By early March, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the midday sun is so hot it scorches the feet of shoeless temple visitors. Going barefoot is a sign of respect and reams of coir matting are unrolled across the hot stones of temple precincts to save the soles of pilgrims’ feet being baked into nan bread.
But in the Brihadeeswarar Temple at Tanjore I had gone off-piste, as it were, and was hopping around like Shiva’s dancing avatar, Nataraja, as I lined up angles and squinted at an old photograph I had downloaded to my tablet.
At this moment, a passing Indian tourist hailed me a with a “Hello sir!’ and asked me where I was from.
“March 1858,” I felt like saying, for he had interrupted me in an act of attempted time travel.
I had been trying to think myself into the boots (he almost certainly kept them on) of a 19th Century Englishman with the Pythonesque name of Linnaeus Tripe (his 11 siblings included Theophilus and Septimus).
Haunting Images Of India's Deep South
In the 1850s, Tripe had taken some of the earliest known photographs of India and I was tracking down his subjects – and the precise spots where he must have stood as he stooped to operate his unwieldy apparatus. Tripe, a captain in the British Army, is a neglected figure in the history of photography. But an exhibition of his work, which opened at the V&A Museum in London last month (until October 11) aims to rectify that.
From 1855 to 1858, on expeditions through Burma and India, he captured haunting images of sacred sites, landscapes and geology. Some of the finest were of India’s deep south.
Commissioned by the colonial administration, Tripe left Bangalore in December 1857, with equipment, tents and supplies loaded on to four bullock carts, and headed south with the intention of capturing “before they disappear the objects … that are interesting to the Antiquary, Architect, Sculptor, Mythologist and Historian”.
I left Chennai – formerly Madras – a little over 157 years later by means of a Toyota people carrier (with driver) and also travelled south, on the East Coast Road, intending to use Tripe’s journey and work as a focus for my own explorations. Our respective routes intersected in Tanjore, and from there, while Tripe had headed up to Madras, I continued on Tripe’s route in reverse as far as Madurai.
Manifestations Of Marzipan Devils
A “wearying tour” was Tripe’s verdict. To me it was a revelation – he needn’t have worried about things disappearing as in some respects, across a century-and-a-half, they haven’t changed at all.
Tripe knew this region of beaches and river deltas, of granite outcrops and ineffably sacred temple complexes, by its colonial name, the Madras Presidency. Today it is Tamil Nadu and it is still characterised by what drew Tripe: the landmarks and culture of its temples.
The shot I was lining up at the Brihadeeswarar Temple in Tanjore, built in the 11th Century at the height of the Chola Empire, was an attempt to match Tripe’s study, showing the pillared hall enclosing Nandi the bull (Shiva’s vehicle) in the right foreground and focusing on the tower behind.
These towers, known as gopurams, are unique to the Dravidian temple architecture of southern India. It’s hard to say what they signify, or at least I was given several explanations for their shape and colossal stature: they are hands steepled in greeting or prayer; they are conductors of cosmic power; they represent the feet of the reclining deity; they are manifestations of God, visible from kilometres away, in the humblest dwelling.
All are built on a granite base with a brick and plaster structure above. Some teem with figures related to Hindu mythology, and especially the presiding deity, fashioned in stucco and brightly painted, putting me in mind of marzipan devils.
The gopuram that looms over the Brihadeeswarar Temple is not painted but it does have one extraordinary feature: resting on the top at a height of more than 65 metres, like a ping-pong ball on a jet of water, is a granite globe said to weigh 80 tonnes.
Eerie Pictures Devoid Of People
The old Stonehenge question arises – how on earth did they get it up there? The answer, apparently, is by elephant power and bamboo-and-wood ramp, the latter with such a gentle gradient that it was several kilometres long.
Now the ramp exists only in imagination (it must have looked like the biggest ever fairground ride) and you also need to think creatively when viewing Captain Tripe’s photographs for they contain an eerie omission: there are next to no people in them.
This is, at first sight, bizarre for many of Tamil Nadu’s temples are as crookedly alive as the human heart, swirling with mendicants, supplicants, itinerants and tricksters (in the pillared halls of Ekambaranathar Temple in Kanchipuram the “Beware of pickpocketing” signs set the tone).
