Avoid the crowds for the tem­ples and tra­di­tions of India’s deep south, Tamil Nadu, where a cul­ture some 2,000 years in the mak­ing still hums to the rhythms of its clas­si­cal past…

Wanderlust Travel Magazine (UK) - - Contents - WORDS DAVID ABRAM

Dis­cover the crowd-free sights and 2,000-year-old tra­di­tions of Tamil Nadu

The early-morn­ing bus shud­dered to a halt in the lit­tle town with a big name: T hi ru para ku nd a ram. Deep in the south-east cor­ner of India, we ar­rived near the gate­way of the tem­ple I’d come to visit, where a clus­ter of sod­den pil­grims were pre­par­ing to per­form a puja (wor­ship) af­ter their rit­ual bathe.

The air was still cool and the bazaar quiet, save for the roar of a kerosene stove at a tea stall and what sounded like chant­ing com­ing from a side road. At first I thought it was a record­ing; then I re­alised the voices were real, and that there were lots of them, pro­duc­ing a swirl of notes that rose and fell in ar­chaic in­ter­vals, un­der­scored by strange, syn­co­pated rhythms.

The sound was com­ing through the open win­dows of an old school, where a class of a dozen boys were sit­ting cross-legged on the floor of a pil­lared hall fac­ing their teacher. They were bare-chested, dressed in iden­ti­cal dho­tis of un­stitched, ca­nary-yel­low cloth, with stripes of white ash paste smeared on their arms and fore­heads, and sa­cred threads strung di­ag­o­nally across their tor­sos, de­not­ing their sta­tus as mem­bers of the priestly Brah­min caste.

A man with large spec­ta­cles and a row of pens in his shirt pocket then ap­peared at my side. “Gen­tle­man,” he said. “Th­ese fel­lows are singing verses of Vedas. San­skrit lan­guage. Veeeeeeery old!’ He then raised a knob­bly fore­fin­ger to em­pha­sise his point, be­fore promptly pre­sent­ing me with the school’s do­na­tion book.

A col­lec­tion of litur­gi­cal texts first set down be­tween three and five mil­len­nia ago, the Vedas are in­deed in­cred­i­bly old – so old, in fact, that their sur­vival is al­most mirac­u­lous. The boys were, ac­cord­ing to a leaflet the man had handed me, learn­ing its verses as part of their train­ing to be­come ‘dy­namic tem­ple priests for tem­ples and so­ci­ety’. It oc­curred to me that lis­ten­ing to them was a bit like hear­ing cho­ris­ters per­form­ing hymns from a time when Stone­henge was still in use.

This kind of ex­pe­ri­ence, I later pon­dered as I sipped a glass of sweet, milky chai out­side the tem­ple, was pre­cisely why I kept com­ing back to India’s south. This was per­haps my 30th trip – I’ve gen­uinely lost count – to the Tamil heart­land, a part of the coun­try that, for me, has al­ways cast the most pow­er­ful spell, pulling me there time and again.

The neigh­bour­ing south­ern state of Kerala – with its back­wa­ters and beaches – may at­tract a lot more vis­i­tors but non-hin­dus are not per­mit­ted to en­ter the tem­ples there, which means some of the most in­ter­est­ing as­pects of lo­cal cul­ture are hid­den behind high walls. In Tamil Nadu, tra­di­tional life is eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble. Most of the tem­ples are open to all, and here the world’s last sur­viv­ing Clas­si­cal cul­ture still thrives in the great Tamil shrines of the deep south, the same rit­u­als per­formed in the same way for more than 2,000 years. Even to­day, pil­grims trun­dle onto buses singing along to mod­ern ver­sions of de­vo­tional songs first com­posed 15 cen­turies ago.

It was to search for such ves­tiges of by­gone eras that I’d trav­elled to the Vaigai Plain, around 70km in­land from the Gulf of Man­nar. And the log­i­cal place to start – in­deed, to be­gin any search for the cul­tural roots of this cor­ner of India – is the an­cient, and in­tensely at­mo­spheric, city that stands at its heart: Madu­rai.

