnerving to come across dressed statues.

The main temple, built of granite, has the feeling of a gigantic cathedral. The passageway leading the the shrine (like all these temples, at the west end) is immensely long. I found myself in a long line of pilgrims slowly moving towards the shrine. They were all so friendly, even though our conversation was the usual “Coming from?” and “What is your name?”. Even the priests at the shrine beckoned me forward to have a better look. I stayed back a little, feeling intrusive, but did stay to watch devotees handing over what looked like garlands and receiving in return what looked like white grains.

Outside again I continued to enjoy the magnificent statues on the exterior, some of them in the same cobalt black I had seen elsewhere. People seemed to be in a particularly partyish mood here. I do love seeing the way Indians go out in family groups and the fathers take an active role in caring for and cuddling their children. I was approached endlessly by children calling out “photo photo” and when I took one and showed it to them they exclaimed “thank you. Thank you” – and rushed off to get all their friends for another photo. The parents are pleased too, and we have aimable language-restricted ‘conversations’. It reinforces one’s appreciation of Tamils as warm, gentle, friendly people. There were quite a lot of people dressed all in black (with a gold edging). I had seen them in Chennai and asked someone else where they were from. I think he said Yuppa, but I cant find any reference to this word.

One family was keen that I should go to the museum. The entrance was so small I would have missed it if not. It turned out to be a little treat: a wall showing high quality reproductions of the Cholan frescoes (now closed to the public), photos of the before and after of restoration, and some excellent panels explaining how the temples were built and illustrating the difference in design (the Gangawhatsit tower has concave sides, while the Thanjavur one is higher and with a more solid base). The granite comes from about 50km away. Rather than scaffolding, the Cholans built giant earth ramps round the tower and one illustration showed an elephant dragging stone blocks up to the top of the tower. Like the pyramids, the engineering of the towers is immensely accurate and complex. Sadly the recommended booklet on Cholan temples was out of stock.

A very good visit, though perhaps I retain greater affection for the two previous ones.

After lunch Claire and I went to the palace (the family of the former rulers still live in part of it). It showed sad signs of neglect and decay. However, my main objective was to visit the museum of Cholan bronzes, housed in an immense 17th century hall within the palace complex. This is perhaps the largest collection of Cholan bronzes in the world, and some of them were of exquisite quality although not displayed as well as those in Chennai. One of the officials accompanied me. He has worked there for 20 years and is clearly proud of the collection. Unfortunately his English was not very good, but he was very helpful. I fear that the glass casing may mean that my photos don’t do the statues justice.

Half way round a young Indian asked my guide a couple of questions – the same ones I had already asked. We got talking and I discovered he was an engineering student from Calcutta (also stuck on chapter 1 of Amyarta Sen’s ‘The argumentative Indian’!). I asked him if his impeccable English was typical of Calcutta or the result of a middle class background. He was clearly pleased and said it was thanks to his Jesuit teachers. I don’t know why he is studying engineering. He says he is not very good at it and would rather be a musician. We talked about politics, economics, and history. Despite the greedy East India Company, he thought India had a lot to thank the English for, in particular hits political and judicial institutions. And he too was despairing about the immensity of the problems facing the country, in particular water, sanitation and health. He gave me the name of two writers whom he thought had written well on the Indian character (Rabindranath Tagore and Anand Kentishcoomaraswami).

That was the first of two very pleasant discussion with Indians that day; the second was with a Goan couple on the train.

We were due to catch the 7.15 express to Trichy, a daunting task as it turned out as the rickshaw driver delivered us to the ticket office on one side (which turned out to be for non AC seats) and the correct ticket office was the other side, over an immensely long bridge – with the platform in the middle section. Thank goodness I was with Claire. I guarded our luggage on the platform, while she went in search of tickets.

I sat down next to a pleasant, English-speaking woman, who turned out to be a Goan with a British passport, living in London, and travelling with her partner (!), a Goan on a Goan passport, working as an aeronautical engineer at Croydon. They had been visiting a Catholic shrine near Trichy and were returning to her family in Goa (via Bangalore, where they fly to Kochin – the complication of interstate connections). While Al went off to find out where we should be (they didn’t speak Tamil either), Patricia, Claire and I had a jolly discussion about Indian loos and the advantages of travelling in a skirt …

Thank goodness Al was there: the train turned out to be totally full and we had to struggle with bags (he carried my heavier one) through to the non-AC class. Apart from the smell as you switch from one carriage to the other, these are fine by day – it is the nights which can be a trial. The journey to Trichy is only an hour and passed quickly, thanks to Al and Patricia.

Then an expensive (60 rupees) rickshaw trip (our first woman driver) to my hotel via Claire's.

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