8-45 AM: Leave for Tanjore (53 KM) from Trichy in a taxi driven by a young commerce graduate from Mailaduthurai. He has not been able to get a job since graduating some years ago. Earning his livelihood as a taxi driver.
Drive uninteresting despite excellent four-lane road. Hardly any greenery on both sides.
9-45 AM: Arrive in Brahadeeswarar temple in Tanjore built 1000 years ago. Unimpressive from outside, but fabulous once inside. Overwhelmed by the sheer brilliance of its conception and execution. Just as I was overwhelmed when I first visited the Angkor Vat temple in Cambodia in November 2001. Unless you stand before it and see it for yourself, you can't imagine how huge it is ---its central gopuram over the sanctum sanctorum and the court-yard where 1000 Bharata Natyam dancers of India danced last year in celebration of its 1000th anniversary.
10 AM: As I stood before it and admiring it, a friendly looking man, who appeared to be in his 40s, approached me and asked:
"Want a guide, Sir?"
"Yes, why not ?"
" But I charge Rs.250, Sir. I don't want any misunderstanding over payment later."
" That is OK with me."
" You want me to explain in English, Tamil, French, German or Spanish, Sir"
" I would prefer English or Tamil.You know other languages too?"
An attractive-looking woman crossed us.
"You speak good French."
"Yes, sir, I do"
"Guten Tag". This was to another attractive-looking woman.
"Guten Tag," she replied.
"You speak good German too."
" Yes, Sir. I do."
Then he said something incomprehensible to me to another attractive-looking woman.
"What was that?"
"She is Spanish. I was greeting her in Spanish."
"What is your name? Where are you from?"
"Raman. From Chennai."
" My name is K.T.Raja. From Tanjore. Have a look at this."
He showed me four or five torn and crumpled pieces of paper.
"What is that?"
" A Xerox copy of an article published by "The Indian Express" last year describing me as the best guide in the Tanjore temple."
"But you must keep it properly. It is already totally torn."
" I know, Sir. The original is in the house. This is for showing to the visitors"
" But you can at least keep a good copy for showing to the visitors. This one is so torn, crumpled and brown that one can't read anything except the title and your name."
Then he started flooding me with statistics.
252 feet high
216 feet wide
801 feet long
405 nandis around the perimeter
"Do you notice anything interesting about the numbers?"
" You total each of them. It comes to 9."
" How many holes you have in your body, Sir?"
" I don't know. I have never counted."
" Nine, Sir."
" How did you come to that figure?"
"Two ears, two eyes, two in the nose, one in the mouth, one in the penis and one in the arse."
'Oh, I never thought of that."
" Sir, you know why 9 all the time?"
" Because 9 is a lucky number for the Hindus. It is also a holy number. When a Hindu offers coconuts or bananas to the God, it is always either 9 or in multiples of 9."
"That must have been before the inflation. Now, nobody can afford it. God has to be content with only one coconut or one banana," I whispered to him making sure God won't be able to overhear me.
He took me to the sanctum sanctorum of the sacred lingum. He asked me whether I wanted to do an archana.
"Yes." I gave Rs.100 to the pujari.
"What is your name?" the pujari asked.
"What is your star?"
" Do you want me to do the archana in somebody else's name also?"
" No. My name will do. I don't want to confuse God with too many names. "
The archana started. I hope it was the archana. It didn't appear to be either in Sanskrit or in Tamil.
As the archana was going on, I closed my eyes and prayed: " Oh God, cure me of this cancer. Give me back my energy."
As I opened my eyes, my guide asked: " What did you pray for?".
" I am a cancer patient. I was praying to God to cure me of it."
" He will. Brahadeeswara is known for His cosmic power. It will cure you of your cancer."
" It depends on your luck and God's grace. If you are lucky, you may be cured even before you return to the hotel."
" If not?"
" Come back and pray again."
As the pujari was doing archana for me, a big group of Western tourists entered the sanctum sanctorum and watched the archana. The group included three Spanish nuns.
I asked the guide: " Are non-Hindus allowed into the sanctum sanctorum?"
"Of course. This is the only Hindu temple in India where any human being can enter the sanctum sanctorum---whether a man or a woman, whether a Hindu or a non-Hindu."
" Can Muslims also enter?"
"Of course. Many Muslims come here and pray. I know a Muslim shop-keeper, who comes here in the mornings and prays to the lingam before going to his mosque to do the namaz."
" Do you think, it is right for non-Hindus to be allowed?"
" Why not? Only animals should not be allowed. Otherwise, every human being should be allowed to enter this temple and pray. That has been the tradition of this temple for 1000 years. It should continue."
He asked me where I was going next.
Kumbakonam, I said.
" Do you know why it is called Kumbakonam?"
" Do you know what is Kumba?"
"Kumba is a huge pot. Once pralayam ( a deluge) swept across the world killing all living beings. God Brahma took out their genes, put them into a huge pot, closed it tightly and let it float on the water. As the pot reached Kumbakonam, the floods subsided. The pot came to rest on the ground. Lord Siva broke open the pot with an arrow. All the preserved genes came out and living beings came into existence once again."
"Fantastic. I didn't know that."
We came to the end of the visit. I took out a 500-rupee note and gave it to him.
"But, Sir, I don't have change."
" Doesn't matter. You keep the change."
" Were you happy with me, Sir?"
" Of course, I was."
" Your happiness is more important to me, Sir, than this money." (11-3-11)
( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org )