In the morning, Raja, a “Tourist Guide Government Trained,” as his badge stated, continued my education in the story of Thanjavur. The city was the capital of the medieval Chola dynasty, which 1,000 years ago spread across southern India, northern Sri Lanka, and the Maldives. We walked around Brihadisvara, the mighty temple completed by King Rajaraja I in the year 1010, admiring its signature feature, a soaring orange granite tower decorated with thousands of figures, niches, and cornices. We joined a line of devotees to Shiva that has formed every day for centuries. We advanced past carved pillars into the heart of the shrine, where a priest raised a pyramid of fire composed of small candles. The crowd’s shouts made the room ring with supplication.
“Temples meant employment,” Raja told me. “If people have employment and food, there is dance, sculpture, painting.” Parakeets and swifts flew over the great walls and around the tower’s 80-ton capstone—raised, Raja said, by elephants who conveyed it along a great earthen ramp that went all the way to the top.
We studied a huge carving of Nandi, Shiva’s sacred bull, that dates to the 16th century. Nearby, there were sculptures of Shiva that seemed to have four arms and four legs. These were both devotional and instructional, Raja explained, depicting the deity striking two poses at the same time. Inside the Royal Palace, now a museum, he showed me astonishing 11th-century bronze sculptures of Shiva and his beautiful consort Parvati, the goddess of fertility, love, and devotion. Their detailed necklaces and bracelets all but jangled with the swelling movements of their muscles.
Afterward, I returned to Svatma, a new hotel in an old merchant’s mansion in a quiet quadrant of Thanjavur. Its philosophy is predicated on the relationship between a healthy body and a quiet mind. The restaurant is “pure,” my waiter informed me, meaning it serves vegetables only. At the beginning of each sumptuous meal, he displayed a tray of onions, peppers, eggplants, potatoes, and spices, like a conjurer challenging the diner to imagine how the chef could possibly transform such mundane fare into the delectable curries and sauces he would soon serve.
South of Thanjavur, the landscape becomes drier and less populated. A granite cliff rears above the plain. I had reached a zone of India’s lesser known and more mysterious faiths. One is Jainism, founded in the sixth century B.C. by Mahavira, a companion of Buddha. Meditation, fasting, and the rejection of any action that might harm another living creature, Jains believe, lead to the liberation of the soul.
Sreenevasan turned off the road so that we could visit the Sittannavasal Cave Temple, an eight-foot cube hewn out of the cliff in the seventh century by Jain craftsmen. Inside were carved Buddha-like figures called tirthankaras and glowing murals depicting religious figures, swans, and lotus flowers. We stood in the middle and hummed. The stone took up the sound. It lingered even after we fell silent. We could feel it pulsing through the rock that surrounded us.
Farther along the road, in the isolated village of Namunasamudram, hundreds of terra-cotta horses lined the path to a shrine. These were artifacts of the Aiyanar faith, an egalitarian offshoot of Hinduism that recognizes worshippers of all castes and religions equally. The fierce watchfulness of the horses combined with the eerie silence of the shrine gave me a prickly feeling on the back of my neck. “Keep away from the horses,” Sreenevasan said. “There are snakes.” Inside the shrine we found drapes and colored pigments that had been left recently, but no sign of anyone—only the feeling of being observed while standing on holy ground.
The sensation of falling through a crack in modernity only deepened upon our arrival in the Chettinad region. A Hindu merchant class organized in a clan structure, the Chettiars established themselves in the 17th century, likely through the salt trade. Their heyday came late in the 19th century when they began borrowing money from British colonial banks and lending it to small traders at a higher interest rate. The fortunes they made allowed them to finance the construction of thousands of palatial houses, many in the Art Deco style, arranged in a spray of planned villages. The Parisian architect Bernard Dragon, who explained Chettiar history to me, has renovated one of the mansions and now runs it as a dreamy hotel called Saratha Vilas. Built in 1910, it is a succession of halls and courtyards in Italian marble, English ceramic tiles, and Burmese teak, all arranged according to the principles of vastu shastra, the Hindu philosophy of architectural harmony.