They were a family of Brahmins from Hyderabad – or Cyberabad, as they liked to call it – and they were all computer programmers. They talked proudly of the booming high-tech industry that had sprung up in their city: of the outsourcing deals they were negotiating with US companies, of the programming contracts they had just closed with a group in Houston, and of the 'health-care software solutions' they were finalising with the National Health Service in the UK. None of this, however, had in the least bit altered their desire to do darshan – to glimpse the gods – in all the most ancient Shiva temples of Tamil Nadu.
The Venkatramans were two weeks into their tour when I met them – heads bowed, palms raised just outside the main image-chamber in the Ekambareswarar temple in the great South Indian temple city of Kanchipuram. All around stood some of the finest medieval sculptures in India. The shrine at the heart of the temple was built by the great Pallava kings who ruled over much of South India during the seventh century AD, and around us superb mithuna couples – beautiful divine lovers – were entangled amorously around the jambs of the doorway. This did not, however, seem to be of much interest to the Venkatramans, who were all too busy with the temple's evening aarti (fire) ceremony.
As cymbals clashed and drums clattered, the giant temple nagashwaram blew a succession of fanfares that echoed around the thousand-pillared hall like a great screech of peacocks. Inside the sanctuary, in the light of flickering camphor lights, three half-naked Brahmins with oiled torsos, threads over their shoulders and rudraksha rosaries circled the central Shiva lingam with burning splints reciting Sanskrit prayers. Peering over the railings, the Venkatramans jostled to catch a glimpse of the earthen lingam at the shadowy heart of the sanctuary. Several chanted 'Mahadev!' (Great lord!) as the camphor flames licked higher. Then they all crowded around to have their heads anointed with vibhuti (sacred ash) by the temple priests. Other Brahmins handed around jasmine flowers and sweets blessed by the deity, in return for which the Venkatramans handed over their offerings.
Afterwards, we sipped chai in one of the tea stalls that had sprung up in the outer cloisters of the temple. The family talked about their whistlestop Tamil pilgrimage, and their plan to see no less than ten of the great South Indian temples in two weeks:
'It was my idea,' said Radhakrishnan, a handsome 40-year-old in an impeccable Brooks Brothers suit. 'Originally it was just going to be me and Chandrika.'
'But then everyone wanted to come,' added his wife, 'and somehow we ended up taking 14 relatives with us … You know how it is in India.'
I asked whether they saw any conflict between their high-tech jobs and their faith in the ancient deities of Tamil Nadu.
'What do you mean?' asked Chandrika. 'These days people are coming more often to temples, not less. In modern business, life is very tough: it's very competitive. But here you get peace of mind. You rejuvenate your soul.'
'The monotony of life has to be broken,' added her husband. 'And anyway, you get blessings from god.'
'You know, most of the programmers I work with are Brahmins,' said Chandrika. 'What you need for the job is analytical power, and our forbears have been making astronomical calculations for thousands of years. Quite a few of us on my board have relations who are priests in temples.'
'And do you literally believe that the gods really take shape in these ways?' I asked, pointing at some of the sculptures of many-armed and animal-headed deities surrounding us.
'There is one god with many incarnations,' answered Chandrika. 'By virtue of time, god has taken many forms. This is our belief.'
'We are following the culture,' added Radhakrishnan. 'For generations people have come and prayed here. You can feel it.'
'Following this path we will get real satisfaction,' said Chandrika. 'Here we forget our worries about our jobs and our salaries and our children's education. I don't think anywhere else can calm me down in the way these places do.'
Sitting to one side of the couple were their twin nieces, Latha and Sudha. Both wore identical heavy spectacles and both were studying computer science at a college in Kanchipuram. Both said they were going to go on this trip with their family to pray for success in their software exams.
'I always pray to the Goddess Durga,' said Latha. 'She can help me in my programming finals.'
'She is a very powerful god,' agreed Sudha, 'and she always answers the prayers of her devotees.'
'We put a light before her shrine on Tuesdays and Fridays wherever we are.'
'Science does not disprove god,' added Sudha. 'Saying that is like saying music contradicts god. Science only gives half the answers.
For the other half you have to look to the temples.'
'If you come to the temples, god will help you,' agreed Latha.
'Most of our prayers have been answered,' said Sudha. 'But it depends on your faith.'
If wealth is now rapidly flowing back into South India through its successful embrace of high technology, in the early Middle Ages the area's skills and talents were no less sought after. This was due to South India's monopoly on other high-value products then equally eagerly coveted in the West: silks and spices. The techies of today are descended from the spice traders of the early centuries AD, and in both cases Tamil Nadu – and its temples – have grown fat on the success of its sophisticated business elite.
