Quest for the unknown – Sacred Music Festival Day 3

Having missed the visit to the Brihadeshwara or Periya Kovil (Big Temple) – the stunning visual spectacle we passed everyday on the way to Thiruvaiyaru – the previous evening we rose early to join a few of our friends (who had also missed the previous day’s visit) to revisit and recap the architectural marvels of this surreal masterpiece made by the Chola kings in the 10th century A.D. We were taken on a guided tour of the vast compound that includes the two massive gates followed by a huge landscaped expanse that houses the main temples and makes up the temple premises. This is one of the few temples which have the top of the sanctum sanctorum towering above and beyond the gopuram (gate). The carvings are astonishing in their detail and have survived the years extremely well. So much so that a carving depicting a rope looked and even felt like a real rope down to the finest detail! We were given a swift but detailed run through of the important carvings and paintings as the day’s actual itinerary was yet to begin.

Carving of a rope on granite.

Carving of a rope on granite.

gggg

An extravagant carving of a miniature temple.

After a quick breakfast we joined the trail of the white tempo traveler that was carrying our friendly troupe to Thiruvarur, the birthplace of Swamy Tyagaraja(who is regarded as one amongst the trinity of Carnatic classical music).

It is also at the Tyagarajaswamy Temple that one of Prakriti Foundation’s main preservation/restoration projects is currently underway. One of the temple pavilions houses some incredible art depictions from the 17th century commissioned by the Chola king. A few years ago the Temple’s administration had arranged for the murals to be whitewashed into oblivion as part of a renovation process. By sheer serendipity Ranvir chanced upon them, immediately intervened and put a hold to the process by bringing in the necessary people (like INTACH) to preserve these creations instead.

As we walked into the pavilion we were handed a mirror, which made the process of viewing the murals seamless as they were on the ceiling. We were at once tantalised by the use of colour and imagery. The murals tell the story of how Tyagarajaswamy or Shiva came to reside in Thiruvarur at the behest of the monkey faced Chola King Muckunda. You will see scenes from battles fought, celebrations, flora and fauna and other general life depictions from the period. Here are a few:

A corridor in the pavilion that houses the Muckunda Murals.

A corridor in the pavilion that houses the Muckunda Murals.

The monkey-faced Chola King, Muckunda.

The monkey-faced Chola King, Muckunda.

Scenes from a blood bath.

Scenes from a blood bath.

The army of the Chola kingdom.

The army of the Chola kingdom.

Lord Thyagarajaswamy

Lord Tyagarajaswamy

The king on his throne.

The king on his throne.

For more detailed information check out a coffee table book titled ‘The Muckunda Murals’ by V.K. Rajamani and David Shulman.

The temple also houses an installation of the navagrahas. Translated as nine (nava) cosmic influencers (grahas), in Hindu astrology the position of the grahas are believed to influence the behaviour of living beings. It is typically consulted and mapped out during important junctures in one’s life e.g. birth, marriage etc. The grahas are usually positioned in a circular fashion however, at the Tyagarajaswamy Temple the grahas are in a straight line. It is believed that this is the case because the construction of the temple needed to be completed before the builders received the correct positioning from the Gods whom they were waiting on.

Owing to the heat we missed marveling at the large temple pond, barring a cursory glance while we were entering the temple premises.

We were almost immediately back on the trail of the Tempo Traveler, which was now heading to a guest house property (one of Ranvir’s) where we were going to eat lunch in traditional South Indian style. We did not know where we were going and hence did not know what to expect. After a longish, winding journey that was more like an obstacle course owing to the large number of potholes and the pitiable condition of the state highway, we reached a little village called Tirupugalur that was tucked away unexpectedly in the winding roads. We turned into a narrow village road that led up to an extremely quiet and deserted location which was behind the main village temple and tank. To our right was the Temple’s back exterior and the temple tank, which was U-shaped.To our left was one of the most eloquent homes we had ever seen – ‘Mangala Heritage Home.’ See it for yourself and tell us if you disagree !

The interior of the guest house is traditionally styled.

The interior of the guest house is traditionally styled.

