Tag Archives: architecture

A roadtrip in the coffee land- Karnataka

There’s a proverb in Kannada, “Hitlu gida maddalla” meaning ‘We don’t recognize the medicinal value of plant that’s lying in our backyard’. True to this, I have been traveling and writing about beautiful places from across the country.. And suddenly I felt that I had left out to explore places in my home state itself..!! We just wanted to have a rough theme before we hit the road. What was fitting well in the time available was the coffee tour!

Karnataka produces about 51% of India’s coffee and it is all on the southern stretch of the Malnad region. The coffee grown here is highly priced in the international market owing to its better flavor as it is grown under the shade. That’s it, my brother and I pulled out dad’s bike from our cellar and decided to hit the road for a long weekend covering the entire stretch of coffee belt in Karnataka. Unlike cars, we won’t have the luxury of having a spare wheel in a 2-wheeler. Inorder to get our 125CC, 4-stoke, single cylinder, 10 year old boy running smoothly, it was necessary to give him a fine pair of CEAT tyres that could sustain our long ride on different terrain. So finally, here we go.. Our road trip along the coffee belt on the western ghats.

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On a January weekend, we rode through the finely maintained NH- through Nelmangala and Kunigal. Our first coffee stop was to sip on some caffeine from the Hassan plantations. A simple hot cuppa at a petty shop before a deviation to Shettyhalli was all that we wanted. At a distance of about 20kms from Hassan, the Rosary church at Shettyhalli stood testimony to time and silently narrated a story of a painful past. This church emerges out when the water levels in river Hemavathi recede as if playing a game of hide and seek. We spent some time admiring this architectural beauty and trying to reconstruct it’s glorious past through our imagination. We left Hassan after a sumptuous lunch at a friend’s house located in the middle of a coffee estate.

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The Rosary church at Shettyhalli. Clicking credits: Samson Joseph

As we passed through the winding roads of Chickmagalur, we were reminded that the hillstation is the birthplace of Indian coffee. Bababudangiri range is the place where coffee was first brought to India and the plantations flourished. Mullayangiri, the highest peak in Karnataka is a hotspot among trekkers. Also, being the native of the famous chain- Café Coffee day, we couldn’t help but stop over for a cup of cappuccino.. After having our dose of caffeine, we continued on the road for our night’s stay at Sringeri.

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Enroute to Chickmagalur

Next day, we set out to explore the pilgrim town of Sringeri. The Sharadamba temple is one among the 4 main Mutts established by Sri.Adi Shankaracharya. The Vidhyashankara temple on the same premises is a beautiful structure built in a combination of Hoysala and Vijayanagara style of architecture. After a small ride, we stopped by at Sri Rushyashrungeshwara swamy temple in Kigga, locally called as the God of rains. The route to our next destination- Sirimane waterfalls was a pleasant one passing through thick jungle on either sides, once notoriously famous as a haven of dacoits. Narasimha Parvata and Meghebaile waterfalls are other places of interest for the forest bums. However, we decided to spend the remaining time whiling away on the banks of river Thunga feeding the school of fishes with puffed rice.

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The Vidhyashankara temple at Sringeri

We started early the following day as we had a long route to cover and the BEST stretch of our roadtrip. We arrived early at the Kalaseshwara temple and enjoyed the serenity and oneness with nature that Kalasa town had to offer. The Breakfast served at the Annapurna temple happens to be one of the best prasadams and there was no way we were going to miss it. So we had to speed our way towards Horanadu, before the food counter closed. We then had to do a small off-roading which took us to a place of Ultra Calm- Javali in Mudigere Taluk, the birthplace of river Hemavathi.

After a refreshing break, we headed towards the next coffee hotspot. It had been an awesome ride so far and time to get our caffeine fix. We parked our bike at one of the stalls put up with a bare table and a stove serving banana fritters and our dose of Sakleshpur coffee. We then climbed up the stairs to reach the beautifully located and strategically built armoury of Tippu Sultan- Manjarabad fort. It is a multi-walled star shaped fortress and worth photographing for an aerial view. Having Shiradi ghat and Bisle ghat in the viscinity, the view from the fort is amazing!

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The Manjarabad fort

The ride has been brilliant so far and we stopped by for a picture of this solo tree standing in a serene place.

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As we continued to enjoy our ride further, god decided to add in a tinge of adventure. We lost our way and we missed a deviation.. So that’s when our CEAT tyres were put into real test. We were scared of having lost our way and running on low battery on our mobile phones. So, the video pretty much sums up our offroading tryst. However, we were fortunate to reach the main road that ran parallel to our wrong road. Astonishingly, we later got to know that the official name of that road was ‘Kundu-Rasthe’ which literally means ‘Pot-hole road’ in Kannada.

The sun was already setting and we were the last and the only people in the middle of no-where, walking down the stairs towards Mallalli waterfalls. The place was drop-dead deserted by the time we reached there. We hurriedly clicked some photographs and rode for a short coffee break at the last part of our coffee trip, entrance to Coorg or Kodagu district. Interestingly, we passed through several small towns named after the days of the week when the weekly shandy is held. Shukravarapete, ShanivaraSanthe and Somwarpet were among them.

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The Mallalli falls

So it was past 07.00.p.m. when we finally reached our ancestral home at Madikeri town. And there was no better way to be greeted at home and end the long trip than having a sinful brew of Bella kaapi of Coorg. That said, our ride on the coffee belt had come to an end.. We rode on excellent national highways, state highways and stretches with no roads.. I must mention that coffee kept us awake and the tyres kept us on track and it was a wonderful experience.

Summary: It is not an expensive car / bike you need for a wonderful trip. An efficient engine and a pair of reliable tyres is all that is required if you have a zeal to conquer the roads.. Bring it on and enjoy the ride!

‘I’m chronicling my road trip adventure for CEAT Tyres in association with BlogAdda.’

Request to all riding & driving enthusiasts:

I myself work for an automobile manufacturer and my roles include attending to quality issues of seats & airbags. I have seen tests performed on dummys for evaluation. Trust me, it is insane to imagine the impact of not wearing seat belts.

1 .Seat belts alone can reduces the risk by 60% in case of a collision. In most cars, the airbags don’t deploy unless the seatbelts are worn as they are inter-connected for the electrical system to identify the seat occupancy. So buckle up and ensure all your co-passengers too have!

2. Helmets on the other hand reduce fatal accidents by upto 60% avoiding severe head injuries. So, please invest on a quality assured helmet and strap it properly for your own safety and DO NOT look out for any cash savings by picking the one’s sold on roadside.

You may be a safe rider/driver. But you don’t know that stranger on the road.. Remember, someone is waiting back at home for your return. Please follow safety rules for their happiness. This is the least you can do!

Kanchipuram- Beyond its sarees

The first thing that hits your mind when you hear this city’s name are its Silk sarees. The Kanjeevaram or Kanchi silk sarees define a sense of style, gorgeousness, elegance, classy and royalty. But what goes rather un-noticed is the fact that Kanchipuram is also called as a ‘City of temples’. Despite, being the erstwhile capital of the Pallavas, the influences of Pandyas, Cholas, Hoysalas and Vijayanagaras can also be significantly observed in the artistic structures constructed across the city. Also, it is noteworthy that the influences in temple architecture are across different sects of faiths. 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. Kanchipuram is known to be a land of 108 ancient temples, all unique in their own way. Beyond its world-famous handloom, the sculptures, architecture, 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. That’s why I like to call Kanchipuram as ‘an abode of the trio- Art, culture and history’.

