….first post on Tamil Nadu…. Click on photos to enlarge/reduce….
My third visit: Tamil Nadu
My first and second trip to India, discussed in the first four blogs, help me a lot in preparing the one I took in January 2014. This time I returned to India to visit Tamil Nadu, in the South East of India.
My interest in the Deccan plateau cultures started when I visited Hampi, I thought then that the Tamil history and its contribution to that of India was relevant.
This trip was planned to follow a simple meandering path through the state, it started in Chennai and it ended in Madurai visiting the key historical (and religious) places along the way.
Although the trip turned out every bit as interesting as I hoped, an unexpected character of Tamil Nadu emerged while travelling: its modern development, attested by an amazing number of advanced educational institutions and high tech industrial parks. Even agriculture and water management appeared to be more developed than other parts of India. May be the fact that the State official language is Tamil and not Hindi has something to do with its character.
I found that even a marginal knowledge of the history of a place helps considerably its appreciation when visiting it; the following historical notes are composed to help the reader navigate through the images I selected for this landscape.
A Brief Tamil History
During the 3rd century BCE, the northern India Mauryan kingdom (under Ashoka) extended control to the South Deccan plateau (i.e. the north Tamil area) until the middle of the 1st century BCE when the Satavahana dynasty replaced it for the next two hundred years. During that time –the Sangam period – the Tamil kings and chiefs in the south of India were often in conflict with each other. The three main dynasties, geographically distributed, were Cholas, Pandyas, and Cheras. At the close of the Sangam era (about 300 CE) the whole region fell under the control of the Kalabhras for three hundred years. Little is known of these rulers who apparently supported Jain and Buddhist faiths.
From the sixth to the thirteen century we have the Tamil “mediaeval” period. This time the “warring” empires were the Pandyas, the Pallavas and the Cholas and they alternate each other in the control of the whole Tamil area.
In 700 CE the Pallavas rose to great power and established the capital at Kanchipuram. Today, the rock-cut temples and the Shore Temple in Mamallapuram as well as and the great Kailasanatha and Vaikuntaperumal temples of Kanchipuram attest to their relevance. The Chalukyas, from the western Deccan, try to challenge the Pallavas but were defeated in 750.
The Pandyan Empire gradually emerged in the 6thcentury and by the 10th it was replaced in the south by the Cholas, for about two centuries. The revival of the Pandyas in the 13th and 14th centuries coincided with their greatest period.
The settlement in the South of the Cholas, around 850 CE, established the ’mediaeval’ Chola Empire, which gradually expanded to include Lanka as well as succeeding to exert influence in the Malaysia and Indonesia area. It was to commemorate his victories that Rajendra Chola built a new capital called Gangaikonda Cholapuram (around 1060 CE), after which a new phase, the ‘later’ Chola Empire, ushered a smaller but stronger regional reign (until 1279).
In 1311 Malik Kafur, a general of the Delhi Sultan Alauddin Khilj, invaded and sacked Madurai establishing a short lived sultanate (to 1378).
The 14th century invasion by the Delhi Sultans caused the Hindus to rally for unity and a new kingdom, called the Vijayanagara Empire emerged from this effort. Bukka, with his brother Harihara, founded the Hindu Empire based in the city of Vijayanagara in Karnataka (today Hampi’s archeological site) and established local governors called Nayaks to rule in the various territories. The Vijayanagar Empire declined beginning in 1564, when it was defeated by the Deccan Sultans, but its Nayak governors of Madurai and Thanjavur managed to last until approximately 1660.
In that turbulent period the Deccan Sultans were replaced by the Mughal which were eventually opposed and then replaced by the Maratha in 1707.
The European settlements began to appear in the Tamil areas at the time of the Vijayanagara Empire. The Dutch, English then The French established trading posts that eventually led to the complete control of the Tamil area by the British East Indian Co. in early 1800.
In 1858 the British Crown assumed direct rule in India, which ended with the Partition of India into Dominion of Pakistan and Union of India on 14 August 1947.
Travelling north of the Kaveri/Kollidam River
The City of Madras (now Chennai) was founded in 1639 by the British East India Company. The Portuguese had first arrived in 1522 to build a port called São Tomé, after the Christian apostle St. Thomas and the Dutch had established themselves near Pulicat, north of Chennai, in 1612.
My visit to Chennai was somewhat less interesting than expected but it held some surprises. The long Marina Beach turned out to be a truly magical landscape. Beached boats and folded carts glare in the sun until dusk brings life to the beach area with all kind of family entertainment, most of them popping out of the blossoming carts.