Mangala sitout

View of the temple and pond from the guest house.

An area connecting the two parts of the house.

An area connecting the two parts of the house.

Lunch being served at the guest house.

Lunch being served at the guest house.

It was a true royal treat – with the incredible ambiance of a traditional Tamil Nadu home complete with modern amenities, charming aesthetic and beautiful service with a smile. We proceeded to eat a traditional meal that was served on a plantain leaf while being seated on the floor, which is how the people in this part of the country eat all their meals(the traditionally rooted ones at least). The meal was supreme and the setting promoted it to a sublime level. (A:9 M:8.5). The whole group relaxed and sat back after the meal as they imbibed the silence and tranquil energy that was on offer. Mangala Heritage Home is truly one of a kind and seemed perfect for a soul retreat away from urban life. We are certainly going to go back soon!

After engaging in a brief interactive session the convoy headed back towards Thanjavur led by us. The evening’s program (also the last of the Sacred Music Festival) promised some more interesting performances and we definitely needed to freshen up before heading there.

As it turned out, this was not such a great plan as we later realized. The process of going to Thanjavur to rest awhile and freshen up took more time than we thought it would – especially since we’d had that comatose inducing meal – and we ended up reaching the Panchanadeeswarar temple in Thiruvaiyaru nearly two hours after the program started. Turned out we had missed the entire performance by the Dalit Nadaswaram players (who performed on the temple rooftop) and more than half of the Carnatic vocal performance by the famous Sanjay Subramanian. We caught around half an hour of his final rendition which was quite effortless –  technically precise, yet subtly melodic true to the characteristics of the Carnatic style.

Sanjay Subramaniam in concert at the Panchanadeeshwara Temple.

Sanjay Subramaniam in concert at the Panchanadeeswarar Temple.

After the concert ended there was a round of felicitations for Prakriti Foundation and the local bodies who were involved in successfully putting together this wonderful festival for the 5th year in a row. During this point we learned about the existence of 2 music schools in Thiruvaiyaru  – The Government Music College and The Marabu Foundation. Dr. Rama Kausalya who was Master of Ceremonies for all the events, was the ex-principal of the Music College and Founder of the Marabu Foundation. Unfortunately, there was not enough time and space to learn more from Dr. Kausalya as we were amongst a large number of people waiting to speak with her.  However, we do intend to find out more about the types of musical knowledge that are being imparted there along with the kind of environment and setup at this school which is based out of a holy ground of music.

Back at Hotel Naynam in Thanjavur, the headquarters of the organizers as well as some from our little travel party, we enjoyed a simple meal in the company of our new friends. A few were getting ready to leave on the same night and the rest were departing the next morning like us. It was a good hour or so of reliving some moments and exchanging ideas and thoughts until we met again. We said our goodbyes and headed back to our hotel and retired early as we had a whole day of driving ahead of us.

Our trip back was mostly uneventful aided by a very satisfying meal at a restaurant (forget the name but it is on a big circle on the highway) in Salem. We chose to take the traditional route around Trichy and into Namakkal, (we went a bit off course again for about 5 kms owing to the very non-descriptive turn-off from the main highway) which was quite peaceful and took us about the same time. Post Namakkal, M took over the wheel and drove at an easy pace till the outskirts of Bangalore.

It was a great, refreshing and pleasant experience for the two of us as it not only had the perfect ingredients for the palettes of our exploratory minds, but also a fantastic setting and interesting company to make it more special than it already was. We hope to come back and not just attend but get involved in some way with this beautiful initiative that helps in throwing light on maintaining the importance of the arts, music and architecture in this region. Keep your eyes and ears open for the 2014 event as the foundation doesn’t do as many online updates a we’d like and the only way to keep posted with their activities is via their facebook page.

