As some one fond of culture travel, I have been making an effort to visit all the UNESCO World heritage sites in the country. This last week I made a long awaited, short trip to visit the grand Chola temples. However, there is much to see in this area, beside these temples. The two important points of interest at Thanjavur itself are the Palace and the Saraswati Mahal library. Being the book-a-holic that I am, the library was of particular interest and I knew that it had an unparalleled collection of palm leaf sanskrit texts, besides many other priceless books. However, we were in Thanjavur on Eid, and being a Government owned library it was closed on that day. We only had another day in the area, but Wednesday was the weekly closing day for the library and so I will have to wait for another visit to see the library. While I did not consult the “Lonely planet” genre of travel books, none of the related websites (including the official tourism department site) gave the information regarding the weekly closing day – the kind of info that is essential in planning a trip.
So from the temple we made our way to the palace, where the main hall houses a museum. Most of the palace is not open to the public – looked like ‘sarkari’ offices were housed in them. The museum has high, painted domed roofs and it houses a collection of 10th to 12th century bronzes. At a rough count, there would be 100 -120 exquisite figures – probably the most fabulous collection of bronzes that you will ever see under one roof.
The hall itself has an open door, ceiling fans rotating somewhere high above (many not rotating even) and the bronzes caged in these horrible wooden cells – many of them chipped and peeling and some without lighting. There was little signage, and the ‘sarkari’ style labels were missing as well in many places.
The hall next door was a modern structure, as ugly as most PWD constructions are. It houses a collection of bronze Natarajas of the same period – recovered from various excavation sites, wells etc in around Thnajavur. There were other exhibits of stone sculptures etc. which were scattered around the verandahs, halls and poorly kept garden. I was left wondering why we are so thoughtless about our treasures. This is a state Government museum, and lack of funds cannot be the excuse! It is more likely that there is no vote bank that would be appeased through its improvement!! Every Government is keen on the ‘tourism’ mantra – do they not realize the value addition that investment in such sites can bring. The State Tourism website harps more on their road transport and hotels!!!
After savoring the wonders of Chola architecture and art, we moved on to Karaikuri which is famous for the elegant Chettiar homes. These large palatial homes with marble and teak embellishments, were built from the 18th century – right up to the early part of the 20th century. These global traders, decorated their houses with art and bic-a-brac from their travels. Today only a very few are being lived in, while a few others have become heritage hotels. A very few, with owners who appreciate their beauty, are being maintained with staff who look after them for the occasional visits by the masters from Chennai etc. The majority are lying in various stages of decline and decay. In my conversation with locas, I learnt that these are waiting for legal tussles of inheritance to be sorted out, before they fall prey to the developers.
The villages sorrounding Karaikudi all have such homes. We visited Kanadukathan, the village where the house of the Chettinad Raja stands. The whole village looks almost frozen in time – with very few of the older houses having been pulled down. And as I stood on this street, it took me back 6 decades to the street on which my mother’s ancestral home in Kerala stood – very different in scale and architecture – but the same ambience and pace of life. In fact, further down this streetsI saw the first multi-storey modern construction coming up like a sore thumb. I know that it is difficult to retain these islands, but it also not impossible I am sue – if there was the right leadership and commitment. But it will have to come from the community…..
Destinations that make it to the UNESCO ‘heritage’ list are better maintained – and beside the 25 on the list, 46 more are in various stages of approval. But, this country has so much more – in every region and town – and we cant wait for all of them to become recognized by UNESCO!! Today we are standing at the chaotic confluence of progress and lack of it, awareness and the lack of it, education and the lack of it, in sections of the society living cheek to jowl with one another with the tugs and conflicts of widely varying aspirations and sensibilities. By the time we sort it all out – if ever – there will be little left to preserve – and nobody could be held accountable. It would be a collective failure of us all.