Notes On Culture
An Unknown Anecdote of an Old Woman and the Brihadeeshwara Temple
A little known story of an old woman who visited the Brihadeeshwara Temple at Thanjavur and her service to it.
One of the criminally neglected glories in the annals of Bharatavarsha’s extensive civilisational history is its unparalleled, unbroken and flourishing maritime sway for more than two thousand years. Gold from Rome surged into all parts of Bharatavarsha especially under the vast, sweeping, and opulent empire of the Andhrakas or Satavahanas. The Roman Empire paid in gold for exquisite Indian silks, fine dyes, high-quality spices, and gems. The next major epoch in Bharatavarsha’s maritime history roughly begins with the inimitable Guptas who laid the all-encompassing foundations for almost every facet and nuance of Santana civilization and culture that has survived till this day.
The succeeding epoch after northern India was overwhelmed by Arab and Turkish Muslim barbarians arose in south India. When Rajaraja I consolidated the wrecked remains of the denuded Chola Empire and constructed a sprawling swell of maritime dominance and the opulence that flowed from and into it. From the scratch. Encompassing Sindhu Mahasagara, and the entire coast of Bay of Bengal up to Kalinga Desha. In just twenty-nine years.
In the same twenty-nine years, Rajaraja was also busy notching up virtue after virtue. Indeed, in this, he shares a common trait with all distinguished Sanatana emperors: of multifaceted accomplishments of Himalayan grandeur. His sweeping administrative reform indicates an extraordinary level of genius. The reorganization of his vast empire into administrative units called valanadus—with fine-grained level of decentralization where each village retained almost absolute autonomy—is a legacy whose hazy vestiges still exist in Tamil Nadu to a tragically diminished extent.
Rajaraja Chola was also a devout Sanatani. While the world eulogized him as Rajakesari (Lion among Kings), Mummudi Chola (the Chola Emperor who Wears Three Crowns: Chola, Pandya and Chera), and Rajaraja Chola (King of Kings), he took pride in calling himself, Shivapada Shekhara (One Who Places his Head at the Feet of Lord Shiva). He ranks as one of the greatest Shiva Bhaktas and but for him, the extraordinary corpus of Nayanars would’ve perhaps been permanently lost. His title, Tirumurai Kanda Cholan (the Chola who “Saw,” i.e. saved the Tirumurai—the compendium of divine hymns to Shiva) truly befits him like a sacred ornament. Among other things, it is such kings and saints and poets and monks and vagabond minstrels that are still the protective edifice that has allowed Sanatana culture and traditions to survive in Tamil Nadu against the century-long savage Dravidian predators and missionary moth-eaters of Hindu souls.
The other magnificent expression of Rajaraja Chola’s Shiva Bhakti is undoubtedly the epoch-making Brihadeeshwara Temple at his capital, Thanjavur. It is Shiva Bhakti that carved itself. It is spiritual architecture that awakens our immanent transcendence the moment we behold it. Its physical age is 1010 years but the divinity that let it build itself is Sanatana.
Here is an anecdote that shows just once fraction of this divinity.
After the Brihadeeshwara Temple was fully constructed and consecrated, a final step remained. The enormous temple bell had to be rung without which regular Puja etc could not begin. No matter who pulled its cord, the bell simply refused to respond. Almost the entire day passed with the same depressing outcome. After much entreaty and prayer, divinity spoke through the voice of one of the devotees thronged there: this bell will sound only if the person who has truly worked for the construction of this temple rings it. Find that person.
Quite naturally, Rajaraja Chola was himself was requested to perform the auspicious honour. He pulled the cord. Nothing. The main Archaka pulled it. Nothing. All manner of Bhaktas, saints, monks, donors, artisans, and workers were one after the one. Same result.
Evening had dissolved into early night. The trepidation began to escalate. Perhaps something had terribly gone wrong somewhere. It was time for the Mahamangalarati after which Prasadam would be distributed. Sans the Prasadam, it would be impossible to start Annadanam—coarsely speaking, dinner. And the whole chain of events hinged exactly on the ringing of the bell.
And then an old, well-worn woman walked in, touched her head to the threshold, folded her hands, walked to the bell and tugged the cord. It happened. The entire precinct of the magnificent Brihadeeshwara Temple instantly resonated with the auspicious melody of the enormous gong coming off in devout waves.
The extensive crowd of Bhaktas was transformed into one whole unit of stunned silence. It took a long time to utter the unuttered question: who is she? Not a familiar face. A face more likely to be forgotten than remembered. One among those scores of folks by the wayside. Rustic-looking. Perhaps a poor farmer’s wife. Perhaps someone who did some random work just to survive. No one knew. Yet Brihadeeshwara, the All-Encompassing Mahadeva, had identified her as the person who had truly built His temple.
Needless, she instantly became the cynosure of everyone’s devotion. Rajaraja Chola himself came forward and paid her his respects. In true Sanatana tradition, everyone present there wanted to find out what she had exactly contributed to the temple’s construction so they could perhaps take some lessons from her, emulate her.
This is the other pulse that has sustained Sanatana Dharma in this land: of random strangers trying to find out the reason—however inconsequential or absurd—for why a person was bestowed with some blessing from the Devatas. The other practical, daily-life manifestation of this principle is visible even today: of enquiring whether any ancient or famous temples exist when people set out even for a jolly holiday. Read this extraordinarily evocative account of Shivapicchai Mudaliar for an elevating experience of this Sanatana practice.
The poor old woman was frightened at this kind of sudden, overwhelming public attention. But she truthfully had no answer. Like every Bhakta, she had customarily rung the bell ignorant of what had transpired throughout the day. They began a detailed enquiry…where do you live? What’s your background? What do you do? Nothing in her answers gave a satisfactory explanation for why she had accomplished nothing short of a miracle.
The Shikhara (dome) of the Brihadeeshwara Temple weighs 25 tons and rests on a massive, single block of granite that in turn weighs 80 tons. These weights are tiny fractions but enough to give an idea of the scale, size, and extent of the entire temple, and taken with its elaborate complex, covers nearly 45 acres of land. A mini village. So far removed from that era, it is almost impossible for us to even imagine how it was built in a pre-mechanised age…how all those countless boulders were transported from faraway distances, carved, joined with error-free precision, erected…what quality made it endure for more than a millennium. The Brihadeeshwara Temple was built over a period of fifteen years.
After much head-banging and more probing questions, the explanation for the old woman’s seeming miracle was found. She indeed hailed from a nondescript and humble background. The reason she had truly built the Brihadeeshwara Temple was as simple as her simple life. Each day over these fifteen years, she would stand by the highway in the brutal afternoon sun next to a trough of water. The cart drivers who transported those enormous boulders would unfailingly halt by her for a while. Then they would untie their oxen. The old woman would repeatedly fill the trough till the oxen had quenched their thirst and relaxed for a while before proceeding forward, their mute service to Brihadeeshwara. He had waited for her to ring the first bell.
This among uncountable others qualifies for what is dismissed as local legend and fable. And it is precisely because the contemporary mind dismisses such anecdotes that it is has become spiritual wasteland where nothing of lasting value grows. But then we live in an age where artificial intelligence is pursued with a fanatical zeal to replace the mind itself. The eventual, self-inflicted destruction of changeless spirituality, which lies in a higher realm within us, is perhaps entirely, justifiably deserved.
(I am profoundly indebted to Shatavadhani Dr. Ganesh who first narrated this to me several years ago.)
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