Category Archives: Indian Architecture

A day at the doors of a holy place at Spiti valley- Nako

I missed the morning bus from Reckong Peo and that gave me some time to take part in the annual mela in the district headquarters. I boarded the next bus at noon, from Peo towards my destination for the day- Nako, a small township in the Hangrang Valley, a part of the Spiti valley. The place gets it’s name from a Tibetan word ‘Nego’ which translates to ‘The Door to a holy place’.

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The road from Kinnaur valley, leading to Spiti valley

The transition from Kinnaur valley to Spiti valley was evident in its landscape. The road changed from green to rocky to barren along the way, each being spectacular. The snaking road was accompanied by the crisscrossing Spiti river amid a mind-blowing scenery all along the way. Although I was travelling solo, I felt accompanied through warm conversations with the driver and the conductor of the HRTC bus. They were quite surprised and amused to hear that I was from South India, spoke fluent Hindi, was travelling alone and without a fixed itinerary. The bus was stuck in a couple of roadblocks caused by landslides for almost 3 hours in total and that meant- I arrived late at my destination. From all the online research I had done about the place, I knew that Nako was decently popular on the tourist radar and finding a place to stay wouldn’t be difficult. When finally the bus stopped at the Nako bus-stop at 07.00.p.m., I was in for the BIGGEST surprise of my life!

The bus stop was on the highway. That was the LAST public transport of the day. It was pitch-dark already. All the civilization I had read about, did not seem to exist there. Apart from the bright stars twinkling in the clear sky, the only light I could see was that of a dimly lit lantern hanging in a tiny shop. The conductor looked at me blankly and said- this is Nako. “Talk to the shopkeeper and he might help you to find a place to stay”, he said and signaled the driver to proceed their ride.

“Where am I going to stay tonight? Can I trust the shopkeeper? Do I have any other option apart from approaching the shopkeeper?” A million things were running in my head. I stood there for a moment to let my thoughts settle down first. But before that, the biting cold and the rough winds rushed me to the shop for some warmth. In the dim light, I saw hope. The shop was run by an old man and the wrinkles on his surprised face multiplied when I asked him if I could get a place to stay. He nodded a yes and asked me to wait until he attended his last customer and lowered the shutters of his little grocery store.

He walked me through steel shutters behind his shop, got a bunch of keys from his house and asked me to follow him to the floor above his house. He said he runs a homestay (Somang dhaba, hotel and homestay) during summer. Since I was there during offseason, the room wasn’t used for a long time. The room had a low voltage bulb and had no running hot water. I could stay there for the night if I could manage with whatever was available. He was not going to charge me for it. The room had a decent washroom, carpeted floor, enough blankets and a comfortable looking bed. The thought of saying no to the old man and getting adventurous in pursuit of a better homestay in the cold night did not even pass through my head. This place was more than what I had expected to get. I agreed to stay there and grabbed the room keys from him.

As I unpacked my bag to pull out my thermals, Mr.Somang knocked at my door with a bucket of hot water for me to freshen up and told me that he had informed the small dhaba next door to stay up for me so that I can go have my supper. If there was any other problem, I could knock at his door, Mr.Somang lived with his wife in the ground floor. The dhaba was a tiny shed put-up with sheets, was run by a Nepali family and fed the occasional truck drivers who stopped by for chai and Paratha. I had the same for my supper too. As I answered the family’s curious questions, I sat warming myself around the fireplace in their kitchen for some time before heading back to my room.

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The township as viewed from the Nako helipad

I was in for a surprise when I woke up in the morning. The view from the window transcended me to another world that I had imagined only on Microsoft Window’s wallpaper. Barren, dry arid landscape and distant snowcapped mountains. A lonely road ran uphill, and I had slept in a roadside house that had this magnificent view. I immediately jumped out of my bed, fetched a bucket of hot water from the host’s house, freshened up and got out quickly, to sink in the morning vibes of the place. I took a walk to the nearby helipad from where I could get a 360deg view of the surrounding mountains. That was the first time I was seeing a landscape so arid, so dry, so different and so beautiful.

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The view from Nako helipad

As I walked further, is when I realized that the real civilization of Nako village existed only if I walked further away from the main road. Doing this on a moonless night, in order to find a place to stay would have been next to madness. I was greeted by tiny tots with their heavy backpacks and playfully jumping on their way to school. The sounds of mooing cattle and crowing roosters echoed in the silent streets.

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The sweet smell of incense arising from the monastery had engulfed the ambience as I walked towards a small red structure made of clay and red oxide. Prayer drums on its outside indicated that it was the ancient Buddhist monastery where people seemed to be coming to offer their morning prayers. An interesting structure caught my attention to up in the hills. “That’s the old and the main monastery from the 11th century ”, a passerby answered to my question. But it seemed quite far for a lonely walk, so I decided to keep it for some other day. When I have company, perhaps!

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The Old and the new monasteries at Nako

The further I walked into the village, the more magical it started to seem. The structure of the houses was unique to Nako, from what I had seen all this while. The houses are built at an elevation from the ground with wooden beams holding the dry stones, slate roofs covered with hay and all houses painted with white lime. While I was finding my way to the Nako lake through the muddy lanes, reaching random dead ends and taking blind turns, I felt lost in the maze. Just then, a man appeared in front of me and greeted me with a warm smile. He saw me taking photos on my cellphone and asked me if I minded a selfie with him. Although bad at taking selfies, I did not mind getting myself pictured in that unique looking place.

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The Nako village

He invited me to his house for a cup of chai and not for a second did I think again. I nodded a yes with joy and followed him to his pretty haven whose courtyard overlooked the Nako lake. His wife got excited at the alien visitor in their little abode and got me chai and biscuits along with some hearty conversations. She took me around her home, and I was quite amused at the style in which it was built (almost entirely of clay, stones and hay), a first time for me. Apart from a heartfelt thank you, I did not have anything to give them back for their wonderful hospitality. And neither did they expect anything in return. I bid goodbye and walked down the lane to the lake, a holy place for the villagers.

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The Nako lake / The sacred pond of Nako

Apart from a few grazing horses, I was the only human there that morning. It was the first time I felt like meditating and decided to sit by the waters for some peaceful moments. The Nako lake is considered holy among the Tibetan Buddhists as Lord Padmasambhava is believed to have meditated here. It is no surprise why I was feeling the unusual calmness and serenity at that place.

A few running kids got me back to reality that I had been sitting there for a while by then. I woke up and got back to the homestay to figure out a way to get to my next destination. But that’s going to be another interesting story (Click her to continue reading)….

The home of the Indian National Emblem- Saranath

Back then, I had read history for the heck of passing the subject and today here I am… Travelling to know more about the rich history soaked heritage of my country… And in the pursuit, my friend and I stumbled upon this little forgotten land from the pages of history- Saranath. It was as if the history textbooks of primary school were walking alive with us… Saranath is an important destination both religiously and historically. So, people of varied interests can be found strolling the streets of Saranath. When we alighted, a volunteer offered to take us for a guided tour around the place and we nodded a yes! A couple of visitors from different countries joined us seeking me to be their translator while the Hindi speaking guide took us around. So I was doubling as a curious traveler and a travel guide cum translator.

Firstly, Saranath is the place where Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon to the five disciples after attaining enlightenment. Hence, a very important place religiously for the Buddhists. Today, the Chaukhandi Stupa, an octagonal structure made of brick and mortar stands at the very same place welcoming the visitors to this town. It was originally built in the Gupta era and later renovated during the Mughal rule.

As I explored the place, I realized that people from different countries have made their presence with Buddha temples built in their native styles of architecture. The Nepali, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, Bhutanese etc. to name a few. While each temple style is unique and beautiful, you realize that the statue of Lord Buddha too is different in each of them. Buddha is worshipped in different forms in different countries… Seated Buddha, sleeping Buddha, standing Buddha, meditating Buddha ET all… The murals inside the Japanese temple grabbed my attention… I was told that the complete interiors is made of sandalwood… The idol, palanquin, the doors and even the chandeliers!

