Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Sittannavaasal --- Southern India's Tiny Ajanta

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One day before we were to catch the Rockfort Express back to Chennai from Trichy (Thiruchirappalli, Tamil Nadu), we looked for something to occupy us for a day. We flipped open the yellow pages and it listed the usual -- Thiruvaanaikkaval, Rockfort Temple, Srirangam, Mukkombu. Been there done that.

Then my eyes fell on ``Sittannavaasal". All that the Yellow Pages would divulge was that Sittannavasal has a Jain Rock Temple constructed sometime, BC  and was remarkable for some paintings using vegetable dyes and Jain sculptures. It was sufficiently different than the usual, so we decided to try that. Besides, it was close enough to another temple called Thirukokaranam,  a Tamizhaization of the Sanskrit, Thiru-Go-Karnam which literally translates to Thiru-Cow-Ear. The temple and the town derive their name from the legend of a cow filling her ear with water from the Cauvery to worship the Shiva Lingam. Interesting enough.

We hired Fast Track (local cab company) on a package deal and as soon as we left the city limits of Trichy, we were treated to beautiful country side flanking either side of the road. The blue-grey clouds rolled low, but stopped short of threatening us with a squall. A pleasant December breeze ruffled the arching thorn bushes and kora-pull (a Pampas grass look alike, which goats feed on).
Well fed looking cows and goats grazed nonchalantly ignoring man made constraints like time and property boundaries. Peace reigned. My mind raced to the times of Kings and Queens and passages from Ponniyin Selvan.

The driver knew the broad strokes of how to get to Sittannavasal, stopping every now and then to query the locals to fill in the details. As always in India, they obliged. Each person would point us out to the next big land mark and tell us,``then you can ask around". One such stop brought us to a place called Mei Vazhi Chalai (Truth-ward Path). Apparently, this was not just a place but also the name of a group of people who eschew differences in religion and believe that mankind and hence God, is one. The men wear turbans with an inverted crescent moon pin on it.

Once we got off the main highway and into the little villages, the road's purpose was more to serve as a test of human spinal alignment and vehicular shock absorption than actually getting you anywhere. Or so it seemed! Many twists and turns and bumps and jolts later, we arrived at the hills of Sittannavasal in about an hour and 10 minutes.

Sittannavasal rocks. Beds for the Jain monks reside on top of this hill. Just a shallow cradle like dig out on the rocks.
There is a walk that leads up to the little rock/hill outcroppings. The first mound is the site of the beds for the Jain monks. Once you pass that, you walk up a little slope in the rock towards what appeared to be the cave temple, passing a few workers lunching off their boxed carriers, while a stray dog watched for hopeful morsels. A man overtook us up to the cave temple, saying as he walked up that he came in at around 9:45 am and that no one usually shows up here. He turned out to be an employee of the Archeological Society of India, and the sole caretaker of the rock temple. The keeper of its keys.

There, on top of the rocks, sat the cave temple, completely unassuming in its stature. Much like the Thirthankaras it was home to.

The blue gates guarding the Jain temple. To the right and left were sculptures, the ceiling had paintings similar to those in Ajanta and Ellora caves. The temple is dug out from the sheer face of the rock
The temple itself is dug out from the sheer face of the cliff/rock. We admired the sculptures on either side of the entrance and were busy discussing the paintings on the ceiling. The caretaker was observing us the whole time and finally stepped forward to introduce himself as an ASI representative. He said that since we seem to be interested in the paintings and the carvings and not just there as "ordinary tourists" he thought we would be interested in learning more about the paintings. We were. So he showed us the paintings of the princess and the lotus pond and then, the piece de resistance -- the chamber beyond the front room.

The ante-chamber contained a large Buddha (yes, it did look like the Buddha) like relief carved on the rock face and some more carvings on the ceilings and the sides of the cave. He then told us about a phenomenon that he did not usually share with tourists. He motioned us to stand beside him outside the cave. In few seconds we heard a low meditative hum that clearly emanated from the cave and seemed to circle around it and envelop us, while we still stood outside. It sounded a lot like the low rumbles of the Om. We looked in surprise inside the cave and there was nothing in it. When we turned back to look at the ASI employee, we saw that he had his lips ever so slightly parted. Clearly he was producing the sound from deep within and the chamber was carved so it would amplify this low frequency to render the most magical meditative quality to it.

He then invited all of us to step inside and took his position at the dead center of the cave. Once again he produced the sound and this time we heard it even more clearly than ever before. He invited our driver try it himself. The driver did and although he could not produce quite the same quality of sound as the ASI employee, he certainly did produce a reverberation. The guide went on to say, "no woman can produce this sound. I have years of experience doing this and I can even get this to happen when I stand outside the chamber".  Since I can never let a challenge like that go unanswered and since I have a pretty low pitch, I gave it a try. May be I imagined it, may be it was a bit real, there was a very faint rumbling.

My theory is that the parameters of the cave are just suited to resonate with low-pitched voices. How easy it is to interpret things wrong and how easy it is to make snap judgements regarding a subset of the population and how long do these judgements last! Despite this, the man was pleasant. He also told us about a lot of other historically and archaeologically significant temples in the vicinity. One of them had three distinct sculpture and architecture styles from three different periods. His brother, also an ASI employee, was a the caretaker of that temple. He gave us the general directions to the that temple. We thanked him for this most awesome demonstration and decided to stop over at this new temple before we hit Thirugokarnam.

No photography is allowed inside the cave, so here are a few from outside of it.

View from the top of the cave temple
Way up on top of this rock lie the beds of the Jain monks

The Logistics: 

  • Sittannavaasal can be reached in about an hour by car from Trichy. Start on the Trichy-Pudukkottai highway and veer off at around Keeranoor. 
  • Trichy itself is easily reached from Chennai via trains (irctc.co.in) or buses (redbus.in). Train tickets are harder to get at the last minute. Book at least 10 days in advance during non-peak times and perhaps months in advance if traveling during peak times (like during festivals etc.)
  • We used a fast track (a cab company working in Trichy and Chennai) package. There are other cab companies that may offer similar package deals. You would need a local cell phone to book your cab because there is a lot SMS exchanges between the company and you for everything including your booking number and receipt at the end of the trip.
  • The cab package deals workout to be cheaper than tourist cars and are just as comfortable.
  • Be aware that there are no restrooms in Sittannavaasal although there is a children's park area in near the rocks. There are several gas stations (petrol bunks) along the highway that have fairly clean restrooms. The gas station owners typically don't mind letting you use them.
  • Since there are a lot of rocks to walk on, it would be best to choose a pleasant day for this trip. Sometime in December would probably be ideal.

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