Pas­sage to Than­javur

Princes, palaces and pa­rades in south­east In­dia

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - CLAIRE SCO­BIE

IT is not ev­ery day you meet a prince. Not even in In­dia, the en­gag­ing land of princes, palaces and pageantry. But in Than­javur, five hours’ drive from Chen­nai in the coun­try’s south­east, the se­nior prince still re­sides amid the fad­ing grandeur of the salmon-pink Royal Palace.

On the day I meet Babaji Ra­jah Bhon­sle he’s pre­par­ing for Pon­gal, the an­nual spring har­vest fes­ti­val. He ar­rives in beige slacks and a pressed white shirt. There’s no be­jew­elled tur­ban or fan­fare. Bhon­sle is a mod­ern prince: he’s on LinkedIn and runs a pub­lish­ing com­pany.

Of­ten over­looked for the cities of Madu­rai or Trichy, this an­cient cap­i­tal of the Chola Em­pire is where past and present co-ex­ist. As I’m here to re­search the his­tory of tem­ple dancers for my novel The Pagoda Tree, it’s hard not to feel a fris­son of ex­cite­ment when the prince lets slip we’re sit­ting in the royal harem, still hung with chan­de­liers and oil paint­ings of his pre­de­ces­sors.

‘‘Th­ese days it’s our sit­ting room,’’ he says. I try to imag­ine life for the cour­te­sans re­clin­ing on cush­ioned di­vans. The last rul­ing ra­jah, Si­vaji II, mar­ried 17 brides in one day.

Bhon­sle is the sixth de­scen­dant of king Ser­foji II (1777-1832), a re­nais­sance fig­ure who blended Euro­pean mod­ernism and In­dian tra­di­tion in a re­mark­able syn­the­sis.

You can see his eclec­tic col­lec­tion in the Saraswati Ma­hal Li­brary in the palace grounds. Along­side copies of Shake­speare, an­no­tated by the king, are prints of Chi­nese tor­ture tech­niques, 44,000 palm-leaf and pa­per manuscripts and 4500 for­eign books.

‘‘He was an ex­tra­or­di­nary man and I’m proud to be his de­scen­dant,’’ says Bhon­sle, who works tire­lessly to main­tain the sprawl­ing palace on an empty purse. The Bri­tish stripped the royal house of its jewels and fine clothes in 1855 and Bhon­sle re­ceives a tiny stipend from the In­dian govern­ment. As I leave he presses his own il­lus­trated mono­graph on Ser­foji II into my­hands. ‘‘You can imag­ine how it once looked,’’ he says wist­fully.

I take a slow walk through the 48ha com­plex, which runs par­al­lel to a school sports field. In be­tween a game of cricket, a flock of goats munch on a patch of thread­bare grass. When the school­boys learn I’m from Aus­tralia, they cheer ‘‘Shane Warne!’’ in unison.

In con­trast to the mish­mash of arte­facts housed in the palace mu­seum, the palace art gallery boasts some of the finest ex­am­ples of bronze sculp­ture from the 12th-cen­tury Chola Em­pire, which ex­tended as far as Sri Lanka and In­done­sia. One lo­cal fam­ily still prac­tises the ‘‘lost wax’’ method of mak­ing th­ese stat­ues in a back­yard kiln.

In the palace, weeds may grow in the queen’s court­yard but the brightly coloured mu­rals in the cen­tral Dur­bar Hall (royal court) evoke the for­mer op­u­lence of the Than­javur court as a cru­cible of artis­tic and cul­tural bril­liance in the Nayak and Maratha dy­nas­ties. This legacy is still vis­i­ble at evening Bharatanatyam dance per­for­mances held in the palace. As I watch the lead dancer, the bells on her an­kles tin­kling, I get a glimpse of how life would have been in 1010, when 400 danc­ing girls were ded­i­cated to Than­javur’s Bri­hadeeswara Tem­ple.

Now a UNESCO World Her­itage site, the Big Tem­ple, as it’s known, rep­re­sents Chola ar­chi­tec­ture at its height. As you walk shoe­less through the vast cer­e­mo­nial court­yards (funny-look­ing plas­tic socks are pro­vided for tourists who don’t want to pro­ceed bare­foot), the hurly burly of mod­ern In­dia fades away. A friendly tem­ple ele­phant gives bless­ings with a donk on the head for a few ru­pees. Lime-green par­rots swoop among the bur­nished ochre tow­ers.