A small walk from there, is ‘Mulagandha Kuti Vihar’, the Nepali temple. What makes this place special is the third generation peepal tree adjacent to its premises. Fondly called as the grandson of the Bodhi tree, it is grown from a twig of a peepal tree believed to be the son of the original Bodhi tree that exists in Sri Lanka. With prayer chants and smell of incense in the air, it is truly a place of calm and solitude. We were quick to pick a few leaves of this holy tree as a souvenir from this little place.

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The Thai temple

Next, it was some history time! We bought an entry ticket at the ASI counter to take a stroll around the ruins surrounding the Dhammek stupa. It is believed that the Mauryan emperor Ashoka had built small clay mounds at ten places where the ashes, the urn and the embers of Lord Buddha were buried which were eventually refurbished as large stupas by the different rulers in the course of history. Dhammek stupa is believed to be one among these ten stupas and hence, a very important one for the Buddhist pilgrims who throng here from across the globe. And that very place where the Indian National emblem was born! The pillar on which the four headed lion is seated was commissioned by emperor Ashoka to commemorate his visit to Saranath. The broken part of the pillar was found during the excavations of this site and later transferred to the ASI museum in Saranath. Today, the bottom portion of the pillar surrounded by four posts holding a stone slab are the things remaining from the original relics at the exact same spot. One way it is nice that nobody has tried to restore this pillar back as the easy accessibility to it would have got the emblem all over the internet with the insensitive photo/selfie-enthusiastic tourists.

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The site of Ashoka pillar with the Dhammek Stupa in the backdrop

A visit to Saranath would definitely be incomplete without getting a glimpse of the ORIGINAL National emblem of India. We deposited our valuables including cameras and cellphones in lockers provided along with the entry ticket to the ASI museum and headed to THE place. A chill ran down my spine on being greeted by this majestic sandstone structure bearing the lion capital, the original form of our National emblem. The four headed Asiatic Lion is seated on a lotus- The national flower of India. Our guide narrated the religious relevance of the emblem in Buddha’s life. The lion represents Buddha himself who stressed upon equality and justice in all spheres of life (all 4 directions). While Gautama was in his mother’s womb- she had a dream of a white elephant entering her womb representing prosperity. The bull represents the young prince Siddhartha’s strength, the horse depicts Siddhartha’s renouncing his royal life and Lion is the depiction of Siddhartha’s transformation into Buddha. When Baby Siddhartha learnt to walk, a lotus bloomed under his feet after the first seven steps and the lotus is said to have faded at the passing away of the Lord- Hence, the inverted lotus. The Ashoka wheel is called the Dharma Chakra, representing the movement of life with 24 spokes- each for the hours of a day… It is true to admit that the national emblem evoked a sense of pride in my heart. Ours is such a rich country in terms of history, culture and heritage! Every stone in India has a tale to tell… Having been restricted from the access of shutterbugs makes this sight all the more valuable and meaningful! There are several other sculptures and artefacts in this museum making it THE BEST museum day in my life!

The last leg of our Saranath walk tour was a visit to the handloom centre where demonstration of weaving a Banarasi saree was given and there it concludes! Sometimes you end up having this feeling of unplanned trips are the best things to happen… And Saranath is one such place!

Summary:
Must do- Walk tour of the town
Must see- The Original form of the Indian National emblem at the ASI museum
Best souvenir- The leaves of the Grandson of the Bodhi tree.

How to reach- There is a railway station in Saranath. It is more convenient to hire an autorickshaw for a 30minute ride from Varanasi.

Stay- There are several Dharamshalas run by people from different countries.

This article was featured in Toyota’s in-house magazine ‘Carz’ Apr~Jun’18 edition

The Land of Ramayana- Ayodhya

We were scheduled to arrive at the land of Ramayana- The Epic of Indian Mythology! Ayodhya is believed to be built by Manu, the first man on earth as per the Vedas. This land was the capital of Ikshvaku dynasty of Suryavamsha- lineage of the Sun, of which Lord Ram was the most popular ruler. Lord Ram has been revered as a symbol of a perfect man. Irrespective of religion, every child born in India grows up listening to stories from the Ramayana. Young girls grow with dreams of having a husband similar to Lord Ram. That said, it was no less a dream to travel all the way to the land where the greatest empire of all times existed.

A small platform which ended even before the train made its 1 minute long stop, very laid back village scene and just 2 tracks with a yellow ‘AYODHYA’ railway board welcomed us as we arrived there by an afternoon train. An old man and his cycle rickshaw awaited us on the other side of the tracks. We told him our hotel’s name and he said 50 Rs. We hopped on to the cycle and our dream journey kickstarted!

It was as if the rickshaw was our time machine that took us back in time as it slowly inched through the main commercial area.. A typical rural setup. Dusty roads were flanked by old tenements on both sides from end to end. The rich embossings on the facades of each house was unique and gave us a sense of an era bygone. Each house enclosed a shrine from where the smell of incense had filled the environment. The main street had everything being sold in the stalls from colourful plastic ware, brass souvenirs, religious beads, clay articles et all. The Chai-wallas were busy serving their brew in clay cups and the Jalebi-wallas were spiraling the batter into hot oil. Fruit vendors did brisk business on carts.. Amid all this, the prayer chants of ‘Ram Siya Ram, Siya Ram Jai Jai Ram’ from the temples in the bylanes echoed in the air giving us the sense of a heavy atmosphere. There was so much character in this small stretch! Just as if we were woken up from a dream, our rickshaw halted and our driver broke the silence- “Madam, your hotel.” he said pointing out at a very modern building which looked very sophisticated for an otherwise laid back country side.

We freshened up and had a rather sumptuous meal at their inhouse restaurant. It was already sunset time and upon enquiring about the nearest sightseeing places, our hotel caretaker told us to head towards the ghats to catch the Saryu Aarti. We had to rush as the sun was nearing the horizon. While we were asking for directions and running towards the Lakshman Ghat, my friend and I stopped abruptly at a sight.. The first glance of the Ayodhya that we had heard about, as kids. A visual treat that looked straight out of a fairy tale. ‘This is AYODHYA, Man!” we both blurted in unison. The oblique rays of the setting sun added a glorious gold to this Royal beauty. Although the structure is relatively new from the 19th century or so and not the original Kingdom that Ram had spent his days at, we stood there dumbfounded for a couple of minutes. After taking an eyeful of it, we walked towards the Lakshman Ghat were the Aarti was about to begin. We hitched a boat ride across river Saryu and back, from where we watched the aarti. From there, we took a rickshaw to the Hanuman garhi main road to get our dose of kulladwala chai before we called it a day.

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Our “The AYODHYA view” at Lakshman ghat

Next day, we woke up early to reach the ghats for the aarti during sunrise. Post that, we took a walk along the chawl photographing the artistic friezes. We explored the inside streets and the several temples inside those ancient tenements. Treta Ke Thakur, Ram ki Paidi, Nageshwarnath temple are all in this surrounding. We got talking to several residents both Muslims and Hindus and they all seemed excited to share what Ram meant to them. For some Lord Ram was a brother, for some a father and yet for some a son.. A curious family from the chawl even invited us over to their house for breakfast and took us across the fortress to introduce us to their relatives.. We were deeply moved by the innocence and simplicity of these people. We then bid a warm goodbye and headed towards the heart of the town..

From there, we reached the Hanuman Garhi, an important temple built on a fortified walled structure high above the ground level. Lord Hanuman is believed to have had kept a vigil on Lord Ram as a kid. A man offered to guide us around other important temples around the place. Some being Dashrath Mahal, Kaikeyi Mahal, Baal Ram Mandir, Dant Dhawan kund among the important places out of the 7500+ temples that are believed to exist in Ayodhya. Kanak Bhawan was the highlight of the places with its architectural beauty. This structure is said to have been entirely plated with gold (Kanak) back when Kaikeyi had gifted it to Sita during Ramayana. A board on the wall explains the evolution and modifications done over different periods and by different rulers who ruled Ayodhya. We attended the aarti at noon before heading towards THE PLACE!! “Ram Janmabhoomi”.

