On our road trip to my grandfather’s house last year, we were treated to some amazing scenery — palms and plantains; paddy fields and elephant grass; street art and intricate architecture; flowing rivers and the magnificent ocean…
Here are two of my favourite photographs from the trip, shot through the window of our car.
We left Chennai on Christmas eve. After a short visit to Chidambaram and overnight at Vaitheeshwaran Koil, on Christmas morning we set off towards our destination — a small village named Komal.
I remember my grandmother mentioning Komal several times, but beyond the name, I knew nothing. To me, Komal sounded out of place. It was too north-Indian a name, to be a village in Tamil Nadu. In fact, for a long time, I thought it was in Myanmar!
We knew no-one in the village. The house was sold several years ago, and my father hadn’t been anywhere near Komal for forty years.
We had no address. Back then, my father told us, people never had addresses. Everyone knew everyone else in the village. Each house was identified by its occupants. How, then, were we to find that house? “I’ll know it when I see it. I’m told it hasn’t changed one bit,” said my father.
One of my father’s cousins gave us the name of a person who could help us locate the house, just in case.
“It is near a temple.”
We followed the highway leading towards Kumbakonam and asked for directions from locals. Our landmark was a temple. We found one. And another. And another. But my father could not recognise anything. “There should be a bridge, followed by a row of shops. I don’t understand. ”
My father asked a few local people about the person my uncle had mentioned. “No brahmins live on this street,” said one man with a glare. He pointed towards another street, and told us to ask there.
On the other street, we were told that only Iyengars lived there, no Iyers. They pointed towards the end of the street and told us that some of the residents had been living there for years. Perhaps they could help.
At the end of the street, we stopped outside an old looking house, that my father thought looked familiar. Unsure, he knocked on the door, and asked the residents if he could take a look. A few minutes later, he came out and told us that it was not the one.
We had been going around in circles for over an hour. The sun was beating down on us.
Dejected, and frustrated, we were planning to return to Chennai, when we saw an elderly gentleman. As a last-ditch effort, we asked him about our mysterious contact person. To our delight, he knew the person. “Oh! Yes, I know him! But he doesn’t live here. He lives in Komal. This is Therazendur.’*
Once we realised we were in the wrong village, it took us barely 10 minutes to reach the narrow entry to Komal.
“The bridge!” my father exclaimed. “I know this! We are here! Those are the shops. Take this turn. Right here. Wait! Stop!” No sooner had the car stopped, that my father sprang out of the car. He looked around the small roads, and then began walking at a fast pace.
There was an old man, walking alongside a cycle, on the side of the road. My father asked him about a house that had once belonged to an uncle of his. “Oh that person passed away many years ago,” replied the old man.
“Yes,” my father replied in an excited tone, glad that someone finally knew about the house. “That was my uncle. My father had bought it from him.”
The old man’s eyes widened. He took my grandfather’s name.**
“Yes! I am his youngest son! Can you take me to that house?”
My father’s steps quickened. His excitement was evident. The minute he laid his eyes on the house, my father pointed towards it and exclaimed, “It is just as we had left it!”
The old man introduced us to the occupants of the house. He must have become accustomed to members of my father’s family coming to see the old house, and graciously allowed us inside.
“This house was the only house in the entire village to have electricity, in those days!” My father was visibly proud. “There used to be a swing. A large swing. Is it still there?”
The owner smiled and said it was there. Everything was just the way it had been. The swing, the large stone grinder, even the light switches and fans!
“This house was purchased in 1940 when the war broke out, and my mother had to move with three of her children along with our grandparents and stay in a largish house. It was bought for Rs. 4000. It was in this house that I was born,” my aunt later told me.
Watching my father almost run around the house, I can only imagine how many memories must have come back to him. Every wall, every pillar, must have meant the world to him — a world very different, and in another time, from that of ours right now.
The owner told us that my uncle once casually asked if it were up for sale.
“So was it?”
“No! It’s been a very lucky house for me,” replied our smiling host.
Kolam outside the Komal house
A stone grinder can be seen on the right
* My grandfather was born in Therazendur. We had practically gone around the whole village a couple of times, and it is likely that we passed by one of the houses that may have once belonged to his family. But we will never know.
** That old man, we later found out, was a distant relative of my grandmother!
While I was in Chennai last year, I received a message from a friend of mine:
‘So are you coming tomorrow?’
‘I’m in Chennai right now’, I replied.
‘Ooh Margazhi. Have fun!’
I didn’t understand what she meant by that. I had visited Chennai during the winter months a few times in the past, but apart from the pleasant weather, I couldn’t think of any other reason to enjoy. I soon found out.
The Tamil month of Margazhi* is considered highly auspicious. For those who are religiously inclined, Margazhi is a month of lots of pujas — temples open much earlier and devotees visit in large numbers for the special pujas. But that was not what my friend, an ardent follower of performing arts, meant.
Margazhi is a cultural extravaganza, a haven for fans of the classical arts, with hundreds of Kutcheries — music and dance concerts — organised throughout the month. Margazhi is, in fact, now synonymous with the music festival.
Chennai takes its music seriously, and audiences don’t clap unless the performance is very good. I found that out on our last day in Chennai, when we spent close to six hours in one auditorium, listening to back-to-back musical performances (for free)!
Even those not interested in the arts — and there are probably few of those in Chennai — cannot escape the Margazhi season, for the art overflows on the streets. Take a walk in the interior parts of residential areas. The Kolams that are drawn at door-steps of every house are much bigger and colourful. The kolams at the temples, though, were my favourite. These are from the Chidambaram temple:
Kolam at Chidambaram Temple
One of the twin kolams along the side of the entrance of Chidambaram Temple
And if you are not interested in art, well then there’s always the sea. The cool sea breeze, on the cool sand is the perfect place to relax.