When my mom planned to buy some drapes from the local weavers of Kanchi, I chanced upon the opportunity to explore this city, beyond its sarees and handlooms. Obviously, one day wouldn’t be sufficient if I had to visit each of these 108 temples and hence, made a list of 10 temples based on their mythological importance. Given that I’m mostly a public transport dependent creature, the ease of commutation was also a factor considered while making my list. We boarded on an overnight bus from Bangalore to Kanchipuram.

As we alighted at Kanchipuram bus terminus, we were greeted by the drizzling rain. Usually, the autorickshaws work this way in this city. You tell them the purpose of your visit and they will plan and handle the entire itinerary for you. Thus, we hired an autorickshaw and that sorted our transportation for the entire duration of our visit around the city. Our auto driver took us to a travellers’ dormitory where we freshened up quickly and then headed to the first temple on my list.

1. Kanchi Kamakshiamman temple: The timing of our visit was important and we wanted to reach there before sunrise. This is one of the Shakthi peethas in India. The prayers in all other temples in Kanchi starts only after prayers are offered here. Unlike any other temples in India, the first pooja to the presiding deity is offered by an elephant and a cow in the sanctorum here. The positive energy we felt in witnessing the ritual was enough to keep us going for at least another week ahead.

The entrance of Kanchi Kamakshiamman temple

2. 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.

3. Adjacent to the Adi Kanchi temple is the Kumarakottam- Murugan Swami temple. It is believed that Lord Bramha was imprisoned by Murugan at this place and later released with Shiva’s interference. The temple is known for the idol in the Soma Skanda posture.

4. Ekambareshwara temple: This is the biggest temple in the city. I’d need a separate post altogether to write about the significance of this temple alone. But, the primary reason for me to include this temple 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 element ‘Earth’. This majestic temple complex houses a very sacred mango tree at its centre, whose 4 branches are believed to represent 4 vedas that gives its name to the temple. Each branch bears mangoes of four different tastes(sweet, sour, bitter and spicy) in the 4 seasons. The special souvenir that I take back from Kanchi was not a saree, but 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.

Under the mango tree at the Ekambareshwara temple

5. 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 the holy lizards. These metal lizards are believed to have been installed by lord Indra after he was released of the curse by goddess Saraswati. It is also believed that people who touch these 2 lizard sculptures (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. (The latest, this festival was held was in 2019). 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.

A mural 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.

6. Just a few meters away from there is the Ulagalandar temple, primarily constructed by the Cholas. 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.

7. Further from here, is the Kacchappa Eshwarar temple. Here, Vishnu is seen in his Kuruma avatar or the Tortoise form, worshipping Lord Shiva.

8. 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 Mahabharatha and fine stone pillars around the sanctorum.

9. The Kailasanathar temple needs a special mention. This temple dating back to the Pallava period, is located slightly on the outskirts and hence away from the regular tourists / pilgrim 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 over time and needs 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.

The Kailasanathar temple

10. 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.. Bonus for your temple tour, if you have some more time left with you. You can include the Trilokyanatha & Chandraprabha twin temples dedicated to lord Mahaveer at Tirupparuthikkundram. It has inscriptions belonging to Pallavas, Cholas and the Vijayanagara periods. I’m told that 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.

Enroute, we passed through ‘Kanchi Kudil’- an old traditional house that has now been converted to a museum that exhibits the rich Tamilian tradition.

But well, Saree shopping was why the entire visit to Kanchipuram was prepensed at the first place. Hence off we were, on a handloom ciurcuit. Our driver took us through the narrow bylanes of Kanchi to some of the finest weavers and their handloom workshops. 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 to Bangalore in an evening bus.

Thus, ended an eventful weekend…. 🙂

A Not so Blissful Trip to the City of Eternal Bliss- Chidambaram

This trip was part of a backpacking by my brother and me with an original itinerary to cover Bangalore- Kumbakonam – Gangaikondacholapuram – Chidambaram – Pichavaram – Pondicherry – Tiruvannamalai – Bangalore

As per this, we left Bangalore on a Sunday night in a bus and decided to explore further at our own pace, using public transport and staying at places with bookings made on the go. Plan was all set. But well, with a small glitch. We assumed that the monsoon season was the same in the entire southern India. But what we hadn’t taken into consideration was the fact that Tamil Nadu doesn’t come under the south-western monsoon. Hence, the monsoon peaks (with north-east winds) after the season ends in its neighboring states. So, we were now on an exploration of Tamil Nadu in October, during the peak of its monsoon season! Anyway, with its share of travel miseries, poor planning gave us the benefit of experiencing a different kind of backpacking.

Firstly, we explored Kumbakonam, a place which is often spoken less about on a typical tourist’s circuit. It was a wonderful experience to explore a place that is soaked in history and RICH architectural heritage, mostly from the Chola era. (This is elaborated in a separate post, click here to read). From Kumbakonam, our next planned destination for a major halt was the place that’s is often referred as ‘a city of eternal bliss’. But our experience was as unblissful as it could get, even as we wished to get a glimpse of the deity of a temple whose manifestation is revered to be as one of the five elements of life- ‘Space’. I would like to elaborate this trip for my readers to get a wholesome idea of our visit to this city was like for us!

With incessant rains, our mobile-phone network had been patchy. On day 2 at Kumbakonam, we received a call from our parents who had been trying to get in touch with us since the previous night. They informed us about the alert issued by the Met. Department. We checked online and confirmed the news about the weather forecast of cyclone- Roanu and a deep depression in the Bay of Bengal. We were asked not to venture near the seacoast. Our intended trip itself was supposed to be along the Coromandel coast- including Cuddalore and Pondicherry. Since the day was bright, we did not take our Met.dept. seriously and decided to take a chance by continuing with the plan from Kumbakonam.

With a visit to the Brihadeeshwara temple at Gangaikondacholapuram (another of the three living Chola temples), we boarded a bus to Mannarkudi. From Mannarkudi, we were supposed to take another bus towards our next planned destination: Chidambaram. However, the conductor informed us that the road beyond Mannarkudi was blocked since the previous night due to an uprooted tree. Although the tree was cleared, he wasn’t sure if the route was worthy for us to go. Without really understanding the seriousness of his advice, we boarded an overly priced private bus which ferried us to Chidambaram. Our road was flanked by the Kollidam until most stretch. Last time we had seen this part of the state was with our family, during our quest to see the end of river Kaveri. The dam was empty and dry back then. Today, she was flowing in full spate and the Grand Anicut was filled till its maximum limit. Kaveri looked beautiful with her brown waters reflecting back the sun rays that sneaked from amid the thick grey clouds. That was the point from where, the real saga of our road trip started.

As we covered a little distance ahead of the dam, the river began to touch the road around the corners at most turns. Gradually, the river started to spill over the road at some stretches. Instead of plying on the road, it seemed like our bus was driving over the river at these junctions. Further into the journey, the water level increased. Several stretches (in kilometers) of the road was submerged by the river. Our driver was a real super star- who could figure out exactly where the road laid in the ground in spite of the water being above the tire height. Even a slight slip in the road only meant death and nothing less. The entire bus with about 25-30 passengers could have been washed away by the currents of the spiteful river. I had only seen such things in the news. Now I was right there, experiencing a flood scene, firsthand.

The flooded villages enroute to Chidambaram
The flooded villages enroute to Chidambaram

Stretches of villages laid submerged ahead. At some places, the thatched roofs and the hay huts had given away. We could see utensils floating around on the road, helpless villagers wading across the (once existent) streets, even as the flood water stayed above their waist level. Their plight was heart rendering to see, even as the rest of us inside the bus continued to wonder if we were going to see a safe arrival at our destination at all. The rain of just one night had wreaked so much havoc across the state of Tamil Nadu. However, our driver remained focused and drove us across to reach the safe harbor at Chidambaram by around 03.00.p.m.

