The temples in India have long held our fascination. When we talk about the history and culture of India, it is impossible to miss the contribution of Hinduism from the early centuries. India, predominantly as a Hindu country, boasts of the rich and varied heritage that centuries have bestowed upon us. In the South, the excellence par architecture of the Hindu temples in Tamil Nadu are worth every travel bloggers dream. So place identified, plans drawn, we packed our bags to the city that is revered as the seat of South Indian religion, art and architecture – Thanjavur.
From Bangalore, we chose to travel via Salem to Tanjore. The overall journey by road takes about 7 hours. Thanjavur is also known as the rice bowl of India. This is evident from the endless green fields that welcome you when you near Thanjavur. Enroute, we stopped by a little roadside vendor who claimed to be 18 to sip on some delicious sweet lime juice to beat the summer heat that was beginning to grip the southern belts. After a little bit of persuasion, he secretly agreed he is only 12, but is supposed to say he is 18 to avoid child labor laws. After paying him for his extra sweet glasses of juice and some friendly banter, we proceeded to the heart of Tanjore.
The Thanjavur Palace
An early morning start will help you get to here by around noon – right on time to have a Chettinad cuisine lunch. Since we did not have a strict schedule, we mostly relied on information from locals on time to visit the Brihadeeshwara temple and the Thanjavur Palace. After a finger licking delicious lunch at “The Banana Leaf” in Tanjore, we decided to proceed to the Thanjavur Palace and later in the evening to the Big Temple because the Brihadeeshwara temples inner sanctum was supposed to open for public only by evening 5:00 PM.
The GPS wasn’t really reliable in finding the information so we borrowed help from the locals to get directed to the palace. We spent what must be like about 2 hours here. The museum had displays of the history of the Chola dynasty.
A definite must watch is the short movie that gets played on Thanjavur’s history. If you are here, it is highly recommended to ask for the timings of the movie to ensure you do not miss this.
The Big Temple, Thanjavur
After what was a quick detour of the palace and the film, we proceeded to the Brihadeeshwara temple to reach around 4PM – an hour before the temples inner sanctum opens for devotees. After quickly walking into the temple compound, we were greeted by the grand entry towers of the temple.
After depositing the shoes in the counters, we walked barefoot towards the main temple area.The temple compound is lined with well laid stones that can tend to get warm to hot depending on the weather. Since we were travelling in February, the weather was mild and towards evening 4:00 PM it was sort of cooler to walk around barefoot.
The temple compound is rectangular in shape and the most impressive part is the towering superstructure which houses the sanctum. One cannot help but feel impressed by the majestic carvings made out of rock and granite, the architectural excellence of the various towers and the Nandhi mandapam that faces the sanctum. The Nandhi statue in Brihadeeshwar temple is considered to be one among the largest in the country.
As you edge closer to the main temple structure, it becomes obvious why this temple is considered to be one among the must-visit places in India if you are a history buff and an architecture enthusiast. The sanctum is surrounded by massive walls that are divided into levels by sharply cut sculptures.
The dome of the temple was carried for a distance of 5 kilometers by over a hundred elephants during construction to be lifted and mounted onto the top of the sanctum’s main tower. The temple compound sports sculptures depicting the 108 dance moves of Bharatanatyam, a popular dance form of India that originated in Tamil Nadu.
The interior of sanctum sanctorum houses the deity of Shiva in the form of a Shiva Linga. We joined the long queue of people waiting for the “darshan” and proceeded slowly for a view of the deity. It took roughly about 40 minutes for us to wait and reach the inner and most sacred part of the temple for a glimpse of the “Shiva Linga” and then exit.
Since the plan was to spend the evening in leisure, and because we wanted to watch the temple around sunset, we chose to sit by and watch the crowd ebb and flow to the temple. There were multitude of school children who were picnicking to the temple. Their colorful uniforms added a splash of vibrance to the temple compound.
Few among the curious locals who were enthralled by the two of us armed by large cameras, wearing denims and sunglasses gathered around asking if they could take selfies with us. We obliged happily and allowed ourselves a little bit of paparazzi frenzy. This was followed by school kids who wanted to figure out if we could speak Tamil and wanted to know more about us.
We spent the rest of the evening sitting by the stone corridors watching the sun set against the majestic towers of Brihadeeshwara all the time recounting stories from the past and planning for future travel adventures.
Our stay for the night was booked in an Airbnb in Trichy and hence before it started getting dark we decided to make a move to exit the temple before it got too late. Collecting our shoes from the counter and casting one last glance at the temple silhouetted against an evening sky we proceeded on our journey to Trichy.
But before that we had to make an important stop that has been on top of my agenda every time I visit any place in Tamil Nadu – snack on a ‘medu vada’ at Adyar Ananda Bhavan and top it with an extra strong “filter kaapi” that only Tamil Nadu can get right.
So with memories of a beautiful day spent in the lap of history rich Thanjavur, the day came to a close and we proceeded to Trichy with a happy soul and fulfilled mind.
What to wear:
The Tanjore temple appears to be accommodating about dress code. We made calls the previous day to determine if denims would be allowed and surprisingly it was okay with the authorities. Short skirts and sleeveless may be avoided for women. Tanjore is quite a remote place and it is advisable to dress to the place. Men can wear pants and shirts – shorts and bermudas will have to be avoided.
Slippers have to be deposited at the counters in the entry towers and there is no exception there. The temple compounds are kept very clean and hence you do not have to hesitate to walk around barefoot because the protocols dictate that.
It is advisable to carry scarves or umbrellas if you are visiting the place in the hot summer season or in the midafternoon times. Splash on a lot of sun screen to shield your skin from the blazing sun.
Cameras were allowed and photography was permitted everywhere except the inner sanctum that houses the “shiva linga”
What to buy:
Don’t miss to buy the traditional,handmade terracotta dolls with a bobble head swaying to the front and back generating a dance like movement. It is called the “Thanjavur Bommai” or the “Thalayatti bommai”. You can find them in varied sizes anywhere and everywhere in Tanjore. And, if you have a bigger budget, go for the Tanjore paintings with intrinsic art work adorned with gold foils and semi-precious stones. The Tanjore Art Gallery (the one inside the Nayak Palace) houses a variety of authentic Tanjore paintings for sale.
When to visit:
We visited during the month of February before the onset of peak summer. The Tanjore belt can get really hot in the April May months and the temple itself may be crowded around this time owing to school summer holidays. So if you are looking for a peaceful vacation, choose the cooler months of the year.
The Tanjore temple also boasts of the Brahan Natyanjali festival in the month of February around the time of Shivarathri. We happened to have arrived a tad too late for it. However, should you find the art forms of India interesting, this 10 day dance festival should definitely top your list of things to do.
The Brihadishwar temple is not the only living Chola Temple. The Chola-ns had no engineering and technology those days, but they certainly dreamt big. Watch out this space for our travel stories from the other stunning Chola creations of Cauvery-Tanjore belt.