A Tribute To Thanjavur
1: Tribute as loyalty
“Must be the father of the current queen,” he says, watching me gaze at the sculpture in front of us. He then offers me his newspaper, explaining that he’d finished reading. “King George the Fifth,” he continues. That’s what the inscription below the sculpture says.
We don’t know each other. We both happen to be idling in Clock Tower Park in the heart of Thanjavur, in south India. And we are staring at a bust of a king perched on top of a moldy, cloudy column, on a late January afternoon in 2011.
The Clock Tower Park isn’t much of a park—it’s mostly gravel, and one corner of it serves as a de facto waste-dumping spot. But it does have a nineteenth-century clock tower right behind the sculpture, an octagonal red-bricked minaret that is a mix of neo-classical, Gothic and Indo-Islamic architecture styles. That said, the clock isn’t usable—it has one hand missing and the other stuck at six. What this space really has going for it are the flat stone benches circling the sculpture, which offer people a spot to sleep, banter with friends and strangers, and read the newspaper under the umbrella of trees that dot the park.
My fellow gazer and I stare at the sculpture, bust, and inscription in silence. “Right, correct. 1935. King George Five,” he says. And then, he hesitates and points his finger accusingly at the sculpture. “Anaaka,” he says in Tamil. But…
“George Fifthu-ku motta thalai illiye. Motta thalai potuta! Adoon, ivulo periya meesai kadayadu. George Six daan quite young, crop, meesai.”
[George Five was not bald. They gave him a bald head! And, he didn’t have such a big mustache. George Six was the one who was quite young, cropped hair, mustache.]
Now satisfied, he then leaves with his newspaper, since I didn’t seem interested, and offers it to another sculpture-gazing idler. The paper is accepted, another conversation is begun.
The inscription below the bust reads: “His Imperial Majesty King George V, Emperor of India. 6th May 1935 Silver Jubilee. Presented by Mr. T.N. Kalidoss, B.A., B.L., an humble and loyal citizen of Tanjore.”
So, as far as facts are worth anything—for they do get in the way of a good yarn—yes, this is a 79-year-old sculpture of King George the Fifth, not the Sixth. This is George, grandfather to the current British queen, in central Thanjavur. There isn’t much going for him out here, but that’s him, mustached and with closely combed hair (not quite bald), 2,500 km from Delhi, the capital of British India, and 9,000 km from George V’s home and seat of the Empire.
In 1935, George V had been king for twenty-five years, and had become a fairly popular monarch across the empire. Time magazine featured him on the cover at the time of his Silver Jubilee. But at the same time, the Indian fight for freedom from the Empire gathered speed. The Indian National Congress had started a series of civil-disobedience movements across the country. New factions kept popping up to protest or defend the empire. Is it better to align, or to break free? To pay tribute to the visitor or demand their exit? The Great Depression also proved to be a chance to rope in land-owning farmers to unionize in Thanjavur in the late 1930s. It is in this climate, in the midst of a worldwide depression, a nationwide effort to oust the emperor, and individual doubts of allegiance, that T. N. Kalidoss offered a tribute to his king by commissioning a Silver Jubilee bust of King George V. This could be Kalidoss, the humble and loyal subject, loyal to his emperor. Or Kalidoss, the savvy and rich subject, aligning with the winds of power.
A tribute is usually an intentional act of praise. It’s a sculpture, a poem, a war memorial, a temple, a park bench, a mural; each a symbol of loyalty, solidarity, devotion, respect, love, or strategy. But even acts of dissent and disregard can be unintentional tributes. That is, if we are willing to consider the effects of time and the value of dissent and disregard in shaping a community—the graffiti on the subway wall that sparks a debate, the protest slogan that rallies a crowd, the vote that ousts a politician. Tributes are the offerings of the tribus, Latin for tribe. This is a story of tributes: the intentional ones that are defined in the shapes of the offerings, and the unintentional ones that shape things.
