Brihadeeswarar is a really impressive Hindu temple, dedicated to Shiva in Thanjavur. The central gopura is 60m tall, no wonder it’s called “Big Temple” on road signs! It was built by Rajaraja I (985–1014), a powerful leader in the Cholas dynasty (these were the guys who ruled southern India for over 1,000 years). Rajaraja’s military campaigns spread Hinduism to the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Java, but he also encouraged literature, painting, sculpture, traditional music and dance. This is one of my favourite temples: I like that its solid granite is exposed, beautifully carved and not painted. We sit cross-legged in the shade reflecting on our trip, smells of incense, monks chanting, pilgrims worshipping, and I feel so calm, so chilled.
It doesn’t last: the traffic in Thanjuvar is particularly bad and I am foul-mouthed again! There is no concept of ‘Give way’, the rule is do not hit anything in front, which is why drivers rarely glimpse to the right when they turn left and pedestrians walk with their back to the traffic.
The Nayaks ruled after the Cholas, so we cycle to see their royal palace and the Chola C10-13th bronzes sculptures. I like them, and it is lovely to chat to two English ladies (I could chat all afternoon, I’m starved of female company!) It’s really hot and Charles has had enough so we retreat to our hotel pool, yes a small swimming pool with clean clear water.
The next day we visit Airavateshwara Temple, built by King Rajaraja II (1146–73) in a small village called Darasuram. Another favourite. I’m struggling with the multiple names for the same deity. Most temples are devoted to Shiva, the supreme being who creates, protects and transforms the universe. At this temple, Shiva is called Airavateshwara because he was worshipped here by Airavata, a white elephant. I know that Nandi is Shiva in bull form.
But it gets very confusing trying to understand Brahmins in Sabhanayakam Temple in Chidabaram. In a legend, King Hiranyavarman made a pilgrimage here from Kashmir, to cure himself of leprosy by bathing in the temple’s water tank. To show thanks, he enlarged the temple and brought in three thousand brahmin priests from the Dikshitar caste, distinguishable by top-knots of hair at the front of their heads. Young men always have beautifully styled hair. Today the temple Brahmins wear the same top-knot, but jauntily angled to the right. We are allowed to wander throughout this crumbling temple and the young Brahmins are keen to chat, and anoint us. There are identically carved massive granite columns lining tall shady passageways, and smooth cylinder columns of black basalt.
What is the concept of Brahman?
“It is the pervasive, genderless, infinite, eternal truth and bliss which does not change, yet is the cause of all changes. Brahman as a metaphysical concept is the single binding unity behind the diversity in all that exists in the universe.”
How can one begin to understand Hinduism? I see grave, inapposite Europeans, dressed in white Indian robes on spiritual quest and I know that will never be me.