I made a quasi-official visit to Thanjavur (not Tanjore) last week. Being an obsessive compulsive never-return-home-unless-you-really-have-to-when-you-are-already-out kind of a person I ventured to visit the famed Sarasvati Mahal library. I decided to skip Brahadeeswara temple for two reasons – one, I have visited it multiple times over the years and two,  I’d recently been bamboozled by the grandiose that Airavateeswara temple (Darasuram) is, which took me about 3 hours to explore and take some rudimentary pictures on my basic smartphone. As if to justify my logic I’d the pleasure of flipping through at least 60 year old law books belonging to a family of lawyers who’d generously donated it to a law school. Law sure is an evolving creature, but some core values remain constant, and reading them from a dog-eared book makes one less cynical about the profession and life itself.   

As is my wont, I entered the library 30 minutes before the closing time and the entry fee collector was not too pleased with me. But the librarian thawed as I hinted that I am leaving the town the very night. A treasure trove of books from the times bygone, pillared halls, high ceilings, wooden tables, Rama’s coronation and a healthy looking Gajalakshmi drawn in Tanjore style and a Sarasvati to keep vigil – not even the mounting pillar with its out-of-place bathroom tiles could break the spell the place cast on me. I had a list of books to refer,  I knew they were in the library and I was aware that I have to mention the details of the books for the librarian to locate to as none but the staff is allowed to enter the sanctum of the library. You’d think I was sorted – NO. With multiple catalogues and little time, I couldn’t find the books I had in mind. I was reminded of writer Bogan Sankar’s description of writer Jeyamohan as someone who travels with a self-crafted travelogue and sees nothing beyond it. I quickly sifted through the list and found this rare old Sanskrit play called “Anandaraghavam” written by Rajachudamani Dikshita, a writer/philosopher who adorned the court of King Raghunatha Nayak.

Anandaraghavam, if you have not guessed by now, is the author’s take on Ramayana, beginning with the episode of Sita’s swayamvara up to the coronation of Rama, spread over five acts. The book compiled by a librarian in the early 1920s has a brief plot summary, a note on the author, both in English and Tamil, and a list of characters in the order of appearance and their relationship with the protagonists of the play.

Following this is a merciless critique by Mr. V. Gopala Iyengar, the librarian abovementioned who makes it clear that he doesn’t think much of the play. Sample this, “It cannot be gainsaid that many of these deviations from the original do not enhance the dramatic values of the work either from the emotional or stagecraft point of view.” A triple negative in a criticism without compromising on one’s opinion – wet dream of every reality show judge and literary critic. Eventually, the diplomat in the librarian gives in and he mentions how the title of the play is unique and distinct from its predecessor versions like Anangaraghava (by Kalyanamalla), Prasannaraghava (Jayadeva), Udattaraghava (Mayuraja), Unmattaraghava (Bhaskara Bhatta), ouch.

How poetic that an early 17th century book of a Nayak subject finds a safe haven in a Maratha King’s library and is accessed by a woman in a democratic India where works of fiction hurt the personal pride of fringe groups. I certainly hope Maharaja Serfoji didn’t turn a multi-specialty hospital built by some ruddy Nayak into this library because attempt has been made for the converse in some modern countries. But, Rajachudamani Dikshita seemed to have played it right with his career, apart from penning literary works he has also written two important books on Mimasa, Tantrasikhamani, and Karpuravartika. Let’s just call him a lawyer and a writer. It did help that Raghunatha Nayak himself was an established musician and helped in the flourish of Carnatic music in his times.

I should have stopped with reading the book, but I clicked a few pictures sneakily, only to be told off for damaging the photosensitive papers in the book by a library staff, at which point I literally threw my mobile into the bag and started making notes. He bid farewell to a couple of older gentlemen and then whispered that I can take pictures now that ‘they’ have gone. Oh humans, my humans. The royal palace and bell tower were closed by the time I was done with the library, but I literally ran around the museum to find some large portraits of people from the royal lineage and paintings of various methods of Chinese torture.

On my way back to the guest house, I decided to take the town buses. Surprisingly, not a single bike/scooter driver sported helmet. But, never mind, nobody is overtaking anybody there, they simply travel parallel to each other and hope to reach the destination some day. Also, deeply fascinated to note that even the administrative buildings in the Thanjavur had arched entrances, as if the town can never get enough of her curves. And, there are tiny juice shops around the Big temple which play old recordings of Thenkachi Ko. Swaminathan. These tiny moments vindicate my theory that the only way to know, feel, explore and absorb a city is by foot or through its public transport systems, else we could end up seeing larger versions of googlable images. As for Thanjavur itself, I can vouch that it is solo-woman-traveler friendly, but then I’m a Tamil, so, haha. Being a native speaker of the oldest language in the world has its perks. As I rested my head on the seat of my rickety bus back to Chennai, I had just one question in my mind, why did the man in the library direct a woman to speak to me in Marathi?

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