More explorations coming your way soon as we have enough travel on our minds !
AM

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Mother Cauvery’s Trail – Sacred Music Festival Day 2

to read about day 1 of the festival and our trip, click here

Elections rule our lands

Elections rule our lands

To the strains of a poignant MuteMath we traversed through green lush by means of a dented state highway that connects Thanjavur to Kumbakonam. Our destination was Darasuram, a small village in the Thanjavur district a few kilometers before Kumbakonam. Here we visited the Shiva temple (local name – Airavatesvara, which is another name for Shiva). Built in the 12th century by one of the Chola Kings – Rajaraja Chola the second, the temple is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Carved pillars at the temple pavilion.

Carved pillars at the temple pavilion.

This was a real gem in terms of art and architecture as it had some of the most exquisite and well preserved stone carvings we’d ever seen. One of them being the horse-drawn chariot in the main mandapa, which has been carved to some truly amazing detail.

Darasuram cieling

One of the carved and painted ceilings.

We bewilderingly walked through the different parts of the temple, every inch of which was carved with ancient stories about Hindu mythology and/or life in the times of the Chola dynasty. The expansive scale and extravagant architectural style of these temples show that these ostentatious rulers truly wanted to leave their mark in history.

An example of carvings at the temple

An example of carvings at the temple

Amongst the members of our entourage was VR Devika, who had mentioned that she would be talking about some of the carved depictions at this temple so we followed her around with the hope of gathering some such info. She turned out to be a storehouse of knowledge of all things South Indian and the seemingly still and nondescript carvings of Lord Siva came alive with the vibrant details of her parables. Here’s one where she comes upon an important carving (in granite) of Shiva as Lingodbhava (shown below):

Lingodhbhava

Lingodhbhava

There were many more interesting and magical stories plucked out of Hindu mythology and amidst all the enlightenment, the concept of ‘ganaas’ stood out as a short and sweet anecdote.’Ganaas’ are the little creatures who were part of Shivas clan and are always spotted in depictions relating to Shiva and we saw several of them at the Airavatesvara temple. We asked Devika who or what they were to which she casually answered, with a smile :

“ganaas are the unexplained phenomenon.
Like a sudden cool breeze on a hot day.”

Ganaas

Ganaas

We spilt from the rest of the group (who were lured by some silk weavers in the temple complex) to head back to Thanjavur to get a good meal and some rest before the evening’s performances began. Sri Sivas Hotel near the Thanjavur state bus stand served us a nice and satisfying South Indian meal on a plantain leaf that was complete with butter milk (‘more‘) and vathal kozhumbu (A:7 M:5.5)

Come evening, we were back on the road to Thiruvaiyaru and the music. The evening’s program was an interesting mix and was being held at a new venue. We didn’t know what to expect until we were crossing the bridge over the Cauvery and saw it in the distance. It was now that we realized that beautiful venues were going to be the signature of this festival.

The river Cauvery is one of the lifelines of Tamil Nadu as far as the water supply is concerned. Between the lack of rains in the last monsoon and the water dispute with Karnataka, the river has been rendered dry and lifeless at Thiruvaiyaru. It was at one of the ghats here where the stage was setup for the evening’s concert. We entered the doors of the Pushya Mahal, which had been set up and tastefully lit in true festival spirit. The stage and the mahal behind it looked brilliant in hues of pink and blue from the crowd perspective (which was in the river bed), but what looked even more stunning were the heritage buildings, which were an ancient housing complex for the Queen’s ‘ladies in waiting‘, converted into a girls’ hostel which had been intelligently lit up to add a really special extension to the main stage. It felt great to stand within this awesome setting in the river bed while we watched the sun go out. Some bhajans were being rendered by the little girls who won the local bhajan competition held by the Prakriti Foundation the previous day.

View of the stage from the bed of the Cauvery - venue for Day 2.

View of the stage from the bed of the Cauvery – venue for Day 2.

The bhajans were followed by a Ganga Aarti program by three young Pandits who had been brought down from Varanasi to perform the aarti as a prayer for a fully fledged monsoon and a flowing Cauvery in the coming year. This ritual was unfortunately set to a recording of some chants and devotional songs rather than live music, which was a real dampener considering the nature of the setting and the feelings that it evoked inside us.