Being one of the MOST controversial areas in India, we had to deposit all the things in a safety locker including watches, water bottles, cameras- basically everything before entering the premises of the birth place of Ram! Rifle armed commandos guarded the entire area. We had a long queue and four rounds of frisking to really get there. Women guards frisked us in really uncomfortable places and it was a strange experience to go through, inside our own country. I was made to throw away even the vermillion I had kept in my pocket from the Hanuman Garhi temple because they couldn’t trust me on carrying random powder. With all the embarrassment, uncomfort, tiredness in the scorching sun- when we finally made it there: I did not realize that it was Lord Ram’s birth temple. The King of Ayodhya!!! Small idols of Ram, Sita and Lakshman were placed inside a Swiss tent as if the trio were still continuing their vanavas in the Kaliyug. Off-beat camping in a deforested jungle. I burst into tears and I didn’t have a reaction. I went berserk for a while until my friend calmed me down.

We couldn’t visit the Ayodhya research centre which has lot of information collected from across the world about Ramayana and the holy land of Ayodhya. Mani Parvat on the outskirts is another place I would suggest if you have time which gives a good view of Ayodhya. Although a 20Rs. per head ride in a tempo can take you to Faizabad, the district headquarters; I would recommend you to take a 1000Rs. boat ride along the Saryu which will take you to Ram Ghat at Faizabad for the evening aarti.

Summary: My entire stay here has been a great one with both Hindus and Muslims coexisting and helping me get around the place. Never did I feel the communal rife. It is one BIG political ticket for easy votes and in interest of no social harmony. Like really!! When there is Ali in Diwali and Ram in Ramzan, do we really need to fight in the name of God??? The question needs to be pondered over…

Must buys: Chillums (clay pipes), handmade religious cotton carry bags.
Must dos: Get a glance of the Ramayana trail on the India map at the Ayodhya research centre, boat ride from Lakshman ghat(Ayodhya) to the Ram ghat (Faizabad)

Exploring the land of palatial mansions and piquant cuisine- Chettinad

Educated, affluent, entrepreneurial are some characteristics that describe the native community of Chettinad- the Chettiars. The region comprises of 73 villages and spans over 2 districts of Shivagangai and Pudukottai.. Given only a weekend’s time in hand- we had to make an itinerary and list down the villages to cover. But one thing was clear, this time the stay would not be pre-booked and we would look out for some generous localite to offer us a patch of floor space to lay our sleeping bags- In one of the mansions if we get lucky 😉 Our backpacking trip started at the end of an overnight bus journey to Karaikudi. The hotel staff obliged by charging only half the price when we informed them that we will be checking out after freshening up. The day started on a high with a delicious south-Indian breakfast with aromatic ghee roast masala dosa and idiappams served with coconut milk sweetened to perfection. A piping hot cuppa filter coffee topped it up.

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We worked out the mode of our commutation with a very friendly waiter at the hotel and figured out that hiring an auto was the best way if we had to get to the remote villages and unexplored lanes of Chettinad. The local bus or even a self-driven car wouldn’t be of much help as it needed someone familiar with the streets to wade through and the summer would just add up to our woes. We struck a good deal with an auto guy who would show us around and help us do a bit of mansion hopping. As per plan of visiting all temples ASAP(as they would all close by 11.00.a.m.) we were firstly ferried to Ariyakudi Perumal temple whose history mentions it as an alternative Tirupathi. Unfortunately, when we arrived- the temple remained shut due to the demise of the priest that morning. After spending sometime photographing random things around the temple, we headed to- ‘Ayiram jannal or the mansion with a 1000 windows’. We were disappointed for not being allowed inside as the people still live in this house. Our stint with Karaikudi somehow did not seem to have started well… Then was our road to Devakottai. It was a bumpy auto ride with the stiff tarmac withered off at several places with lot of dust entering our ears, eyes and nose. Enroute, we visited the Meenakshi-Sundareshwara temple where the assembly of 108 idols of lord Ganesha was the highlight. He is seen in rare avatars and seated on vahanas that are usually considered as the others’.

Up next, we stopped at the Koviloor Shiva temple. A beautiful little temple set in a very pleasant location and surrounded with mansions got us busy clicking photos. Excitement was at its peak when our entry into the first stately house happened. It was a strong structure built of granite blocks facing the temple. One part of it has been converted into a museum of antiques that were used by the Chettiars, one part has been converted to a government office while another part is used by some self-help groups for basket weaving, coconut de-husking etc. A few localites had gathered for the afternoon prayers in the two temples housed inside the mansion -one dedicated to Shiva & Parvathi each which had served as personal prayer rooms for the family in the yester years., We envied the people who lived there a century ago thinking of how peacefully they could decorate their own temple with flowers and lamps and celebrate the festivals without the interference of random people in their way of offering prayers. We weren’t keen on visiting the Kamban Manimandapam & Kaviarasu Kannadasan Mani Mandapam (memorials built for the famous Tamil poets) and hence gave it a miss.

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The Mansion filled streets of Devakottai

After a short ride, we stopped at Nagara Shivan temple where a sumptuous lunch was served that kept us full for the rest of the day. Our driver was very accommodative and knew what exactly we were interested in and stopped at several mansions letting us admire and awe at the vast and artistic dwelling places. He even spoke to a dozen of house owners to permit us inside their houses as this would help our studies (We never mentioned we were architecture students though!!) A couple of mansion owners were kind enough to entertain strangers like us to have a look at their magnificent mansions. There was one such incident where the proud caretakers gave us a guided tour of the entire house and we were even greeted by a colony of bats flying past our heads when one of the most unused parts of that mansion was opened. We climbed up the guano filled wooden stairs leading to an attic where hundreds of bats roosted. We ducked down as we further walked across a wooden bridge opening out into the terrace to be treated with an amazing view of the overstretching lanes of Devakottai filled with mansions. While we were permitted inside a couple more mansions, we got shooed away at the gate by several others. A short ride away on our way back to Karaikudi, we stopped at the 2 acres wide pond of the Kandadevi temple- the largest in Chettinad. Our driver showed us the Alagappa University & the Annavar memorial before he dropped us at the bus stand to board our bus to our next destination.

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The Inner courtyard of one of the mansions in Devakottai

The bus snaked through the narrow lanes and we craned our necks out of the window to stare at a few bungalows along the road at Pallathur before we finally alighted at ‘THE’ destination of our tour- Kaanadukathan. Although we had listed down the must-see things, we felt clueless on how to start. The place looked like any other village in India and we wondered where had all the stately houses that we had come all the way for gone. We followed our instinct and decided to walk till that road’s end to find some hotel for our night’s stay. We heaved a sigh of relief when we came across ‘Visalam heritage hotel’ cuz we at least got to know where to head in the worst case for the night. After walking further down the street, we were psyched out for a minute when our eyes caught the ‘Sight of the day’!! An ever ending stretch of road flanked by the Palatial- country homes on both side… We surely were in for a treated-Shock!! AMAZING!! The facades of these villas had fine sculptures of their family deities and the heavy wooden doors at the main entrances were decorated with artistic friezes. This village in particular is not very tourist friendly and most of the original owners have locked the huge bungalows are living elsewhere for various reasons. A few residents have however been kind to the keen travelers by permitting entry to their princely manors. One such place is the CVRM house… Well maintained antique cupboards, piano, swings etc. are kept to retain the grandeur of this house where once lived a large and an affluent family. While we were still admiring the grand interiors, what happened next was something beyond imagination for us. A lady had noticed the uncertainty in our faces while Madhu and I were discussing about our stay and asked us where we were put up. When we told her that we were looking for a place, she instantaneously offered us to stay at her place if we did not mind. Of course, it is quite ghastly to think about staying at a stranger’s house in the years where we hear of unhappy events, but there was some innocence in her personality that really did not bother us to doubt. We both nodded a yes in unison. A short stroll by the road’s end and a large gate opened into a typical Chettiar house. Very small compared to the mansions that have mesmerized us all day, but it was a home to people with really BIG hearts. We were served multi-grain-homemade-delicious-malt on our arrival and a nice dinner after we had freshened up… This greeting itself will take up an entire post if I had to write about it… The narrow colonnade verandah opened into a central courtyard that opened into the sky. We were engulfed by a sleep filled with solace right there on the ground with just a humble mat beneath and a glitzy starry night’s sky that stayed clear all through… A stay that was only a dream come true..!!

