To be honest, it takes guts to say ‘yes’ to an invite to attend a festival of sacred south Indian music when you just about have a nodding acquaintance with the genre—but here I was, winging it to Chennai and then to Thanjavur to rub shoulders with aficionados of one of India’s most enduring cultural legacies. Tamil Nadu not only gave us present-day Bharatanatyam, but also the incredibly rich tradition of Carnatic music. Thank heavens I have an ear for music!
From Tiruchi airport, the country road unspools itself into the clutter of modern-day Thanjavur, about an hour away. Ugly residential blocks and a noisome jumble of ramshackle shops have muscled their way around the sacred spaces of the Big Temple at Thanjavur, the mighty landmark of this Chola bastion. Yet, there it stands —an oasis of serenity, lovingly nurtured for over a thousand years since its glory days in the Chola era.
The unattractive tenements around may repel, but the bazaars are energetic and colourful with jasmine veni and garland stalls doing brisk business. A walk around the Old Quarter with an Intach guide puts things into perspective. The grid structure of the royal enclave with its centre of fine arts brings us to Ponnayya Nilayam, the humble residence of the Tanjore Quartet—the four brothers, Chinnayya, Ponnayya, Vadivelu and Sivanandam, were music and dance geniuses who created the template of Bharatanatyam as we see it today. Entering the pillared hallway of the house, we find a gaggle of kids learning the baby steps of this graceful dance form. A family member reverentially shows us the violin on which Vadivelu Pillai first learnt to play. Rukmini Devi, Vyjayanthimala, Alarmel Valli and many others came here to learn their craft. Someone needs to campaign hard to give this place its due respect as a historic cultural heritage site. Ranvir Shah, the Chennai-based businessman turned culture czar, who is passionately involved in the revival of the Thanjavur region’s cultural past, feels the work has just begun with the annual Festival of Sacred Music, organised by his Prakriti Foundation, in Thiruvaiyaru on the outskirts of Thanjavur.
Nestled by the banks of the Cauvery, Thiruvaiyaru was an ancient hub of southern classical music. The sacred Cauvery has sadly dwindled into near non-existence in Tamil Nadu today—we are lucky that here, in Thiruvaiyaru, we can still stand knee-deep in her waters. Later, on the road to Thiruvarur, I’m appalled by the massive, dry riverbed, which is our companion part way. It’s criminal.
Like the Cauvery, Thiruvaiyaru’s importance too has dwindled. The legendary poet-saint Thyagaraja penned many of his 7,000 compositions by the banks of this inspirational waterway. With sand filling our sandals, we find ourselves at his samadhi, close to the place where he lived in a one-room tenement near his beloved river. Ranvir wants to revive Thiruvaiyaru as a thriving centre of the arts, as a mini Avignon or Edinburgh, where lovers of music, dance, art and crafts will flock from around the world. Intach supports the festival ably, and Prince Babajirao Bhosle, descendant of the erstwhile Maratha rulers of the region, considers his efforts more a catalyst to draw like-minded people, institutions and government bodies joining in this endeavour to return Thiruvaiyaru to its former glory. He envisions the benefits of tourism accruing to the local community—in its craft centres, in homestay options for backpackers and so forth.
The pilgrim town, with its ancient temple to Panchanadheeswarar (Shiva as the lord of five rivers, which flow past here, one of them being the Cauvery) or Aiyyaarappar (‘ai’ as in five and ‘aaru’ being river, the Tamil name for the deity), resounds with the revelry of Holi on the first night of the festival. At the Amman temple festival near the bridge over the Cauvery, we watch in fascination as devotees undertake the fire-walking ritual, before we repair to the adjoining Diwan Wada for a concert in the ruins of the Maratha Palace. Over the next couple of years, it’s to be restored as an art hotel with an amphitheatre—a nucleus for year-round cultural activities. In the meantime, diyas flicker in the old pura koondu (dovecote), and in the night sky, Orion stands directly overhead while a full moon rains silver light upon us mortals enraptured with the music of Krishna’s Temple Rock and the Filter Coffee Fusion Band, who perform from a raised platform under a spreading tree ablaze with green lights. Intermittently, the fireworks and patakas of the Holi revellers add their own interpretations to this rich repast.
The morning after, en route to Mangala, the heritage homestay in Thirupugalur where lunch awaits, we make a detour to the massive Thyagarajaswamy temple complex in Thiruvarur. The lively V.R. Devika, scholar extraordinaire of Tamil culture, who is taking us around, recalls a visit here when her friends and she found themselves surrounded by streams of frightened villagers taking shelter, and the boom of the tsunami at Nagapattinam shook the earth of Thiravarur from 20 kilometres away. The tour wraps up at the pavilion where restoration of the famous Chola-period Muchukundu murals has been initiated by Prakriti Foundation. A clever trick we discover, to avoid a pain in the neck, is to see the reflection of the paintings in the mirrors we can all share as we walk around!
