Thatha’s stories


This post is a result of reading this one by this blogger I absolutely love. I live vicariously through her. She reads amazing books, travels a lot and she’s definitely on my list of people to meet the next time I’m in Mumbai. She’s not aware of this but hopefully she will be after reading this post.

So, the Brihadeeswara temple post that she did had me going down memory lane. I have visited this temple a number of times. As a child, I have been here 4-5 times. My father’s family hails from Thanjavur district. My great-grandmother – Chellamma chitthi (she was my great grandfather’s second wife. He married his late wife’s sister so his young kids could be taken care of. They went onto have more kids but the siblings are all very close and the living ones still stay in touch with each other despite advanced age) lived in Sulamangalam till very recently and Thanjavur was a must visit every time we went down South for a temple tour.

My thatha (paternal grandfather) had retired when my parents married. He was in the Military Engineering Services, was posted in various parts of the country and at the age of 56, he used his settlement to build a house in Hyderabad and decided he wanted to spend his time playing with grandkids, listening to music and enjoying his retirement. Ours was a joint family and except for us, all brothers lived together in this house that thatha built. We lived in various parts of the country thanks to the nature of my dad’s job but we (my mother, brother – when  he came along and I) would go to Hyderabad for all our vacations – a minimum of 3 times a year. One of our favorite pastimes was to listen to stories from Thatha. He had a single bed in his bedroom with a mosquito net. All of us kids would climb onto his bed in the afternoon after lunch and beg him to tell us stories. We each had our favorites. I loved Gajendra moksham, one of my cousins adored Androcles and the lion (this had something to do with Christians being thrown to the lions) and one of my other cousins loved Bakasura. Thatha would agree to tell us one or two stories, reserving the 3rd request for the post dinner story time. He would act out the stories, use grand gestures, modify his voice for different characters and a 5 minute story would become a 45 minute affair. He had us so enthralled that on my return from Hyderabad I would insist that my mom tell me the stories using Thatha’s words and gestures. When she couldn’t reproduce it exactly the way Thatha had said it, I would sulk and throw tantrums. Eventually my mom started introducing me to other stories in an effort to not be compared to the master storyteller.

As we grew older, story time changed too. We spent lesser time listening to stories and more time playing cards or carrom or Shozhi (a game played with cowrie shells). Thatha taught us all how to play Rummy and was very very clear about not peeking a look at other’s cards. He once threw his cards down and walked out of a game because one of us refused to listen to him and kept looking at our neighbor’s cards and winning. He was disgusted at said child’s behavior (I cannot remember which one of us it was) and it took us two hours of professing heartfelt apologies before he would forgive us.

The stories he told us changed from kiddie ones to ones about history, India’s independence, the second world war. He had fought in the second world war and said war was stupid. All it gave him was dysentery and untold misery. He would also tell us small, not very well known stories from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. One such story was that of the  Brihadeeswara temple.  It is a well known fact that this temple does not cast a shadow on the ground at any time of the year. Now the story goes, (I’m not sure how much of this is myth or legend, so if you find this is not true, do not sue me. Just chalk it up to an interesting read, won’t you?) that Rajaraja Chola I wanted a magnificent temple built. He asked his court architect to design it. However, there was one condition. This temple was not to cast a shadow on the ground at any time of the year. Sama Varma came up with a phenomenal plan for the temple but he remained stumped as to how to build a temple that would cast no shadow on the ground. The king remained adamant that this condition had to be met. Work on the temple complex started while Sama Varma grappled with this problem. Years passed but he could not come up with a solution.

Now when Sama Varma had been entrusted with the job of creating this temple, his wife had been pregnant. Soon after he left to begin work on this great temple, his wife gave birth to a baby boy. This boy, as he grew up would ask his mother about his father and why his father did not live with them like other fathers did. The mother would explain that his father was building this great temple for the king and would come back only when the task was accomplished. As the boy grew older, this answer did not suffice. He longed to see his dad. So, one fine day he set out to see his dad at Thanjavur. On reaching Thanjavur, he was duly impressed by the temple complex. However, the temple itself had not been built. In fact, work had not even started on the temple. This boy made inquiries as to where he would find his father and eventually made his way towards him. On reaching his father he introduced himself to an astounded Sama Varma and asked how much longer it would take for the temple to be done and for his father to return home. Sama Varma revealed his frustration to this boy of 12-13 years of age. To everyone’s surprise, the boy said he would help his father come up with a plan to build the temple per the king’s instructions and father and son would go home together. And true to his word, the boy did exactly that. The Brihadeeswara temple does not cast a shadow on the ground at any time of the year and is a magnificent example of Dravidian temple architecture.

By the way I was told this story by my thatha, when I expressed frustration over having to learn trigonometry. My gripe was trigonometry has no use in everyday life and Thatha told me this story to illustrate that without trigonometry the Thanjavur Periya kovil would not have existed.

Thanks Sudha, for refreshing some wonderful memories for me. This was the temple where I sat on an elephant for the first time (as a 4-year-old) and realized that elephants are hairy and their hair can be prickly and can make sitting on one of them an irritating experience. I visited this temple last when I was newly married, back in 2000. DH’s chitthi (aunt) lived in Thanjavur, a stone’s throw away from the temple and my FIL and MIL had some stories of their own to share with me regarding the temple and it’s architecture. That’s fodder for another post. The Thanjavur periya kovil remains an all time favorite and I hope to take DD there some day and tell her this story.

P.S: Please read this article for information on the Brihadeeswara temple’s architecture and to this blog post for interesting facts on Sama Varma (Credit: Sadaboy. Thank you Sadaboy).

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5 thoughts on “Thatha’s stories

  1. When are you coming to Bombay, Meera? 😀

    But first, thank you so much for your lovely, lovely words. Reading your post made me think of my maternal grandmother (Papakudi Meena) whom I adored. ost of my childhood memories revolve around her and the games we played. She would combine storytelling with playing traditional games like sozhi, pallankuzhi, parama pada sopanam…

    Brihadeeshwara Temple is special as it was amongst the last places I visited with my appa (he passed away about 2 months back).

    I am sharing this post with my niece, who absolutely hates maths, even more than me, though I loved trignometry. Maybe, it will help her see maths in a different light.

    Thank you once again, Meera. You lovely words have made my day. No, made my days for a long time to come.

    1. Hey Sudha,

      I plan to be in Mumbai around March. Will email you when my plans firm up. I would love to get to know Bombay from your perspective 🙂

      Your posts that reminisced about your grandmom, your appa is what got me going down this path. So I have to thank you for all the inspiration you provided.

      Please let me know if your niece likes math any better. I have to be honest, despite the great story, I still didn’t cotton onto math 😦

      1. The niece is not very impressed with the maths part, that is; she liked your post though. She could relate to memories about her grandfather (my father).

        Do let me know when your visit to Mumbai is finalised; I would love to show you the Mumbai that nobody notices. It is the Mumbai that I love. 🙂

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