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Architecture, Arts, Cities, Heritage

Distress call from Thanjavur

What do you do when you meet a person who is dying? What do you do when you meet someone who is dying and you know that you can save him/her? What do you do when you know that something is of historical and cultural significance, already dying a slow death and someone is trying to kill it as quickly as possible?!

Horrendous as it may sound, that is exactly what I witnessed in Tanjore! Tanjore is also known as Thanjavur. Thanjavur, the name is believed to be derived from an “Asura” called “Tanjan”. Asuras are power seeking Hindu deities known mostly for their fury and destructive qualities. Tanjore came into prominence during the reign of Medieval Cholas and it served as the capital of the Chola empire.

In ancient days, Thanjavur was known as “The rice bowl of Tamil Nadu,” hence the importance was even higher. Tanjore as a city was built a 1000 years ago by the Cholas as an assemblage of villages centred around the Brihadeeswara Temple. Brihadeeswara temple, popularly known as The Big Temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva. It was built by Chola King Raja Raja 1 in 985-1012 A.D. Thanjavur had the distinction of being specifically constructed as a religious city with the temple at its center. And it is one of the best known examples of Chola architecture!

Thanjavur is also the home of the Tanjore painting, a painting style unique to the region. Tanjore painting is a major form of classical South Indian painting. It dates back to about 1600s, the period of Nayakas of Thanjavur, who encouraged art, classical dance, music literature, both in Telugu and Tamil. The art is usually a combination of raised and painted surfaces, with the Hindu god Krishna being the most popular image depicted. In modern times, the value of these paintings have appreciated a lot in the global markets and these  paintings have become souvenirs of festive occasions in South India, wall decors, and collectors’ items for art lovers.

The major occupation of the inhabitants of the town is tourism and service oriented industry. However, the traditional occupation has always been agriculture. Thanjavur is also an important centre of silk weaving in Tamil Nadu. Tanjore silk sarees produced in the villages surrounding Thanjavur have a good market both in Thanjavur and in other parts of India as well. The town also produces bell metal craft like Thanjavur metal plates, bronze images bowls, napkins and powder boxes made of copper and bronze. The town is a major manufacturer of pith works consisting of models of Hindu idols, mosques, garlands and other bird figurines. Manufacture of musical instruments like veena, tambura, violin, mrithamgam, thavil and kanjira is another economic activity in the town.

With growing competition and increased costs of living many people are abandoning their traditional occupations. Thanjavur is an important pilgrim centre and a major tourist destination of Tamil Nadu. [i]There were 2,002,225 Indian and 81,435 foreign tourist arrivals in 2009 to Thanjavur. And, the most visited monument in Thanjavur is the Brihadeeswarar Temple. The Big Temple has made Thanjavur an important center of South Indian religion, art, and architecture. Most of the Great Living Chola Temples (all of them being UNESCO World Heritage Monuments) are located in and around Thanjavur – Brihadeeswarar Temple at Thanjavur, Brihadeeswarar temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram and the Airavatesvara Temple at Darasuram.

Inside Brihadeeswarar Temple

Inside Brihadeeswarar Temple

For those who are not aware,  the Brihadeeswarar Temple is an architectural marvel of its times that still mesmerizes students and practitioners of art and architecture. Four notable marvels in this temple are:

  1. No shadow at noon: The shadow of this temple surprisingly never falls on the ground at noon at any time of the year!
  2. Tallest Temple:  The Brihadeeswara temple when completed was the tallest temple in India by an order of magnitude of 10! The temple stands at 216 feet and it is still the tallest temple in India. On the top of the vimaana –the tower above the main temple – is a capstone that weighs 80 tons.
  3. Musical pillars: There are 2 idols of Ganesha at the entrance of sanctum sanctorum. When one of the idols is tapped, one can feel the sound traveling through stone in one idol and through metal on the other. The main hall of the temple is said to have been used by the dancers and musician for religious ceremonies.
  4. 1st Granite Temple: Brihadeshwar Temple is the first complete granite temple in the world. Granite is not found in the surrounding areas. It is still not known where all the granite came from. The granite was not just difficult to find, it is a marvel to carve out such intricate details on Granite.
Tallest Temple

Tallest Temple

The main temple is surrounded by galleries full of beautiful paintings! Each and every painting is a story in itself! Most of the temple stories are believed to be told through these paintings. Some scholars also believe that the paintings hold many secrets! Raja Raja Cholan represented many of  his thoughts on these walls through paintings.

But, as I wandered in the temple compound, the paintings shrieked out as if asking for help. People had ruthlessly carved out their names, initials, and what not on the painted walls. Every bit of despoilment on the wall felt like a cut into the heart of the temple.. People who came  to the temple were oblivious to the presence of these paintings and most were only interested in the prasadam that was being distributed. Visitors have always found joy in the spaces inside the temple complex and while the temple has served as an excellent public space for all ages alike,  there is hardly any attention paid to the walls that bear the beauty and love of artists and storytellers of yore!