Fortunately, the best act was kept for the last. A capacity crowd (600 odd) gathered to watch one of the musical ambassadors of India close the show with his group ‘Saptaakshara.’ For those who do not know of him, Vikku Vinayakram is not just a leading percussionist. He is a ghatam exponent who has brought the instrument into the limelight and given it a voice over the past few decades.

Vikku Vinaykram with Sukanya Ramgopal.

Vikku Vinaykram with Sukanya Ramgopal.

However, with this group he showed how artistes should never let their accolades take over their art by stitching together a beautiful ensemble of instruments that genuinely defined the school of Carnatic percussion through a set of pleasing melodic arrangements. The group featured Vikku Vinayakram [ghatam(s)] and his team of son Mahesh (carnatic vocal), student Sukanya Ramgopal (ghatam) ,grandson V Swaminathan (khanjira) and A.Ganesan (morsing). The set consisted of songs that employed the use of konokol (the format of speaking out the beats of a rhythmic pattern) to craft melodies and progressions embellished with some tasteful vocal improvisation. The percussion ensemble sailed through 90 minutes+ led by the flawless performance of the leader Vikku Vinayakram who took his immensely talented group through some really intricate and interesting changes that thoroughly enthralled the audience. Amidst the unique features of the group was the multiple ghatam setup of different tunings by Vikku Vinayakram that added a really sweet harmonic element to the song arrangements. Listen to a song from their performance that opens with the vedic chant – totakashtakam, which is a poem of 8 stanzas by Totakacharya in praise of his Guru Shri Adi Shankaracharya.

After the disappointing music showcase on day 1, this day ended on a great note with this refreshing performance and just when we were ready to go back, our gracious host Ranvir Shah (founder of the Prakriti Foundation) invited us to a post concert tete-a-tete that he had organized at the palace, where we caught up with our fellow festival cohorts and unwound with some good relaxed conversations about the lives that we hail from.
Not to forget the food that was an important aspect of this trip for us. Yet again, it didn’t fail to stir the innards of our souls with its mightily appealing simplicity. Be it the paniyarams served this night or the elay sapada (banana leaf meal) we were to be served the following day (read our next entry for details) the bliss experienced following every meal was consistent on this maiden voyage together.

Breakfast couldn’t come any sooner!

And off we go to Thanjavur – Sacred Music Festival Day 1

for those of you who have reached directly here, read our previous post to know where we’re headed and how.

After being delayed an hour by rush hour traffic on the way out of Bangalore City, we were cruising through the amazing NH7 after an average breakfast and coffee at a Kamat restaurant a little distance outside Hosur. The signature paddy fields of the south had started to appear and the silhouettes of the hills in the background added a beautiful flavor to the normally plain horizon.

As advised we took the road recommended via Karur. We got a bit lost on the way and ended up missing our turn off to Karur/Namakkal but realized our mistake in good time and spent just an extra 30 minutes to rejoin our original path.(It’s a bit of an all roads lead to Madurai/Kanyakumari kinda situation so it’s better to be closely locked on your map). After resuming our originally planned route, we ran smoothly past the very picturesque Karur, which was dotted with these cute small households amidst greenery and a massive cement plant at the helm of the town. It assumed a sense of peace in us. Post Karur the road ran a bit narrow and unruly till we finally entered Thiruchirapalli or Trichy, the home of the great Ranganathaswamy temple, which has the highest gopuram in the world. We stopped for lunch at the Batcha Biriyani Center as it was the only place serving food at that hour(it was 3:30 pm ). The meal was a bit cold but we still lapped it up as we were starving and this was our first meal in TN (A:6 M:4). With food in our stomachs, we cruised straight to Thanjavur after crossing the Kaveri twice (in an attempt to take the shortest route out of Trichy) and being given a super vivid and dramatic ‘Kathakali like‘ directional performance of our route by a roadside vendor. A south indian speciality indeed!