Out on the town

No one can say for sure when Madu­rai was founded, but it has been in con­stant use since at least the time of an­cient Egypt. The city even fea­tures in the ac­count of India by the Greek am­bas­sador

Me­gas­thenes, who came here in 302 BC, and was also men­tioned by the Ro­man ge­og­ra­pher Strabo a few hun­dred years later, who com­plained that the cof­fers of Rome were be­ing emp­tied to pay for In­dian pep­per and gin­ger – a claim lent cre­dence by the dis­cov­ery of sev­eral hoards of Ro­man coins around the city.

An­cient they may be, but Madu­rai’s streets rarely let up. A river of ca­cophonous auto-rick­shaws, beaten-up Tata buses, mo­tor­cy­cles, hatch­backs, pick-up trucks and stray cows filled the road lead­ing to­wards the great tem­ple that stands at the city’s heart – the mighty Meenakshi Amman, shrine of the ‘Fish-eyed Mother God­dess’.

Soar­ing like watch­ful giants above the sur­round­ing rooftops, a pha­lanx of gi­gan­tic gate­way tow­ers act as bea­cons for the le­gions of wor­ship­pers who pour through the tem­ple precincts to pray each day. By the time they fi­nally came into view, the flanks of the tow­ers had slipped into blue-grey shadow. Only the co­bra-hooded, de­monic gables and gilded finials at their apex were still picked out in crim­son sun­light.

Sweep­ing nearly 60m off the ground, the tem­ple’s gopura gate­ways are unique in India for their scale and com­plex­ity. Thou­sands of stucco fig­ures swarm over their sides – multi-limbed gods, many­headed god­desses, ce­les­tial nymphs and fanged mytho­log­i­cal mon­sters – de­picted in a wild and seem­ingly end­less ar­ray of dance poses and painted in a poly­chrome pal­ette so out­ra­geous that even the late Walt Dis­ney may have found it a touch ex­ces­sive.

As I craned my cam­era up­wards to pho­to­graph them, a line of Tamil ladies jos­tled past on their way to the tem­ple’s east en­trance. I fol­lowed them, en­joy­ing the scent of jas­mine flow­ers and coconut oil that trailed in their wake, and the vi­brant pea­cock-blue, ba­nana-leaf­green and scar­let hues of their sa­rees in the fad­ing light.

Op­po­site the en­trance was a grand pil­lared hall, the Puthu Man­dapa. It was orig­i­nally built to ac­com­mo­date pil­grims, but is to­day leased to a com­mu­nity of no­to­ri­ously proac­tive tailors.

“Sir, yes. This shirt is no good.” A man with a mea­sur­ing tape around his neck and dis­ap­prov­ing ex­pres­sion on his face fin­gered my T-shirt.

“What do you mean? It’s my favourite!” I gasped.

“Qual­ity is bad. I make new one. Come. Yes! I am tai­lor. Many rec­om­men­da­tions. You are from which place? Ger­ma­nia? Eng­land? France? Vive la France!”

I left the tai­lor to way­lay a group of newly ar­rived French tourists and slipped down the steps into the main tem­ple, plung­ing into a world of gaudily lit stalls sell­ing rit­ual para­pher­na­lia and gar­ish prints of Hindu deities. Di­vid­ing them were gran­ite pil­lars carved into the forms of lav­ishly at­tired cour­te­sans, many with oil lamps and dust­ings of red and yel­low turmeric pow­der at their feet.

The sen­su­ous, fem­i­nine vibe was no co­in­ci­dence. Uniquely among the great shrines of Tamil Nadu, Madu­rai’s pre­sid­ing de­ity is fe­male. Al­though the con­sort of Shiva (in the form of Lord Sun­desh­wara), Meenakshi Amman is here wor­shipped first, and with great­est

‘Sweep­ing nearly 60m off the ground, the tem­ple’s gopura gate­ways are unique in India for their scale and com­plex­ity’

fer­vour, as the bringer of fer­til­ity and sus­tainer of life. New­ly­weds come to Madu­rai for Meenakshi to bless their mar­riage, along with cou­ples pray­ing for chil­dren.