The restoration work in and around the temple is in an equally bad state! It does not need the eye of an architect, an artist or a restoration expert to see how bad each work had been done. I could not believe that the temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Monument. Some parts of the temple had been painted on with the weirdest choice of color, some parts were not even considered for restoration and some parts were restored with a blind eye. One often wonders why we have so much apathy for such beautiful monuments.

View of main temple complex and Nandi. The metal railings, a neon sign board and electric wires running all around.

View of main temple complex and Nandi. The metal railings, a neon sign board and electric wires running all around.

Jugaads - Who wants another Granite staircase?! Just put together a steel one!

Jugaads – Who wants another Granite staircase?! Just put together a steel one!

Quick-fix paint jobs

Quick-fix paint jobs

A part of the Temple painted over with some parts left to look after themselves.

A part of the Temple painted over with some parts left to look after themselves.

Design of lights is pathetically off-place

Design of lights is incongruous to the heritage value

Boundary walls and outside the Temple compounds are neglected. Some of them have turned into open toilets and garbage dumping grounds.

Boundary walls and outside the Temple compounds are neglected. Some of them have turned into open toilets and garbage dumping grounds.

One can observe the difference in colors between the various structures.

One can observe the difference in colors between the various structures.

When I sent this blog post to Urban Design Collective, they were very happy to publish it but were curious as to why and how this has affected me so much and insisted that I share my thoughts as part of the post itself. My first thought was why not, isn’t it obvious that we need to save our heritage? Does that even need an answer? Then the futurist inside me said that you can always save the heritage in digital formats – just as I did on my visit to the temple – click photographs, make videos; or in the future make 3D videos, make videos that will give a sense of touch and feel, a wholesome experience of being inside the temple as if in the Chola period itself.  But my introspection didn’t end there – I began to wonder if nothing is left, what will we photograph, what will we discover, what will we experience, what will we think was ever possible! Heritage for me, is not just history, it is the possibilities of the past that inspire me in the present to build a better future!

So, what am I doing about it? As the first step, I have tried to use the power of information accentuated by the power of social media to reach a bigger audience. I also mailed Mr. P.B.S. Senger and Mr. Janhwij Sharma from Archaeological Survey of India to inform them about the same and asking them to take actions. However, I didn’t hear back from any of them. Social platforms have led me to a few enthusiastic people like Geetika Kaushik who helped in reaching the right people to make the right impact. But, that has also not helped till date. However, it has given me faith that there are people concerned about our heritage and culture! In my current organization Institute of Customer Experience (http://ice.humanfactors.com/) we have created ‘a week of our own’, where each one of us can do an activity of our interest for the good of the society. I am now looking forward to utilize this week in making an impact in this direction. If you have suggestions, then I am willing to take it up! We also work on future of sustainability and you can read our first report on “Greening cities : A report on trends in urban sustainability” and send us your feedback.

Little else needs to be said! The photographs of all the paintings on the walls are captured in my blog (http://wheneveridontgetbored.blogspot.in/2012/08/death-near-death-of-paintings-of.html ) and I present here some of them. Some are almost dying; some are standing out facing the brutality of nature and people alike, and some are only to be imagined- ‘there was once a beautiful painting on that wall!’

Tanjore is not the only example of dying heritage neglected by the authorities; anywhere that I travel in India I see the same stories repeated over and over again. There are questions left and answers are hidden somewhere inside all of us. Can we do something about it? Can we make a difference? Can we save some of the leftovers? Can we come together to give a shot in the arm for our dying heritage?

Water seepage and ruined many of the paintings

Water seepage has ruined many of the paintings

Many of the paintings are destroyed beyond repair

Many of the paintings are destroyed beyond repair

Some paintings have been repainted by better known artists

Some paintings have been repainted by ‘a new crop of artists’

Perhaps nature will wash away the blooded walls before the knives again dig in for the killing……

[i] “Tourism in Tamil Nadu” (PDF). Tourism Department, Government of Tamil Nadu. p. 513. Retrieved 2012-07-03.

This is a guest post by Ankush Samant. Ankush is a traveler, explorer, dreamer, photographer, footballer and writer. He can be found walking, sometimes running and at other times standing on crossroads in life. He is not on a journey called life but inside a maze called evolution. In his own words- ‘I was a tiny spark buried under the ashes. But today, I am a raging fire. My soul told me that I am neither more than a pygmy, nor less than a giant!’ Ankush blogs at – http://wheneveridontgetbored.blogspot.in/

Copyright information: All the images are original, photographed by Ankush Samant and cannot be used without owner’s permission.

About Ankush

The Observant Explorer.


6 thoughts on “Distress call from Thanjavur

  1. Just a suggestion – How about reaching out to district collector? Email id: Collr.tntnj@nic.in
    I got it from the website : http://www.thanjavur.tn.nic.in/telephone.html

    Posted by Rohit Śarmā | May 27, 2013, 9:02 pm
  2. please find someone who will know what he’s doing. Stop ugly patch-up jobs.

    Posted by Kathie Brobeck | January 24, 2014, 7:27 pm

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