My brother and I decided to drop the luggage at the hotel which we had booked online and find some food for ourselves. We hadn’t eaten anything since that morning. On arrival at the hotel, we were a little perplexed to see our room. The bedsheets looked extremely old, torn and dirty. The bathroom was a disaster. The toilet floor was covered with a thick layer of algae, slush and mud, all that had accumulated over years without washing it. The flush lever was broken, the taps rusted and a crazy layer of deposits on the bucket and the mug. The nasty smell of alcohol hit our noses from outside through the opened door even as we continued to feel suffocated inside that room. My brother and I looked at each other’s face- and both of us knew what was running in each other’s mind. In spite of being exhausted and hungry, we decided to leave the place and find some other place to stay. Just when we started to descend the stairs and as if the injury (of finding a bad room online) wasn’t enough, I happened to step on a large mess of barf, thrown up by some drunkard on the stairs and slip down a couple of steps.

Until this moment of our day, I had managed to keep my calm, but my brother gave up. He wanted to end the trip right there and return to Bangalore. While he found no buses that would leave Chidambaram immediately to Bangalore, I managed to convince him to stay calm until we boarded a night bus at least. I found a place near the ‘Nataraja temple’ where I could clean myself and headed to get the darshan of the lord. The visit was peaceful, maybe I will write about in another post someday.

The Bharatanatyam postures sculpted on the walls of the west-tower of the temple
The Bharatanatyam postures sculpted on the walls of the west-tower of the temple

After finishing the evening prayers, my brother booked our tickets to Bangalore for the same night. Since my holidays were still not over, somewhere deep in my mind, I still wanted to complete my trip. I didn’t want one bad experience of the day ruin the entire holiday for us. But, given the weather condition further ahead in our planned route, I couldn’t rule out my apprehensions of getting stranded in the cyclone at Pondicherry as well.

But right now, our priority was different. We had been starving since morning and had to find something to fill our stomach. In spite of walking the WHOLE of Chidambaram town, we couldn’t locate a single place where we could find food. Thanks to the day of Deepawali festival- there were absolutely NO eateries open! Also, the entire town was SOO DIRTY with garbage littered everywhere. After a long search, we finally found ONE supermarket in the entire town. And what did we get to eat there? Just a cup of sweet corn to sate our hungry bodies.

Our city woes did not end after eating the steamed corn. It was still 07.00.p.m and we had three hours more to kill. On enquiring with a few locals, we were told that we would find a decent restaurant near the bus stand. And so as per the recommendations of the local people, we found this AC luxury restaurant called ‘Vandayar- Southern Spice’.

When we arrived there, the waiter informed us that they served only fried rice for the day. The waiter came to our table thrice to take our order (for the only dish available) and after two hours of waiting for food, there arrived a convoy of VIP customers at the restaurant. Bonus for waiting: A feast was set for this VIP family that comprised of all dishes from the menu. Even while all the tables were occupied with middle-class customers including my brother and me, there was no one from the restaurant that cared for our existence that day. Wondering if we were waiting for any free food to be served at 09.00.p.m. several customers grew furious and started to walk out of the restaurant. It was also time for us to board our bus. As we too walked out of this VIP restaurant, there was power cut in the town.

In a dark and dingy bus-stand, we spotted the only stall that served tea and some biscuits. The little candlelight was just enough for the tea-stall guy to reach out to things in his kiosk. We were essentially scared of stamping some more muck that could’ve been laid in the littered path. As we dunked the last biscuit into our chai, we had yet another surprise for us. Our bus to Bangalore was delayed by 2 hrs.!!! As we waited there in the dark platform of the bus stand, some drunk men started to throw glass bottles at the crowd there. Luckily no one was injured, but the downpour of bottles and splatter of glass pieces continued for a while. Our bus arrived after a while and we boarded at 10.00.p.m.

With all the crazy stuff that happened that day, we fell asleep quickly… Only to be woken up at sunrise. That’s when the rain was battering outside, and our bus had broken down on the highway. Although we were given an alternate bus in a while, our anxiety continued until we reached home.

The temple Gopuram at Chidambaram Nataraja temple

Conclusion Remarks: The people on the east coast are god’s chosen ones to have a grand celebration of festivals. Tsunami for Christmas. Cyclones for Diwali…!! One cannot sit in a place, hear stories and imagine of places and people. You need to move yourself to places to experience and explore. This trip was one such experiences where I got a first had experience of braving a flood and starvation of food. Also, this is a trip where I managed to find a place in India that I wouldn’t want to return.

Tracing the Cholan trail- Kumbakonam

This was part of a backpacking trip by my brother and me with an original itinerary to cover Bangalore- Kumbakonam – Gangaikondacholapuram – Chidambaram – Pichavaram – Pondicherry – Tiruvannamalai – Bengaluru

Although being located in the same district, soaked in history and RICH architectural heritage from the Chola era, Kumbakonam is a place that is mostly overshadowed by its counterpart at Tanjavur town. Hence, it is a place that is often spoken less about on a typical tourist’s circuit. I was curious to cover this city and absorb as much of it as possible. While I embarked on a weeklong backpacking through some parts of East-coast road, I had enlisted the temples that seemed culturally important and hoped to visit them while I passed through the city of Kumbakonam.

Getting around:

As you may know, most of my trips are by availing public transportation. During this trip, all the places within the city were covered by walk. (you can alternately hire an autorickshaw to show you around and save some time). All other places located on the outskirts were explored through public/ local buses that are very frequent and extremely lighter on the pocket. If you are using this blog as a reference to explore this ancient city of the Cholas, you can plan your commutation accordingly. Places to visit in Kumbakonam city largely comprise of temples and can be broadly grouped into three categories depending on their location and proximity of accessibility.

a. Temples within a cluster within the city (temples 1~5 and 11~12 in my list)
b. Temples within a cluster on the city outskirts (temples 6~8 in my list)
c. Temples located on separate locations on the city outskirts (9~10 and 13~18 in my list)

Accommodation:

It was raining cats and dogs when we alighted at Kumbakonam bus stand in the morning. We had pre-booked a hotel in Kumbakonam city through an online portal. But after reaching the place, we realized that there was a mistake from the portal and the hotel was closed for Deepawali vacation. We sat there and browsed through websites to find alternate accommodation options. Meanwhile, the pounding rain had mellowed down to a drizzle. We finally managed to find a hotel nearby where we dumped all our baggage, freshened up and ventured out to explore. Bonus for the online goof up by the website: We had a room upgrade.

So, here are the places we visited during our short stint of 2 days at this historical city of Kumbakonam in the order of our travel.

Day 1:

  1. The Nageswara temple: A sizably big temple dedicated to the Snake king Adishesha who is believed to have offered his prayers to Lord Shiva here. An interesting part in this vast 1000years old temple premise is the kalyana mantap. The Cholas have sculpted this stone structure in the form of a chariot being drawn by life sized elephants and horses with the suspension technique.
The Kalyana mantap at Nageswaran Kovil
The Kalyana mantapa at Nageswaram kovil

2. Sarangampani: We reached this temple that follows the Vaishnavism cult after wading through a flooded road. Notable contributions have been made by Cholas, Vijayanagar, Madurai Nayaks etc. to the overall architecture of this temple. A temple tank is located on the western side of this temple.

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

3. Someshwar temple: This is located adjacent to the Sarangampani temple. We skipped an exclusive visit to this temple after getting some photos from the outside of the temple. From there, we continued through the busy shopping lanes of the town to reach our next landmark.

