Passage to Thanjavur
Princes, palaces and parades in southeast India
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