The Pallava kings who made Kanchipuram their capital, and who filled their city with a staggering richness of huge temples, were one of a number of South Indian dynasties that became rich and powerful through their control of the spice trade and the wider maritime world this opened up. From their great port of Mamallapuram (also known as Mahabalipuram), the Pallavas sent naval expeditions to Sri Lanka, Thailand and to Southeast Asia, where inscriptions survive, witness to the scale of this first great Indian diaspora. An eighth-century Tamil poem speaks of the port where 'ships rode at anchor, bent to the point of breaking, laden as they were with wealth, with big-trunked elephants, and with mountains of gems of nine varieties.'
But the Pallavas were not just warriors and traders. They were as remarkable for their brilliance as poets and patrons of the arts as they were for their success on the battlefield. Two great kings stand out: Mahendra and Rajasimha.
Mahendra was the third monarch of the Pallava dynasty and ruled from 600 to 630 AD. Taking the titles Vicitracitta (The Curious Minded) and Mattavilasa (Drunk with Pleasure), Mahendra was not just a successful general but an eclectic and innovative poet, a noted musician and a sensuous connoisseur of the arts; he was also most likely the first Hindu ruler to commission a temple made from stone as opposed to wood. Moreover, he was the author of two now-lost treatises on South Indian painting and music, and the writer of at least two plays – one of which, a cynical and sophisticated satirical farce called The Drunken Courtesan, tells the story of an alcoholic worshipper of Shiva and his equally tipsy courtesan-lover who get into an argument with a decadent Buddhist monk over a drinking bowl left lying in front of a bar in Kanchipuram. Making equal fun of Buddhists and Shaivites, it is still regularly performed in the south today.
The same playful mentality that can be sensed in Mahendra's plays and poems can be seen at his greatest monumental creation: a massive relief sculpture, the largest in India, which he had carved in Mamallapuram, once the Pallavas' great port city. It is now a popular backpacker hangout, and is fast developing into a kind of miniature East Coast Goa. But away from the beach bars, the hippy shops and excellent seafood restaurants, Mahendra's sculptures are extraordinary creations and repay some close observation.
They cover one entire face of a hillside and at first sight are remarkable for their striking naturalism: two huge elephants stand, trunks swinging, to the right of the relief. A family of life-size stone monkeys sit beside them; nearby graze deer while a cow is being milked as it licks its calf. Such images jostle with superhuman warrior heroes, bearded sages and meditating ascetics. Above float an airborne cast of gods and goddesses, heavenly nymphs and tree spirits, and snake-hooded nagas and naginis. There is a breezy lightness of touch at work: a flute is playing alongside some dancing and a job lot of large-breasted and scantily clad women cavorting around with their consorts. In some ways, it is pure Bollywood.
There are also glimpses in the sculpture of the same eclectic humour that Mahendra exhibits in his poems. For instance, one small image at the base of the relief retells the Panchatantra story of the cat who lived beside the Ganges and who used to preach to the local mice about his own enlightenment, his vegetarian abstinence and his great qualities of mercy – only then to feast upon his credulous audience. In the sculpture the cat is made to stand on his hind legs in the pose of a fasting ascetic, while a gaggle of adoring mice gather at his feet in rapt devotion.
What only emerges with a little more study, however, is the sophisticated literary game that Mahendra's artist is playing. Most of the characters look as though they are illustrating the famous scene in the Mahabharata when the hero Arjuna undergoes years of penance and self-punishment in order to learn from Lord Shiva the secrets of the great apocalypse-weapon of the gods: Pashupati. The same scene, however, is sculpted so that it can also be read as the equally famous story of the Descent of the Ganges from heaven to earth. The final meaning is left open to individual interpretation: the same sort of game that Mahendra also plays in his poems: the cultivation of an erudite ambiguity.
If the work of King Mahendra's is best seen at Mamallapuram, then the patronage of his great successor, King Rajasimha, is best viewed at the dynastic capital of Kanchipuram.
To get there, you drive through the heart of rural Tamil Nadu. The villages are like those in R K Narayan stories: small and unspoiled, with roadside shops full of sacks of dried red chilli and freshly cut stalks of green bananas. The villagers leave their newly harvested grain on the road to be threshed by the wheels of passing cars. This is still a prosperous, gentle and well-to-do part of India: there are fewer people than in North India, and there is little of the grinding poverty of the Ganges plain. Women in bright silk saris troop along the roads with jasmine flowers in their hair. The cattle are strong and white and their long horns are painted blue.
Slowly, amid thick clouds of bronzed dragonflies, you pass from the green fertility of the coastal plain – alive with rice paddy so green it is almost blue – into the drier, edgier landscape of the interior. Thickets of flamboya, casuarina and sweet coconut give way to the arid palmyra palm. The road flanks strange, unearthly fingers of rock, and ranges of silver boulders glistening like beads of petrified mercury.