4. Adikumbeshwara temple: It is believed that Kumbakonam gets its name from this Shiva temple. Legend has it that lord Brahma’s pot (Kumba) containing nectar of worldly lives was rolled down and stopped at this town 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 sculpted on a single stone. Also, the piped instruments(nagaswarams) etched out of stone and the cattle-shed are noteworthy. Today, this vast temple premises are also used for commercial purposes with several shops and restaurants setup in this complex.

5. Ramasamy temple: A place dedicated to lord Rama; it is believed to be the only temple which houses the idols of Rama & Sita along with all his brothers inside the sanctum Sanctorum. The entire story of Ramayana has been painted on the corridor walls of this temple. And hence, for someone interested in art and beyond just checking places, it would require at least a day or two to observe the murals here.

Obviously, we did not have the luxury of more than a couple of hours to spend, and hence our visit was limited to just a quick brush up of whatever we could understand of the images there.

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

6. Mahamahan tank: We timed our visit to this place around noon, when all temples in South India usually close down. This mythologically important tank is spread across 6 acres and is believed to be created out of the nectar that was spilt from Brahma’s pot.

7. Kashivishwanathar temple: This is located at the entrance of the Mahamahan tank. It is believed that the navakannigas or the 9 maidens of Shiva (Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswathi, Kaveri, Godavari, Narmada, Krishna, Tungabhadra & Sarayu) representing 9 rivers visit and bathe in this tank once in 12 years. A day when 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.

8. Abhimukeshwara temple: Located nearby, on the other side of the tank, we only walked past this place as it too remained closed. From there, we boarded a bus to our next major landmark on my ‘to visit’ list.

9. Airavateshwara temple at Darasuram: We visited this temple, on the outskirts of Kumbakonam (one of the three living Chola temples) when No-one else would! By the time we walked from the bus-stop to the temple, our umbrellas were flipped by the heavy winds and the pounding rain had battered and gotten us drenched till our bone. The entire temple complex was FLOODED (with knee-deep water). It was an insane visit where my brother and I both decided to go ahead, wade through the water, and have the entire place for ourselves. We climbed up a ladder (placed by the temple priest to perform the daily rituals) to reach the temple corridor. It was BEAUTY, up there! Bonus: The sight of the entire temple complex in a reflection in the accumulated water. (I know this photo is not its best, but still the best memory that our mobile phone camera could capture to for our grandkids when we would tell them about this place!).

Airavateshwara temple at Darasuram
Airavateshwara temple at Darasuram

After getting some nice shots, we made our way out to the main road to catch a bus to our next destination. The short journey thereon reminded us of Sebastian Vettel cruising on narrow countryside 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 our next planned landmark.

10. Pateeswaran temple: This is originally a Shiva temple, but the goddess has been given prime importance here. It is said that the Cholas offered prayers to the goddess Patti(daughter), calf of the sacred cow Kamdhenu here before proceeding for any battles during their reign. However, when we arrived here, it remained closed only to open again at 05.00.p.m.

As the rain gods again took over the silent skies, we decided to head back to the city. After reaching Kumbakonam city, we looked out for a place that served the trademark ‘Kumbakonam degree coffee’, our piping hot cuppa filter coffee to warm ourselves to some extent from the chilling rain. It was only 06.00.p.m but dark already. As planned, we set out to find our way through the super crowded street of the city to find the remaining two temples from our list.

The main bazaar street is a state highway- All thanks to the festival of Deepawali, it seemed like the entire district had come down to one street in Kumbakonam for shopping. The street was jam-packed with not even an inch of breathing space. We somehow managed to get out without actually facing a stampede. Albeit the heavy rain, we closed our umbrellas and stood amid the crowd. The crowd pulled us along to reach the exit of the street from where we walked to the next temple on our list.

11. 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 all the nearby temples had started to close down. Anyway, we had a lot of time to kill and walked across to take a chance.

12. Brahma temple: We considered ourselves to be fortunate to have decided to take a chance and arrive here. The temple was still open, and we had made to the last pooja at this temple as well. The priest was ecstatic to greet us who went on narrating us stories from mythology and depicting the importance of this otherwise small temple in Kumbakonam. We were told that it was 1 of the only 2 temples in all of Tamil Nadu that are dedicated to Lord Brahma. We were happy to savor the prasadam, which was very unexpected.

We then had a sumptuous supper at a 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:

On the following morning, we were early risers to catch up with our planned itinerary. We boarded a 07.00.a.m. bus to our first destination of the day, situated on a small hillock on the outskirts of Kumbakonam.

13. Swamimalai: Abode of one of the six important murugan temples in Tamil Nadu, Swamimalai is also an important destination of idol making in India. A limited number of artisans who all live in clusters around the temple here, have carried along a science and art of bronze idol making from the Chola period. The technology used in the ‘lost wax method’ of metal casting is practiced as per the Vedas and is something that needs a more elaborate citation, in another post.

After offering our prayers, we decided to head back to the city to get buses to the other places on our list.

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

Meanwhile, we couldn’t locate any restaurant that was open for breakfast even at 08.00.a.m. Hence, we decided to have lunch once and for all at wherever we would reach. If one had the convenience of an own transportation, there are several other ancient temples that I would recommend for visiting. It would be ideal to have an additional day in hand and make Kumbakonam the central place as all these recommended places are located in different directions, forming somewhat a radius around this town. Local buses are available from Kumbakonam to each of these places, but it would be very time consuming to come back to Kumbakonam to change a bus to every time. Hence, we decided to skip the below places and head to our last major landmark.

14. Uppiliappan

15. Thirubuvanam

16. Thiruvalanchizi

17. Thiruvidaimaruthur etc.

18. The Brihadeeshwara temple at Gangaikondacholapuram: We reached this yet another magnanimous temple after changing two buses (A change of bus at Kork road / GK cross). The biggest (of the three-great living Chola temples enlisted by UNESCO), this structure stood right adjacent to the national highway enchanting every tourist with all its might. 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

From here, we continued our backpacking into another territory within Tamil Nadu. From Tanjavur district, we were thereon heading towards Chidambaram via Pichavaram. Backpacking trips and road trips always carry elements of surprise and they are supposed to be like that. They can never be planned precisely. These trips always carry scope for making impromptu changes in the itinerary and taking on new adventures. That’s what was awaiting us on the next leg of this weeklong trip, far away in the southern-most state of India. Click here to read more on my journey to Chidambaram.

Backwaters and boat races at Alleppey

It was the 2nd Friday of August 2012, a day before the Biiigg sporting event of South India: “The Nehru trophy boat race”. After a long haul of planning, two of my friends and I had alighted at our destination- Allapuzha, a popular little town on a tourist circuit in Kerala. Fondly known as Alleppey, we were there to experience the festivities of ‘The Olympics of Kuttanad’- Vallamkali or the boat race. The Nehru trophy boat race is an annual event held in the Vembanad lake, in the Kuttanad region of Kerala. Vembanad lake is the longest lake in India and spans across several districts of Kerala. Depending on the region, the lake is known by different names. It is called as the Punnamada Lake here in Kuttana, of which Alleppey is a part. Along with the boat race, we wanted to explore the backwaters that’s a popular haunt of the tourists in this region.