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The CVRM house

We started early in the morning cuz we had to do the temples and the walking before the sun showed up with his ruthlessness. We took a rickshaw and we visited Soorakudi, Kundrakudi Murugan temple, Pillayarpatti Vinayaka temple and Vairavanpatti temples. These are beautiful temples from the Pandyan era that are a win for history buffs in quest of places least touched by the maddening tourists. A pious traveler may also consider visiting Iraniyur, Tirupattur, Velankudi, Kottaiyur, Kandanur, Mathur temples covering all the 9 clan temples around the region. After having lunch served by donors at Vairavanpatti, we headed towards Athangudi. We visited the ‘Periyaveedu’, a house named aptly -the Athangudi palace. The roofs, the floors, the walls- they make your jaws drop in awe at their splendor and grandeur. Although, we were charged an entry fee, we weren’t allowed to stay there beyond 15minutes by the caretakers. COME-ON… you really need time to observe the details and intricacies of such a place. We somehow managed to pull off about half-an-hour but their attitude pissed us off… Our driver drove us off from there to our next destination. Sorry, I forgot to mention- The cranking lever of the auto-rickshaw had come off and was kept under our feet and the brake pads had worn out till their last dust. That meant, we had to push start the auto each time we stopped and the driver had to jump out of the slow moving rickshaw each time to stop it. Especially under the blazing sun and some annoying caretakers like the one mentioned above, you get a few additional horsepower to move your vehicle 😛

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The finally decorated central courtyard of the Aathangudi palace

That said, we visited Aathangudi palace tiles factory & wood art restoration centre where we met the men who create beauty out of lifeless soil and wood. It was a hard hunt for us to find a good hotel that served us authentic Chettinad food that our gustatory cells were craving for which was finally satiated with a lip-smacking array of culinary delight. A quick trip to the Chettinad railway station proved to be more of a pain than of fun when at the end of an exhausting ride, we got to know that the special waiting room will be opened only on special occasions for the members of the Raja’s family.

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We got dropped back as we decided to spend the rest of the day exploring the somnolent streets of Kaanadukathan by foot. We shopped for the Kandangi handloom saris from one of the local weaving centres. We then walked across to be awestruck by the largest mansion I have ever seen- the Chettinad Raja’s palace, a sprawling edifice extending over an entire lane on all four sides. After trying our luck, we got saddened by the fact that we couldn’t gain entry into this palace that is still being resided at. Our adventure continued until dusk and when the light was perfect for some nice photos of this ‘heritage’ village. Along with the setting sun, we set ourselves for the return journey. We had to reach Trichy on time to catch our bus back to Bangalore..

To sum-up, the trip has taught us a BIG lesson. All who live in a mansion ain’t rich, All the rich are not humble, to be humble, you need no qualification.

Must-do:

  • Take a walk in the Muneeshwaran Koil street or the antique market in Karaikudi
  • Shop for a colourful palm basket- The local handicraft that has gained a GI tag
  • Treat your palette with Chettinad cuisine (I definitely mean Non-Veg)
  • Take a bicycle / walk tour around the streets of Kaanadukathan

This post has been featured on BlogAdda’s ‘Spicy Saturday’s Picks’ column.

Journey to the edge of India- Kanyakumari

How can the thought of standing on the edge of land be expressed? As a kid, I always wondered how we stood steadily on a round globe… My curiosity grew further when I was handed a world map for the first time. Now, the round globe looked flat. And on the world that looked flat on a map, India took the center position. And when carefully observed, I noticed that there is nothing below India but only water. On a closer look of the Indian sub-continent, Kanyakumari pops out in the edge as the southern-most tip of the Indian mainland. Then I made a wish- to make a journey to that end of land…

A very pleasant journey in the ‘Nagercoil express’ took us to our first destination- Nagercoil junction, from where the rest of the itinerary was planned. The train route itself was so beautiful with lush greenery even in the peak of summer. As the train entered Tirunelveli district, the landscape took a different look. Thousands and thousands of windmills seemed like they were strewn around, until the horizon. Our train slowly chugged past the hills only to later reach its destination- ‘Nagercoil junction’, the next morning.

We freshened up at the station and hired a taxi for the rest of the day. I managed to explain our itinerary to the driver with my broken Tamil and he understood the jist- ‘To cover all the places listed down and ensure we make it to the Sunset point at Kanyakumari in time..!!’ That said, our sightseeing started in the order given below:

  1. The Nagaraja temple- The temple that gives its name to the city.
  2. We spent a good couple of hours photographing the BEAUTIFUL Padmanabhapuram palace in Thuckalay. It is by far, one of the beautiful palaces in South India. You don’t regret paying the entry fees as there is so much effort that has gone into the maintenance of this wooden palace. A surprising fact I discovered was that, although this palace is located in the state of Tamil-Nadu, it is maintained and controlled completely by the Kerala Government.

Padmanabhapuram palace (97)
The wooden facade of the Padmanabhapuram palace

3. Next was the Udayagiri fort. It wasn’t a great place as a traveler, but maybe a paradise for the bird watchers. It is converted into a mini zoo and houses the memorial of Commander De Lannoy- of the Dutch east India company.

4. The hanging trough / aqueduct at Mathur- The longest in Asia, is set amid a very beautiful surrounding of lush green cashew, coconut and rubber plantations.

5. Adi Perumal temple at Thiruvatturu- adorned with intricate sculptures (of the Cheras period probably). It was strange to know that the people of the Muslim community do not and cannot live in a radius of 6kms around this temple due to a curse by one of the rulers in history. Tippu Sultan had tried to steal the main idol with the help of the Nawab of Arcot. Also, this is probably the only temple where a grave of a ruler is seen next to the main idol of the temple.

Mathoor aqueduct (4)
Mathoor aqueduct

6. Jadeshwara temple and Mariamman temple are at a walkable distance from Perumal temple. It is here, Lord Vishnu had come to seek support of his sister- Parvathi to convince Goddess Lakshmi when the latter suspected Vishnu of being involved in an extra-marital affair while he had gone hunting in realty.. Strange legends!!

7. Chittaral jain temple at Vellomcode- is a part of the rocky hills. It is small but a nice place for the history buffs and the pilgrims alike.

8. Thiraparappu Mahadeva temple- This place was a turn off with very less to NO water in the waterfalls and being overly crowded with tourists(NOT pilgrims!!). I suppose it will be worth the while only if it is monsoon and when the river flows with all its might down the gorge forming the beautiful waterfalls and the temple at the backdrop.

9. Pechiparai dam- We gave this one a miss anticipating disappointment with no water in the dam.

The entire drive was the highlight of our day as our driver took us through the remotest roads to avoid the traffic on the main road just so that we could cover all the places within the given time. These narrow and winding roads flanked by coconut trees on either sides were probably least exploited by a normal tourist and hence we could have a feel of the rustic part of an otherwise pilgrim city. The weather was another surprise which was extremely cool and supported the spices plantations in the otherwise hot and humid climate that Tamil Nadu is recognized with.