2: Tribute as respect
This is Thanjapuri, Thanjavur, Tanjore. This is the land where the god Vishnu is said to have slayed the mythological giant Tanjan, whose dying request was that the town be named after him. This is a place that has forty-three Suggested Things To Do on TripAdvisor, three-quarters of which are temples. Tributes dot Thanjavur.
Brihadeeswarar Temple, where people have been coming to pray since the eleventh century, is a UNESCO Heritage site, and over the last 1,000 years, every empire has put its stamp in the temple complex, adding a new shrine or sculpture, a new panel or painting. Everyone’s paying homage in one way or the other.
The temple’s vimanam, a pyramidal tower, is 216 feet tall. It is carved with sculptures of gods, worshipers, demons, and animals. On one of its four faces is a figure of a round-faced, clean-shaven man in a thinly rimmed hat, with his arms loosely crossed in front of him, as though looking out on a balcony on the vimanam. He’s been called a “chubby, self-satisfied John Bull,” “John Bright,” or simply, “the Englishman” or “Dutchman.”
In Thanjavur, history layers with time, and shards from the past move in and out of focus. Nobody seems to know for certain when John Bright got to be featured on the vimanam. One story spread by people during the early-twentieth-century reign of the British empire was that this was prophecy: the ancient vimanam sculptors foretold the arrival of the British. “We were struck by the wonderful foresight of the Hindu prophets in the time of William the Conqueror,” wrote Margaret Elizabeth Leigh Child-Villiers, the Dowager Countess of Jersey in a 1922 memoir, Fifty-One Years of Victorian Life, sounding a little like the Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey. “(They) foretold not only the advent of the English, but also their costume 800 years after the date of the prophecy.”
The 1900 Illustrated Guide to the South Indian Railway differs: “At any rate,” it noted, with questionable conviction, “the figure more resembles a Dutchman than an Englishman.” How could they tell? Unless they are going solely by the hat, which does resemble the Dutch felt hats from the seventeenth century. But, yes, it is a reasonable explanation. At that time, the Dutch entered into a treaty with the Nayak King of Thanjavur and took over some of the villages in the district in 1676. The figure of John Bright on the temple vimanam is more likely a tribute to a Dutch architect who may have helped in repairing or designing additions to the temple.
3: Tribute as love
In 1620, the Danes set up a fort in Tranquebar, a seaport in the Thanjavur district. Then, in 1706, they followed up with a Lutheran mission—often called the entry point for Protestantism in India. Christian Frederick Schwartz, a Danish Lutheran priest reached the Tranquebar mission in 1750, before moving to the city of Thanjavur in 1769. This was roughly the time when the kingdom had a new king, Thuljaji. Over the years, Schwartz and Thuljaji built a level of trust, so much so that in 1787, an ailing Thuljaji asked Schwartz to look after his adopted ten-year-old son, Serfoji. “This is not my son,” he is said to have told Schwartz, “but yours. Into your hands I deliver him.”
Schwartz accepted the task. And for all practical purposes, he became the father figure that Thuljaji wanted for Serfoji. Schwartz tutored the boy and introduced him to various languages, as well as to the sciences. Later, when the new king, Thuljaji’s brother Amar Singh, tried to keep Serfoji captive in the palace, Schwartz planned and executed Serfoji’s escape to Madras. Schwartz was different things for different people: a guiding light for Serfoji, a missionary and provider for orphaned children, and a mediator and peacemaker for the British East India Company, which turned to him when they needed a negotiating partner with neighboring kingdoms. He also negotiated with the British the legitimacy of Serfoji’s adoption, and brought him back to Thanjavur as the rightful heir to his father’s throne.
