Following a multiple day firing of a large wood kiln, the time it takes for the work to cool down can feel excruciatingly long. The highly insulated chamber sits dormant, full of all of our hard work, heat lazily dissipating at a speed slow enough to keep both the pots safe, and also drive our eager minds awol in anticipation. One really doesn't know the meaning of the word "restraint" until they've stood next to their kiln the day after finishing and kept themselves from sneaking a peak inside.
Thus the "Cool Tour" was born. A 3 day, 2 night historical adventure through southern Tamil Nadu, guided by Mr. Ray Meeker, himself, to experience some of the region's most significant temple sites, traditional village pottery, and other amazing craft-oriented stops, and of course to distract us from mettling with the kiln.
Sleepy-eyed and still lacking rest post-firing, our small group convened at Ray's place early Feb. 13 to begin the journey. We headed south out of Pondi on hwy 32, and arrived two hours later in the town of Chidambaram of the Cuddalore district. We stopped for tiffin before walking down the street to our first marvel, a Hindu temple called Thillai Nataraja. Thillai Nataraja is a Dravidian style temple complex from the 10th c., typical of south India. The complex is dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva, and particularly the dancing form of Shiva, whose dance represents the functioning of the universe itself. Seriously, no parking on the dance floor.
After checking our shoes in with a warm-eyed and wrinkled baba at the storage stall, our bare feet carried us toward the entrance. I was infinitesimal as I passed through the towering gopura, a strategy used in spiritual architecture across the globe. We are so small, and I think it is quite important to keep that in mind.
Photography was strictly forbidden within the temple itself, so I have only words to describe it. It was quiet, damp and dimly lit. The feeling of sacredness was heavy and I felt conscious of every little movement that I made. We were all taken with the hundreds of tall, intricately carved, stone pillars that held up the structure. Bruce expressed his relief about seeing some pillars with some visual interest in contrast to the comparatively basic cylindrical ones of the West. Reliefs and sculptures were carved all around, representing different active postures of classical Indian dance.
We were lucky enough to experience a pooja while inside the complex. A pooja is a prayer ritual and this one was for the main deity, the Nataraja Shiva. Two huge bells began to ring deafeningly and everyone gathered around the garbhagriha, or inner sanctum, of the temple where the Nataraja idol is located. The devotees surrounding the sanctum were chanting and holding up their hands. Eventually the steel doors enclosing the chamber opened slowly to reveal the murti and all of the holy men who were inside performing the ritual. Goosebumps rose on my skin as the chants grew louder and the pujari (priests) washed and blessed the idol.
We exited, amazed and eager for the next stop: A humble Kali temple.
Kali is another Hindu deity; the destroyer of evil forces. There were also no photos allowed of the inner sanctum of this small temple. The visage of the Kali idol was visceral. There was a similar, dim reverence to this shrine, and the featureless figure sat wrapped in red dust and robes. Looking into it made my heart beat at a more rapid rate.
As we were driving down the road after leaving the Kali temple, we spotted a brick-making operation and stopped to have a look. Brick-making is something Ray became quite familiar with while he was experienting with his "fire-stabilized structures" in the 80s. He mentioned how two men could pump out about 2000 bricks in a morning before the heat of the day became too much to bear. The brick-makers stack the bricks into these gothic-esque corbeled structures. When they are ready to be fired, they are filled with combustibles, sealed up, and lit. The last photo below shows Bruce getting his Hollywood on with a hot brick pile behind him. It was amazing to see the part of the structure which got a bit too hot as evidenced by the drippy melted bricks. Every bit of it was just beautiful.
Next stop, Gangaikondacholapuram. Yes, say it three times fast.
Gangaikondacholapuram is another Dravidian style Shiva temple which is located in a town called Jayankondam. For some reason, photos were encouraged within the inner sanctum during the pooja at this temple, whereas usually it is closed completely to the general public. You may have seen a short video on my instagram feed of two horn players and a drummer performing during the ritual. As we circled the temple grounds we mused about what life may have been like back when this temple was constructed. How have the rituals changed? Are the intentions different now? Has faith taken a new form in present times? How the hell did they pull off something so incredible anyway? That dome on the top of the temple weighs about 25 tons... How would YOU get it up there?
Onward about 20 miles southwest and we find ourselves at the Airavatesvara Temple. This may have been my favorite temple that we visited. It was much smaller in size compared to the Gangaikondacholapuram and the Brihadeesvara Temple, but it was densely packed with intricate stonework. Here you can see some the incredible columns that I had mentioned earlier.
Ray suggested that we walk around the corner to visit a local weaver. He invited us into his home and we climbed up his tight, steep spiral staircase into the loom and showroom. He was working on a beautiful silk sari using his home-made loom. The complexity behind this machine goes way over my head with its hanging weights and intertwined threads that criss-cross in every direction. It was like looking at that big wad of cords that you hide behind your television table, but times 1000, and somehow it all translated into intricate patterns on the piece. Line by line he shot his little bullet through the tunnel of strings, laying on each layer and then cinching it toight. Both Bruce and Ray bought a little something for their sweethearts before we took our leave.