Suddenly, the weather changed and the dark clouds hovered over us. It was the southern-most part of the western coast of India, that we were planning to drive through, to reach the end of land. As we were approaching the seashore, the clouds broke hell and we waited inside the car until the pounding rain paced down. Now we had lost an hour doing nothing and that meant we could only drive through without stopping anywhere. We drove past the Thengapattinam beach, Colachel port (it has a victory pillar to commemorate the victory of the Travancore king over the Dutch army), Mandaikadu temple, Muttom beach, Tekkurichi beach, Sanguthurai beach, Sothavilai beach, Manarkudi and we finally arrived at the Sunset point- Just in time. What awaited us was sheer disappointment in the form of clouds, clouds and more clouds..!!! We spent some time with the waves and headed to the hotel in the city where we had booked our stay.

On day 2– we saw ourselves seated amid thousands of people who had gathered there for the same reason as us. The famous ‘SUNRISE of Kanyakumari’. We watched the sea change its colour from pitch black to different hues of the spectrum until dawn’s break. But we were EXTREMELY unfortunate again as a nebule of cloud sat adamantly blocking the rising sun.. adding much to all our disappointment from the previous evening.

We visited the temple and other mundane places in the city (There is enough written about the places to see in the internet- I don’t want to repeat the same stuff again!) The wait in the queue that was at least 3 furlongs, under the hot sun was a big turn off. My expectations of finding the calm I was told about across the waters (Read it- the Vivekananda Rock) was let down by the galling tourists who had thronged there in thousands on that weekend. Having been disheartened by the way things turned out on a much anticipated trip, we left Kanyakumari in the afternoon.

Kanyakumari (16)

The post Sunrise photo at Kanyakumari

We did a quick visit to Vatakottai fort- a small but a calm place away from the vexing crowd. We then stopped at Suchindran temple that stood grand with its majestic tower, but remained closed when we arrived there. We spent some time sitting by the temple pond and feeding the fishes with puffed rice.. And we finally left back to Nagercoil to board our evening train back to Namma Bengaluru.

Must dos-

  1. So when you go to this particular spot at Kanyakumari- You can feel the waves touching your feet from 3 directions- left, right and center.. quite literally..!! That’s when you sense that you are standing in the end of land where the three seas meet- The Bay of Bengal, The Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. The feeling can only be experienced and not expressed.
  2. Lot of shopping… Shell crafts..!!

Must sees:

The nose stud of ruby adorning the chief deity- Goddess Parvathi is believed to be shining so bright that many ships have been misguided due to its light. And that’s also the reason why the Eastern door of the temple that faces the sea is always kept closed except for a few special occasions.

An abode of the trio- Art, cuture and history at Kanchipuram

The first thing that hits your mind when you hear this city’s name is the style that defines gorgeous, elegance, classic, royalty- The Kanjeevaram or the Kanchi silk sarees. But what goes rather un-noticed is the fact that Kanchipuram is also called a ‘City of temples’. Although the city was an erstwhile capital of the Pallavas, the influence of Pandyas, Cholas, Hoysalas and Vijayanagaras can be observed significantly in the artistic structures constructed across Kanchipuram. The city is known to be a land of 108 ancient temples all of which are unique in its art, architecture and history. Obviously, one day wouldn’t be sufficient if I had to visit each of these temples and hence, had to choose the top 10 based on mythological importance and ease of commutation given that I’m mostly a public transport dependent creature.

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Mom and I were greeted with drizzling rain at the Kanchipuram bus terminus at the end of an overnight journey. We hired an autorickshaw for the entire day’s transportation around the city. Our auto driver Mr.Ravi took us to a travellers’ dormitory where we freshened up quickly so that we could reach the Kanchi Kamakshiamman temple before sunrise. This is one of the three Shakthi peethas of India and the prayers in the entire city’s temples starts only after prayers are offered here. Unlike the other temples, here an elephant and a cow are allowed inside the sanctorum to offer the first pooja to the goddess. We felt the positive energy filling us up enough to keep us going atleast for the next week ahead. Before I proceed with this write-up, please note that the City of Kanchi can be broadly classified into three- Shiva Kanchi-the holy land of the Shaivaites, the Vishnu Kanchi- the holy land of the Vaishnavaites and the Jaina Kanchi- the holy land of the Jains.

Kanchi Kamakshiamman temple (1)
The entrance of Shri Kaamakshiamman temple

Next up was a quick visit to Adi Kanchi temple. A relatively smaller of the 3 main temples dedicated to Parvathi in Kanchi. But, this place is considered a must if one is on a pilgrimage in Kanchipuram. Adjacent to the Adi Kanchi temple is the Kumarakottam- Murugan Swami temple where the Bramha is said to have been imprisoned by Murugan and later released after Shiva’s interference. The temple is known for the idol in the Soma Skanda posture.

Adi kaali Kamakshiamman tample.JPG
Shri Adi Kanchi- Kaali amman temple

From there, it was a holy visit to the biggest temple in the city- Ekambareshwara temple. I’d need a separate post altogether to write about the significance of this temple alone. First and foremost reason for this temple being in my itinerary is the fact that this is one of the Panchabhuta sthalas of Shiva’s manifestations. The linga here is made up of sand and hence represents Prithvi or the Earth element. This majestic temple complex houses a very sacred mango tree at its centre whose 4 branches are believed to represent 4 vedas which gives its name to the temple. Each branch bears mangoes of four different tastes(sweet, sour, bitter and spicy) in the 4 seasons. Ofcourse, I found what I was looking for. The special souvenir from Kanchi- a priceless green leaf that withered off from this holy tree right there as if the tree was communicating with me.. I was quick to pick it up and wrap it carefully to be kept in my handbag.

Ekambareshwara Shiva Kanchi temple (12).JPG
Under the sacred mango tree @ Ekambareshwara temple

Next was the Varadaraja Perumal temple. We had to stand in a really long queue to get a glimpse of the main deity seated atop the elephant hill.. As if this wasn’t enough, another long queue to get to touch the sculptures of lizards that is believed to have been installed by lord Indra after he was released of the curse by goddess Saraswati. It is believed that people who have touched the 2 lizard idols in Kanchi (Golden lizard representing the sun and the silver lizard representing the moon) will be relieved of all sins that are associated with lizards. Another specialty of this temple is the fact that the wooden idol of lord Vishnu is kept deep down inside a 3 tiered well that in turn is in between a large pond at the temple entrance. The idol is taken out only once in 40 years for pooja offerings. I would recommend you to hire a guide at this complex so that you can get a better insight into the intricacies of the ornate pillars adorning a 100 pillared hall. You can find sculptures of vivid yogic postures, representation of usage of arms and ammunitions in ancient battles, musical pillars etc. which explains the rich heritage of Indian art, history and science.

Varadaraja Perumal Vishnu Kanchi temple (28).JPG
An ornate mural adorning the outer wall of the Sanctum at Varadaraja Perumal temple

Thus, with Kamkshiamman temple, Ekambareshwar temple and the Varadaraja Perumal temple, we had completed the mumurthivasam- or the abode of the trio in Kanchipuram.

Just a few meters away from here is the Ulagalandar- Chola temple. Here, Vishnu is celebrated in his Trivikrama pose or the Vamana Avatar. The main idol is a massive 30+ feet tall and the devotees can see only the legs of the Vamana moorthi. The temple itself is small but an important one for pilgrims on the Divyadesams circuit.

Ulagalandar Vishnu temple (3).JPG
The entrance tower of Ulagalandar Vishnu temple

Further from here, is the Kacchappa Eshwarar temple, where Vishnu is seen in his Kuruma avatar or the Tortoise form, worshipping Lord Shiva. We did a quick stopover at Vaikunta Perumal temple or the Tiruparameshwara Vinnagaram, another among the 108 divyadesams. The temple houses lord Vishnu in 3 different postures- sitting, lying and standing. The corridors are decorated with fine carvings from Ramayana and Mahabhartha and fine stone pillars around the sanctorum.

Kacchappa Eshwarar temple (3).JPG
All the action @ the Kacchappa Eshwarar temple

The Kailasanathar- Pallava temple needs a special mention. It is slightly on the outskirts and hence away from the regular tourists / pilgrims circuit. It is an entire complex of intricate artwork sculpted on limestone. Although a board claims it to be a protected monument, most of the statues have eroded owing to poor maintenance. Yet, this place has a very powerful force to draw art lovers and travelers looking for an offbeat experience. One really needs to spend lot of time here to appreciate the intricacies with which legends and mythological episodes have been carved out. Don’t miss to spot the statue of laughing Parvathi and Shiva performing the thandava here.