When Schwartz died in 1798, a grieving and grateful Serfoji commissioned a marble monument in his memory at his church. This, according to Dr. Indira Viswanathan Peterson, a professor of Asian Studies at Mount Holyoke College, is the first sculpture of a European commissioned by an Indian (a small club that would by 1935 include T. N. Kalidoss). It shows Schwartz at his deathbed surrounded by the orphaned kids under his care. Standing beside Schwartz is a sorrowful Serfoji, who appears to be placing his hand gently behind Schwartz’s head. Serfoji never converted to Christianity, despite Schwartz’s wishes. But he regarded Schwartz as a mentor, father and keeper of his conscience. Schwartz is buried in Thanjavur, and inscribed on his grave is an elegy penned by Serfoji.
When another Lutheran priest visited Thanjavur eight years after Schwartz’s death, he saw Schwartz’s picture among a line of Hindu kings in the Thanjavur palace. He commented on this juxtaposition in his diaries, writing, “there are many who would think such a combination scarcely possible.” During the priest’s visit, Serfoji had his band play “God Save the King” on the veena, a stringed instrument with 24 frets and four to seven strings (the Thanjavur veena is still one of the most sought-after forms of the instrumentin the world). The song was set in Marathi words, in the name of the Thanjavur king.
4: Tribute as trust
This was Thanjavur, a land of mutual trust and cooperation. Grand capital to the Chola empire until the twelfth century, smaller province of the Vijayangara empire through the thirteenth, fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth. Kingdom of the Thanjavur Nayaks in the sixteenth and the seventeenth; far reaches of the Maratha empire in the seventeenth and eighteenth. It was the home of foreign allies—Dutch traders and architects, Danish traders and Lutheran priests, and British traders and future empire-builders. Thanjavur is a fertile patch of paddy that’s part of the larger Kaveri river delta, an area that has been called the Eden of the South, a well-watered garden. In 1787, the British East India Company signed a treaty with the Kingdom of Thanjavur, which included a broad declaration: “Friends and enemies of either shall be considered the friends and enemies of both.” The Company administered the land, except for one small village and the palace, which were left in the king’s hands. After the British won the Battle of Waterloo, Serfoji built a 75-foot victory tower overlooking the Bay of Bengal, a tribute to the success of his friends. (The tower was damaged in the 2004 tsunami, but remains a tourist attraction to this day.)
But this mutual respect was not to last. In 1855, Serfoji’s son Shivaji, the new king of Thanjavur, died without any male heirs. At the time, the governor-general of British India, Lord Dalhousie, was pushing a new annexation policy across India. When the ruler of a kingdom that had the influence of the East India Company died without an heir, all of it became part of the British Empire through the Company. Thanjavur’s citizens became subjects of the British monarch. It was not a decision that the British universally liked. William Hickey, a lawyer for the Madras Presidency in 1874, called the fact that a kingdom vanished under the rules of a new annexation policy a “political atrocity”. . “O tempora! O mores!!” he exclaimed in his 1874 book, The Tanjore Mahratta [sic] Principality in Southern India. O what times! O what customs!!
But there it was. Thanjavur had been many things—home of an ancient civilization, a fertile agricultural land, a friendly trading post, a kingdom. By the late nineteenth century, Thanjavur was a “collectorate,” an itemized revenue corner of the British empire.
5: Tribute as contempt
By the second half of the twentieth century, Thanjavur was a relatively sleepy Tamil Nadu town. Today it’s still a stronghold of state politics, but its influence is not as far-reaching as in its past. India on the whole, on the other hand, is now featured in global economic calculations. National buzzwords shift. From infrastructure development, nation-building and self-reliance in the years after independence, to twenty-first century’s global market, IT parks and special economic zones. India is termed a sleeping tiger, running tiger, a lumbering elephant, clumsy elephant, gasping elephant, a caged bird, a bird of gold. The McKinsey Global Institute’s 2007 report on India announces that the bird of gold flies again. It is a land of globals (earning more than a million rupees a year), strivers, seekers, aspirers, and deprived (less than ninety thousand rupees a year). And a land of Tier-I metropolises (like Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, and Bangalore), Tier-II cities, Tier-III and Tier-IV towns, and a host of villages.