Abi’s Inn is one of the first ‘luxury’ hotels in Thanjavur and is a neat, clean and simple accommodation that suited our needs perfectly because we were going to be out and about attending the festival and exploring the region and its many sights. All rooms are equipped with the basic necessities such as air conditioners, a television set, western style toilets as well as solar powered hot water! The restaurant serves a splendid breakfast, the room service is decent, and to top it all it is quite reasonably priced (A:8.5 M:8). We did not have much time to rest as the first concert of the festival was to begin at 6pm in Thiruvaiyaru, which was only a distance of under 20 kilometers from Thanjavur. However, since we had no idea of the condition of the roads or the distance/direction, we got ready as fast as we could and headed out towards the venue. After several directions and re-directions we made it past the sunset to the first concert of the festival which was already more than half an hour in.

While being directed to the venue we were told to look out for the ‘pura koondu’ – literally translated as pigeon’s hole. This was a tall tower built as a rest place for weary birds. Immediately after crossing the Cauvery river bed into Thiruvaiyaru via a bridge we spotted this tower. Parking was sparse, but we managed it and entered the beautifully ruined Diwan Wada Palace. The entrance way was lit up quaintly with a number of  ‘velakkas’(oil lamps) and flowers. The stage was set up in the inner courtyard amidst some ancient corridors that were intricately highlighted by some great lighting. The centerpiece of the eye catching backdrop included a behemoth of a banyan tree and another lit up ‘pura koondu’  identical to the one at the entrance of the palace. The setting was very magical in every aspect except one – the music. The renditions on sitar by Deobrath and Shivnath Mishra(Thanjavur was being subjected to their first sitar concert ever!) were flaccid and devoid of any true feel or expression and hence any identity. However, the redeeming feature of the flat performance was the tabla accompaniment by Prashant Mishra.

The Mishras with the Poora Koondu as the backdrop

The Mishras with the Poora Koondu as the backdrop

We left the venue a bit bummed and drove back to Thanjavur. Here we joined an exciting group of our host Ranvir Shah’s invitees and friends for dinner. Some of us introduced ourselves to some others and a few others were aided in enthralling introductions by Ranvir himself. It came to our knowledge that we were in truly interesting company whose common unadulterated quest was to discover the art, architecture and culture of South India. While the itineraries of the following two days were plotted our minds were rejuvenated.

As we lay our heads down that night, we subconsciously prepared ourselves to open our minds to new ideologies, discoveries and the possibilities of enlightenment in the two days that were before us.

The Pura kundu brilliantly lit up in profile.

The Pura koondu brilliantly lit up in profile.

Spell #1: Sacred Music Festival, Thiruvaiyaru, Tamil Nadu, India

Image

Ingredients:
1. Map
2. Enthusiasm
3. A great playlist
Add (at your will):
4. Scenic explorations

We’re getting ready for our first spell – a trip to Thiruvaiyaru to check out the Sacred Music Festival organized by the Prakriti Foundation. This is not to be confused with the Thyagaraja Music Festival, which is held in January every year.

This is going to be a momentous trip for two reasons. Firstly, because we are both deeply steeped in music our visit to Thiruvarur, which is the birthplace of Thyagaraja is probably going to purport the greater cause of our lives. Secondly, driving through the paddy fields of Tamil Nadu was a regular feature of my childhood that I am excited to revisit after what seems like eons.

Not to mention we will of course be sussing out anything eye/ear/mind catching along the way.

Hard Facts:
This will be a 3-day festival from March 1st – 3rd, featuring the following:

> A special sitar duet Concert by Pandit Shivnath Mishra and
Deobrat Mishra (father and son) who were born into a
renowned family belonging to the Benares Gharana,
spanning seven generations.
> Sufi Concert by Qawwal Najmuddin Saifuddin & Brothers
(of Pakistan), who are the ambassadors of Sufism
> Saptaakshara concert by percussionist Vikku Vinayakram
> Vocal Concert by Sanjay Subramaniam

Each concert will take place in 3 stunning venues. But, more on that later.

Since we are going to be driving from Bangalore we did a little research on the best route to take. The parents made a trip recently and advised us against taking the State Highway post Namakkal. So we will be taking a diversion from Namakkal via Karur to then rejoin the highway at some point.

We’re looking forward to sharing this and many more experiential journeys that we have our eyes on. Here’s hoping that we can dive in and soak in the true spirit of what lies ahead!