Pilgrims’ Progress: Gangaikondacholapuram and Thanjavur

The trippiest thing that I ever learned from the NCERT 7th grade History Textbook is to pronounce ‘Gangaikondacholapuram’.

It wasn’t planned. Nor was Gangaikondacholapuram in our remotest thoughts, until Google told us.

Stranded at the Kumbakonam station, the only thing that was left to do was to do nothing. The stares directed towards us meant that four women clad in green kurtas and salwars weren’t a frequent sight at Kumbakonam station at 6 am.  After a satisfying breakfast of dosas and pooris to make amends for the highly effed up train journey, we set out to the bus station. Get a bus to Jayankonden and then to Gangaikondacholapuram. That was plan A for now.

In the bus towards Jayankonden, I had some useful life lessons. A sleepy faced Varsha leaned towards my shoulder and accepted her slumber call. It was then that I had the revelation that the highly romanticized shoulder- sleep wasn’t for me. I was tall. To lean on Varsha’s shoulder would require me to turn my head to a 270 degree angle. And that’d kill the romance in it along with the orientation of my clavicle.

Besides the life lessons, the journey was wonderful. The bus travelled amidst green and yellow paddy fields. The houses that dotted the narrow lanes were made of thatch and mud. Most houses had goats, cows, ducks, hens and some kids as well. After a couple of hours we arrived at a tiny town called Jayankonden.

In many unique aspects, Jayankonden is a weird place. Here flower sellers attach tiny red roses to strings of jasmine flower, local guys fap in public transport and people install mammoth hoardings to celebrate their third wedding anniversary. When the second bus stopped at Gangaikondacholapuram, the harsh truth was uncovered. The place isn’t even as large as its name seems to be. Gangaikondacholapuram! The capital of the Chola kingdom was just a temple complex. There was no rush, no tourists and no entry fee, just a huge abandoned stone temple. It seems that the NCERT textbooks exaggerate, like US politicians about their campaign funding.

Intricate carvings of deities on the temple panels are much better in real life, than the tripadvisor or makemytrip photos. The tall gopuram was shelter to hundreds of parrots and pigeons. The constant chirping provides an ambience of being far from the madding crowd. We walked around and rested on the lawns surrounding the complex staring at the cloudy sky.

A bumpy bus ride of two hours brought us to Thanjavur, the land of temples! Before anything comes food, hence a meal was also heartily consumed. Later we went in hunt for Brihadeeshwarar Temple. Brihadeeshwarar Temple or Periya Kovil is one of the largest temple complexes in India. Apart from the gopuram the temple has beautifully carved entry gates made out of a single stone. We roamed around the gardens and fortifications within the complex. The chances of getting inside the gopuram were non-existent since the queue seemed to be longer than the Nile.

It was during one of these moments that we saw a fortune teller. Despite my continuous pleading I was victimized to have my ‘fortune’ read out. The Akka started a lecture in high-speed Tamil, which was translated by Samuel accompanied by her divine glee.  However rational or agnostic/atheistic you claim yourself to be, the moment some random woman from a totally different city stares at you and shouts that ‘Amma, you are twenty years old’, you’ll have suspicions. Either it is some dark magic or a serious conspiracy. As I stood there listening to my fortune revealed, I wondered why these people are called ‘fortune’ tellers. I’m going to get married in two years. My romantic interest has a moustache. My life is shitty because a lizard drank my blood. To add more fuel to this forest fire, some guys (probably Malayalees), overheard Samuel’s 120 decibel translation. And as usual, they followed us for an hour. Immaturity is universal.

The only refuge here seemed to be Lord Brihadeeshwarar himself. We got into the queue to see the deity. The interior was dark and covered with soot from almost a millennium of fire based rituals. The deity was adorned with huge floral garlands and jewellery. Divine. Sun set and a kutchery began. The whole atmosphere was imbued with classical music. In fact, you get lost into it that you wish you were in an age where there were no term papers, twitter and Trump. We sat in one of those stone structures and stared at the wonders of ancient people. The Brihadeeshwarar Temple.

Not considering the initial confusion at the bus stand about our tickets, the bus ride from Thanjavur to Chennai was spectacularly eventless. The Uzhavan Express, the strangeness of Gangaikondacholapuram and the divinity of Brihadeeshwarar Temple were too much for 24 hours. It didn’t matter how bad the seats were or how cold the wind was; sleep took us away and brought us back to the east facing wing of the sixth floor in Tunga.

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