Yes, Margazhi is the time to visit Tamil Nadu.
*Margazhi begins in mid-December and ends in mid-January. The Corresponding Sanskrit name is Mārgaṣīrṣa. After the end of this month, the harvest festival of Pongal (which falls on Makar Sankranti) is celebrated. The festival marks beginning of Uttarayan – the beginning of the sun’s ascent, signifying the beginning of the end of winter.
The images in this post are my entries for this week’s Photo Challenge. To see more symmetrical images, check out the Daily Post’s Weekly Photo Challenge.
We were on our way to the Vaitheeswaran Temple, when we decided to take a short detour. The magnificent gopuram* of the ancient temple was visible from afar, and it was on an impulse, that we decided to visit the Chidambaram temple.
Opposite the entrance stood an intricately carved wooden structure, being prepared, perhaps, for the grand pooja which was to take place only two days after our visit. A long row of shops – selling flowers, pooja items, idols of Gods, colourful kolam powders and filter coffee – lined either side of the path leading up the entrance. We deposited our slippers with one of the shoe-caretakers (for lack of a better word), and stepped inside.
Beautiful kolams greeted us, followed by the grand gopuram which we had seen from afar. There were more gopurams inside the premises. Hundreds of devotees had come, mostly in crowded buses, from different parts of the country. We followed the crowd.
After a long walk from the entrance, we entered the main shrine. Devotees who were closer to the sanctum sanctorum, bent over the railings; those who were behind, stood on their toes; children sat on shoulders of their fathers, all of them waiting to get a glimpse of Nataraja, the lord of dance. As the curtain was pulled apart, temple bells and folded palms filled the shrine.
This ancient temple, spread over 40 acres, is one of the largest temples in the world (fourth largest, to be precise)**. Intricate sculptures of deities atop the gopurams, stone panels depicting dance postures, halls with high ceilings, all supported by massive pillars embellished with floral detailing. With several shrines and tanks, the temple priest told us, it would take one full day to properly visit the temple complex. An hour, was hardly going to be sufficient to soak in the magnificence and grandeur of the temple.
Every year Bharatanatyam dancers converge in this temple during the annual festival to worship, their offerings in the form of dance. I can only wonder what that atmosphere would be like. Hopefully I will visit the temple once again. And on that day, I will spend more than just an hour.
* Gopuram is a monumental tower, usually ornate, at the entrance of any temple, especially in Southern India. This forms a prominent feature of Koils, Hindu temples of the Dravidian style. They are topped by the kalasam, a bulbous stone finial. (Source: Wikipedia)
** The three largest temples are, in order, Angkor Wat, Cambodia; The Srirangam Temple, Trichy, Tamil Nadu: Akshardham, Delhi, India (Source)
I had written this on the 19th, but I didn’t feel like publishing it. A little encouragement made me publish it now. So it’s a belated happy birthday to pati and me 🙂
It would have been just another ordinary Sunday, had athai *, (my aunt) not decided to pay us a visit without notice.
It’s always a pleasure to welcome family members, and indeed any one else for that matter. Every time we have visitors, there is such variety of conversation. There are times I wish I had secretly recorded everything that was said, every expression that was made. It would provide plenty of fodder for a blog post!
Athai brought with her, carrot cake from a famous bakery, which happened to be en route. While it is customary to bring something in hand, carrot cake was quite unusual. I had never eaten carrot cake before, and was even apprehensive about it, but nevertheless, it looked inviting. She also brought a present for me (she always likes to shower me with gifts :)), and lots’ of stories of her recent travels.
Over lunch, she told us about the music festival that she visited. Called the Thyagaraja Aradhana, it is held every year around January and February. Saint Thyagaraja is one of the three great composers of classical music in south India. He led a very simple life and travelled to temples singing devotional songs.
Athai told us that the music festival was organised on the banks of the river Kaveri in a village called Thiruvaiyaru. There were no chairs and everyone sat on the ground. To maintain the sanctity of the place, people removed their footwear. The musicians arranged for their own travel and accommodation. No one is ever paid to perform. She told us that anyone with reasonable skills could go and perform there, and for serious musicians, singing at the festival was like a pilgrimage.
Since music is an integral part of life in Tamil Nadu, people are assumed to have atleast some knowledge of classical music. Everone is given a copy of the Saint’s most famous compositions called ‘Pancharatna Krithi‘ **. And so, along with fifteen thousand people, on the banks of the river, athai sang the kritis.
Athai told us that during the festival, the doors of all the villagers were open to everyone. Anyone could enter a house and would be served a hot lunch, complete with vadai and payasam ***, which are normally prepared only on festivals and special occasions.
She said it was a wonderful experience, and I couldn’t help envying her. I wished I too knew how to sing the compositions, and that I could one day go there myself and sing in unison with so many people, especially because the village lies in the district where my ancestors lived.
Our conversation then moved towards the food that we were enjoying and how it was my pati’s favourite dish. We then began sharing some lovely memories of her. And then it struck me… It was the 19th of February – Pati’s birthday. The mood at the dining table changed. Here we were, eating a dish that pati loved, and there was delicious cake waiting to be devoured!
The extraordinary Sunday, became even more special.
* athai – father’s sister
** pancharatna kriti is a collection of five musical compositions
pancha – five ;
ratna – gems ;
kriti – composition
*** vadai – a salty fried snack / side dish / appetizer / breakfast
payasam – a sweet dish made with milk (a.k.a kheer)