Thanjavur, still a temple town, still a place of worship and education, shifts between the ranks. It is a Tier-IV—no, Tier-III—city, where progress builds around history. Thanjavur, the kingdom and the collectorate, could be an emerging growth center. And it is in this twenty-first century Tiered Thanjavur that we find our final kind of tribute.
Thanjavur Palace, the home of the mid-nineteenth-century Maratha kingdom, is a ten-minute walk from the bust of King George V. The palace is now a museum and art gallery with ancient bronze and stone sculptures. A sign from the chairman of the Art Gallery Society welcomes the visitor, stating that the exhibits are “meaningfully mute with wordless expressiveness,” and “preserved through gate collections besides munificent contributions of the viewing personages,” and that you, the visitor, are welcome “to record your feelings.” In 2003, the entry fee was a rupee or two. It was still a rupee or two when I visited in 2011. Today, it’s about five rupees. But in a town where one could pay 100 rupees for the twenty-minute auto-rickshaw crawl from the palace to the bus station, five rupees hardly seems enough to support the weight of history.
An ancient statue of the seated Buddha lurked in one corner of the gallery, surrounded by columns with white paint chips falling off them. Graffiti—or marks of attendance, depending on your perspective—embellished most walls. “It is very nice to see enduring heritage of Tanjore,” wrote one visitor. On January 22, 2011, Abidha, Bala Abirami, Banu Priya, Elizabeth, Mythili, Reka and Revathy affirmed their ‘familyship’ on the stained wall behind one of the sculptures. And most interestingly, armed with the powers granted by education, K. Jeeva M.B.B.S, K.P. Judha B.A. B.L. and Joyson B.E. scrawled their names on the palace columns as proof, or inspiration, for posterity. To amble along the gallery’s corridors was to walk past not just an assembly of historical sculptures, but a modern-day, Facebook-like wall of comments and timelines.
I was reminded of the inscription below King George’s sculpture, presented by T.N. Kalidoss, B.A., B.L., the humble and loyal citizen of Tanjore, and the mirroring of ideas: a mark of attendance and a proclamation of status by education. One, a tribute to a ruler and the state, and the other, a pointed disregard for both. What kind of tributes does history accept? What is sacred and worth preserving? What is temporal and worth scorning? What, if any, are the measures for the sacred and profane? Kalidoss used his money to record a paean to George V, the imperial king; Jeeva, Judha and Joyson used their rupees to visit the Thanjavur palace, home of historic gods and rulers and present-day neglect. One inscription, bordering on sycophancy, and the other, poking fun at the very neglect it contributes to.
But there may be hope for Thanjavur’s palace embedded in those vandalized walls. The palace is now maintained by the State Archeology Department and the town’s Public Works Department, to which the central government sanctioned the equivalent of $2.5 million a few years ago for renovation. The changes are visible—new paint on some walls and a retrofitted palace tower. One corner of the palace is still the residence of a descendant of the Maratha royal dynasty. Babaji Rajah Bhonsle Chattrapathy, the 45-year-old prince, is intent on showcasing the palace to a larger audience. And earlier this year, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage organized a Clean Palace campaign, in which students from local colleges gathered to wash the walls clean of their timelines. Jeeva, Judha and Joyson and the rest of the gang are probably gone from the public record for now. (T.N. Kalidoss, B.A, B.L., had more money, and a chisel. For better or worse, history has probably got his back.) But does one spite Jeeva and company for disfiguring a palace, or thank them for the kind of unintentional activism that leads to millions of dollars pouring in to hold up the faltering palace? Irony is often intertwined with history; what better tribute than one that provokes the rallying of a community, and, in its washing-away, reconnects us to the messy depths?
It’s election season in India this year, ripe for the tradition of tribute-as-sycophancy in Tamil Nadu politics, as this Photoshopped poster shows.