Nalanda’s Educational Expedition on Cholas – The Spy’s Trail

Text: Dr Meenakshi Iyer Gangopadhyay (She is a practitioner of Bharata Natyam and an Assistant Professor at Nalanda Nritya Kala Mahavidyalaya since the last 24 years).

Nalanda Nritya Kala Mahavidyalaya, the exclusive college of Indian classical dance, affiliated to the University of Mumbai, took part in an exciting, adventurous educational tour to the Chola land, conducted by Heritage Inspired, specialists in premium heritage tourism. The curriculum at Nalanda, in addition to the core subject of dance, comprises allied subjects such as history, sculpture, painting, architecture, literature, aesthetics, religion and philosophy which enhances the student’s deep understanding of Indian classical dances. Thus, as an intrinsic part of their learning, the final year Bachelors and Post-Graduate students of Nalanda along with some of the Alumni, under the guidance of Dr Uma Rele – Principal of Nalanda Nritya Kala Mahavidyalaya, Rahul Rele – President, Nalanda Dance Research Centre, and faculty Dr Meenakshi Iyer Gangopadhyay, Radhika Nair and Vaidehi Rele Lal and Nikunj Rele- assistant fitness trainer went on an experiential expedition called ‘Cholas – The Spy’s Trail (Sep 28th – Oct 1st 2019), conducted by  Heritage Inspired, a passionate and dedicated tour agency in Chennai.

Cholas – The Spy’s trail was exclusively designed to create a time travel experience back to the Chola era. The dynamic tour manager Anand and his superb team consisting among others, an expert archaeologist and UNESCO nominated conservator of world monuments Dr Deivanayagan and Ramesh Vangipuram, a dedicated and passionate historian, introduced the Nalandites to the fascinating history of the Imperial Chola Kingdom – one of the longest-ruling dynasties in medieval history. The journey unfolded the beauty, elegance and artistry of the architectural marvels of Darashwaram, Brihadishwara Temple, Gangaikondacholapuram and the Chidambaram Nataraja Temple- the patron deity of the Cholas.

The journey began from Chennai towards Chidambaram wherein the students were introduced by Anand to the historical novel ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ by Kalki Krishnamurthy, which tells the story of the early days of Arulmozhivarman, who later became the great Chola emperor Rajaraja Chola – I. After this, the historian Ramesh gave an introduction to the ‘Rise of the Cholas’. The visit to the Chidambaram Nataraja Temple included an interesting session on ‘Iconography and Dance’ by Dr Deivanayagan. The 2nd day began with a heritage walk at Veeranarayana Lake – a man-made wonder by Parantaka Chola. This was followed by a visit to the UNESCO World Heritage Site – Gangaikondacholapuram. The architectural beauty and the sculptural wonders of this temple were demystified by Dr Deivanayagan and deep-dive into the greatest war strategy of King Rajendra Chola to capture Kadaram (Malaysia) and the Ganges was undertaken by the expert historian Ramesh. Sitting under the shade of a huge tree with the singing of the parrots in the background on the sprawling grounds of the temple premises, all eyes fixed on the huge map spread on the ground with Ramesh explaining the war strategy with gusto seemed as if Rajendra Chola himself was disclosing his war strategy to his warriors!!! After a brief presentation about Rajarajan and Rajendran Meikeerthi, the tour proceeded towards the exploration of a 9th-century battlefield at the village of Thirupurambiyam, Thanjavur that changed the course of history. The walk through the paddy fields, the re-enactment of the Chola history by the villagers and the traditional village hospitality left both, the students and the faculty mesmerized. The 3rd day was extremely eventful with visits to Darashwaram and Rajarajeswaram both, UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Every aesthetic detail of the wonderful iconography of Darashwaram was explained by the expert archaeologist. The grand finale tour of the Tanjore Big Temple (The Brihadishwara Temple) consisted of an extensive workshop by Dr Deivanayagan exploring the architectural marvel of this world-renowned temple.

The stay was arranged at Premium Heritage properties and the meals consisted of traditional delicacies with food sourced from local organic farmers. What appeared to be divine were the dance offerings by the students and faculty in front of the sanctum sanctorum at the temples of Chidambaram, Darashwaram and the Sakshinathar Nayakan temple at Thirupurambiyam.

All in all, this was a truly inspiring educational and cultural expedition!