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The limestone walls of the Kailasanathar temple

There is also the Vijayaraghava Perumal temple at about 7kms from the city center. It is one of the 108 divyadesams of Rama where he is believed to have performed the funeral rites of Jatayu- The vulture friend. Since the vulture(Pul) was burried in a pit(Kuli), this place is also called Thiruputkuli.

Not only Hinduism, the city is an important place for the Jains too.. Last in the day’s itinerary of temple tour was Trilokyanatha & Chandraprabha twin temples dedicated to lord Mahaveer at Tirupparuthikkundram. It has inscriptions belonging to Pallavas, Cholas and the Vijayanagara periods. The place houses beautiful paintings of these periods but lies in utter neglect. The place is frequented by fewer tourists and more vandals, gamblers and hawkers.

Kanchi Kudil
The Kanchi Kudil – museum

Being in the city of silk handlooms and not shopping for sarees doesn’t not go down well.. and So.. Off we were… Our driver took us through the narrow bylanes of Kanchi to some of the finest weavers and their handloom workshops.. Enroute, we passed through ‘Kanchi Kudil’- an old house that has now been converted to a museum that exhibits the rich tamilian tradition. Coming back to Sarees… A spectrum of colours, heavy brocades, golden zaris , heavy pattu sarees… we were spoilt for choices… We thanked our driver Mr.Ravi heartily for taking us around the city and bearing with us so patiently as we hopped from one shop to another. We picked up some beautiful sarees in silk and cotton and returned back by an evening bus to Bangalore. Thus ended an eventful weekend…. 🙂

For a person familiar with the city’s name, his knowledge is mostly restricted only to the silk sarees. My visualisation of Kancheevaram has changed forever after this trip. For me, the abode of the trio is as an abode of art, culture and history. Sculptures, architecture, handloom, classical dance, music and all those traditional art forms of Kanchi puts up the city high up on centers of history and heritage on the map of India.

Tracing the Cholan trail- Kumbakonam

At work, it was a week-long plant shutdown for Diwali. Taking this opportunity, I decided to close my travelogues along South India with the last 4 places left- Kumbakonam, Chidambaram, Pondi and Tiruvannamalai. On a Sunday night, my brother and I set out on the bus journey from Bangalore to Kumbakonam. This was part 2 of my exploration in Tanjavur district.

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It was raining cats and dogs when we alighted at Kumbakonam bus stand on the 9th morning from where we hired a rickshaw to the hotel that was pre-booked online. Though we had a confirmed room, only after reaching the hotel did we get to know that they were closed for festival holidays and we had NO information from the website. However, the caretaker at the hotel was courteous by giving us 30mins to use a room to freshen up and vacate. Meanwhile, the pounding rain was replaced by drizzle. Both of us decided to walk the town exploring and visiting all the temples that were all nearby and located in a cluster.

After a neat South-Indian breakfast with Rava Dosa and filter coffee, we headed towards the first place of visit following the directions given on a map- The Nageshwaran temple. It was a pretty big temple from the Chola period dedicated to Adishesha who offered prayers to Shiva at this place. The kalyana mantap has been interestingly designed in the form of a chariot being drawn by life sized elephants and horses with the suspension technique even 1000 years ago.

The Kalyana mantap at Nageswaran Kovil

The Kalyana mantap at Nageswaran Kovil

Next, we waded through the flooded roads to reach Sarangampani- A Vaishnavite temple. Notable contributions have been made by Cholas, Vijayanagar, Madurai Nayaks etc. to the overall architecture of this temple and there is a temple tank located on the western side. Someshwara temple is located adjacent to the Sarangampani temple which we skipped after just getting some photos from the outside.

The Rajagopuram at the Sarangampani Kovil
The Rajagopuram at the Sarangampani Kovil

We continued through the busy shopping lanes of the town to reach Adikumbeshwara temple. The premise is vast and now used for commercial purposes with several shops and restaurants that have been setup. It is believed that Kumbakonam gets its name from this Shiva temple. Legend has it that lord Bramha’s pot (Kumba) containing nectar of worldly lives was rolled down and stopped at Kumbakonam after being hit by Shiva’s arrow. The sculptures at the temple are interesting where a 16 pillar hall built by the Vijayanagar kings has all the 27 stars and 12 zodiacs on a single stone. Also the piped instruments(nagaswarams) etched out of stone and the cattle-shed are noteworthy.

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After a detailed observation of the sculptures, we proceeded towards the next destination: Ramasamy temple- A dedication to lord Rama. This is the only temple which houses the idols of Rama & Sita along with all his brothers inside the sanctum Sanctorum. The place requires atleast a day or two since the entire story of Ramayana has been painted on the corridor walls of the temple. Obviously we did not have more than a couple of hours to spend, given the tight schedule we often travel with. We did a quick brush up of whatever we could understand of the images there. Meanwhile, my brother’s phone beeped on a receipt of a SMS. The website guys had given us an alternate stay option. We decided to locate the hotel which was round the corner and drop our luggage there. To our surprise, our room was upgraded to AC-luxury!!

The Ramayana painted on the corridor walls of the Ramasami temple
The Ramayana painted on the corridor walls of the Ramasami temple

We freshened up again and continued with our exploration without really thinking about our lunch. By noon, all temples in the South close down and open again only in the evening. So we thought a visit to the Mahamahan tank was a good idea to use up the time while the temples remained closed. The tank is spread across 6 acres and is believed to be created out of the nectar that was spilt out of Bramha’s pot. At the entrance of the tank, Kashivishwanathar temple is located. It is believed that the navakannigas or the 9 maidens of Shiva (Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Kaveri, Gidavari, Narmada, Krishna, Tungabadra & Sarayu) representing 9 rivers come to this tank for bathing once in 12 yrs. On that day, lakhs of devotees flock here. It is believed that people who cannot make it to Kailash / Manasa Sarovar visit this temple as an alternative to wash off their sins. Though the temple was closed when we reached there, we were very fortunate to get the prasadam that made a nice filling lunch.

We walked past Abhimukeshwara temple that remained closed on the other side of the tank. From there, we boarded a bus to Darasuram, a temple listed in the UNESCO’s world heritage sites (1 of the great living Chola temples). Very few fortunate people (like US..!!) get this view of the Airavateshwara temple- This majestic structure was partially submerged in water owing to the heavy rains when we had arrived.. Ofcourse, it is not a good thing to cheer about but then, the reflection of the entire temple in the water beneath just doubled the beauty of the sight (quite literally!!) We climbed a ladder to walk up the corridor and then got down to wade across and reach the temple porch. It was BEAUTY up there..!! This temple is aesthetically different from the other 2 counterparts. We had a feast for our eyes soaked in the rain 😛 After getting some nice shots, we made our way out to the main road to catch a bus to our next destination.

Airavateshwara temple at Darasuram
Airavateshwara temple at Darasuram

Our umbrella flipped to the heavy winds and the pounding rain got us drenched till our bone by the time the bus arrived. The short journey thereon reminded us of Sebastian Vettel cruizing on narrow country side tarmac amid overflowing potholes and LOUD tapangucchi music in the background. With nothing to hold on to during the frequent braking by the driver to stop the bus for passengers to board/alight, got the bus to screeching halts from a revving speed. It was a fun ride that ended in few minutes as we alighted at the Pateeswaran temple.

Originally a Shiva temple, the goddess has been given prime importance. It is said that the Cholas offered prayers to the goddess Patti(daughter), calf of the sacred cow kamadhenu here before proceeding for any battles during their time. However, the temple remained closed till 05.00.p.m. Since the rain had taken a break, we decided to cover Swamimalai in the remaining time. Again, the rain gods took over the sky and so, after waiting for more than an hour for a bus, we decided to head back to the city.

