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The Temples of Tamil Nadu

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Photo: Frederic Lagrange

We had been together to see a small museum she runs in her family home, the Chettinad museum, and also to see Mrs. Meyyappan's imposing residence, which stands a short distance from her hotel off Karaikudi's main road. Vast and multichambered, both are living houses, unlike many of the region's ghostly mansions, deserted by owners who consider them too unwieldy and remote from urban centers to maintain. Amid the frenzy of India's prosperity, scores have been sold to dealers who raze them and strip out precious building materials—in particular the old-growth wood no longer obtainable legally—to sell to decorators serving the newly rich in New Delhi, Bangalore, and Mumbai.

The transition from the arid landscape of Chettinad to the rice delta of Thanjavur seems less subtle than Dorothy's from Kansas to Oz. One moment we are in a monochrome region of barren vistas and stunted trees; the next, we have embarked on a Technicolor acid trip. So much green on the eye has a druggy effect; the landscape radiates fecundity. And it is this same lush and well-watered soil that provided the wealth to fuel Hindu kingdoms of antiquity.

Each successive dynasty seems to have built with greater abandon; temples are scattered everywhere—in palm groves, on hilltops, in caves and rice fields. Some, like the much photographed seventh- century shore temple at Mamallapuram, are poetically intimate in scale. Others are as garish as McMansions in Beverly Hills. On the road to Thanjavur we stop briefly at a pair that, while barely warranting mention in most guidebooks, are examples of what I think of as the Hindu sublime.

In the candlelit gloom of the first is a large recumbent statue of Vishnu, and a priest anointing the idol with oil. The statue was hewn by hand from the live rock of a cave, probably 10 centuries ago. From the look of him, the priest has been in there almost as long. In the second temple is a pillar hall populated with figures of flamboyant sexual ambiguity. Effeminate and swashbuckling at once, they have Kewpie-doll eyes and curled mustaches. Who or what is being depicted is not altogether clear. Who cares?The statues call to mind the Cockettes, a 1970's San Francisco drag troupe, and the biblical aphorism about novelty under the sun.

"Royal families in Tamil Nadu do this," says Babaji Bhonsle, referring to temple maintenance, when we call on the rajah of Thanjavur in his apartment in the crumbling Thanjavur Palace. A barefoot servant brings in a tray of warm bottled lime soda; the electricity flickers on and off.

"Some may have one temple," says the 39-year-old prince, a direct descendant of the Maratha rulers, who was trained as an engineer and who, entering adulthood, came into possession of enormous collections of sculptural and architectural masterpieces as well as perhaps the world's most important library of palm-leaf manuscripts but alas no fortune big enough to maintain his inheritance. "We have 88 temples. It is my spiritual responsibility to maintain them, but this is not a burden for me," says the rajah. "It is my dharma," or cosmic task, he adds with a smile.

Of course, were Tamil Nadu to enjoy the revenues generated by tourists who flock to Agra or the congested Pink City of Jaipur, it would simplify his job of keeping up the temples, building pilgrim shelters, feeding elephants and priests, rewarding the conservators who unfold and oil each of several thousand palm manuscripts by hand. "But there is not very much awareness of us here," Rajah Bhonsle says with a shrug. "People who come to India want to see the Taj Mahal. They don't realize we have a history here in Tamil Nadu that is more than three thousand years old."

It would be a mistake, though, to think of this as a region of relics and repositories. Nearly all the places of worship in Tamil Nadu are active centers where the faithful perform the rituals of birth and marriage and death, and where a visitor can hear chanted Sanskrit verses first set down a hundred generations ago.


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