Not many people seemed to have heard of Konerirajapuram. "I dont know, but have you been to all the Navagraha temples first?", some of them offered. Going around in Ambassador cars from temple to temple which probably differed from each other in a minor change of deity was not why I had come here. I politely declined and proceeded to ask someone else.
The ancient lands of the Cauvery delta have a long story to tell. Geographically speaking, the famous south-Indian river rushes with quite a pace through most of Karnataka, hastily bubbling through forests, occasionally missing a footing and heading down some deep (and beautiful) waterfalls but slowing down now and then. Things change as she nears the east coast of Tamil Nadu: Past Tiruchirappally (or Trichy, or Trichnopoly - if you prefer the old British one), the river slows down considerably and breaks into innumerable distributaries, each enabling the life and livelihood of the farmers in the region. The Cauvery delta, one of the largest and most fertile regions in the south, is straight out of a casual train-travellers' dream - with its endless fields of paddy, sugarcane, plantain and more.
Hastily looking up passenger train timings, and with a bit of googling and furtive sneaks at strangers' flickr albums, I had made up my mind about a few places I should visit over the weekend. And there I was in Kumbakonam, already tired after the last day and a half, debating whether to skip the last leg of the journey or not.
"Take the country road going right from S. Pudur, flanked by lush fields of the delta on either side.. Delightful duck filled canals abound in this pastoral heaven." These were the words off this one trip report on indiamike forums that prompted me to quit mulling over it, haul the bag and leave for the place. Konerirajapuram was 25 kms away, on the road to Karaikkal (onward to Nagapattinam, etc) via Thirunageswaram. I was a few hours away from my mental 'start off to Trichy via train atleast by NOW' deadline, and deciding not to tempt fate, hired a taxi.
Kumar and his Indica were instructed to do a leisurely pace throughout the road, since we were in no hurry, and more importantly, since I wanted to take in the sights. After all, how often does one get to see where most of one's food comes from. Kumbakonam is not a very large town, and the buildings along this road petered out quickly to hay-thatched huts with frail wooden fencing. The harvest, as I'd learn later, had been over the past few days or weeks, and the air was still heavy with the smell of hay, as were the roads. Every ten minutes or so we would pass a large haystack which was either standing in the sun (hence doing justice to the old adage) or was being transported in tractors and trucks. Quite a lot of cows looked up at the passing car and went back to their affable business of chewing the cud or whatever vocation it is that cows occupy themselves with all day.
The road was true to its word. A strict two-lane, with trees painted in zebra stripes (as they are often, in TN state highways), it wound and meandered its way like the river, through miles and miles of fertile cropland. We passed a million shades of green and golden brown over the humble span of 20kms, often yielding to houses and brightly painted tiny temples. Some of them with ponds of their own.
At S.Pudur, we followed the road leading right. This one was narrower but more scenic. After a short while we stopped by an old gentleman who had taken his cow for a drink in a canal.
"Natarajar koyila? Go straight, and once you come to a bus stop, turn left onto the road that leads inside". We came upon this bus stop a few kilometres down the road - a deep blue, decorated shelter located under the shelter of a huge tree. The road leading left was even more narrow, wide enough for a tractor and a bicycle perhaps, to pass each other without a fight.
By now we were bang in the middle of nowhere, miles away from any decently sized town and surrounded by farmland for as far as the eye could see. Three kilometres or so inside, the road suddenly split into two at right angles, each encircling a pond and rejoining at the other end, in front of the temple.
It was 3.30 or so in the afternoon and there were a few people in the temple. An elderly gentleman told me that they would open the main sanctum only by 5.30. Damn, I thought. I dropped the name of the priest, Gnanaskandan, which I'd gleaned from the trip report from the indiamike forum and that seemed to work. The head priest, was just coming out of a room in the side of the temple grounds and agreed to show me the Nataraja statue after I told him of how I had heard of the place and had come all the way. The bronze statue is not the main deity, apparently.. The Nataraja is located in an enclosure in the side of the sanctum, and is almost one and a half times the height of the average male. The idol, which he claims, was made in panchaloha or a penta-alloy, was completely camouflaged in inches-thick flower garlands after an abhishekam which had happened in the morning.
The temple was built under the supervision of the Queen of Chola land at that time. There's an interesting fresco located high up on the wall of the temple: It shows a British official making an offering to the deity through the queen. This was the first painting I'd noticed with the British in them, and it was a fine job - right from the assumed superior air about the queen and the looks of surprise (or approval) from her ministers to the swords and handlebar moustaches of the angrezi soldiers. It was a minute of severe flashback to the lines in history books.
Having thanked the priest for his kind gesture, I strolled around the village. It was one of those hot and sleepy afternoons where man and animal alike take a well deserved afternoon siesta. The pond bed had completely dried, and the glare from the afternoon sun was getting a bit too much. "There's no water at all pa.. no rain last year also. See that opening over there, to the side of the wall - the water would come through the canals in the field to the pond", said the old woman who had seen me observing it. I could only manage a "Ah indha varshamaavadhum nalla mazha peyyatunga..". Let's hope there's a good shower this year.
Walking around with a camera hanging around your neck is never a pleasant thing when you want to blend into any surroundings. Fortunately, that can precisely be some of the best conversation starters too. For, in a while I had gathered the curiosity and friendship of a few boys who were out plucking citrons (Naarthangai in tamil). And when you're a newcomer in a village and surrounded by boys, you're treated like a special guest. Vignesh, Ramu and the rest of their gang fed me with all sorts of information, for the city-dweller in me must have made himself seem like a perfectly ignorant fool in these settings. Some of this info was pretty bizzare though. Like the way they hung the heart of a dead cow in sacks on the huge banyan tree by the side of the road. But it made sense. Something that was part of the family - it made sense that a part of it was mated with another sacred object (the tree) for ever, and as a token of remembrance. It just seemed natural to the boys, such that they didn't have a ready reply when I instinctively blurted "Oh.. but why?". But it made sense, from their point of view.
"The paddy was harvested yesterday. The machines do it, cutting it in the back, yes", they nod enthusiastically as I describe the combined harvester and ask them if that was the thing. And on a lark we jumped past the tiny irrigation canal, into the field.
It was surreal. Having been brought up in a completely urban environment, the only proper agricultural or pastoral setting I'd been in was restricted to a few times in my childhood and pretty much none beyond. And now standing there, gentle cows to one side, and harvested paddy all around, while the wind played around with the tall stalks of the yet to be cropped fields in the distance, I thought for a fleeting moment of the traffic and noise that accompanied my desk job and wished I didn't have to go back for a while.
"Come again anna! Come during the festival, it's nice to see the temple then", said the boys as I bid goodbye.
"I shall, definitely! I loved your place!" And I meant it.
For Konerirajapuram had earned its place in my heart as one of those faraway lands that would crop up during moments of boredom in the office, reminding me of its fields and streams and the simple people of the delta.