The 6th-century Sri Agneeswarar Shiva temple, with its sacred tank, kisses the blue skies above the 800-strong village of Thirupugalur. The custard yellow walls of the verandah at the Mangala Heritage Home are a pleasing contrast to the surrounding foliage and the green gleam of the tank, a stone’s throw across the road. Slipping off our shoes, we enter the cool interiors of the inner courtyard and sink against the cushions to dig into a traditional Tamil lunch served on banana leaves in the wraparound verandah. A discreet, satisfied burp acknowledges the simple but delicious meal whipped up in the kitchen by a smiling Mani, the local village woman who comes in to cook.
The evening finds us gathered once more by the banks of the Cauvery in Thiruvaiyaru. The setting sun reflects kindly on its greatly depleted flow. Hundreds of students from schools and colleges, the local bureaucracy and temple administrators, have been roped in to clean up the riverside near the Kalyan Mahal Ghat; there are plans to make this an ongoing process. The Kalyan Mahal, Ranvir hopes, will eventually be home to a museum for the musical instruments of south India. The night air crackles with anticipation. As we watch the reflection of the floodlights bounce off the Cauvery’s waters, 45 Manganiyar musicians tune up their instruments, on the opposite bank from where we are seated, to transport us from the Cauvery’s sands to the desert sands of Rajasthan. Our last evening is spent at one of the many mandapams of the Panchanadeeswarar temple, where Guru Kadri Gopalnath treats his rapt audience to Carnatic music on a sax!
The next morning, I’m back at Mangala for a more leisurely sojourn. It’s a rural idyll for writers and artists, but also perfect for a gathering of family and friends who want a taste of the Tamil countryside. Discovered by chance, this traditional Tamil village home has been transformed by Ranvir. There are five air-conditioned guestrooms, which are roomy and,simply furnished, with modern loos featuring hand-beaten brass washbasins crafted in Pune. Natural light finds its course throughout the house. Near dinnertime, I slip into the kitchen and teach Mani how to make homemade paneer, cooked Punjabistyle. Later, she smilingly sees me off to bed with a thimble of filter kapi.
Early the next morning, I greet the ancient woman who comes in from the village to draw the kolams around the house. All is quiet except for birdsong and the clatter of the breakfast dishes. Mangala doesn’t feel like a tourist trap guest house. Rather, it melds in beautifully with its natural surrounds. Its ambience is one of rural Tamil comforts, vegetarian home cooking, and the sounds of silence. For the restless, the lovely seaside retreat of Tranquebar is just 40 minutes away. The museum in the Dutch fort here transports me to a world of sailing ships and local rajas. Before dawn, we can hurtle to Nagore, 10 kilometres away, to watch fishermen pulling in the night’s catch. It’s just another day in this lovely corner of the world.
Getting there: Tiruchi’s international airport is about 60km from Thanjavur (about Rs 2,000 by cab). Round trip economy-class tickets to Chennai cost about Rs 4,000. Several trains, both day and night, connect Thanjavur directly to Chennai (about Rs 850 by AC two-tier).
Where to stay: The conveniently located Hotel Gnanam (from Rs 2,700; www.hotelgnanam.com) is a decent place to stay, with helpful staff, and tidy rooms and bathrooms. Dune Eco Group’s Tanjore Hi (from Rs 4,000; www.duneecogroup.com), situated near the palace, is a quirky alternative with charming interiors and mixed reviews. Ranvir Shah’s Mangala Heritage Home (doubles from Rs 2,500 in the off-season; www.mangalaheritagehome.in) is a homespun and charming village stay experience. Vegetarian meals are served at a cost of Rs 400 per person.
What to see & do: The Thanjavur delta is home to one of the finest collection of temples in the world, three of which are Unesco heritage sites (the Big Temple, Gangaikondacholapuram, and Darasuram). The city of Thanjavur is a good place from which to explore the region; nearly all villages and towns in the delta can be reached in less than two hours on good roads with excellent connectivity by frequent buses. The Festival of Sacred Music (www.festivalofsacredmusic.com), held in March every year, is bringing new life to many heritage sites and ruins in Thiruvaiyaru, which the organisers transform dramatically and aesthetically into splendid venues for a host of eclectic performances. Thiruvaiyaru is also home to the vast Panchanadeeswarar temple. The great temples at Thiruvarur (see the restored Muchukunda murals here) and Mannargudi are close to Thirupugalur, where the idyllic Mangala Heritage Homestay is located. The region also has a long and rich tradition in south Indian crafts and classical performing arts, and they too are showcased as part of the revival efforts.