I was struck by the joy­ful, rau­cous at­mos­phere pre­vail­ing in this labyrinth of richly carved stone, as fam­ily groups has­tened with their of­fer­ings to­wards the in­ner sanc­tum. Gangs of mu­si­cians and priests would oc­ca­sion­ally barge past, ac­com­pa­nied by clash­ing cym­bals, beat­ing drums and the wail of the nagesh­waram (the Tamil oboe).

I spent a cou­ple of days soak­ing up the at­mos­phere of the tem­ple at dif­fer­ent times of day and night. Early morn­ing, when the flag­stones were sluiced with wa­ter and traders traced in­tri­cate pat­terns of rice flour in front of their stalls, was my favourite. I loved brows­ing the re­li­gious sou­venir shops and mu­sic bou­tiques out­side the tem­ple, where you can buy pi­rated CDS of songs by the wan­der­ing Tamil poet saints of the 7th and 8th cen­turies, played on synths and elec­tric gui­tars.

In the house like this…

Hav­ing ex­plored the an­cient side of the re­gion, my next stop re­vealed its re­cent past. A cou­ple of hours’ drive north-east of Madu­rai, the area of Chet­ti­nad is the home­land of a caste of en­trepreneurs known as the Nat­tukut­tai Chet­ti­yars, who in the mid-19th cen­tury grew rich as bankers in the then colonies of Burma (Myan­mar), Cey­lon (Sri Lanka) and the Straits Set­tle­ments (Malaysia/sin­ga­pore). To show off their wealth, the Chet­ti­yars built lav­ish man­sions, mix­ing the os­ten­ta­tious ar­chi­tec­tural trends of the day with tra­di­tional Tamil fea­tures. Since India’s In­de­pen­dence (1947), most of th­ese have be­come de­serted and now lan­guish like dis­carded sets from long-for­got­ten cos­tume dra­mas, their stucco fa­cades choked with weeds.

I’d read that some par­tic­u­larly fine ex­am­ples sur­vived in the vil­lage of Kanadukathan, where I stayed in a beau­ti­ful Art Deco man­sion that had been con­verted into a bou­tique ho­tel. Leav­ing its pool for the scorch­ing heat of the sur­round­ing lanes was a wrench, but my guide, Ramu Chet­ti­yar, as­sured me I’d be amazed by what I was about to see.

Lit­er­ally dozens of man­sions line the sur­round­ing streets, most of them be­long­ing to branches of the same ex­tended fam­ily. We passed through an arched gate­way into a court­yard, and paused to ad­mire the grand façade re­vealed in front of us.

“Th­ese peo­ple were orig­i­nally traders in lo­cal rice and pearls,” explained Ramu, “but they later grad­u­ated to money lend­ing in Ran­goon, which is why you find so much Burmese teak in their houses.” A pil­lared ve­randa, or thin­nai, formed the main en­trance, where the men of the fam­ily would have lazed in the hot af­ter­noons on bol­ster cush­ions, dis­cussing busi­ness with vis­i­tors.

In­side, a succession of sump­tu­ously carved door­ways led to high-vaulted halls and long, rec­tan­gu­lar court­yards lined with pil­lars of pol­ished wood and

‘Since In­de­pen­dence, most of th­ese grand res­i­dences now lan­guish like dis­carded sets from long-for­got­ten cos­tume dra­mas’

gran­ite. Por­traits of silk-tur­baned an­ces­tors hung on walls be­neath chan­de­liers of Bel­gian crys­tal and win­dows of Vene­tian stained glass – a crazy mish­mash of Euro­pean and South In­dian lux­ury.

Marvel­ling at all the or­nate wood­work, I won­dered if any of the craft skills that had cre­ated such splen­dour still sur­vived.

“Oh yes, sure,” replied Ramu. “Your ho­tel was ren­o­vated en­tirely by lo­cal crafts­men. You see th­ese?” he said, point­ing to the cool, colour­ful, ce­ramic-mo­saic tiles be­neath our feet. “Th­ese are still pro­duced by hand not far from here.”

