Hidden histories of temple towns in Tamil Nadu
In his recently released slim book Thanvajur, Suresh proves that the district often synonymous with the sprawling Big Temple has a treasure trove of tales to offer.
CHENNAI: From the stories of the Chola dynasty’s striking fresco paintings on a passage in the Brihadeeswarar Temple to a rare marble bust of Mahatma Gandhi, Thanjavur retains rich relics of the past. Author and archaeologist S Suresh ushers the audience through the architecture of temple towns in the state, at an event organised by Friends of Heritage Sites (FoSH) at Shri Shankarlal Sundarbai Shasun Jain College for Women.
In his recently released slim book Thanvajur, Suresh proves that the district often synonymous with the sprawling Big Temple has a treasure trove of tales to offer. Filled with 100 colour snapshots, including ones of rare artifacts, this book aims to be a handy, snappy companion for “the lay reader, students, serious tourists, and tour guides and scholars” as they examine historical attractions, chronologically.
For instance, the guide features the Schwartz Church, which is home to a unique marble sculpture created in England at the request of Maratha King Serfoji II in the 1820s. It showcases the king grasping the hand of his German tutor Schwartz on the latter’s deathbed, says Suresh, adding that a replica of this could be found at St Mary’s Church in Chennai.
Not limited to architecture alone, the guide features Thanjavur dolls, and the Maratha’s contribution of Ashoka halwa and poli to Tamil cuisine. Referring to the “Marathas’ greatest and sweetest contribution” to Tamil Nadu, Suresh explains how King Sambhaji ventured into the royal kitchen to whip up some dal and accidentally invented sambhar.
In his other book, From the House to the City in Tamil Nadu or the Forbidden Diagonal — translated from a French book penned by Jacques Gaucher — Suresh describes “all the major temple towns from Chennai to Kanniyakumari and the relationship between the temple, houses, and markets.” He explains the town's architecture holds valuable lessons.
“Every temple all over Tamil Nadu was surrounded by the Mada Street. Depending on the direction, it would be East, West, North, or South. Beyond that, there would be Charriot Street which was broader naturally for the chariots to pass. The Sannadhi Street would go like an arrow straight from the sanctum cutting through Mada and Chariot Streets,” he says. The Thirumanjana Veedhi would lead to the nearest waterbody or tank and was home to affluent crowds.
Citing Gaucher’s concluding comments in the book, Suresh notes that agraharams of the past adhered to strict rules and had a harmonious relationship with the temple. “Apart from the name, it has lost all its agraharam features,” he says, adding that organisations like INTACH and FoSH can preserve the houses in situ or as models within museums.
According to the archaeologist, world heritage and conservation have evolved over the years. On the heels of the Sacred Ensembles of the Hoysalas and Santiniketan bagging the UNESCO World Heritage tag, he says, “From what it was 30 years ago, world heritage has become a big thing or earlier. In the initial stage, people in India or other places hardly thought about it…now it has become a prestige issue as it involves things like better care for monuments…more tourism, more publicity, and more revenue.”
Every temple all over Tamil Nadu was surrounded by the Mada Street
— S Suresh, Archaeologist and author