I ar­rive early and join pil­grims dressed in ver­mil­ion saris wait­ing for the doors of the cen­tral shrine to open.

For more than 1000 years the priests have held the same rit­u­als in the in­ner

PIC­TURES: ALAMY sanc­tum. The cur­tain is pulled back to re­veal a black lingam, or phal­lus, of the god Shiva. The priests pour oil, then milk, over the sculpted gran­ite as devotees press their hands in prayer.

Out­side I meet my tour guide, Mr Ra­jah, a slight man with short grey hair, his buck- teeth stained from smok­ing. He may have shown hun­dreds of tourists around, but his sense of rap­ture re­mains in­fec­tious. ‘‘Stop here, madam,’’ he keeps say­ing. ‘‘Look at the tem­ple from this an­gle. See how life­like the stat­ues are.’’

As much as a rit­ual space, the south­ern In­dian tem­ple is a liv­ing in­sti­tu­tion where fam­i­lies gather to pic­nic on prasad, or holy food, served on ba­nana leaves by portly priests. We join the fray and I scoop up the sweet se­molina with my right hand, try­ing to avoid drip­ping it down my front. Around me chil­dren play on the freshly cut lawns. As I watch, I re­call the prince’s words: ‘‘There is a sense of con­ti­nu­ity here, of lit­tle change, of con­ser­vatism.’’

That evening, sip­ping a fresh lime soda on my ho­tel bal­cony, I feel the same sense of time stand­ing still as I watch a paddy farmer coax his two oxen and cart across the Kaveri River.

I am stay­ing at Ideal View Re­sort, 7km out­side the city, where gue­strooms are airy, the at­mos­phere serene and a dip in the large pool wel­come af­ter a hot day’s sight­see­ing. Din­ner is served on an out­door ter­race in well­man­i­cured gar­dens.

The next morn­ing I join a tourist pro­gram to cel­e­brate Pon­gal. The roads are lined with bushels of sugar cane but the lo­cals are un­happy, as in­clement weather is in­aus­pi­cious for the Tamil new year. I board a minibus with other trav­ellers and we are all marked with a red tika in the cen­tre of our fore­heads. Next to me is Pia, a sprightly 86-year-old Swiss woman, tour­ing In­dia solo.

First stop is the Thiru­vai­yaru mu­sic fes­ti­val, held ev­ery Jan­uary and Fe­bru­ary 8km from the city. In­side packed mar­quees afi­ciona­dos lis­ten in­tently to Car­natic mu­sic; one man flicks his wrist to the beats, an­other el­derly Brah­min, a gold shawl draped around bony shoul­ders, jabs the air with his fin­gers. When our group tries to find a spot, we are shushed loudly and make a swift exit.

From there we clam­ber into bul­lock carts. It’s chaotic and bone-jar­ring — traf­fic, crowds, ex­cited pil­grims and the pa­tient oxen be­ing pushed this way and that. One bul­lock with green and pink horns, and dec­o­rated with gar­lands, pan­ics, nearly hit­ting a car.

By the time we ar­rive at a nearby vil­lage, we are soaked through. In­side a palm-leafed feast­ing hut, the French tourists break into song, singing for the sun. I sit with Pia as the dis­trict col­lec­tor gives a wel­come speech be­fore show­ing us how Tamils tra­di­tion­ally cook rice in clay pots over a fire to cel­e­brate the ar­rival of spring. Then an army of kitchen­hands serves up a veg­e­tar­ian ban­quet fea­tur­ing fra­grant sweet rice with nuts, curd, rice, dal and veg­etable thoren as rain pours down.

The next day I wake to an ex­cited phone call from the palace. One of the prince’s aides tells me that my pic­ture is in The Hindu news­pa­per. ‘‘Madam, you are most el­e­gant on the back of a bul­lock cart!’’

El­e­gance and bul­lock cart aren’t words I would usu­ally as­so­ciate, but in In­dia it’s the col­li­sion of ex­pe­ri­ences that never ceases to amaze and de­light. Claire Sco­bie’s new novel is The Pagoda Tree (Pen­guin), set in 18th-cen­tury south­ern In­dia.

Than­javur Royal Palace’s Dur­bar Hall re­flects the court’s op­u­lent past; be­low, the palace and mu­seum

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