My Itinerary:

Day 0: Leave from Bangalore to Kochi (Overnight train);
Day 1: Kochi to Alleppey (local train), Shikara ride in the Vembanad lake, Sunset at Alleppey beach.
Day 2: Nehru trophy boat race, Champakulam St. Mary Forane Church, Kalloorkkadu Angadi (local & oldest market in the region), Latin church. Return from Alleyppey to Bengaluru (Overnight Train)

Other Places of Interest:
• Karumadi Thodu- famous for the black granite idol of lord Buddha
• Ambalapuzha Sree Krishna temple- known for the ‘Palpayasam’ or the milk porridge offered as prasad to the deity.
• Kokkothamangalam church- This is one of the seven churches founded by St.Thomas, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus Christ.
• Ayyappan temple in Mukkal vattam (near Muhamma)- known for the Kalari from which Lord Ayyappa is believed to have learnt his skills in martial arts. The hermitage where Ayyappan lived during the training period has been preserved in its original form by successive generations of the Cheerappanchira family.

The Details:

Day 1:

It was noon by the time we checked into our hotel room. We freshened up quickly and set out to explore Alleppey. We walked around a little bit and reached at a small boat jetty. We hired a ‘Shikhara’, a local motorboat to cruise around the narrow canals, passing through several fishing hamlets. While the womenfolk were washing clothes, the men were spiralling their fishing nets into the water and a few kids were diving into the waters for a refreshing swim. It was a nice experience of seeing local lifestyle of the people for whom, the backwaters are a lifeline. Along our ride, we picked up some fresh lobsters and pomfret at a local market and got them cooked in the local style at a fisherman’s house.

The Shikara cruise in the narrow canals of Alleppey
The Shikara cruise in the narrow canals of Alleppey

Further, we were oared across to the end of the canal which opened into the wide Vembanad lake where all the teams were practising for the boat race and the venue was getting set for the ‘Big’ event. The energy and enthusiasm in the atmosphere was no less than that of the main event itself. Though we wanted to stay there till sunset, the government deadline for all activities in the waters forced us to return to the jetty before 06.00.p.m.

On returning to the mainland, we meandered through the lanes of Alleppey town searching for a dose of Kerala chai and palam-pori (Banana fritters). We then decided to settle down by the beach until dark. While finding our way to the beach, we walked past the coir industries that Alleppey was once known for, and now remained shut and non-functional.

A stationed shikara enroute to the Alleppey beach
A stationed shikara enroute to the Alleppey beach

While walking back to the town area from the beach, we happened to see a hoarding of a concert happening at a nearby stadium. Post sunset on normal days, most towns in Kerala sleep to silence after 7.00.p.m. and there will be not many options to see or do after that. Since we did not want to waste the remaining evening by sitting inside our hotel room, we decided to head to the stadium to kill the rest of our evening. ‘Music never disappoints’, all the three of us had the same thought. Upon arrival at the stadium, we enjoyed the on-going performance of ‘Theyyam’, one of the colourful, traditional & spiritual dances of the state. But after some time in the audience gallery, is when we experienced a surprise on the stage. A MIND-BLOWING show by the violin maestro- Balabaskaran and team.. It was there that we were LOST in dreamland..!!

Day 2:

The next morning, we had to reach the racing venue as early as 08.00.a.m. to ensure that we had a place to sit. (Read about the madness of the event). The snake boats are the world’s biggest water vessel used for sports. One by one, they arrived for assembly. Locally called as the Chundan Vallam (Beaked boats), these 100~120 feet long wooden canoes carry 90- 110 rowers and move like snakes through the channels. And soon, the races started under different categories. Every single soul in the arena was singing songs of cheer. All through the event, only one thing echoed in the atmosphere: Vanchipattu or the Boat song. It was a once in a lifetime experience to be a part of that enthusiastic crowd.

The oarsmen '"Women"
The oarsmen ‘”Women”

Post the event, we still had time to explore the town and hence boarded a bus to Champakulam. As we passed through the waterlogged villages of Kuttanad, we were reminded that the region we were passing through was the ‘granary of Kerala’ or the rice bowl of Kerala. It is one of the few places in the world where farming is done below sea level.

Soon, we reached the St. Mary Forane Church. Since it was a Sunday, we were lucky to take part in the mass. Built in 427A.D., this riverside church is a testimony of time with its finely maintained beautiful mural paintings. From there, we took a boat to reach the other end of the river: the oldest market in the region known as Kalloorkkadu angadi.

Champakulam St. Marys church
Champakulam St. Marys church

With a local bus ride from there, back to the town, we then took a walk to the Latin church in the town. The entire town of Alleppey can be viewed from the terrace of this church (permitted only during visiting hours). What particularly caught our interest was the cemetery where all members of a family were buried in the same pit. Hundreds of such graves laid within the church premises.

The premises of the Latin Church
The premises of the Latin Church

We then checked out our lodge and headed to the railway station for our return, scheduled for the night. It was time for us to depart with a mind filled with beautiful memories of sailing afloat on a boat in the backwaters of land that is called ‘God’s own country’ and hope to return soon.

Must dos: Experience the madness of the Snake boat race
Must eat: Freshly caught and cooked seafood while on a backwater cruise tour

Places to Visit in Trichy in a day

This visit to Trichy was a part of our family’s backpacking trip, mainly conceptualized to cover a portion of the Coromandel coast during this trip. Our itinerary for this trip was Bangalore – Mayiladuthurai – Poompuhar – Tarangambadi – Karaikal – Nagapattinam – Velankanni – Tanjavur – Trichy – Bangalore.

After a long day exploring Tanjavur, we boarded an evening bus to Tiruchirappalli. Trichy is a name given by the British, perhaps the shortened version of the original used for the ease of pronunciation. After reaching the town, we checked into a lodge in front of the central bus stand, had a sumptuous meal and retired early.

  • It was day 3 of our backpacking. The places covered in our Trichy day trip were:
    • The island town of Srirangam
    • Thiruvannaikaval
    • St. Lourdes’s church
    • Rock Fort

The visit in detail:

Since this was not the first visit to Trichy for my parents, this plan was just a Trichy day trip. They wanted to just go around the major landmarks that are typically frequented on a traveler’s circuit. But Trichy is beyond just pilgrimage and ours is a family of explorers. So, in spite of covering these popular landmarks, we still added a few elements of history and architectural explorations into it to make it more meaningful than just going around these places. In fact, as someone who views places from a historian’s perspective, places are usually recognized by a specific dynasty that had an influence in its overall culture. For example, Mahabalipuram is associated with the Pallavas, Tanjavur or Kumbakonam is a major territory of the Cholas, Madurai with the Pandya and so on. But, when it comes to Trichy, this town was never a capital of one particular kingdom. However, it has remained a very important place throughout history and across timelines, thereby picking up influences of all major dynasties that ruled over this region. Hence, it is safe to say that Trichy represents a confluence of all south-Indian architectural styles.
I would like to elaborate on the places we visited to give my readers a brief idea of these places when they plan their trip to Trichy.

Landmark 1: Srirangam

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 Shivana Samudra (All three are island towns formed by river Kaveri). Srirangam is an important place of worship for the Vaishnava sect of Brahmins or the followers of Lord Vishnu. When we arrive there, there was a long queue and we managed to get a glimpse of the historic idol of Sri Ranganatha sleeping on a serpent after a long wait in the queue. (There is a long history of how this idol came into being, worth a read).

But pilgrimage aside, we were there to enjoy the architectural marvels of the city. If you are someone who loves to walk and explore a place by foot, it would take a good 2-3 hours to simply walk around the main temple complex. Although the main gopuram or the outermost tower is the latest among all the towers in this temple complex, it is the largest temple tower in the world. With a spread of 156 acres, the temple complex itself is believed to be the largest functional temple premises in the world.