We found a place that served piping hot filter coffee near the city bus stand that helped us to warm ourselves to some extent from the chilling rain. It was only 06.00.p.m but dark already.. We then walked back to our hotel room to warm ourselves and continue the temple hopping after an hour’s rest. As planned, we set out finding our way through the super crowded street of the city to find the other 2 temples that we had left out. We just had to close our umbrellas and stand amid the crowd and the crowd would pull us along to reach the exit of the street.

The main bazaar street is a state highway- thanks to the shopping mela that was set there for Deepavali, people flocked to buy stuffs for festival not minding the heavy rain and the jam-packed road with not even an inch of breathing space. We somehow managed to get out without actually facing a stampede and reached the Chakrapani temple. Here, Vishnu is worshipped in his sleeping posture holding his ‘Chakra’ on one finger. We witnessed the last pooja of the day after which we were wondering if we had to continue to the next temple or not since the temples had started to close down. Anyway, we had a lot of time to kill and walked across to take a chance. Again, we were very fortunate and the preist was happy to greet us for the last pooja of the Bramha temple. There are very few temples dedicated to Bramha and this is 1 of the 2 in all of Tamil Nadu. We were happy to get the prasad which was unexpected. We then had a sumptuous supper at restaurant before we called it a day. It took the same amount of pain to cross the crowded bazaar street to reach back to the hotel and catch some good night’s sleep.

Day 2: As planned, we woke up early and boarded a bus by 07.00.a.m. to Swamimalai. The temple is located on a small hillock and is among the six holy shrines dedicated to lord Murugan. We finished our prayers and had to head back to the city to get buses to the other places. We couldn’t locate a restaurant that was open for breakfast even at 08.00.a.m. We decided to have lunch once and for all, as we would be back by noon.

Swami Malai- One of the six holy shrines of lord Murugan
Swami Malai- One of the six holy shrines of lord Murugan

There are other temples at Uppiliappan, Thirubuvanam, Thiruvalanchizi, Thiruvidaimaruthur etc. All located out of Kumbakonam city in different directions. They could be covered in half a day’s time if travelling by own vehicle. However, it still can be done as the local bus service in Tamil Nadu is very convenient, frequent and cheap. We decided to skip all of them. Next on schedule was Gangaikonda Cholapuram- the 3rd of the living temples of the Cholas.

We got a bus to Kork road / GK cross after an hour’s wait at the wrong bus stop from where we had to take another bus to reach this world heritage site and so we did.. The Brihadeeshwara temple stood right there adjacent to the national highway enchanting every tourist with all its might. A much wished tour of all the 3 Cholan temples enlisted by UNESCO was fulfilled right there: (The 1st one being the Brihadeeshwara/Big temple at Tanjavur).

Hmm Bliss..!! The architecture of all the 3 Brihadeeshwara temples is more or less comparable. The 3 living temples are together called so because the prayers, festivities followed thousands of years ago, during the Chola period are still being followed religiously till date and have stood as true testimony of time and Tamil culture.

The Brihadeeshwara temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram
The Brihadeeshwara temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram

The next plan was to go back to Kumbakonam and take a bus to Chidambaram via Pichavaram. However, the latter was closed due to the cyclone alert that was issued in Cuddalore and Pondi. On some research, we got to know that GK-Cholapuram was indeed halfway to Chidambaram. Hence, we decided to continue on the same route although it required for us to change 2 buses. So, here ended our tour of Kumbakonam and Tanjavur district as a whole from where we began another new journey towards the Cuddalore district.

Summary:

Max. time to cover ALL temples with own transport- ONE day

Max. time taken to cover all temples with local transport- 1.5 days.

Food: the trademark Dosas at ‘The Dosa Plaza’- a must try

Buy: hmm.. Nothing really..!!

A confluence of south Indian architectural styles- Thiruchirapally

After a long day exploring Tanjavur.. We boarded an evening bus to Tiruchirapalli (earlier called Trichy). We checked into a lodge infront of the central bus stand. Had a sumptuous meal and retired early..

Day 3:
We got ready early next morning and boarded a local bus to Srirangam- the abode of Sri Antya Ranganatha Swamy. This is the Tamilian counterpart of AdiRanga at Srirangapatna and MadhyaRanga in Shivanasamudra, All 3 being island towns formed by river Kaveri. This is an important place of worship to the vaishnavites sect of Brahmins or the followers of Lord Vishnu. All said and done, we got a glimpse of the historic idol of Sri Ranganatha sleeping on a serpent after a long wait in the queue.But pilgrimage aside, we were there to enjoy the architectural marvels of the city. The main temple itself is atleast 2-3 hrs of tour for the legs. To start of with, The main Gopuram or the outermost temple tower is the largest in the world and the latest among the towers in the temple complex. With a spread of 156acres, the temple complex itself is the largest functional one in the world.

But pilgrimage aside, we were there to enjoy the architectural marvels of the city. The main temple itself is atleast 2-3 hrs of tour for the legs. To start of with, The main Gopuram or the outermost temple tower is the largest in the world and the latest among the towers in the temple complex. With a spread of 156acres, the temple complex itself is the largest functional one in the world.

The Antya Ranganathar swamy temple at Srirangam
The Antya Ranganathar swamy temple at Srirangam

The temple consists 7 rounds of walls before you reach the sanctum sanctorum. Each wall was added by the then rulers who reigned in this town including the Pandyas, Cholas, Hoysalas, Vijayanagara, Pallavas and the others. The art specific to each of these eras can be noticed in the complex. After entering the main complex, a ticket of Rs.10 per head took us through narrow stairs leading to the roof of the temple. This is called the temple view point since you can spot all the 21 temple gopurams from this single place, lest you would get lost in the vastness of the complex. There is also a 1000 pillar hall which was once used to host dance events, now remained locked. We admired the fine sculptures on these pillars through the bars of the closed gates and continued our walk further.

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We walked towards the rear door of the temple towards the river bank. It was more of a run than a walk as we were barefoot and the asphalt road and the sand was already heated up at 10.a.m. Hailing from a place where the holy river originates, it was a pity to watch the river bed TOTALLY dry in this place. But after talking to the localites, I cheered up a bit as they were looking forward for a good monsoon in the coming month, where the river would flow almost in spate (Even submerging the very place that I was standing at). We came back to the temple again where my mom was waiting, had some fresh fruit juice in one of the stalls outside, wore our footwear and took a walk around the temple.

Oh yeah..!! It was BURNING hot and I was pretty sure I’d go back home as a grilled chicken after this walk. But then, we wanted to make the most of the visit because we never knew when we would be visiting again.

Big houses, with very small entrance, compactly built next to each other, allowing no or very less ventilation inside was the trademark style of Srirangam. These streets take pride in being home to one of the highly educated community of the country- the Iyengar Brahmins.

From there, we boarded a bus to Thiruvannaikaval. Though the population mainly comprises the Iyengars(the Vishnu followers), the then rulers have also built temples for the Iyers or the Shaivites(the followers of Shiva). This temple is as beautiful as the Ranganatha temple, however, the history behind the latter has made it more prominent. Though many people visiting this city give a miss to this temple, it should be noted that this is one among the five temples built for Shiva representing the five elements of life. This one represents water or Jala Linga. One of the residents in the complex noticed our interest in exploration and suggested us to visit the Amma or Parvathi temple housed right behind the Shiva temple.

The entrance to Thiruvannaikaval Shiva temple
The entrance to Thiruvannaikaval Shiva temple

From there, we headed to a hotel for a nice south Indian thali. After a filling meal, we headed back to Trichy. We visited the St. Lourde’s church in the city. We did a bit of shopping in the bylanes and the Trichy market around the Teppakulam(Temple tank) before we started to ascend the Rock Fort.

