A father and son travel through antique lands to discover that history can come alive through stone and sculpture. And learn that heritage does not merely belong to the past but rather, is part of us.
By Vijay Kumar
We are not makers of history. We are made by history. — Martin Luther King Jr, American leader, civil rights activist
As the father of a (then) nine-year-old boy, I had resigned myself to the fact that funny, serious, easy, tough and unanswerable questions would come my way as part of the parenting package. So, once when my son innocently asked ‘Dad, didn't goblins build temples?’, I wasn’t surprised. Like me, he too has listened to his fair share of tales narrated by his obliging Grandma. And I guess he found it easier to believe that strange goblins, rather than mighty kings, built temples. As goblins, kings and temples are rarely seen in the same sentence, I'll tell you what led to the question.
It was the last weekend of our annual vacation and we had already visited all the standard picnic sites many times over. Gone were the glitz of the malls and the long drives along highways. When I suggested Kanchipuram, there was a collective groan: 'Not temples again!' But I promised that this picnic would be a unique one.
So, we set off with the now indispensable ‘mineral’ water bottles filled with neer more (spiced buttermilk) under the seat, the boot loaded with reminders of our long-gone wedding day — an assortment of casseroles and water coolers that every bride and groom invariably received as gifts in those days.
The women were up early as I insisted on a pre-Aditya (before sunrise) start, preparing a menu of tamarind rice, lemon rice, curd rice, vadams and lemon pickle. The suspense was becoming unbearable and Junior was hazarding guesses on where I might be taking him. We reached the impressive Kanchi Kailasanatha Temple and he was a bit put off by its size. Maybe he was expecting something to match Sri Raja Raja Chola’s massive 11th century CE edifice in Thanjavur. Junior was not impressed by the temple’s exterior either.
I told him that even the great Chola emperor had stood in awe of this very temple and called it a big stone temple. Some believe that this inspired Raja Raja Chola to build the Tanjore Big Temple (he called it ‘Kacchipedu periya thirukkatrali’). “But, Dad, didn't goblins build temples?” He went on to recite how the goblins are tricked into completing the task of raising huge stones to build the gopuram before sunrise. In rare cases, when they failed to complete their tasks before sunrise, they left their job half done, resulting in mottai (bald) gopurams.
“No, my boy. They were indeed built by people, but these people were not like us!”
“Oh, I knew it. Must be aliens or Autobots helping us humans,” he said.
“No, they were made of flesh and bone like us. But these ordinary people were gifted artistes who dedicated their lives to creating immortal works of art. And, by the way, do you know that this temple was built 1,300 years ago by Rajasimhan Pallava?” “Wow, incredible!” Junior’s spirits soared again. “And not only has the temple survived for so long, but the outer passage also has a few chambers still adorned with paintings from the Pallava era.”
He said, “No way. How did the paint stay for so long?”
I challenged him with, “You want to take a bet?”
Excitedly, he ran and peeped into the first chamber. But he was disappointed with what he saw. Our conversation ran in this vein:
Me: “Not all the paintings have survived. But I can confirm that there are at least four mini shrines which still have paintings in them.”
Him: “I can see it here. It’s Vishnu.”
“Yes, to his right is the face of Shiva, all part of the Somaskanda form we have seen in Mamallapuram before. It was a favourite motif of Narasimhavarman II.”
“But, Dad, you said Rajasimhan!”
“Both refer to the same king. In fact, he had 244 birudas or titles.”
“244 names? I am sure you’re pulling my leg.”
“Look at the names here. He has inscribed them four times on stone, each in a different style. The topmost is in the Devanagiri script while the rest are in Pallava Grantam. Can you see how the script gets more and more ornate towards the bottom?”
“Oh, yes. So, it’s not a design.”
“No, it’s a calligraphic script.”
My son disappeared behind another chamber and then called out in excitement. “Dad, Dad! Here’s one more.”
“Yes, you can see Parvathi clearly in this.”
“This temple is so different from any we have been to before. Every inch is filled with sculpture and paintings.”
“Well, this was one of the earliest structural temples other than the Shore Temple and a few others belonging to that period. But imagine how it would have looked when the sculpture was painted over as well? Yes, at the time it was consecrated, it was completely painted over in vibrant colours. You can still see the remnants in some places.”
“Wow, what a superlative effort, Dad!”
“Yet the king was asked to postpone the consecration day by God. Apparently, God appeared in his dream and told the king that He had already agreed to attend the consecration of another temple on the same day and asked the king to change the date.”
“I am sure you made this up!”
“Well, there’s an inscription right here which refers to a celestial voice heard by the king. This is evidently an allusion to the story in the Periyapuranam, where it is said that the Pallava king was directed to postpone the consecration of this temple so that the Lord may attend a similar ceremony at the temple constructed by Saint Pusalar.”
“Well, Pusalar, one of the 63 Nayanmars (Shaivaite saints), wanted to build a temple for Siva. But he didn’t have enough money for it. So, he built one in his heart, complete with all the aspects of a perfect temple and even set the date for its consecration. So pleased was the Lord with Pusalar’s devotion that he agreed to attend the ceremony and asked the king to change his date even though the king had built a beautiful, real temple.”
“Are you sure they were humans and not goblins?”
“They are humans and the entire history is recorded not just in inscriptions but is also depicted in the Vaikunta Perumal Temple nearby.”
“Save your wows! We haven’t covered the best part of the picnic yet. I’ll show you something that predates this temple by 100 years and which was also visited by Sri Raja Raja Chola.”
To be continued…
This is the first instalment of a 3-part series on travelling through history. Read the second and third part here.
The author, Vijay Kumar is a sculpture enthusiast.
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