The complex consists seven rounds of walls/fortifications before you reach the sanctum sanctorum. Each wall was added by the successive dynasties that reigned in this town including the Pandya, Cholas, Hoysala, Vijayanagar, Pallavas and the others. The art specific to each of these eras can be noticed in the complex. The entire complex has 21 temple gopurams where one could easily get lost in the vastness of the complex if attempting to see each of them individually. 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 viewpoint, from where all 21 temple towers could be seen from a single spot. There is also a 1000 pillar hall which was earlier used as a venue 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.

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

The banks of river Kaveri is just behind the temple, which can be accessed by walking through the rear door of the temple. With blazing sun even at 10.00.a.m, the sand and the asphalt road were already heated up. Hence, our barefooted attempt to walk to the riverbank was less a walk and more a run. Hailing from a place where the holy river originates and flows gracefully with water all through the year, it was unexpected and disappointing and to see her riverbed running TOTALLY dry in this part of her journey. But after talking to the localites, I cheered up a bit as they were looking forward for a good monsoon in the coming month. We were told that the river would flow almost in spate during the monsoons (Even submerging the very place that I was standing at). We came back to the temple again, had some fresh fruit juice from one of the stalls outside, wore our footwear and took a walk around the temple.

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 communities of the country- the Iyengar Brahmins.

Oh yeah…!! It was BURNING hot and I was pretty sure I’d go back home like a grilled chicken after this walk. But then, we wanted to make the most of the visit because life is uncertain, and no one knows for sure when we would be visiting again.

Landmark 2: Thiruvannaikaval

Though the population of Srirangam mainly comprises the Iyengar (the followers of Vaishnavism), the then rulers have also built temples for the Iyers (the followers of Shaivism). Hence, our next destination was to see the temple built for Lord Shiva. We boarded a bus to Thiruvannaikaval. 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, another beautiful ancient temple usually missed by visitors. It is located right behind the Shiva temple.

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

Landmark 3: St. Lourdes’s church

From the temple, we had a nice south Indian meal at a nearby hotel after which we headed back to Trichy town. We visited the St. Lourdes’s church in the city. The Gallo-Catholic design of the church architecture and the neo-Gothic spires are beautiful in this early 2 centuries old heritage structure.

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

We did a bit of shopping in the by lanes and the Trichy market around the Teppakulam (Temple tank) before we started our ascend to our next destination.

Landmark 4: Rock Fort

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 has created such beautiful structures out of a hard monolith. What appears to be just a random protrusion of earth from outside, is in fact 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

As we decided to descend down, we realized that a door that had remained closed during our ascent was now wide open. There were some beautiful paintings peeking out of the door intimidating us to go inside and 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 priest noticed our interest and started explaining the story depicted by each painting. He then told us to hurry up and walk inside through another door. There, the maha mangalaarthi (the last pooja of the day.!!) for goddess Parvathi 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.

Just while we were sipping the holy water, we were again asked to rush through another door, cross a narrow chamber that led to the Shiva temple. The deity was getting ready for the final pooja of the day. Prayers are offered only thrice a day: During sunrise, at noon and before sunset. And we were lucky for being there for one of these (the last one). The curtains were parted from the deity and the huge idol was being bathed in the pancha-Amrutha. Then, he was neatly dressed in dhoti, decorated with fresh flowers and the pooja culminating with Arathi. The curtains were back signaling us that the god would then go to sleep. We felt truly BLESSED…!! by the end of this, I could see my mom weeping in joy for being lucky to witness this Pooja. We had witnessed an event that was so unexpected.

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

Again, the presence and strong hold of almost all major south Indian dynasties could be felt there with the exquisite designs present in the art there. We thanked the priest and took leave to descend the stairs leading us down to the market.

Landmark 5: GR restaurant

A final destination to our tour: a local recommendation for an evening chai. GR restaurant is housed in an old building in the heart of the city (enroute to Rock fort). The Valli appam is a must try here. The interiors of the hotel are commendable which has rock pillars, structures & collectibles that reminds one of the grandeurs of temple architecture that this region is renowned for. A cup of piping hot filter coffee was a grand ending to our Trichy day trip!
There are many lesser known temples around Trichy and equally beautiful with rich artwork which takes up another full day. But one day was all the time we had with us before wrapping up trip in Trichy to Bangalore. So, I shall come back soon.

Offbeat Places to See in Tanjavur on a daytrip

This visit to Tanjavur was a part of our family’s backpacking trip covering the route: Bangalore – Mayiladuthurai – Poompuhar – Tarangambadi – Karaikal – Nagapattinam – Velankanni – Tanjavur – Trichy – Bangalore.

Following a long day of a secular pilgrimage in the Coromandel coast, we boarded a morning bus to Tanjavur. Tanjavur, the cradle of Dravidian culture and a hub of the Chola art and architecture needs no introduction. There’s no dearth for information on the internet. A visit to this land was on my parent’s ‘bucket list’ and this was a trip planned for its materialization. With a day’s time at our disposal (VERY short for a slow traveler like me), we decided to cover the major landmarks that a typical tourist would want to see in the capital of the Cholas.

It was the second day of our backpacking. The places covered in Tanjavur were:
• BIG temple (Brihadeesvaran temple)
• Saraswathi Mahal complex
• Grand Anicut / Kallanai dam

The details:

As in case of every other civilization, a river holds all the life. In this case, Tanjavur was born on the fertile delta created by river Kaveri. This is the land that has nurtured and held on to the Dravidian culture till date. Apart from this, its local economy has largely been agrarian based ana is rightly called as the rice bowl of South India.

Landmark 1: The Big temple

The iconic monolith of this land was spotted even as our bus was still pulling off at the bus station. The monolith seated gracefully atop the ancient temple with a weight of 800 tonnes was still far away. As we reached, we stood there in awe, gazing at the vast premises of the mighty temple. The temple tower is the tallest in the world and 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 kilometers to facilitate the placement of the monolith Kalasha atop the tower. The walls of the corridor are adorned by fine paintings that were done with a 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 entrance at the Brihadeesvaran temple
The entrance at the Brihadeesvaran temple

‘The Great living Chola temples’ is a group of three Chola temples located across Tanjavur district. Together, these three temples represent an architectural conception of the pure form of the Dravidian style. The Tanjavur Brihadeshwara temple is the most easily accessible of them all and is located in the heart of the city. (The other two temples are the Airavatesvara temple at Darasuram and Gangaikondacholisvaram). Although the Brihadeshwara temple is fondly called as the Big temple, it has multiple names. With a simple translation of the name into local language, it is called Thanjavur Periya kovil. The great Chola king Raja raja named this temple as Rajarajesvaram and the deity Shiva in Linga form as Peruvudaiyar. A few people also refer the temple with the name of its deity as Peruvudaiyar kovil.

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

Landmark 2: Saraswathi Mahal complex

We took an autorickshaw ride from the Big temple to Saraswathi Mahal. This is reckoned among the oldest functional libraries in the world and was patronized by the Tanjavur rulers. One can find some very old, rare and original copies of important manuscripts, scientific research publications etc. here. Adjoining it, is the palace of the Marathas of Tanjavur. The palace is partially used as the residence of the descendants and remaining portion is converted into a museum.

Behind this building, is the art museum which houses some rare and famous bronze idols created during the Chola era. The Cholas were the earliest people to have used the lost wax technique to create the bronze idols with a very scientific approach (as per the documented procedures in the Vedas).

The Saraswathi Mahal Library
The Saraswathi Mahal Library

Just outside the museum, we picked up a pair of Tanjavur bommai from the souvenir shop. These famous Tanjavur dolls are colorful handcrafted figurines where the head is suspended on a pivot which gives a dancing/swinging movement to the doll. Hence, they are often referred as the Tanjavur thalayatti bommai or the dancing headed dolls. Another artform you cannot ignore or miss while in this city are the Tanjavur paintings. Considered as a divine artform, with gold embellishments, Tanjavur paintings are considered as a symbol of royalty.

