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Published: February 19th 2015
When kings set out to impress, they usually do it well. Rajaraja Chola I was no exception. Instead of having the highest cathedral with the best vaulting, he opted for a massive temple in his capital Thanjavur, to celebrate his conquests in south India and the consolidation of his reign. Completed in 1010 it vies with and probably beats most of the great churches in Europe, certainly at that early date.
Mr Hussain tells us it will take two hours to visit. We are sceptical, no temple having taken us that long. When we cannot find a guide, we are sure we will be round within the hour. But as ever, he is right. The main Shiva shrine sits under a 200ft high vimana covered in carvings, and is the middle of a huge courtyard surrounded by pillared porticos, with subsidiary shrines dotted around. Subsequent rulers in the 16th
century added to the place, but the sculptures are all so stylised that it is impossible to tell what date anything else is. The hot sun turns the sandstone a golden shade. Despite the number of visitors, it never feels crowded, except when we join the queue to the inner sanctum.
We’re disappointed to discover that the much vaunted 11th
century frescos are in said sanctum, which is open only to the priests. There are frescos in some of the portico but they are 600 years more recent and much less impressive.
The interpretation centre proves unusually interesting, especially given the lack of a guide. The bored curator asks us where we are from. On hearing we’re English he proceeds to sing David Cameron’s praises. Cameron recently went to Sri Lanka and spoke out in favour of the Tamils. Our new found friend is, of course, also a Tamil and would really like to see a separate Tamil state. He also says that if the Brits were still in charge the country would be much more developed. Not the sort of thing you expect to hear these days in India.
We retreat back to the hotel at lunchtime, and risk life and limb once more crossing the road to our new favourite restaurant, the Sri Krishna Bhavan. This time, a larger meal than the night before, plus lime sodas and water costs a mere £3.
In the afternoon we set off to the palace. After the palaces of
Rajasthan, we’re expecting something spectacular. It is not to be. We enter a dusty courtyard and are relieved of 500 rupees (£5) which buys us entrance to six different parts of the palace. The whole place is decrepit and needs some serious money spending on it. First up is the Maratha durbar hall. The hall itself is colourfully painted, but the courtyard is in rack and ruin. Next we head into a decrepit hall with dampstained walls and ancient display cabinets filled with random collections of items – dolls, china,weapons..... you name it. An attendant appears and tells us there is an extra charge for this superlative gallery. We start to demur but cough up when we find the fee is 2 pence, which is about what it’s worth. The prince’s library has an eclectic selection, including anatomy guidebooks, a map of London in 1809, pictures depicting assorted hideous forms of torture and death in early China, 19th
century paintings of Indian towns and some manuscripts on palm. Last up is the art gallery. It has some beautiful sculptures and bronzes, but by now we’re hot and have already seen a lot of stunningly similar works of art, and this
particular part of the palace is overrun by French tourists who gawp at each exhibit in groups of ten or so. The best and worst bit is the courtyard. It has an elaborate pagoda style tower which is very beautiful, but is ruined by the addition of smoked glass windows to one whole side of the Nayak durbar hall built in 1600.
We retire back to the hotel. Having seen almost no tourists apart from French all holiday, we are surprised and not a little dismayed to find a massive coach party of 40 Germans checking in. We have to defend our room as a porter demands to deliver some Teutonic luggage to us. He tries to shove it through the door but is repulsed. We opt for an early club sandwich to ensure we are in and out of the restaurant before the group arrive, and settle in for an evening of editing photos, reading and packing ready to set off again in the morning.
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