Next stop: Brihadisvara Temple, Thanjavur. We arrived at this complex during the evening and closed the place down. The next morning we got up early to soak it all in again at dawn when it would be less crowded. It is hard to put into words the sheer imposing mass of this complex. The main deity of this temple is also Shiva, and the murti within the garbhagriha is Shiva in his Lingam form. At nearly 30ft. the Lingam in this temple is one of India's largest, and people travel from all over the country to come and see.
We hopped back on the 36 south and set our sights for a small rural village called Oorpeti to visit my first Ayanaar shrine. Ayanaar is a deity pre-dating the Vedic Hindu traditions who is widely worshiped throughout Southern India. He is a strong, horse-back riding, mustachioed protector of individuals, communities, cattle, and crops, is, "both loved and feared by the villagers, who ask him to resolve their main day-to-day problems which revolve around disease, weather, conception and childcare", and he has an incredible connection to clay.
I give you the terracotta horses of Ayanaar.
The larger Ayanaar temple complexes have long pathways lined with these guardians in various states of disrepair, leading up the the main shrine. These horses, and sometimes elephants or bulls, are commissioned by people in the community for the local potter to make as an offering to Ayanaar, usually for a very specific purpose. They are the world's largest monolithic terracotta sculptures, sometimes reaching up to 17ft. in height. Their presence is imposing, all of them watching your every move as you make your way toward their leader, making sure you bring no funny business.
Although, some of their expressions were quite humorous. It seemed to me like the head shape and expression of the horses were where the makers had a lot of fun and took the most artistic liberty.
One interesting aspect of the Ayanaar horse is that when making and ritually dedicating them, the village potters temporarily take on the roll of priest and act as a direct conduit to Ayanaar. The rituals and ceremonies surrounding the horses are extensive and I won't go into much more detail here, but you can read a wonderful account about them in Jane Perryman's book, Traditional Pottery of India.
Village potters with generations of handed down skill and knowledge, create these beasts using coiled clay and a paddle and anvil, and we had the privilege of getting to meet one such craftsman.
Not too far from the shrine, after pulling over to buy some fresh, lightly toasted cashew nuts grown in the surrounding fields, we veer off of the main road into a small pottery village called, Duvaradimanai. We passed several horseshoe style kilns and shard piles on our way in, confirming that we were now amongst the potters. Here we met Palinasamy, a terracotta horse-maker and a friend of Ray's. When we arrived, he had two horses in process, just awaiting their beautifully sculptural heads.
The shapes and proportions of his horses were absolutely gorgeous. The entire horse was a uniform thickness of a touch less than 1/2", and he is so skillful in his process that the interior needs no additional structural support. He is a true master, and standing beside his horses I was once again filled with humility.
He showed us his horse-shoe style kiln, in which they fire both horses, and the domestic wares that they produce. A layer of pots remain in the bottom to act a a sort of grate for the updraft kiln. The entire space is stacked carefully with both pots, and fuel. Once they've peaked up over the edges of the walls, a layer of straw, pot sherds, and finally mud are covered over the top, and the kiln is lit. Because the fuel is contained inside, they can basically walk away after lighting the kiln and it will fire itself off. Palinasamy told us how this kiln has been in his family for 200+ years.
Palinasamy is one of the few people left who make these horses. Most places have switched to commissioning cement horses, which is considered a superior material because of its durability. I'm unsure if Palinasamy has trained anyone to carry on in his footsteps, but I sure hope so.
On the final day of the trip, we visited a bronze museum in Thanjavur. We got to see several centuries worth of bronze idols ranging from 9th c. to the present. It was wonderful to see the slight variations throughout time. I particularly enjoyed how each sculpture included a decorative pedestal of some sort which somehow elevated the importance of the figure atop it. I was inspired by the idea and decided once back in the studio to make "pedestals" for some of my large jars.
After the museum, Ray brought us to a workshop where bronze idols were being made right then and there. They weren't doing any casting when we visited, but we did get to see a man sculpting a new Kali figure in wax, and another man doing some finish work on a figure that had already been poured. I loved the thought of one of the pieces the men were working on that day being a part of a bronze exhibit 10,000 years down the line.
After the bronze workshop, it was time to head back home. We slouched in our seats, so much visual information packed into 3 short days; pots, figures, patterns, thalis, textures, temples. My head was ready to burst, but it didn't have enough energy to follow through. India is filled with incredible arts, crafts, and architecture, and this tour was a wonderful sampling of some of the examples that are specific to this region. I'm grateful for our driver, Kumar for keeping our near-collision count high, but actual collision count at 0. For Bruce, Hrito, Raji, and Aarti for adding to the fun. And of course for Ray, for providing such an unforgettable and incredibly enriching opportunity.
Now wasn't there something else we were supposed to do? ...OH! There's a kiln to unload!
Follow me to the Chinnagama gallery