Count­ing the fig­ures

Later, we paid a visit to the afore­men­tioned tile work­shop in the nearby town of Athangudi. It was a far cry from the Dick­en­sian vi­sion of smok­ing chim­ney stacks I was ex­pect­ing. Seated on a tra­di­tional mud floor, a smil­ing man dressed in a black-cot­ton dhoti dabbed blobs of ox­ide paint the con­sis­tency of cus­tard on to a glass square framed by a mould, which he then cov­ered in sand and passed to his wife, who added a back­ing layer of ce­ment.

“The tile will cure for 24 hours and dry in the sun. No fir­ing is re­quired, only an oc­ca­sional wipe of coconut oil to keep the shine,” explained Ramu. The re­sults, on dis­play in an ad­ja­cent show­room, were ex­quis­ite and I im­me­di­ately started fan­ta­sis­ing about how lovely an Athangudi floor would look in my kitchen at home.

We came across an­other quirky – and more an­cient – Chet­ti­nadi art form at an­other pot­tery nearby, where rows of enor­mous clay horses were wait­ing to be fired in large kilns. Th­ese stocky-legged steeds were ve­hi­cles of the folk god Ayya­nar, sym­bols of a re­li­gious cult preva­lent through­out Tamil Nadu and neigh­bour­ing Sri Lanka.

“Ayya­nar is most pop­u­lar in the Chet­ti­nad re­gion,” elab­o­rated Ramu. “Lo­cal peo­ple be­lieve the god pro­tects their vil­lages from spir­its. They place im­ages of him and his horses out­side tem­ples.”

I be­came fas­ci­nated by th­ese fig­ures, and over the next few days sought out sev­eral sa­cred groves hold­ing the largest col­lec­tions of them. Naïve, yet strangely pow­er­ful, the stat­ues seemed to hark back to a more pri­mor­dial era than the art adorn­ing the smoke-filled halls of the Meenakshi Amman tem­ple. A cof­fee ta­ble book on the sub­ject back at my ho­tel sug­gested the cult may even pre­date the Vedas, which would root this form of wor­ship in the Ne­olithic pe­riod – an­cient in­deed, even by the stan­dards of Tamil Nadu.

On my final day, head­ing to the air­port at Madu­rai, we passed a road­side stall sell­ing Ayya­nar fig­ures in a va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent forms and sizes – re­splen­dently mous­ta­chioed kings, sword-wield­ing sages and ca­parisoned ele­phants, all star­ing mutely at the traf­fic ca­reer­ing past on the high­way. The horses oc­cu­pied their own row, stacked in or­der of stature, from larger-than-life to pint-sized. Wor­ried about ex­cess bag­gage, I bought the small­est – to help hold at bay any nasty ghouls that might drift in from the woods around my home in Som­er­set.

My part­ing view of Madu­rai was from 3,000m, as the plane banked steeply on its way north to Chen­nai (Madras). A few min­utes later, we flew over the Kaveri Delta – rice-bowl heart­land of the Chola kings, who ruled the re­gion be­tween the 9th and 13th cen­turies. Shad­ows of the tem­ple gop­uras that the Ra­jas erected at the height of their power stretched over the sur­round­ing car­pet of green paddy fields and palm groves, like long, slen­der fin­gers point­ing to­wards the dis­tant coast.

It struck me again how re­mark­able it was that, de­spite India’s cul­tural riches and ex­otic land­scapes, this re­gion re­mained so lit­tle vis­ited com­pared with states such as Ra­jasthan and Kerala. Yet, like me, most trav­ellers leave smit­ten by the at­mos­phere of the deep south.

By the time the air­craft had be­gun its de­scent on Tamil Nadu’s cap­i­tal, I be­gan to think of when I might re­turn. I’d heard there was a fam­ily of bronze cast­ers who still made danc­ing Shiva deities in the same way as their an­cient fore­bears. And af­ter the magic of the singing Brah­min boys at the tem­ple at T hi ru para ku nd a ram, I never did make it in­side the shrine, nor up the great gran­ite out­crop behind, which they say has the best view in all South India. But that’s the joy of a cul­ture over 2,000 years in the mak­ing, it’ll still be there wait­ing for me when I do – and I’m pretty sure I’ll still have it all to my­self.

‘Shad­ows of the tem­ple gop­uras, erected at the height of the Ra­jas’ power, stretched over a car­pet of paddy fields and palm groves’

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