MILLENNIUM is a long time, even in the clock of the history of a civilization that is many millennia old. The grand Brhadeesvara temple in Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu celebrated its 1000th year of consecration on September 25. It is not only a sacred temple or a grand structure. It is living culture, a testimony to the arts, aesthetics and ingenuity of a people. Every aspect of the temple invokes awe. The entire temple complex is the biggest of its kind. It boasts of a monolithic Nandi, the divine bull that is 16 ft long and 13 ft high. The gopuram or the temple tower has been made to such precise mathematical and astronomical calculations that it casts no shadow anytime of the day. The height of the gopuram at 60 metres and the mounting of a 60 tonne stone structure on top are all marvels that are unparalleled. (Last week’s Organiser carried a feature on the temple).
Built by one of the greatest Indian kings, Raja Raja Chola, the presiding deity of the temple is Shiva. There are several sub shrines in the complex. There are several folklores connected with the construction of the temple. The stories highlight the devotion of the king to art, architecture and religion. He is credited with unearthing several Tamil scriptures that were considered as lost. He employed men of high education and commitment to retrieve these scriptures and to edit and multiple copy them for posterity. Some of these scriptures are sung in Shiva temples as daily rituals.
While on the one hand it is heartening that the artist community in Tamil Nadu paid a rich and befitting tribute to this great shrine, with 1000 dancers performing together at the precincts, the Central Government and the Culture Ministry were rather cool to this epoch. The artists’ tribute was an initiative of the world-renowned Bharatanatyam dancer Dr Padma Subramanyam. She is a scholar, and her doctorate is on the dance postures depicted in the walls of the temple, relating to the text on classical dance. The Union Culture Ministry that routinely celebrates anniversaries, latest being the 150th year of Rabindranath Tagore, completely glossed over the Millennia Celebration of the Thanjavur temple. No central official or politician was part of the event. A sad commentary indeed.
The Tamil Nadu government, obviously respecting the sentiments of the people, supported the Millennia Celebrations. The Chief Minister M Karunanidhi, a declared atheist visited the temple. He chose to enter the temple from one of the side gates, rather than the main entrance as there is a superstition that leaders who visited the temple through that door had lost power. There was a little irony in the situation. Only a few days ago, he had accused the ‘Aryan’ culture of promoting superstition and yet here he was, falling prey to superstition! The Chief Minister who had discarded his hallmark yellow shawl for the white angavastram, in keeping with the sober moment, was accompanied by all his family members except the Central Minister MK Alagiri.
One of the central cultural institutions, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts had put up a digital exhibition, of interactive kiosks, on the temple, using the material it has collected for a decades-old project on the temple, highlighting the iconography, and the architectural aspects. The exhibition, according to reports drew nearly five lakh people in three days that the state government extended it by a few more days.
There are scores of ancient temples in south India, which are all centuries old. What is unique about them is that since the day they were built, worship has been going on there daily, continuously, meaning they have not become monuments but are live testimonials. All these temples are architectural engineering marvels. But it is surprising that hardly any of them made it to the ‘Wonders of India’ contest held a couple of years ago. We keep coming up with old and clichéd monuments that are north-India and Islamic culture centric. It is true that these temples hardly need government support, on the other hand, the governments take over the temples and take money out of the public contribution to the temples.
These temples are the pride of our nation, our culture and heritage, of our ancient and yet vibrant civilization. The millennia year is a moment to pause to cherish.
This editorial is a reverential tribute to Raja Raja Chola, the greatest of Chola emperors who had taken the cultural glory of India to the Far East and beyond.