If you are blindfolded and air-dropped anywhere in India, it is not only the language and the people and their dress that will give away the location. Each part of the country has so many distinctive features, that it would not be difficult to locate yourself.
If you spot a kovil (temple) gopuram, with its characteristic shape and ornate painted decorations, you can be certain that you are in Tamilnadu. Of course, this is being copied by ex-pat Tamils from Delhi to Dallas, but spotting more than one, and you are spot on!! The gopuram is an entrance to the temple area, through the outer wall, and it often dwarfs the temple itself. Its origins are from the Pallavan times in the 12th century, and their height and grandeuer reflected the might and grandeur of the rulers. Depending on the height, these gopurams can be spotted from afar across the flat rice fields of the Thanjavur area and mark the central point of the village or town. And we could see many, as we drove through the area.
But of course, the cultural avial that we are, there are the mosques as well – while the modern temples stick to the traditions, the modern mosque, unfortunately looks identical from Kashmir to Kanyakumari.
Outside the temple entrances and in the bazaars, you see many flower sellers – and unlike in any other part of the country, garlands for the Gods is only part of their ware. They sell fragrant jasmine and mixed gajras by the ‘mozham’ (meaning a hands length). The elaborate arrangements worn over the joodas, which are so typical of Maharashtra, are not seen here. Women leave their hair in long plaits, and wear as much length of the gajra as they van afford. I am not sure, if it is the cost or the changing fashion, I did not see this on the heads of young girls as much as of old!!
Also associated with the temples are the grand, wooden carved raths, used for the ride of the deity around the temple on special days. I have mostly seen them parked behind steel barricades outside the temples – this time I was lucky to see one all ready for the festivities which were to happen on the day after our visit. This particular temple also had a kolam (pond) that was clean and filled with water!! Another rarity of these travels.
This was particularly striking – as we were in the Cauvery Delta area, the rice bowl of Tamilnadu. But what we noter on our travels across innumerable river beds – these were just sand stretches with not a drop of water. And the whole area seems to know the daily update of the height of Mettur Dam reservoir – as only when it touches 80′ are the flood gates opened – and these rivers and stream start to fill. Although we were traveling in late July, this had not happened due to the delayed monsoons.
One of my destinations on this trip was also Thyagaraja’s (one of the greats of Carnatic music) birthplace at Thiruvarur and his samadhi ar Thiruvaiyaru. We could not make it to the former – the latter is where the annual Thyagaraja festival is held every January. I have been hearing of it since childhood, and I had a romantic vision of this large ground, where the Carnatic greats would sing late into the night with the River Cauvery in the backdrop, for the rasiks who flocked from around the world. The reality was a major disappointment – the samadhi itself is maintained poorly, there is a small dusty bit of ground by it where I was told a tent is put up for the festival and the river was bone dry!! Of course, I was there in the wrong season – I wonder if I will be able to do it during the festival. And it was disappointing that one of the greatest of our musical greats is so ill remembered!!
Of course the thatched roofs which were the norm in times gone by have by and large given way to pukka structures, reflecting the changing economic profile ans the aspirations of the people. But, it is cool for the climate and so it is still used – and watching the workers putting brought back memories of my childhood. And I wondered how many workers were left who could make the thatch and the roof!! And many of the newly built houses also had very striking colors – which I was told was dictated by Vaastu!!
Driving around, was on the whole a stress free exercise, as by and large even the inner roads on which most our travel was, were good. The non-vehicular traffic volume was low, and although there were a large number of buses, belonging to various transport companies as well as the colleges, the driving was not rash. The volume of 2 wheeler traffic in the moffusil was definitely less than what I see in the Northern States.
The number of academic Institutions along the roads was remarkable – schools, Inter-colleges, denominational colleges (Christain, Muslim), Womens’ colleges etc…. And of course, the sycophancy that has become associated with current Tamil life, and manifested by the huge pictures adorning many posters, was evident everywhere!