Landmark 3: Grand Anicut / Kallanai dam

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

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

With this, our time in Tanjavur had almost come to an end. On the other end of the dame, we sat inside a local bus and waited for it to start to our next destination on our trip: Trichy.

Madurai (Part 2) – Centre of arts and culture

There is no existence of a place without the people, and with civilization exists its culture. Madurai has its own share. My previous post (Madurai Part 1) was exclusively about the architectural landmarks spread across the city. But it would be injustice if the other things associated with this amazing city goes without a mention. Of course, the write-up could run into books if I had to write about each of them. And it isn’t necessary that everyone travelling is a pilgrim or a history buff or an architecture enthusiast. Hence, here’s an attempt to throw light on other aspects that any visitor to Madurai can expect. This is not a detailed one, but I touch upon various dimensions that you can theme your trip around Madurai. Do let me know if this post helps or if there is any other dimension I missed. Here goes my list.

Art:

  • Sculptures: adorning every temple wall, pillar and their towers are a marvel in itself.
  • Carpentry: Several wooden vahanas used to carry the idols of the various deities in the temple are something that need the attention of art afficionados.
  • Handicrafts: Various accessories used for decorating Devi idols, made of delicate sequins, etc. are sold in several stall inside the large corridors of the Meenakshi temple.
  • Mural paintings: This needs no introduction, the famous Madurai paintings are a gift of the Pandyan era, adorning the temple walls.
Clockwise from top left: 1.The sculptures on the western tower of the Meenakshi temple; 2.One of the mural paintings from the temple walls; 3.The wooden carriages for the temple idols; 4: Handicrafts from the temple stalls

Food:

Listing just a fixed menu while in Madurai would just be an understatement. If you are a foodie, Madurai would need two full days to explore its culinary delights alone. It is famous for both vegetarian and non-vegetarian specialties. I’d probably write a separate post about it sometime later. But this list is the list that we had when my family visited. But believe me- it is BEYOND!

  • Breakfast – Idly & Sambar, Pongal + a cup of filter coffee
    11.00.a.m – Jigarthanda (it’s more like a combination of falooda & kulfi)
  • Lunch- Puliyogare @ the temple store, curd rice, Sambar rice
    4.00.p.m.- Karupatti (palm sugar) coffee
  • Dinner- Anything after 7.00.p.m is called meals. Must try is the ghee roast & rava Masala dosa

Costume:

  • Sarees for women & Dhotis for men.
  • Madurai cotton sarees with simple prints and zari borders with temple designs are popular.

Jewellery:

Among the locals- particularly those belonging to the Thevar cast, it is believed that women are prettier with bigger earlobes. Hence, the girl child born in this community is made to wear a traditional earring called the ‘Thandatti’ when she is young. The thandatti is said to evoke the 3 levels of our world: terrestrial, astral and divine and these levels are associated with Mandala. Each piece of this weighs 27gms and is made of gold and this piece of jewelry is specific to Madurai.

A Thevar woman wearing the traditional Thandatti earring

Shopping:

Shopping at Madurai is all about wholesale vendors and there are specified streets for each of them.

  • Cotton sarees/ dress materials: Shops are all around the temple complex
  • Steel utensils: Plastic beads & girls’ accessories, gold plated imitation jewelry to name a few.
  • Pooja related accessories & crafts: Particularly inside Pudumandapam (1000 years old market)
  • Farm produce: Varieties of plantains / bananas and green groceries among the others.

A brief intro to a city full of life and activities. Justice yet to be done. Signing off with a hope that it has helped someone somewhere in some form who is seeking for some info on this Pandyan city….

Exploring the Architectural Marvels of Madurai

This was a family backpacking trip planned exclusively to explore Madurai. This city has served as the capital of the Pandyas and is a key destination that has nurtured the Dravidian culture. For anyone who hears the name of this famed city, they know of the Meenakshi Amman Kovil. A typical traveler / tourist / pilgrim would visit just that temple and takes pride in marking it in their travel map of places visited. But what one doesn’t realize is, that Madurai is beyond just this. The contribution of the Pandya kingdom is not limited to just the Madurai Meenakshi temple and can be seen and felt in several structures just around the same city. Also, a portion of the Madurai city has a history beyond the Pandyas too. Hence, our family wanted to reserve this long weekend, exclusively for Madurai. We boarded an overnight bus from Bangalore and reached Madurai at 6.00.a.m. on the following morning.

Like most of our family trips, we wanted this also to be an impromptu vacation. Apart from to and fro travel, nothing else was fixed. As per me, you would need a good 2-3 days to have a quick run around doing this same itinerary as ours, exploring ONLY Madurai. If you are an art and history buff or a foodie, I warn you to carry additional days!

Itinerary:

Day 0: Leave from Bangalore by night (KSRTC Bus)
Day 1: Reach Madurai. Visit Meenakshi temple, Thirumalai Nayaka Mahal, Vandiyur temple tank, Koodal Alagar temple, Gandhi museum, Pudumandapam.
Day 2: Alagar Kovil, Alagar Murugan temple, Pazhamudhir Solai temple, Tiruppanakundram Murugan temple, Dargah of Hazrat Sultan, return to Bengaluru.

The details:

After alighting the bus, we walked around the Meenakshi Amman Kovil to find a good hotel. Since this is the heart of the city, it wasn’t hard to find a decent lodge around there. We checked into a hotel that was located just in front of the temple’s west gate. We freshened up quickly and left for the main part of the trip for anyone visiting Madurai.

  1. Meenakshi temple: A visit to the abode of the Pandya architecture. The entire temple complex is fortified and has 4 entrance towers, one on each of the 4 directions. The sculptures on each of these towers are out of the world. Once inside the complex, I started to wonder which world of wonder I had stepped into. It took us more than 4 hours to finish only a quick walk around inside the temple and also get the darshan of Meenakshi Amman and Lord Sundareswaran.
The finely decorated interiors of the Meenakshi Temple
The finely decorated interiors of the Meenakshi Temple

There are a lot of stalls inside the complex selling various handcrafted articles. The temple art museum within the same premises is a must visit. The central sculpture of Natarajan, or the dancing form of Shiva is believed to be one of the Pancha Sabha of the lord. This place represents the silver hall and Shiva is believed to have performed the ‘Sandhya Thandava’ dance form here (More on the Pancha Sabha Kshetras in another post). Also, there are 1000 pillars, all decorated with intricate pieces of sculpture. The dim light used for each pillar added up to the beauty of the place. The Madurai paintings adorning the walls of the temple requires another post to talk about. I go speechless when I get to explain about the South Indian temples. They are beyond words. Internet has plenty to feed and I don’t want to get into the details. After a tour of this massive temple complex, we decided to head out to explore the city beyond the Meenakshi Kovil.

Inside the Temple art museum
Inside the Temple art museum

2. A small walk through the narrow lanes took us to the Thirumalai Nayaka Mahal built in the 16th century. Fine architecture with elegant paintings on the roofs and vaults is neatly presented in a simple combination of half-white and velvet red colors. There is sound and lights show conducted here every evening. However, we could not make it.

The interiors of Thirumalai Naickar Mahal
The interiors of Thirumalai Naickar Mahal

3. From there, we took a local bus to Vandiyur. This is where the annual event of the famed Teppotsavam / Float festival takes place to celebrate the birthday of King Thirumalai Nayak in January. This tank is supposedly the biggest of its kind in the state of Tamil Nadu. With the float festival just 2 months away and monsoon season just passing by, this tank still remained dry during our visit. When we enquired with a few locals passing by about how the event was going to be conducted in a dry tank, we were told that the water will be fed in January from the Vaigai river through artificially laid underground channels. This is truly amazing how such a concept was laid way back in the 16th century. But for a newcomer like me, the dried lake was an eye sore as it was used was a watering hole by many vandals at the time of our visit.

