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This is not a travelogue. My trip to Tanjore (also known as Thanjavur) was taken too long ago to write a reliable travel diary on the same. I only had a brief rendezvous with the city and its surrounding. But even during that brief visit, what impressed me most about Tanjore remains to this date its greatest asset. Tanjore was one of the cultural hubs of India. Though much has changed during its millennia old history, Tanjore continues to latch on its artistic legacy. Surprisingly, even with being a UNESCO World Heritage site, Tanjore remains somewhat inconspicuous in international tourist map.

Architectural Marvel’s of Tanjore

The city experienced its biggest flourish during the Chola period, more than a thousand years ago. Its greatest architectural marvel is visible from far away, even before you set a foot on its ground. Brihadeshwara Temple celebrated its 1000th anniversary in 2010. From a distance it may look like just other massive temple structures of the region, particularly to the unfamiliar eyes, but look closer. Its shikhara or vimana (roof), which almost seems to embrace the sky, is decorated with most intricate examples of reliefs and sculptures. The pyramidal shikhara sits on a square base, a uniqueness observable in Chola architecture. It is topped with a giant kalash (pot) located on a lotus equally massive. Lotus symbolises the universe while kalash harnesses the universal energy. The kalash was moulded from a special mixture of metal, including gold and copper, filled with holy water and other consecrated materials. Step in the walled temple complex through any of the gopurams (gateways). The gopurams are made with as much care as the main building and carry beautiful carving depicting age old tales of wisdom. The interior of the temple was embellished with rich murals many of which are hardly discernible now. But the patches of paints and motifs that remain, give us a vivid example of the skilful craftsmanship of the time.

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Every inch of the vast temple complex was constructed following the ancient principles Vastu Shastra and Sthapatya Veda (studies of architecture). Don’t for a moment consider these to be the current phoney version of Vastu Shastra spun out for commercial profit. This knowledge of constructing sacred or civilian buildings, landscaping and planning for an entire town or village is older than 5000 years. Otherwise, these buildings would not have had the capability of withstanding the ravages of time for so long.

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Brihadeshwara Temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva. He is accompanied by his two consorts – Nandi (the bull, disciple of Shiva) and Mahakala (time). Ancient literature and art often spoke in allegories. Comprehending the underlying significance of the imagery helps greatly in the appreciation of the work. Ananda Coomaraswamy, Indian subcontinents pioneering art historian and curator of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, authored numerous books in this regard. To understand Lord Shiva or Nataraja, as depicted in Indian art, I would suggest a reading of The Dance of Shiva. Shiva paves the way for the new (regeneration) removing the outmoded elements of life (destruction). He pervades time and uproots the bondage of illusion and ignorance. It is here where his association with Mahakala and Nandi begins, the former being Father Time incarnate and the latter an example of supreme devotion and strength. The temple is replete with such remarkable examples of symbolism in art, architecture and literature.

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The second exquisite example of Chola architecture lies somewhat in negligence slightly away from the city, in Gangaikonda Cholapuram. Though comparatively smaller in size, its value in the world of engineering, art and architecture is no less important than Brihadeshwara Temple. The main temple is so constructed that its shadow never falls on the ground the entire year. Innumerable pieces of sculpture decorate the entire premises. Even the water well is covered with a giant statue of lion. Those having a flair for designing dresses and jewelleries will find numerous inspirations here to borrow from.

Airavatesvara Temple is situated 35 km away from the city in Darasuram. Even though it is created during the same period, the structure of the temple differs widely from the other two sacred sites mentioned already. It speaks volumes about the versatility of the artists of the then Tanjore. The mandapam (main temple) is formed as a gigantic horse drawn carriage. Its shikhara, though not taller than Brihadeshwara, thrives on its unique barrel shape. Like the other two, the entire body of the building is decorated with ornate sculptures. The meditation hall boasts of pillars each unique in its design. Interestingly, close observation of the reliefs on the pillars reveal a lot about the socio-economic condition of the time. The inside walls of the buildings are covered with murals. Even the pipelines and water openings are carved with great care and beauty. One of the smaller shrines of the temple has three steps that produce varied musical notes on setting a foot on each of them, such was the ingenuity of creator architect. This is not an isolated phenomenon. Many temple pillars of the region produce sounds resembling the musical notes of various stringed instruments, mridangam, dholak (a kind of drum) and so on.

A visit to Tanjore’s Art Gallery will afford further knowledge of the city’s sculptural masterpieces, particularly bronze figures. There are other palaces and civilian buildings that, though built on a later date, arouse everyone’s admiration. But like renaissance art found greatest expression in sacred paintings and sculptures, here too the finest examples of art lie in the region’s oldest edifices – the temples.

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Broadening of Horizon – Influence on Dance, Music & Drama

Tanjore’s artistic majesty did not limit itself to the city’s temples, palaces or other prominent landmarks. Instead, its influence reached every corner of Tanjore. Local artists and artisans found financial backing from the monarchs. The artistic supremacy of the master figures powered the evolution as well. All four forms of art – painting, sculpture, music and dancing – started observing rapid changes and introduction of new ideas. Classical Tanjore painting (not the Tanjore miniatures as it is seen today, these came into being in late 16th century) received a huge boost. Elaborate panel paintings and murals became more developed. Owing to the superior economic condition of the time, metal craft also saw amazing advancement. The paintings were encrusted with precious and semi-precious stones, gold and silver leaves.

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Bharathanatyam (a dance drama form that is based on the two thousand year old principles of Natya Shastra, i.e., Theory of Drama) too could not escape this artistic resurgence. This dance form thrives on the playfulness of expression (bhava), sentiment (rasa), action (kriya) and music (ragam). Elaborate sculptures depicting various Bharatnatyam postures can still be seen on the Brihadeshwara Temple’s walls. The temples regularly arranged devotional music and dance festivals. Brihadeshwara Temple hosts annual music and dance events even today.
In this atmosphere, vocal and instrumental music could not have remained in lurking in desolation. It duly began its exploration for supremacy. Besides other musical instruments, Tanjore contributed in the further development of Saraswati Veena, a stringed instrument indispensable in Carnatic music.

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Tanjore Today

Following the tradition of the region, the knowledge of painting, sculpting or playing music are still handed down by the gurus (masters) to their devoted shishyas (pupils). Many families of artisans carry these knowledge and skills as a legacy for generations.

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Though greatly fallen from its former glory days, Tanjore and its surrounding still strive on to create that perfect work of art in a much smaller scale. The narrow streets of Tanjore’s Art Village, Swamimalai and other places nearby still produce brass sculptures, miniature paintings and musical instruments all the while fighting the ignominy of modern time.

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Further Reading:

The Arts & Crafts of India & Ceylon by Ananda Coomaraswamy

Early Architecture by S Kak

Image Courtesy:

Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, Nagarjun Kandukuru and Arian Zwegers

 

 

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