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September 20th 2009
Published: September 21st 2009
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I am now in Thanjavur, which was previously called Tanjore The town is famous for a very decorative style of artwork and for a very large temple erected by Rajaraja, the Chola king who was so good they named him twice.

As we drove out of Madurai we went past a painted temple elephant being led along the side of the road. This seemed like a good omen. Further along, just about as we were passing the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court (sic - the court is still that of Madras, though the city has changed its name) on the right hand side of the road, I saw an interesting looking rock on the other side. At first it seemed most like a crouching tiger or a sphinx but it was very long. And then, when we turned around to the left, the rock just kept going as if it was a rectangular plinth intended for the later display of a mountain. Finally, we left the rock behind and I saw that, instead, it was actually serpentine in shape like a giant rock sausage along the sides of the roads.

The local people here make good use of the available rocks and I saw many large boulders and rocksides painted with advertisements or political slogans.

We stopped along the way at Fort Thirumayam. This fort is built on a large rock and seems to arise out of the rockface. It has recently been restored and you can see several concentric defensive walls around the highest part of the fort. From the topmost point there is a good view of all the surrounding country and a lonely cannon has been placed at the apex.

As it was a weekend there were many local tourists about. There are a lot of secluded nooks and crannies up and down and under the rocks and couples had found many of these and were relaxing together. There were two large boulders rather resembling Krishna's Butter Ball at Mamllapuram but these, I could see, were more firmly fixed to the ground. Under the shade of the larger one, schoolchildren were doing homework.

There were small shrines on the hillside and also two larger temples to Vishnu and Shiva respectively, which were closed.

I was at the very top at just past noon and heard what I took to be a muezzin declaiming the Muslim declaration of faith, that Allah is God, that there is no god but Allah and that Mohamed is His Prophet, from a nearby mosque.

Driving on, we past a statue of a large mustachioed man holding a white horse. Soon after, we slowed down for a railway level crossing and small girls came up to the car trying to sell us small green bananas. It reminded me of the displays of green, yellow and red bananas I had seen in Madurai.

As soon as you enter Thanjavur there are signs to the "Big Temple". And quite soon you see it, a giant pyramid looming above the old section of the town. I can see it from my hotel room window. It's fair enough to call it the "Big Temple" because that's what its official name Brihadishwara Temple means. It's another temple dedicated to Shiva.

You can see the Temple and the golden ball at its very top from my hotel bedroom. My room is quite large and, unusually enough, its dimensions are posted on the outside door lintel. It is ten feet three inches by thirty three feet and nine inches. Over ten yards long! Big enough for a hotel bedroom but much smaller than the temple!

Rajaraja, who ruled from 985 to 1014 wanted to build his temple here as Thanjavur was the capital of the Chola kings. Construction began about 1002. But there was no local stone and the temple was to be built from granite. All the stone had to be brought from Tiruchirappalli by three thousand elephants. Amazingly the whole temple complex was built in only seven years, so Rajarajah had lots of time to worship there. However thousands of workers laboured day and night to get it ready in time. A similar effort may be needed if India is to be ready to host the Commonwealth Games next year.

The gopuram as you go in is beautiful. It is not painted but there is a wealth of detail on it. In most southern Indian temples the gopuram is the highlight but here the main sanctuary is under a tall pyramid that is even higher than the gopuram, rising to sixteen storeys. I was told that no cement of fixing material was used in the construction of the temple. The stones stay in their places through friction alone.

On top of the main temple structure is a great monolithic hemisphere of stone weighing over eighty tons. It is hard to imagine how it could have been raised up into its place. And mounted on that cupola is a ball of pure gold twelve feet in diametre.

The great courtyard is flanked by corridors 400 and 200 metres long. Around the walls 1,000 nandi staures are set. A gigantic Nandi, five metres high, six metres long and weighing 25 tons faces the main temple.

I was not allowed into the central shrine itself which is directly below the cupola. But I was permitted to see the great lingam that stands there, though not to photograph it. It is said to be the biggest lingam in India (for those to whom size matters). It is five metres high, like the Nandi and is said to be ten metres in circumference.

A further 108 lingams of more usual size, all dating from the temple's foundation, are lined up along one wall.

The rajah's palace stands nearby the temple. This comprises what is left of a Vijayanagara Fort which was subsequently expanded and embellished by the Nayak and Marathi Kings. Most of it is now an art gallery, housing a great collection of Chola bronzes. The best of the collection are kept in what was formerly the Great Durbar room, which is itself very beautiful with painted walls and ceiling.

Another gallery was wholly given over to Natarajas, depictions of Vishnu as Lord of the Dance. If it isn't too offensive, it would be nice to see a dance off between Vishnu and Jesus, whose followers have claimed for each this title. It was enjoyable to wander around noticing the small difference between each piece, how some conveyed a sense of movement and how some concentrated on his expression.

You can climb to the top of the tower but I gave up after the third floor. Here I found, rather randomly, the bones of a blue whale 92 feet long that been washed up ashore in February 1955, just five months before I was born. Underneath it, and tiny in comparison, was the shell of a sea turtle.

Another room of the old palace contains the library, which must be an important one in world terms as it contains many books not found elsewhere. It was founded by the Nayak kings but much expanded by the Marathas, especially by King Serfoji II, whose statue stands in the durbar. Some of the collection could be seen in the library's museum. There was a Johnson's Dictionary and many well illustrated books, including a world atlas showing all of Captain Cook's latest discoveries and calling Australia, New Holland. Another interesting book was written in letters which were each made up of the word "Shiva" written very, very small and repeated as often as needed.

At Rangam's suggestion we went on to a bronze making factory where the process of casting by the lost wax method was explained and exemplified. I didn't buy anything though I was tempted by the Tanjore style paintings they had.

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