But Tripe’s large-format camera required long exposure times that erased anything that moved, leaving at best ghostly blurs. And, judging by the shadows, he was often shooting either early or late in the day, when there were fewer people about in any case.
Tamil Nadu’s temples and culture could not be more vibrant, yet Tripe’s pictures read like studies of a civilisation as lost and irretrievable as that of the Maya of Mesoamerica. By visiting the same places I was able to perform – in my own head at least – some belated Photoshopping, pouring into his photographs all the people he had left behind in 1858.
Day by day and temple by temple they aggregated: the man with big eyebrows standing next to a sign saying 'No entry fee' who tried to charge me an entry fee; the devotees of Ganesh, the elephant god, who crossed their arms and pummelled their skulls with their knuckles; the brahmin priests, their foreheads daubed with horizontal lines of ash, who spared one eye for Shiva while the other kept track of the offerings plate.
You’d like to think that Tripe saw and enjoyed similar things, even if he had no means of recording them. Little is known of the marvellously monikered man behind the lens – he left few written records and took no selfies – but slowly I began to feel kinship with him.
Rain and a star in one Bollywood day. Monsoon Rain & A Bollywood Star All In One Afternoon
Take tea and view temples on the road to Darjeeling. Tea And Temples On The Road To Darjeeling
Mad Dogs And Englishmen
By the time he reached Tanjore and Madurai he was travelling in gathering heat (like me) and the demands of his equipment were immense. The only way, in those days, for a photographer to compose his shots was to study the image on the ground-glass screen at the back of the camera, which appeared upside down and back to front, as well as being hard to see.
Looking through the viewfinder of my Canon I would feel the rivulets of sweat that must have tracked down Tripe’s temples as he sought to enclose the top of this or that gopuram within his compositional frame. Though the temples have not changed from Tripe’s day, sometimes the surrounding towns have grown so chaotically that his world has been all but swallowed up in a snarl of power lines, billboards and motorcycles.
At the Jambukeswarar Temple near Tiruchirappalli I gave up trying to find the broad road, lined with palm trees, that once led to the gopuram. But as we were driving away something made me whip round to see Tripe’s precise shot framed by the back window of the car. We had been on the road all along.
Tripe's Dancer Now Buried By Pavement
So we continued, Tripe and I, gazing on 'Elephant Rock', a granite outcrop to the north of Madurai with pachydermic properties; standing on the north bank of the river crossing into the city (then a low causeway, now a double-decker highway); and wandering the halls of Madurai’s Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple with its colossal gopurams and smoky superstitions.
We parted company at the base of an unfinished gopuram to the east of the temple complex in Madurai. Here Tripe photographed a huge decorative door jamb, at the base of which was a dancing female figure, her right leg and right arm raised.
A shopkeeper looked at the photograph on my tablet and confirmed I’d got the right place – I wasn’t sure at first because these days the dancer is up to her neck in pavement. In the world of Linnaeus Tripe she dances forever free.
A little over a year after he took this picture, his photographic career was over (the government withdrew its support) and when Tripe died in Devonport in 1902, the few years he had spent taking photographs were a forgotten footnote to a life of colonial service. But the midday heat can play tricks in the temples of Tamil Nadu. If you see something out of the corner of your eye – like a blurred figure in an old photograph – you’ll know who it is.
When to go
January to March, after the rains and before the real heat.
British Airways flies direct from London Heathrow to Chennai. Nigel Richardson was a guest of Audley Travel.
Where to stay and eat
Tamil Nadu does not have the culinary traditions of neighbouring Kerala but there are good restaurants in Pondicherry, such as those in the two hotels owned by the CGH Earth Group, Maison Perumal and the Palais de Mahe. In Chettinad, The Bangala offers distinctive lunches of Chettiar specialities served on banana leaves.
Sunblock, hat, and footwear that can be slipped on and off for temple visiting.
What to read
Captain Linnaeus Tripe: Photographer of India and Burma, 1852-1860 by Roger Taylor and Crispin Branfoot (Prestel Publishing).
Visit your local Flight Centre store or call 131 600 for more advice and the latest deals on travelling to Tamil Nadu.
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