Notes from Madras II

Looking for the uplifting moments India offers to lives lived against a horrifying backdrop of rising crime

By Charu Nivedita

Darasuram. Photo: Prabhu Kalidas A group of students, learning the art and philosophy of the tradition in Darasuram. Photo: Prabhu Kalidas The voluptuous Ganga Devi. Photo: Prabhu Kalidas

OK. I give up. One can’t keep up with the ever-increasing crime rate in India. As I write this, a middle-aged man in Delhi stabbed a twenty-two-year-old girl 32 times in broad daylight. The reason: she spurned his amorous overtures. The incident, caught on CCTV cameras, has gone viral: millions of Indians have watched it.

How much can I write about such gruesomeness. Enough.

There are uplifting things to Indian life as well. There are two dogs, and Chintoo, a cat – a more recent addition – in my household. A few days ago, there was a statewide bandh (a consensual lockdown of public and private services as a protest against something or the other). There was no place open to buy fish for Chintoo. Avanthika (my wife) walked down to the nearby Marina beach where an old fisherman in his catamaran was picking out small fish one by one from his net. The fisherman asked Avanthika why she had ventured out even on the day of the bandh to buy fish. She told him about Chintoo’s peculiar dietary habits where he (the cat) deemed only fish kosher. Upon hearing this, the fisherman gave her a large basketful of his fresh catch. For free. Yes: he refused to take money. While on the one hand we have suicide bombers intent on killing fellow humans, on the other we do have compassionate folks like this fisherman in every corner of the world.

In the quest for cheerful subjects to write about, I accompanied my photographer friend Prabhu Kalidas to Kumbakonam into the Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu. There’s a place adjoining the town called Darasuram that houses the Airavatesvara temple. The earliest mentions of the Chola dynasty, which ruled southern India (from Thanjavur as their capital) for several centuries, date from the reign of Ashoka (around the third century BC) of the earlier Maurya Empire. As for the Cholas, they were at the peak of their powers between the ninth and the thirteenth century ad.

The naval conquests of the Cholas extended their empire to parts of the Andamans, Maldives, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia. Even today, remnants of Chola influence can be found in Southeast Asia. Despite being an Islamic nation, there’s no city in Malaysia in which Hindu temples can’t be found. There’s a giant Ganesha statue in one of Bangkok’s streets. The people who worship the statue may not know anything of its origins. When I quizzed one of the devotees while visiting the place, he thought the elephant figure was one of the Buddha’s manifestations. Additionally, there are hundreds of Tamil words that have found their way into the Thai language.

The grandest examples of Chola architecture are the Brihadeeswarar temple at Thanjavur built by Rajaraja Chola I (985–1014 ad), Gangaikonda Cholapuram built by his son Rajendra Chola I (c. 1014–44 ad) and the Darasuram Airavatesvara temple built by Rajaraja Chola II (1146–73 ad). All three temples are veritable wonders of the world.

Of course, the Taj Mahal is celebrated as India’s most significant global wonder. And rightly so. But I personally cannot see the Taj as the monument to love in the way that most people do. It is built in memory of Mumtaz Mahal, who was thirty-seven when she died. Mughal emperor Shah Jahan took her as his fourth wife when she was nineteen. She died while delivering her fourteenth child. So it is fair to assume Mumtaz was hardly ever not pregnant in her adult life. Only if Mumtaz and Shah Jahan fornicated the very next day after she delivered a child could she have been so prolific a bearer of Mughal progeny. Given its history, I cannot think of the Taj Mahal without necrophilic imagery popping up in my head. The Taj Mahal is a mausoleum: erected in memory of someone dead. The three Chola temples I mentioned however are monuments of joy that celebrate life.

Temples were the focal points of Tamil life back then. With thousands of people congregating in and around these structures, they became the staging ground for the best music, dance, theatre and every other artform. The three Chola temples represent the apogee of human creativity in the fields of architecture, sculpture and art. My personal favourite in this Chola triad is the temple in Darasuram. Every pillar in that temple tells us the genius of the anonymous Tamil sculptors of the twelfth century.

If you go to see Leonardo Da Vinci’s iconic Mona Lisa (c.1503–6) in the Louvre, you’ll encounter a hundred camera flashlights every minute. It is the most seen, photographed, hagiographed painting in the world. In Darasuram, every pillar has a Mona Lisa sculpted in black granite. They are so marvellous that only the gods themselves could have sculpted them to such perfection. There are sculptures ranging from half-an-inch to larger-than-life figures.

There is one particularly enchanting sculpture of a woman with a smile more enigmatic than Mona Lisa’s. The guide informed us that the subject of the sculpture was called Ganga Devi. But we do not know anything about the person who created it.

Sekkizhar was a poet who lived during the reign of Kulothunga Chola II (1135–50). So impressed was the king’s young son Rajaraja Chola II with Sekkizhar’s epic Periya Puranam that he decided to visually translate the 4,286 songs of the epic and lives of the 63 Shaivite Nayanars in the form of sculptures in the grand Darasuram temple that he would build. These sculptures are made using granite blocks that are about 50cm wide. One scene depicts a man and a woman waist-deep in a pond. They are holding two ends of a bamboo reed. On another side are Shiva and Parvati. All this on a stone of 30cm.

The corresponding story in Periya Puranam goes like this: a potter visits a prostitute. On hearing about it, his wife decrees, ‘Swear upon the Neelakanta Shiva that thou shall not touch us.’ And because she employs the word ‘us’ as first person plural, the potter decides to abstain from the pleasures of female company altogether. The couple eschew the pleasure of sex forever. When they both turn old, a mendicant comes to them and deposits his bowl of alms for safekeeping until his return. When the beggar comes back to ask for his bowl, the potter discovers that it’s no longer in his custody. He offers to make a brand new one. The beggar refuses, wants his own and accuses the potter of stealing his property. ‘If you haven’t stolen it, prove it,’ declares the beggar. To prove his innocence the potter was asked to enter a pond holding his wife’s hand. Bound by his earlier vow, he could not touch his wife. The village council gathered and adjudged that the beggar’s demand be fulfilled. The potter and his wife enter the pond holding two ends of a stick. When they reemerge after the dip, they are both youthful again, and can see Shiva and Parvati in front of them.

In Darasuram I met a sculptor who is a part of the lineage of the masters of the past. Without the money to buy metal, some are putting in the smelter their old bronze sculptures to create new ones. More on that story in the next issue.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of ArtReview Asia