Vandiyur Mariamman Teppakulam - the island temple
Vandiyur Mariamman Teppakulam – the island temple

4. Taking another bus from there to Periyar and a small walk from there through the stinking / dirty by-lanes, we reached the Koodal Alagar temple. A quick pooja and a walk around the temple was a nice boost up. The architecture here too, is similar to that of Meenakshi temple.

5. We had to rush to The Gandhi museum as it would close by 6.00.p.m. However, we could not make it on time. This was once called the Tamakkum palace of Rani Mangammal. Today, the museum supposedly houses 14 articles that were used by Gandhiji, along with his sacred ashes and blood-stained dhotis. Gandhiji is said to have visited the city five times during his lifetime.

6. On our walk back to our hotel, we came across an old marketplace called as Pudumandapam. This is a 1000 years old shopping mall, supported by huge sculpture rich stone pillars. The stalls are occupied with tailors, handicrafts vendors, wholesale dealers of pooja related and general accessories. A good place for shopping traditional artefacts at Madurai, and that too in a market that is so old!

Entrance of the Pudumandapam
Entrance of the Pudumandapam

7. On the following morning, we boarded a local bus from Periyar bus stand to travel 21kms towards Alagar Kovil. The temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu, Meenakshi Amman’s brother. The village is surrounded by an old fort wall, it gives a good view of the green hills around the temple. The architecture is similar to Koodal Alagar temple in the city.

8. A trek of 3kms uphill, through green forests and monkey infested walkways lead us to the Murugan temple. It is one among the six abodes of Lord Murugan and hence important among the pilgrims.

9. A walk of half a kilometer further uphill took us to Pazhamudhir Solai temple. A temple dedicated to Goddess Rakkaya exists close to a natural spring called Nuburagangai here, where devotees take a holy bath. But what seemed strange to me was that the place was probably the only temple I had ever been to, which charges an entry fee into the temple itself. This is where the famed Chittrai festival is observed during the month of April.

10. From there, we took the next bus back to Periyar, from where we had to take another connecting bus to Tiruppanakundram. This was a cave temple at the foothills of a hillock. It is believed that Lord Murugan was wedded to Devyani, daughter of Indra at this place. Hence, this is also counted one among the 6 abodes of Lord Murugan.

Entrance to the Tiruppanakundram Murugan temple
Entrance to the Tiruppanakundram Murugan temple

11. Up the hills, is the Dargah of Hazrat Sultan Sikandar Badshah shaheed Radiyallah Ta’al anhu. Owing to time constraint and exhaustion, we thought of skipping the climb.

Other lesser known places we skipped due to time constraints were the Kazimar mosque and Goripalyam Dargah. At the center of the city is the Kattabomman junction. This is where a part of the old Madurai fort exists. Today this is not more than a public library. Further, every street in the city has a history behind it: This link to an article from “The Hindu” don’t do this usually, but would make a special mention about the streets of Madurai. Every street in the city has a history behind it: This link to an article from “The Hindu” explains it all- Where moats made way for motorways

This was all about us getting around the place for seeing some of the historically important landmarks around Madurai. But the list is endless and time, very limited ☹ I have covered a few other must-do things while at Madurai in a separate post. I wish to be of some use if you are planning a trip there. (Click here to read further)

A Weekend Drive to Belur and Halebeedu

It was a Sunday morning and our family outing was fixed. We decided to take a day trip to Belur, Halebeedu and Shravanabelagola. These are places that I can NEVER get bored of visiting and can go over and over and over again. I prefer to write less in this post because I choose the pictures to speak for themselves.

Karnataka- is One State, many Worlds’.

-KSTDC, Karnataka State Tourism Development Corporation

As a part of an endless list of things that Karnataka has to offer to every traveler, are its unending list of historical and architectural monuments. With several kingdoms ruling over Karnataka at different points in history, the temple architecture in Karnataka doesn’t fail to get a ‘WOW’ even from a person not interested in art and history. And one such place that has always and always mesmerized me are the temples built by the Hoysalas. These temples are not as big in size as the grand Chola temples but aesthetically BRILLIANT and I run short of adjectives to describe their grandeur.

With the Hoysala style of architecture evolving over centuries, I take it quite seriously to visit and explore as many of these structures as possible.The erstwhile capital towns (now located in Hassan district) of the Hoysala empire hold the finest surviving examples of the Hoysala style today. Out of 900+ temples built across Central and South Karnataka, only around 400+ remain now many of which still need restoration and maintenance. Most of the now inexistent temples are believed to be destructed by the Delhi Sultanates in the 14th century and the remaining smaller ones bit into the dust due to apathy and negligence.

Our first place of visit for the day was Belur, or Velapura as it was called back in the time when it was the capital city of the Hoysalas. The Chennakeshava temple complex is a group of temples and the epitome of this style of art. This complex is located inside a walled fortress and has a tall Gopura at the entrance. For someone visiting it for the first time, the first look of the Gopura from the outside is quite deceitful of what is in store inside.

The Belur Chennakeshava temple complex
Hoysala structures within the Chennakeshava temple premises at Belur

Salient features of the Hoysala temples:
• Although the earliest Hoysala temples were made with the local sandstone, their finest temples are made by carving one of the hardest materials for making stone sculptures- the granite stone.
• The ceilings of the Hoysala temples have extremely intricate and multi-tiered mural designs.
• The pillars are lathe machined and mirror finished.

Murals at Chennakeshava temple complex
Friezes and murals at Chennakeshava temple, Belur

Fun Facts about the Hoysalas:
• Jakanachari is the revered master craftsman behind most of the marvelous temples of this era. Legend has it that he was however challenged by his own son, Dankanacharya about a possible flaw in the sculpture made by his father. Jakanacharilost the challenge when a toad and water emerged out of an idol made by him after which he cut-off his right hand as a symbol of submission to his son’s skill.
• Shantala, the wife of King Vishnuvardhana (One of the most prominent Hoysala ruler) was so mesmerised by the Sculptures of the dancing ladies carved here in different postures, it is believed that she used to dance with these Madalikes or ShilaBalikas in her dreams.

Art at Chennakeshava temple

The capital of the Hoysalas was shifted from Belur to Halebeedu, then called Dwarasamudra. The Hoysaleshwara temple is the most prominent among all. The monolithic statue of Nandi here, is the sixth largest in the world.

The Hoysaleshwara temple at Halebeedu
Hoysala sculptural Art at Halebidu

Although our next destination is not a Hoysala hotspot, we decided to include it in our itinerary as it was just around. We headed towards Shravanabelagola, one of the most important pilgrimage sites for the Jains. Shravanabelagola has two hills- Chandragiri and Vindhyagiri. The twin hills offer a panoramic view of the surrounding plains. Chandragiri hill gets its name from Chandragupta, one of the greatest emperors of India who converted to Jainism, gave up all his worldly pleasures and is believed to have passed away on this hill. The statue of Bahubali/ Gomateshwara located on the Vindhyagiri hill is the largest monolithic stone statue in the World.

The statue of Gomateshwara at Shravanabelagola
The Gomateshwara Monolith statue

With this, I wind up with Part 1: of visiting the Hoysala temples. To put it in my words, I survived an ‘Art attack’ at Belur and Halebeedu.

Please do find a day to visit these places and you will not regret, trust me!