St. Lourde's church
St. Lourde’s church

This single projection of land in an otherwise low/Flat Trichy town dates back to the pre-historic era. It is beyond words to describe how in those days, could someone create such beautiful structures out of a hard monolith. What appears to be just a random protrusion of earth from outside, is infact a haven for the art lovers in the inside. There are stairs, numerous temples, artistic pillars and idols carved out of the same rock all the way up. There is a Ganesha temple at the summit from where one can enjoy the view of the entire Trichy town, the Kaveri river flowing around Srirangam, The temple gopuram, the rail lines traveling in and outside the city. The fun was doubled by the cool but strong winds that blew taking away all the tiredness from our minds.

The view of river Kaveri from the summit of Rockfort
The view of Srirangam and the river bed from the summit of Rockfort

After a while, we decided to descend down.. But we realised that a door that remained closed during our ascend was now wide open. There were some beautiful paintings peaking out of the door intimidating us to go see what was there. We stepped inside and it was amusement that followed. It was a vast hall carved out inside the same rock with beautifully sculptured pillars and amazing paintings adorning the walls. A poojari noticed our interest and started explaining each painting and the story it depicted. It was amazing.. He then told us to hurry up inside another door.. There, the maha Mangalaarthi (Sorry I don’t know the technical word for the last pooja of the day.!!) for Parvathi amman was just about to begin. Just as we reached there, they unveiled the curtains for us to get an eyeful of the beautifully decorated goddess. We sipped the holy water and again we were asked to rush through another door, cross a narrow chamber leading to the Shiva temple. The deity was getting ready for the final pooja of the day..Pooja is offered only thrice a day, During sunrise, at noon and before sunset. And we were lucky for being there for the last one. They removed the curtains and I could see my mom in tears. It was a very huge idol being bathed in the pancha-Amruthas. Then, he was neatly dressed in dhoti, decorated with fresh flowers and the pooja culminating with Arathi. The curtains were back signalling us that the god would go to sleep for the day.. We felt truly BLESSED..!! We witnessed an event that was so unexpected. We thanked the Poojari and took leave to descend the stairs leading to the market below.

Again, the presence and strong hold of almost all major south Indian dynasties is felt here with the designs present exquisitely in the art form here..

At the exit of the Cave temple / Rockfort
At the exit of the Cave temple / Rockfort

A final destination to our tour: Evening chai at GR restaurant. It is housed in an old building in the heart of the city(enroute to Rockfort). The valliappam is a must try here. The interiors of the hotel is commendable which has rock pillars, structures & collectibles that reminds one of the grandeur of temple architecture that this region is renowned for. It was a grand ending to our 3 day trip with a cup of piping hot filter coffee..!!

There are many lesser known temples around Trichy and equally artistic which takes up another full day.. But that was all the time we had with us.. So, I shall come back soon..

The hub of Cholan culture- Tanjavur

When from a distance, we spotted the monolith- that seats gracefully atop, with a weight of 800 tons, we knew we had arrived at the rice bowl of South India – located on the fertile delta land created by the river Kaveri- Tanjavur.

There are three Chola temples of Southern India representing an  architectural conception of the pure form of the dravidian style- These temples are the Brihadeesvara Temple at Thanjavur, the Temple of Gangaikondacholisvaram and the Airavatesvara Temple at Darasuram. Our bus came to a screeching halt infront of the ‘BIG temple’ and a passerby guided us further. We stood right there in awe- gazing at the vast premises of the mighty- Brihadeesvaran temple.

The entrance at the Brihadeesvaran temple
The entrance at the Brihadeesvaran temple

Rajaraja named this temple as Rajarajesvaram and the deity Shiva in Linga form as Peruvudaiyar, the temple is also known in the deity’s name as Peruvudaiyarkovil.

The Brihadeeshwaran temple at the backdrop
The Brihadeeshwaran temple at the backdrop

The tallest temple tower in the world stands testimony to the Cholas’ love for art and fine engineering skills even in the iron age. It is believed that a ramp was laid from about six kms to facilitate the erection of the monolith Kalasa atop the tower. The walls of the corridor are adorned by fine paintings that were done with mixture of limestone and organic extracts. The temple walls have sculptures of numerous mythic animals which is the highlight of the Cholas’ temple architecture.

The Tanjavur paintings adorning one of the roofs
The Tanjavur paintings adorning one of the roofs

From there, we took an auto ride to Saraswathi Mahal. This is a very old library patronised by the Tanjavur rulers(functional even today). One can find some very old, rare & original copies of important manuscripts, scientific research publications etc. here.

The Saraswathi Mahal Library
The Saraswathi Mahal Library

Adjoining it, is the palace of the Marathas of Tanjavur. The palace is partially used as the residence of the descendants and remaining is converted into a museum.

Behind this building, is the art museum which houses the rare and the infamous bronze idols created during the Cholas. Cholas were the earliest people to use the lost wax technique to create the bronze idols.

The Maratha Palace & the Tanjavur doll
The Maratha Palace & the Tanjavur doll

Just outside the museum, we picked up a pair of Tanjavur dolls from the souvenir shop. These are colourful handcrafted models where the head is suspended on a pivot which gives a dancing/swinging movement to the doll.

An epitaph at the  Grand Anicut
An epitaph at the Grand Anicut

From there, we took a local bus to Grand Anicut / Kallanai- the standing example of the engineering marvels constructed 2000 yrs ago by the Cholas(later modified by the British) which is the oldest functional water regulation structure in the world. It is a dam constructed with uneven stones / random boulders across the Kaveri with a desperate intention to divert the water before joining the sea so that it can be used for irrigation of the delta region. This dam divides the river into four streams known as Kollidam Aru, Kaviri, Vennar and Puthu. Later, the Lower Anicut/ Kollidam was constructed by the British before the water actually joins the sea.

From there.. Our journey continued… to another town of history………

The land of the singing waves – Tranquebar

East coast road: Destination no.3 for the day.

We alighted the bus at a small junction which seemed like any other fishing hamlet. The bus conductor pointed to a small road to the right and guided us telling “one kilometer ahead is the fort”, and blew the whistle indicating the driver to proceed. My parents looked at my face blinking and I could sense that ‘Where are you taking us?’ question in their eyes.

We walked about half a kilometer and an old arch with finely done Danish art welcomed us to- The land of the singing waves- Tranquebar, the Danish port town also called as Tharangambadi in Tamil.

The entrance arch
The arch at the entrance of Tarangambadi/Tranquebar

Super empty & super clean roads lined by old Danish buildings on either sides made us feel like we were walking in a different country..The Zion church, the Teresa’s convent school, the Danish governor’s bungalow etc.. finally lead us to the fort peacefully nestled on the calm shores of the Bay of Bengal. The moment we got a glimpse of the beach from the fort entrance, we got the link to the name of this quaint little place- Land of tranquil waters (air, land- read it anything that you want) – Tranquebar.

Tranquebar is still unconquered by the tourist radar. Since, the bungalow turned resort run by Tamil Nadu hotel is the only place to eat or stay for kilometers around, the place is not crowded at any point of time. Except for a handful of fishermen and couples countable on finger tips, it is all you strolling along the calm beach 🙂 This is by far, one of the BEST beaches I have been to along the east coast.

The well maintained fort is now converted into a museum where we got good information about the old port days. An important port between 1600s to early 1900s, the port walls now lie dilapidated, mostly washed away by the tsunami. There is Masilamaninathar temple on the shore, to which some mythological reference is made. The sculptures on the walls and the minaret have been damaged due to sea erosion.

The serene shoreline at Tranquebar
The serene shoreline around the Tranquebar fort

There is nothing much to see around but being there for a few hours fills one’s mind with peace and tranquility. But, I must admit- It is THE PLACE to cuddle up and enjoy the pristine waters on a cool evening. Since, the visit was just a stop over in a long journey, we could not even get a place at the resort there in such short notice. All of us HAD to leave the place with a very very heavy heart asking for some more peaceful time 😦

This place is a DEFINITELY COME BACK for MORE – place on my list.. and I WILL go back for a long weekend. Just lazing around and getting lost in tranquility. Do nothing else..!!