As you get closer to Kanchipuram, so the number of ruins littering the landscape increases: forgotten watchtowers and frontier forts lie abandoned amid the fields. Vine-covered walls, tanks and stairways climb up empty hills of jagged scree that were once bustling fortified suburbs of the Pallava capital.
Like Mahendra, King Rajasimha ruled during the Tamil golden age. He was an accomplished poet and musician, and was also a keen patron both of the arts and of his capital's temples. His greatest creation is the Kailasanth temple. This Rajasimha built both as a meditation on Lord Shiva and as a reflection of his own personality. All over the exterior walls of the temple are superb images of the different moods and avatars of Lord Shiva: Shiva teaching, Shiva as the beautiful dreadlocked mendicant, Shiva the destroyer of demons, Shiva the great warrior, Shiva dancing the world out of existence. As Rajasimha's dedicatory inscription makes clear, the king 'erected this extensive and wonderful house of Shiva, whose grandeur resembles the fame and laughter of the Lord Shiva himself.'
Below, however, runs a sequence of inscriptions in which the king writes of his own titles (birudas), each one celebrating his exploits and accomplishments, implicitly comparing them to the deity. He is – he writes – the Ocean of Arts, the Sole Hero, Devastating in Battle, the Unconquered, He who Showers Gifts and One of Unlimited Fancies. He also describes himself as 'One of Unrivalled Beauty', 'Pleasing to the Eye' and 'Of Sweet Temperament'. Pallava monarchs clearly did not suffer frominferiority complexes.
Rajasimha also patronised another great temple nearby: the Vaikuntha Perumal, which acts as the Pallavas' own dynastic memorial. Inside the inner arcade runs a series of friezes that tells the story of the triumphs and achievements of the Pallavas – and in the process gives an amazing insight into the daily life of the courts of classical India. It is an extraordinary graphic narrative: 30 huge panels arranged like a vast dynastic strip cartoon, where the ladies of the court ride out two to an elephant, messengers arrive breathless in packed halls of audience, and bearded ambassadors from China sue for peace and alliances. Wizened ascetics examine the omens and predict strange miracles, beaten monarchs flee into exile to escape the arrows of the Pallava chariot-archers, great chests of booty are carried back from seaborne expeditions, and lines of fettered slaves are led off into captivity.
Throughout these friezes – whether in diplomatic missions, elephant battles or the building of temples – all activities take place in a world where at every level the frontier between the divine and the human remains infinitely porous. Vishnu, Brahma and especially Shiva turn up intermittently to give advice at the Pallava court and they regularly intervene in battles. Pictures of the divine family of Lord Shiva directly echo those of the Pallava dynasty: only the number of arms and heads distinguish one from the other. Queens, courtesans and goddesses alike are shown carefree and sensual: bare-breasted, they tease their menfolk, standing on tiptoe to kiss them, hands resting provocatively on their hips. Kings and gods both wear their hair in beehive topknots and sit cross-legged, gazing down from their gaddis under crimson parasols, as the courtiers feast and dancing girls celebrate their victories over the enemy.
Today, the Vaikuntha Perumal temple is half-deserted and half-ruined. So rich is the heritage of Kanchipuram and so numerous are its shrines that this small dynastic centre is often overlooked both by foreign visitors and local pilgrims; indeed, one of its outer courts has been taken over as the cement warehouse of a nearby factory. There is still a priest in residence, however, and occasionally the Brahmin receives supplicants. As I walked barefoot over the warm flagstones of the temple, I got into conversation with an elderly Tamil gentleman named S Chandra.
'You see,' he said, 'although I belong to Tanjore, my son is a bank manager here in Kanchipuram, and since my wife's death I have come to live with him here. I come daily to this temple.'
'You come to pray?' I asked.
'My residence is near to this place,' he replied, 'so I come here to find peace. After I come here I find I have a restful night.'
We walked towards the exit; it was late now and the sun was sinking. It was time for me to head back to my hotel on the coast:
'This temple is part of my daily routine,' said Mr Chandra. 'I ask for favours for my son, for release for all the difficulties and pressures we face, and also for release for myself. If your body is ill you go to a doctor. If your soul is ill you come here. These temples are the centre of this city – and have been since the Pallava times. Then as now the people are facing difficulties making a livelihood – there are so many problems with family and so on. We cannot hope god will grant all our wishes – but we know if you come here he gives something to each one.'
He considered for a second, then added: 'You may pray to god or not, but he knows everything. He knows how to give. And when to give.'
~ William Dalrymple is the author of seven books about India and the Islamic world, most recently Nine Lives: In search of the sacred in modern India. He has lived in Delhi on and off for the last 25 years.