The Portuguese legacy is still quite visible in the colonial town, the St. Thomas church and annexed university stands out in the downtown landscape. Some of the large buildings from the British times are still standing, the University appears charmingly intact but the now called Government Museum (with its exhibitions) appears to have seen better days.
Although the “western” legacy of the city implies a less resonant presence of Dravidian architecture, three temples stand out: the Kapaleeswarar, the Vadapalani Murugan and the Madhya Kailash Temple.
Modern Chennai seems to want to shake the ‘old city’ feeling through the erection of important institutional medical buildings and other educational institutions.
Travelling a short distance from Chennai, we find ourselves in Kanchipuram, an amazing mediaeval city with dozen of temples built from the 6th century CE onward. A visit here requires time and if you can stay a few days you’ll be rewarded by splendid sights and gain an appreciation for an urban landscape reminiscent of old European cities.
In the 4th century CE, Kanchipuram become the capital of the Pallava Empire. Located on the banks of the Vegavathy River, Kanchipuram has been ruled by the Pallavas, the Medieval Cholas, the Later Cholas, the Later Pandyas, the Vijayanagar Empire, the Carnatic kingdom, and the British. The city’s numerous historical monuments include the Kailasanathar Temple, the Vaikunta Perumal Temple, the Varadharaja Perumal and Ekambareswarar Temple, and the Kamakshi Amman Temple, which are some of major Hindu temples in the State (List of temples in Kanchipuram). Kanchipuram was an important centre of education and between the 1st and 5th centuries the city was a religious centre of advanced education for Jainism and Buddhism (its Buddhist institutions were instrumental in spreading Theravada Buddhism to South East Asia).
Two things may happen to the tourist in Kanchipuram: one, the architectural plan and structure of a Hindu temple begins to be appreciated behind its decorative elements or the colorful sarees of the women; two, the lack of knowledge of Hindu mythology is felt as a critical handicap in the appreciation of these religious building. The meaning assigned to the structural and decorative elements by the Dravidian architectural language is simply astounding and very hard to penetrate by the casual tourist. I was not surprised to see some Indian tourists visiting temples with encyclopedic guidebooks and regretted to have spent, beforehand, too little time learning about them.
The visit to Kanchipuram called to be followed by that to Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram) because the town was, in the 7th century, the port city of the Pallavas Empire. The legacy from that period are a group of sanctuaries carved out of rock along the Coromandel Coast: rathas (temples in the form of chariots), mandapas (cave sanctuaries), and giant open-air reliefs such as the famous ‘Descent of the Ganges’; as well as the Shore Temple (all part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site).
Although these archaeological sites are exceptionally interesting, the visit to Mamalla turned out to be a little treat because the (many) tourists can find pleasant, unobtrusive accommodations as well as restorations in this simple seashore village. My January visit was timed to coincide with the month long dance festival, another treat.
Chidambaram and Gangaikonda Cholapuram
Going south from Mamallapuram, but before crossing the great Kollidam River, we find two important historical places: Chidambaram with the grand and holy Nataraja temple and –a little westward – Gangai Konda Cholapuram, with the historical Sri Bragadeeswarar temple.
Chidambaram is a town wrapped around the Thillai Nataraja Temple (also famous for the annual chariot festival held in the month of April). The temple, with the high walls and the amazing water tank, is rather impressive. The main complex is dedicated to Shiva Nataraja and the complex contains shrines to deities such as Shivakami Amman, Ganesh, Murugan and Vishnu in the form Govindaraja Perumal. The temple’s earliest structures were designed and erected by ancient craftsmen (before the 9th century CE). The temple, as it stands now, reflects mainly the upgrades from the 12th and 13th century.
Gangaikonda Cholapuram was erected as the capital of the Cholas by Rajendra Chola I, the great Chola who expanded his Empire in the Tamil area as well as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Sumatra. As the capital of the Cholas from about 1025 A.D. for about 250 years, the city controlled the affairs of the entire southern India, from the Tungabhadra in the north to Ceylon in the south and to some south East Asian countries.
Today, the only Cholas’s city legacy is the fantastic Sri Bragadeeswarar temple, dedicated to Siva. The temple is next only to the Brihadisvara temple at Thanjavur in its monumental nature. A peculiar architectural aspect of the temple is the fact that the shadow of the main tower never falls on the ground throughout the year.